Recent movies have aimed largely at the ``youth market,'' and more than one grown-up has despaired of ever again finding a mature, thoughtful picture. But film has a way of springing nice surprises when you don't expect them. Smack in the middle of the farce-and-fantasy season, a lovely treat has arrived for movie-goers who enjoy looking warmly and gently at the trials and triumphs of everyday life.
The movie's title, ``Dim Sum,'' will ring a bell with food fans who have eaten those tasty tidbits at lunchtime in Chinese restaurants. The term means ``a little bit of heart,'' according to a character named Uncle Tam, who adds that each type of morsel has its own significance in Chinese folklore, not unlike the ``rosemary for remembrance'' of Shakespeare's day. In one wry and amusing scene, the crusty uncle ``decodes'' a meal served by a conniving mother -- each item meant to nudge a daughter who isn' t following mom's blueprint and settling down with her boyfriend.
Many of the figures in ``Dim Sum'' are members of the Tam family, an affectionate bunch transplanted to San Francisco from their ancestral country. They like their new surroundings, but old ways run deep, and sometimes the two are hard to reconcile. The movie probes this predicament with a delicate touch, using its thin story as an excuse for loving visits with engaging people. What matters isn't the plot but the emotion behind it. Feelings and images are the point -- far more than events and incidents -- as we watch the motherly machinations of Mrs. Tam, the halting romance of young Geraldine, and the sweet schemes of Uncle, whose ironic comments make him sound like a Chinatown version of George Burns.
``Dim Sum'' is largely the achievement of Wayne Wang, a Chinese-American director whose wit, imagination, and sophisticated visual ideas are matched by a delightful disdain for Hollywood methods. His model is clearly the work of another Asian artist, Yasujiro Ozu, who has been called the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers. Like an Ozu domestic drama, ``Dim Sum'' often pauses for ``empty frames'' with no characters moving through them -- just curtains swaying in the breeze, or water rippling under the sun, or shoes (a key image) huddled at the foot of a stairway. Such moments aren't digressions from the action. They're distillations of it, capturing the essence of the characters' lives in images of profound simplicity.
The actors in ``Dim Sum'' are largely nonprofessional. This lends the film an extra measure of authenticity, but detracts from its credibility when performances seem stiff or self-conscious, as they sometimes do at important moments. Much of the action was shot in the house of Kim and Laureen Chew, the real-life mother and daughter who play the fictionalized Tam mother and daughter on screen. The script was written by Terrel Seltzer from a story developed by Laureen Chew, director Wang, and herself. Ral ph Wikke's editing occasionally jars the flow of the picture with unneeded cuts.
According to the movie's production notes, the filming process was loose and informal, with children of the household moved from room to room one step ahead of the camera and Mrs. Chew cooking eight-course meals for the crew after many a day's work. Like almost everything else about ``Dim Sum,'' this is a far cry from Hollywood procedure. Wang and his associates have dared to make a movie based on affection and communal goodwill, giving hardly a nod to the box office bugaboos that haunt most productions .
A handful of other current filmmakers have taken this course -- John Cassavetes is the most durable of them -- and they deserve enormous credit for pursuing their own brand of intuitive, individualistic cinema in an age dominated by would-be blockbusters. ``Dim Sum'' doesn't have the biting edge of Wang's earlier film, ``Chan Is Missing,'' but it's even bolder in its dismissal of standard storytelling strategies. Its presence is a small but shining light on today's movie scene.