This review was previously published in the Pasadena Weekly (4 June 2009).
Two new movies dealing with the cultural and ceremonial complexities of death and dying are opening at the Laemmle Playhouse 7: the winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, “Departures,” and “Dim Sum Funeral.”
“Departures” is by far the better of the two films, with former boy-band singer Motoki Masahiro turning in a performance both funny and poignant.
“Dim Sum Funeral,” on the other hand, has too many gimmicks and contradictions, despite a stellar cast.
Directed by Takita Yojiro, “Departures” (“Okuribito” in Japanese) tells the story of a mediocre cellist, Daigo (Motoki), who finally finds a position in a small Tokyo orchestra, only to lose his job when the sagging economy forces the owner to shut it down. He sells his cello and returns to his hometown with his wife, Mika (Hirosue Ryoko) — to the home his mother left to him when she died two years earlier. Daigo’s father ran away with a waitress when he was 6, but it was his dad who gave him his first cello. His mother kept all the father’s classical records.
Desperate for work, Daigo notices an ad for what he believes is a travel agency, only to discover that there is only one kind of departure involved: death. His job is preparing corpses to be placed in coffins. Traditionally, family members are supposed to wash and prepare bodies before they are placed in their coffins and then cremated. But in these modern times, a niche market has developed.
Daigo is immediately hired by Sasaki (Yamazaki Tsutomu, winner of a Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), a man of few words but an intuitive student of human nature. Sasaki has to be. He’s seen everything, as Daigo soon will.
But first, Daigo learns about the job firsthand: Sasaki uses him as a model for a demonstration video. Despite the embarrassment of being forced to work naked except for an adult diaper, Daigo survives his first day. He can’t quite tell his wife what he does, saying only that he’s involved in “ceremonies.” But his real training begins when he helps Sasaki prepare a corpse that went undiscovered for two weeks.
The ghouls among us may be disappointed that Yojiro doesn’t show the decomposition; he merely suggests it, using a light touch to deftly navigate the territory between anger, pain and love. What we see is not only Daigo’s transformation into a skilled professional, one respectful of the dead, but also various families handling death differently — from sorrowfully to joyously. One bereaved father even thanks Daigo for allowing him to recognize his child despite the contentious relationship they had before death, leading Daigo to eventually come to terms with his own father.
Less successful is director Anna Chi’s “Dim Sum Funeral,” which belongs to a funeral-film genre in which dysfunctional families reunite and resolve their problems before or after a member’s death. Here, that would be the domineering and manipulative mother, whom the kids call the Dragon Lady (Lisa Lu).
The mother’s caretaker and friend, Viola (Talia Shire), calls the children home for a seven-day traditional Chinese funeral. The eldest daughter (Julia Nickson) has separated from her white husband (Adrian Hough). The only son, a doctor (Russell Wong), is unfaithful to his wife. The middle daughter (Francoise Yip) has never forgiven the mother for forcing her to leave the only man (an African American) she ever loved. The youngest daughter, Meimei (Steph Song), is a martial arts actor who brings her lesbian lover (Bai Ling) to the funeral.
Wong and Nickson do the best work with the skimpy material, which sometimes has the characters contradicting themselves. The mother-child issues are resolved a bit too easily, although the script provides an interesting little twist.
Not particularly inspiring in content or cinematography, this film isn’t in the same league as “Departures” and your money would be better spent on, well, dim sum.