Double Happiness (French: Bonheur aigre-doux) is a 1994 film by Canadian director Mina Shum, co-produced by First Generations Films and the National Film Board of Canada. The film stars Sandra Oh as Jade Li, an artist struggling to assert her independence from the expectations of her Chinese Canadian family. Callum Keith Rennie also stars as Mark, Jade's love interest. Oh won the Genie Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for this film. Jade Li (Sandra Oh) is a feisty, 22 year old Chinese-Canadian aspiring actress who lives at home with her traditional Chinese family: her strict father (Stephen Chang), her dutiful mother (Alannah Ong), and her sweet younger sister, Pearl (Frances You). Their older brother, Winston, has been disowned -- a fate Jade is not eager to share, both for her own sake and to spare her family pain. Her family tries to put on the perfect public persona at all costs so as to maintain their dignity as well as uphold their traditional Chinese values. One primary part of this persona is prosperity. Jade's father hopes that true financial prosperity will become reality through penny stocks.
Mina Shum, in her writer/director’s notes on Double Happiness, makes her life story sound like a modern-day Book of Job: She’s an unappreciated Chinese-Canadian twentysomething. She left home at 18 and didn’t have any furniture. She worked at McDonald’s. And she made a movie about all this.
Well, cry me a river. Double Happiness is probably the most blatantly self-centered film I’ve seen all year. After all, when people say, ‘Write what you know,’ they don’t mean, ‘Write about YOU YOU YOU!’ The idea is to take a personal story and make it accessible to the masses. This movie is just one big, running, inside joke.
The story: Jade, a Chinese-Canadian twentysomething (Sandra Oh), is unappreciated at home. Her father (Stephen Chang) is domineering and wants her to be ‘a good Chinese girl.’ Mother (Alannah Ong) is no help at all. In a fit of hormonal lunacy, Jade picks up Mark (Callum Rennie) — get this — a white guy she sees vomiting outside a trendy nightclub. Mom and Dad do not approve; they keep trying to set Jade up with lawyers and doctors. Now, see if you can guess the big ending.
The sad thing is, it could have been a good movie. Unfortunately, bad acting on a general level really hampers the film, especially during the melodrama of the family struggle, where everything seems almost farcical. Also, the movie’s supposed to be a comedy/drama (I think), but a number of opportunities to infuse some much-needed humor are missed. Like they say a number of times during the film, Jade looks just like Connie Chung — and Connie Chung does not do comedy.
Thankfully, Shum’s direction is assured, stylish, and innovative, and the best moments in this film are completely visual. (And, with music by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, the band from The Kids in the Hall, the audio isn’t bad, either.) Unfortunately, this is just icing on a poorly cooked cake.
The sad bottom line is that Double Happiness is simply unnecessary and isn’t even uplifting, as it was intended. Save your money and get the moral to the story here: Life sucks, and you better just get used to it. (As a side note, I take some consolation that Shum has since faded into nearly complete obscurity. Justice lives!)