Mina Shum's feature film "Long Life, Happiness, and Prosperity" (2002) is magical in a way that goes beyond young heroine Mindy's attempts at casting Taoist spells. Following a few days in the lives of Chinese Canadians in Vancouver's Chinatown, the movie has its share of magic potions and lucky coins, but more enchanting is its affirmation of what really matters in life.
Twelve-year-old Mindy (played endearingly and earnestly by Valerie Tian) is the unlikely connection between several strangers in the neighborhood. She is determined to work her spells to help her tired, overworked mother, Kin (Sandra Oh), in any way she can think of--winning the lottery to improve their financial situation, securing her a boyfriend to ease the bitterness from her her husband's desertion. Her spells misfire with surprising consequences: Bing Lai (Ric Young), the neighborhood butcher, ends up the lottery winner, Kin's co-worker and not-so-secret admirer Alvin (Russell Yuen) transfers his clumsy wooing from Kin to the (older, male) restaurant manager, Shuck (Chang Tseng) loses his job as a security guard only a couple of years from retirement.
At first glance, little good comes from Mindy's well-intentioned spells. Even lottery winner Bing regrets his good "fortune" when it triggers a separation from his son. Estranged from a father who hasn't spoken to him for twenty years, he finds himself tested when he has his own parental disappointments to handle. Kin, tired and exasperated from her extra shifts at the restaurant, has little patience for her daughter's odd hobby and the trouble it often gets her in. A little boy hunts for his lost turtle, and Mindy's spell seems to fail.
Oh receives top billing in this film, but to me, the truly outstanding performances are from Shuck, whose crisis of faith is so poignantly portrayed, and his wife, Hun Ping (Tsai Chin), who copes with the changes in their lives with grace and strength. But all the characters are beautifully played, and their connections to each other are so palpable that you almost forget that some of them have never even spoken.
"Long Life" is not about ultimate answers. Many situations remain externally unchanged by the end of the movie--jobs have not been restored, financial circumstances are unchanged, and no marriages have taken place. "Long Life" is a reminder that its titular blessings are not always in the first place you would look. The quest for the turtle is a nicely subtle symbol of longevity and perseverance in a movie of life crises. Filled with moments of humor (Kin trying her hand at the "Psychic Chinese Hotline" and a disastrous love potion mix-up come to mind) as well as sadness, "Long Life" is a work of rare sensitivity and idealism.