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'Dim Sum's' Heavy Message Goes Down Like a Light Dessert

February 20, 1992|AMY McCURDY

The opening image in "Dim Sum" is of a room with a sewing machine next to an open window, curtains silently billowing, the breeze carrying the sound of birds singing and children playing in the distance. It is a tranquil scene to which the camera returns more than once, maintaining an airy, contemplative mood that is consistent throughout the film.

On the surface, "Dim Sum" ("A Little Bit of Heart") is a look at Chinese-American life in San Francisco, and a family's struggle to maintain traditional cultural values in a contemporary society. But there is a greater dimension to the film's simplicity, which offers a nice alternative to the higher-budgeted, commercially produced movies currently flooding the market.

Geraldine Tam (Laureen Chew) is the dutiful daughter torn between marrying her longtime doctor boyfriend and staying home to look after her aging mother (Kim Chew). Geraldine's dilemma is fueled by her mother's conviction that she will die at the not-far-off age of 62--a fate once predicted by a Chinese fortune-teller. Uncle Tam (Victor Wong) is Mrs. Tam's widowed brother-in-law and frequent dinner guest, a charming man with a lopsided, bemused expression who runs a bar in Chinatown. Unlike Mrs. Tam, he speaks fluent English and is more accepting of the American way of life.

The film's main focal point is the dining room, where the ceremony of eating--including the casual, tea-like meal of dim sum--takes place, as well as late-night talks, laughter, solitude and tears. In Geraldine's absence, Mrs. Tam trades stories of her children's "strange ideas" and disregard for traditional Chinese customs with next-door neighbor Auntie Mary.

"Dim Sum" culminates with Geraldine's decision to marry and start her own life, a decision that is met with a surprising twist of irony.

Rather than relying on action or heavy dialogue, the camera plays the role of an observer, following its subjects from moment to moment, painting a portrait of life in progress. "Dim Sum's" dinner-table scenes, woven together with various still shots--the empty sewing room, for instance--seem to signify the passage of time and timelessness, simultaneously.

Director Wayne Wang makes it a point to retain a lightness and humor throughout the film that is refreshing. Yet, the underlying message regarding the impact of modern society upon cultural and familial bonds is significant. It's a message "Dim Sum" delivers so quietly that its meaning sinks almost imperceptibly into the viewer's consciousness.

"Dim Sum" (1987), directed by Wayne Wang. 88 minutes. Rated PG.

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