THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MRS. WU – Review by April Neale
The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu is director Anna Chi’s lighthearted look at intergenerational grandmother-daughter-granddaughter love punctuated by sly shenanigans, aided and abetted by the matriarch’s caretaker from Ireland, a should-have-been chanteuse who loves her employer like family.
In contrast, the rest of the Wu family is consumed by time-wasting guilt and misplaced worry. So it goes in “=Mrs. Wu, where culture, sexuality, and shame are wrapped in a thin dumpling skin and served with a side of often ignored dim sum wisdom from the titular nana, enlightened by the reality that she has little time left to get things in order before life’s final curtain call.
Chi co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Donald Martin and Ella Lee. Their deft blending of Chinese heritage towing the strict tiger set against Americanized Chinese who have more open minds about interracial love, gay themes, and perhaps not pulling the strict tiger mom lines is at its core.
Our heroine is the widowed grandmother Lily Wu (Lisa Lu), ready to escape Paradise Corner Nursing Home in Los Angeles and head to her happy/unhappy place of memories, Carmel-By-The-Sea. Her daughter Mary Wu Carter (Michelle Krusiec), is a balled-up neurotic germaphobe who struggles with confronting any emotional truth with her mother. Granddaughter Emma (Rochelle Ying) has effortless conversations with her Gran because that is how life is for many people; the grandkids don’t have the same emotional baggage towards them as they do their own parents. That’s why grandkids are so awesome! And for Lily Wu, a soured 88th birthday party spurs one last big hurrah with a few family in on an escape caper and a few not.
Despite dire warnings about Lily’s health, this escape plan is hatched by Lily and Charlotte, and the inner circle that swallows Emma and Karen convenes to spring Lily out of the old folks’ home for a last road trip. Lily gives a well-placed VHS tape to granddaughter Emma, and the family secret finally emerges so that everyone can knock it off and love and support each other the way families are meant to work.
The downbeat is that Miss Lily has congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and is confined to a wheelchair. Daughter Mary is the oldest child who struggles to have honest conversations and emotional connections with her mother and daughter. Her husband, Brian (Adrian Pasdar), is a laconic white dentist who is a rock for them all, and her brother David Wu (Archie Kao), is the voice of reason married to a contentious Taiwanese woman, Angela Wu (Eugenia Yuan).
Acceptance, guilt, and denial are the seesaws of emotional drama we unwrap as sexuality serves as a bass line to the dramedy with Emma’s best friend, Karen Chan (Tiffany Wu), who is gay and coming to terms with it. But, unfortunately, someone else in Emma’s life also struggles with his reality. This fact is partly why Emma’s mother is so tightly wound up. She was left behind in China and left by Emma’s dad for another man.
Now, this is not a complex melodrama. It is a sweet snapshot of how immigrant families often get their entire family together in parsed groupings, not all at once, and nicely and neatly wrapped in a bow. Nevertheless, it is painful, and those who endure it carry an extra weight of sadness in this already tough life. Lucky for Lily, her daughter Mary—who was too old to emigrate with her parents and brother—finally did make it to California. Still, their temporary separation left a mark. Director Chi artfully uses this emotional fallout to surround granddaughter Emma—who is just beginning her adult life and discovering who she is and what she wants. The drama and escapade of it all culminate with a bittersweet ending, just as Lily could hope it would play out.
Bright spots in the film include the role of effusive Charlotte Kelly (Joely Fisher), a loving caretaker for Lily who can belt out a tune. She adores all the Wu’s and considers herself an honorary Wu, someone any family would love to have cared for an elder in a similar circumstance. In all, the Wu’s are pretty lucky. Fisher plays the role with heart and humor and is a delightful distraction to the Wu family drama.
This film is a bit of Hallmark and Joy Luck Club, and is current in its tackling of significant issues like immigration policies and racial and sexual identity prejudices. Not since Crossing Delancey has a bubbe successfully reached her end goal. You will love the silver fox, aka Lily, and her devious way of getting her family to face all their collective realities and learn to love this too-short life, each other, and to forgive.