31 March 2009 | dmgreer
Tense, Well Written, Unexpectedly Timely
Tense from the start, not in the _Saw_ sense, but in the sense of anyone with kids who's been thrown out of work and home in a rough economy. Tense with the unsettledness of a single mom with two kids moving into an unfinished apartment building, making arrangements with acquaintances to get her children to and from school. Tense like a hunted animal who's not sure where the next meal is coming from. Maybe my sense of the film is colored by my own life experiences.
There are light, sweet moments provided by the kids, and periods of relief provided by friends and family. Elaine is a good mom who makes some questionable choices and tries to hide her desperation from her children. She generally succeeds with her little one Tina, but her boy Raymond senses things are not going well. When you're down on your luck, everything, everything costs money, money that you don't have, and Elaine is driven by a belief that sometimes you have to spend money to make money. Hard to say more without giving too much away, the story keeps you in the dark and unfolds scene by scene.
The writing, acting, directing, cinematography, and editing are all first rate and fitting for this type of film. The framing is often tight, adding a claustrophobic effect to the tenseness of the story. Editing is economical. Sound is mostly natural, and the camera is often hand-held giving a semi-documentary feel.
Cindy Cheung plays the good saleswoman who holds back her emotions and manages to keep up an optimistic front, but as an actress she brings it on when it's time to. Crystal Chiu so cute with her fat cheeks, but she's actually a few years older than her character Tina, so she's able to really get into part, into Tina's skin. Michael Chen's performance is mostly low key, but the emotions of the scene flash across his face even when it doesn't seem like he's doing anything.
The supporting cast is also very good. My only criticism of the directing is that sometimes a gesture is played before its time. It's not a big deal, but it would be that much better without that.
On a personal note, there just aren't that many films portraying the lives of Chinese families in America, and there aren't that many Chinese-Americans in my area, so it's nice to see a humanizing film like this. With so much near superhuman stereotyping of Asians these days, it's good to see a story about someone whose life is kind of messed up.
Finally, the movie was completed in the early Summer of 2008, before the economy crashed, before people were losing their jobs and having their houses foreclosed upon, before the collapse of the Ponzi schemes.