Andy Lau-backed Focus Films strikes again with My
Mother is a Belly Dancer, an engaging, though
disjointed portrait of "see lai", or, as
defined by the Focus Films website, "sloppy housewives
suffering from loss of youthfulness, beauty, and passion".
That rather descriptive phrase is used to describe
a trio of middle-aged housewives, starting with Mrs.
Chan (Amy Shum), a brassy type who broaches divorce
when she discovers that her husband may be sleeping
with a much younger woman. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lee (Sydney)
is meek and submissive, and endures the constant haranguing
of both her husband (Ken Tong) and her son, who suppress
her desire to continue learning. Finally, Mrs. Wong
(Crystal Tin) has a loving, but jobless husband (Gordon
Lam), but when she loses her job collecting rubbish
at their housing estate, her world crumbles. Without
the money to help support her family, it's suddenly
tough going for Mrs. Wong. With nowhere to go during
the day, she ends up following her pals to, what else,
belly dancing class.
The belly dancing classes
are offered by Pasha (Pasha Umer Hood), who appears
as a replacement for the traditional dance teacher
who was supposed to be booked by the housing estate.
Many of the local women thumb their noses at belly
dancing, as it's seen as racy, and something only
an indecent woman (the word "slut" comes
into play here) would participate in. But Mrs. Chan
is intrigued, and soon gets Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Wong
to buy in. Before long, belly dancing is the highlight
of their days, and brings passion and purpose back
into their lives. Along with a fourth belly dancing
fan, yummy single mother Cherry (Monie Tung, who's
obviously many years removed from see lai status),
the women start to recruit others to their belly dancing
cause. The class grows in attendance, but the threat
of navel-baring women in a conservative Chinese housing
estate soon becomes a problem for the other locals.
Some, like Mrs. Wong's husband, are okay with it because
it brings happiness and color to otherwise humdrum
and even depressing lives. However, others, like Mrs.
Lee's husband, see it as a major, major problem. Soon,
the class is forced out, leaving the belly dancers
with nowhere to practice. Will they band together,
right these wrongs, and earn the respect of the local
populace through some sort of belly dancing display?
Uh...no, they won't.
That's because My Mother is a Belly Dancer is not an overtly commercial film that uses crowd-pleasing
dance displays to demonstrate joy and female empowerment.
In those types of films (think Shall We Dance or The Full Monty), the big deal is usually
the determination and discipline applied to mounting
an actual dance performance, with character growth
appearing as the payoff earned along the way. However, My Mother is a Belly Dancer oddly gives the
belly dancing only superficial coverage. The women
are brought in by Pasha's first enticing demonstrations,
but they become belly dancing fanatics seemingly overnight,
and little time is actually spent covering their growth
as dancers. The joy and beauty brought by belly dancing
becomes an instantly accepted detail, and even when
the class gets booted out by the locals, the belly
dancing plotline never seems to take on much prominence.
It surrounds their lives, maybe, but there's no overarching
structure that the audience can follow, and no story
that gives the film momentum.
Thankfully, the characters'
lives and emotions prove fascinating and eminently
watchable. The daily plight of these see lai is given real, believable emotional weight, and the
actors (especially Amy Chum and Crystal Tin) engender
sympathy without overplaying the situations. The lone
exception could be Monie Tung's Cherry, who's a 2
young single mother who neglects her child before
discovering that her stylish new boyfriend doesn't
want someone else's rugrat. Her issues are far out
of see lai territory, and are resolved in a
manner that feels a bit out of touch with the film's
emotional realism. Still, Tung carries the role well,
and the scenes between she and her child's surrogate
father (played by actor-director Lam Chi-Chung) prove
effective too. As an inspirational film in the Shall
We Dance mold, My Mother is a Belly Dancer
is lacking, but as a portrait of aging Hong Kong
women at a crossroads, the film succeeds handily.
When the film nears its end, the belly dancing scenes
become more fantastic than real, and winningly illustrate
the color and spirit the dance supposedly brings to
these women's lives.
For the most part, the emotions
and resolutions in My Mother is a Belly Dancerfeel engaging and real. We get that the women are
partly liberated by their exposure to Pasha's belly
dancing instruction, but there isn't a mega-happy
ending for everyone. Liberation is experienced by
the women, but that feeling won't necessarily repair
a marriage, or make loneliness much more bearable. My Mother is a Belly Dancer is ultimately more
bittersweet than triumphant, and creates complex emotions
that resonate beyond the immediacy of what's happening
onscreen. The film's generous focus on the women and
their emotions helps shore up the film's more manufactured
concessions, e.g. an egregious All About Love reference, plus the requisite Focus Films Andy Lau
cameo. The film looks and sounds incredibly good too;
Paul Wong of Beyond handles the music, and the cinematography
and production design are exceptional. One major star
of the film is the colorful housing estate, which
is actually located in Choi Hung, Kowloon, and is
captured attractively by the HD Video cameras employed
for all films in the Focus Films HD Project. My
Mother is a Belly Dancer is probably not for audiences
with short attention spans, and indeed, its lack of
a cohesive storyline can be frustrating to even more
discerning viewers. Still, the film's striking visuals,
effective melodrama, and uncommon focus on local Hong
Kong people make it very worthwhile. (Kozo 2006)