Long Life, Happiness
Directed by Mina Shum
Written by Mina Shum
and Dennis Foon
Starring Valerie Tian
and Sandra Oh
Like the adolescent magician who is the heroine of her latest film, Vancouver writer-director Mina Shum's third feature, Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity, casts a spell that misfires. An awkwardly contrived exercise in magic realism, it follows the adventures of cute, bespectacled 12-year-old Mindy (Valerie Tian), who applies traditional Chinese enchantments to her mother's love life, with predictably wacky results.
Despite its setting in Vancouver's Chinatown, Shum's movie is, at best, an update of a 1960s Disney movie, in the tradition of Flubber or Parent Trap. Mindy's mission is to find a mate and some money for her hard-working single mother, Kin (Sandra Oh). Using saliva, mirrors and magic potions, she creates more mix-ups than a marathon weekend of I Dream of Jeannie reruns.
The problem is that the movie is neither well-paced nor tonally consistent enough to make a lively children's entertainment. Worse, it has ambitions almost as ponderous as its title. Not just a children's comedy, it's an examination of fortune as it plays out among three generations of Chinese Canadians, and various characters' secret wounds. Mindy, a kind of pint-sized cousin of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie, is the intervening angel.
She tries to make Kin fall in love with Alvin (Rusell Yuen), who works at the same restaurant with her mother. Alvin is already smitten, but Kin, hardened against men, insults him. When she exhausts all the other magic paraphernalia at the local corner store, Mindy tries a fortune teller (a cross-dressing Colin Foo) to cast more serious spells.
Along the way, Mindy's spells affect other characters. An aging security guard, Shuck Wong (Chang Tseng) lives with his wife (Hun Ping), who is ready to reinvigorate their sex life now that their daughter is off to university. Shuck prefers to spend his time praying to the shrine of the "yellow god," which he keeps in his home. When he loses his job as a guard, he keeps it secret from his wife.
A butcher, Bing (Ric Young) maintains another kind of façade. Long estranged from his Hong Kong father, he maintains the pretense of having a good long-distance relationship with his dad. Bing is also at risk of alienating his son, who is secretly studying to become a Zen monk. Mindy's spell causes Bing to win the lottery, which forces the issue of his father out into the open.
Without a disciplined director and grounded performances, this mixture of fantasy and farce is trivial. There's not a lot of control here, either in the tone -- which twitches between brittle sitcom brightness and bathos -- or the performances, which have the subtlety of energetically waved semaphore flags.
Alternating with the broad strokes of melodrama, the movie continues with its childlike silliness. Mindy's charms go farcically astray, with one man falling in love with another (imagine!), and an older suitor falling for Kin. The ardent lover even stands outside her house at night, serenading her with Dan Hill's Sometimes When We Touch in halting English. The effect is more intense discomfiture than high comedy, but at least this one distinctly Canadian multicultural moment breaks through the movie's wall of bland.