Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 18, 2022 1:00 pm 
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A Chinese American family faces a depressed dad

With an uneven start, and some glitches along the way - Tom Huang brings in too much and leaves some threads dangling including several unnecessary relatives and a young Taiwanese immigrant (Anthony Ma) - Dealing with Dad winds up being a touching and astonishingly bold portrait of the problems, hopes, dreams, and ordinary satisfactions of a first-generation Chinese American family living in California. It's also a very welcome addition to the New York Asian Film Festival. New York is, after all, in America, but Asian Americans are woefully underrepresented in mainstream American movies and in this festival.

As the title implies, there is humor in Dealing with Dad, in which director Huang has a strong background, but it's built around very real issues, particularly one Huang dealt with in his own family and one that's shirked by many, particularly in the Asian-American community: depression. The Taiwan-born father (Dana Lee) who is not young, has lost his job and that has triggered a bad one: he spends all day in bed lifeless, debilitated, staring at the television in a daughter's cluttered former bedroom, having already turned his own into a dump. He won't acknowledge anything is wrong, nor will his wife.

The comedy - maybe not so much - is that in this very reduced state Dad is not a little, but much nicer, too weakened to be the loud, violent, overcritical, overbearing asshole brute he normally is. Do the adult children really want him back like that, the way he was abusing them as kids and adults?

The action begins with the parents' most accomplished of their American-born offspring. Their daughter, Margaret (Ally Maki), is a hotshot, with a job on a startup, taking charge of her kid Nikky's school bake sale, and married to a nice African American husband, Jeff Atlas (Echo Kellum). But she has stress dreams, something like the trailer of The Shining. She keeps working a Rubik Cube and reciting a mantra, "I can choose how I feel, and I feel peace," to calm down.

Jeff tells Margaret she has to go to deal with the Dad problem. Against her will she goes and against his will she gathers her banker older brother Roy (Peter S. Kim), who's overweight from stress eating due to his broken marriage, and they hop a plane and go north to Milpitas, where their old rooms await them, except Margaret's is occupied by Dad. Their mother (Page Leong), with her blunt, comical English, is kooky, racist, and dramatically stingy, and forever misunderstanding and pushing to get the kids married. She loves Nikky but forgets and calls him a mongrel. She's not much help here. Roy's a bit of a mess: he's having to face being served with divorce papers - another thing that's funny, but not exactly.

Younger brother Larry (Hayden Szeto), who's 33, is already there. He's a case of arrested development, still living at with Mom and Dad and seeming more a boyish hobbyist than an adult. There are some good scenes of him and Aaron (Ari Stidham), the large, bulbous, bearded manager of a hobby store, bargaining for the sale of some of his choice action figures. His character is very specific. Cash poor, he likes that Dad gives him money unquestioningly now, and, living at home, he likes having Dad be quiet and out of their hair.

On the way to the house in the rental car Roy and Margaret talk and we see several flashback glimpses of Dad's truly horrific meanness and sometimes violence.

A lot of interesting stuff happens that show off the family's interactions, which can be hot tempered, but have an underlying love behind them. After a visit from a nice young Indian psychiatrist they know (Karan Soni) who confirms the depression diagnosis and prescribes Zoloft, Margaret eventually persuades Dad to take the pills and start seeing a therapist who (improbably?) makes house calls.

And then, Dad is an asshole again, as bad as ever. But that has taken quite a while, and by that time Roy's and Larry's fortunes have improved immeasurably, Larry has a place of his own with Sarah (Megan Gailey) and a job at Aaron's store, and Margaret is doing as well as ever. They have learned things about Dad's life in Taiwan and things given up in America that make them understand his sacrifices for him.

The point has been made: Asian immigrant parents can be clueless and cruel, but they care, and the families are tight, for life. Depression is a disease people have trouble dealing with, but it can be cured. And director Tom Huang has done a remarkable job of talking about his own experience in a way that's humorous, but also truthful (including references to the pandemic, by the way). Audiences like that. It's what blurbs call a "bittersweet comedy," but it feels more unique than that label. This reviewer didn't want it to end.

The multi-ethnic cast members aren't exactly mated with each of the characters they play but are all the more fascinating as a picture of the complexity of Asian American life - maybe, except that only English is poken here other than a few words between mom and Shiao Li.

Dealing with Dad, 106 mins., debuted at Cleveland Apr. 3, 2022, showing at other festivals including Alabama, Oxford MI, Phoenix, Tucson, San Francisco's CAAMfest and LA Asian Pacific. Screened for this review as part of the New York Asian Film Festival, July 15-31m 2022, It showed July 15.

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