Widowed Mrs Tam lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown with her remaining single daughter, Geraldine. Mrs Tam is convinced she’ll die soon: all she wants is a last trip to China and to see Geraldine safely married. Geraldine’s a dutiful daughter, she loves her mother, and she has a nice boyfriend, but she’s happy as she is. And if it ain’t broke, why fix it? A gentle, often humorous look at the generation gap, and the place of old traditions in a New World.
USA 1995, 87 minutes
As New Year approaches in San Francisco’s Chinatown, widowed Mrs Tam is getting increasingly anxious. She’ll soon be 62, and a fortune teller has convinced her that she’ll die at that age. She wants to see her daughter Geraldine ‘settled’ – that is, married – and to pay a last visit to China. But Geraldine’s not sure. She’s quite happy going steady with Richard, who is eligible even by a mother’s standards, and she worries that Mrs Tam will be lonely if she leaves home. And besides, there doesn’t seem to be much wrong with her.
Mrs Tam: Kim Chew
Geraldine: Lauren Chew
Uncle Tam: Victor Wong
Director: Wayne Wang
Producer: Vincent Tai
Screenplay: Terrel Seltzer
Photography: John Esaki, Spencer Nakasako
While visiting the home of Lauren Chew and her mother, Kim, Hong Kong-born director Wayne Wang was taken by Lauren’s plastic sandals and Kim’s orthopaedic shoes, both very American but left on the hearth in the traditional Chinese manner: the cultural and generation gap made visible. Lauren helped develop the idea and went on to play Geraldine, Kim plays Mrs Tam, and the location is their home. This helps give the film a true-to-life quality that’s rarely achievable. These are real people, with lived-in faces and their own hopes, fears and sometimes contradictory desires.
Wang describes this as ‘a small movie which deals with everyday little things about people’. It’s true that the conflict, such as it is, is pretty mild; no melodramatics and more humour than soul-searching. Perhaps in that way it’s a Chinese, rather than an American, let alone Californian, film. Anyway, he’s undersold it: through this modest, slow-moving little tale he’s succeeded in encapsulating the whole Chinese immigrant experience. Mrs Tam’s generation had little to do with white people. After 40 years her English is (perhaps wilfully) far from fluent, but now, as family and friends come and go, English is spoken in her house as much as Chinese – sometimes in the same conversation. And Geraldine has become something her parents hardly thought possible: a happy, independent, dutiful, all-American Chinese girl.