While touring China a few years ago, I fell in love with dim sum. These tasty dumplings, sometimes savory and sometimes sweet, are renowned for their ability to "touch the heart" in addition to pleasing the palate and filling the stomach. I similarly wanted to love Dim Sum Funeral (now in limited release and expanding during the summer) which — like the Chinese delicacy — features a number of special ingredients. Sadly, they don't add up to a satisfying cinematic whole.
The promising yet ultimately too-clichéd plot centers on the dysfunctional progeny of the late Mrs. Xiao, who reunite for the first time in years for their hardly-beloved mother's funeral. These include youngest daughter Meimei (Steph Song), a long-ostracized lesbian who arrives with her partner, Dede (the always watchable Bai Ling); eldest daughter Elizabeth (Julia Nickson), who is weathering the break-up of her marriage while still grieving the death of her young son; and only son Alexander (attractive Russell Wong), who is in an unhappy marriage to Cindy (Kelly Hu, Lady Deathstrike from X2: X-Men United) and is subsequently cheating on her.
The reunion is orchestrated by Mrs. Xiao's caregiver and "executrix," Viola (Talia Shire, whom it is good to see again). She informs the children that their mother's wish was to have a traditional, 7-day long Chinese funeral, complete with an in-home shrine and chanting Buddhist monks. Predictably, the real motivation behind the elaborate send-off is to force the siblings to work out their issues with Mom and one another.
Donald Martin's script is too simplistic to be believable, filled with tired philosophical musings like "Death changes everything" and explaining away the characters' stranger choices with "We're Chinese!" If I were Chinese, I'd likely be offended. Meimei's and Dede's desire to conceive a child is also handled distastefully: they pursue one of the chanting monks in hopes he will become their sperm donor!
Director Anna Chi, who is Chinese and — as the film's press notes somewhat oddly state — a former symbol of the Communist Party under Mao, does an adequate job, and Michael Balfry's cinematography is warm and elegant. The cast's performances are mixed, but all are likely doing the best they can with the shallow material. A manipulative plot twist late in the film may engender as much anger from audience members as it does from some of the characters.
Instead of sitting through Dim Sum Funeral, I recommend heading to your local Chinese restaurant for some of the real thing. It would make for a more satisfying evening.
UPDATE: Dim Sum Funeral is now available on DVDfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.