Double Happiness, a 1994 Canadian film written and directed by Mina Shum, is a familiar tale of the tug children of immigrants feel between pleasing their old-fashioned parents and the new culture they live in.
Jade Li (Sandra Oh) is a 22-year-old Chinese-Canadian aspiring actress. Her father Quo (Stephen Chang) is very strict and nostalgic about life in China before the revolution. Her mother (Alannah Ong) is less strict but sees things pretty much the same way as her husband, though it breaks her heart to see her children drift away from her.
Her brother Winston (never seen in the film) has already done so, and has been completely disowned by his father. Jade and her younger sister Pearl (Frances You) try to live up to their parents’ expectations, though as time goes by, Jade finds it harder and harder to do so. Her parents grudgingly allow Jade to go on auditions, but would much rather she marry a nice Chinese boy. To please them, Jade occasionally agrees to date Chinese men family friends set her up with. One turns out to be using her to hide the fact that he’s gay from his family, though in the end they become friends.
Jade, who spends time up in her room imagining herself playing roles such as Blanche DuBois and Joan of Arc, finds that being Asian makes a difficult profession even more so for her. At an audition, she is encouraged to use broken English to make the part “swing.” Even though she is humiliated, she capitulates so she can get a minor part in a movie. At another audition, she is close to getting a part in a Chinese film, but loses out when the producer realizes she can’t read Chinese.
One night outside a club she meets Mark (Callum Rennie). Terrified by what her parents might think about her dating a Caucasian boy, she sneaks out of his apartment before dawn. Mark tracks her down later. She realizes she genuinely likes him but is continually torn by her double life.
Into the mix enters Quo’s friend, Ah Hong (Donald Fong) who arrives from Hong Kong for a visit. Soon Jade discovers that her father’s friend also has a double life, with a young mistress and child that he hides from everyone because he is afraid of being judged, including by Jade’s father.
The “double happiness” in the story is Jade’s attempt to keep her two worlds separate so she can please both her family and herself. She tries very hard to be the obedient Chinese daughter, bringing her father tea and buns whenever she has transgressed. It’s sad to see her father pushing away his children because they can’t conform to his ideals.
Mina Shum has a similar background to Jade’s and probably drew a great deal from her own life for the story and characters. She gives the film a certain freshness by having the characters occasionally speak directly into the camera about their thoughts and feelings. I quite enjoyed the soundtrack, by alternative band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, who created the theme music for the Canadian comedy sketch show, Kids in the Hall. The music also makes the story seem fresher.
But what really makes the movie is Oh’s performance as Jade. Her “performances” in her room of parts an Asian actress would probably never get to play are terrific (and make a great point about how a lot of talent is wasted because of racial and ethnic stereotyping). It would have been easy to make Jade simply a grump about her difficult circumstances, but she’s also funny and loving. Rennie is sweetly goofy as Mark. He and Oh have a nice chemistry, though the romance is really just one aspect of Jade’s life that gives her grief.
Seeing this movie again more than twenty years after it was made, it made me hope that Jade achieved the success Oh has had as an actress—and possibly even a reconciliation with her parents. Maybe Oh and Shum could make a sequel someday. I wanted to know how things go for Jade after the film’s last scene. Always a good way to feel after watching a movie.