August 8, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Anna Chi
Some language in Mandarin with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in the California cities of Los Angeles and Carmel, the comedy/drama film “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people and African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: An elderly woman, who’s in ill health, enlists her teenage granddaughter to sneak her out of her nursing home to spend a few days in the beachside city of Carmel, California, because the grandmother thinks it might be her last vacation.
Culture Audience: “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in family-oriented movies and don’t mind awkward dialogue, cutesy contrived scenarios and terrible acting.
The comedy/drama “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” has its heart in the right place, but the movie’s horrible acting from most of the cast members puts the movie in the wrong place: a cringeworthy, mishandled mush. The acting in this movie is so bad that it hinders a movie that would have been just mediocre, lightweight fluff and turns it into a slow train wreck of treacly clichés. It’s a disappointing shame, because this movie is trying very hard to achieve the same charm and quality filmmaking of director Lulu Wang’s award-winning 2019 comedic drama “The Farewell.” Unfortunately, “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” misses the mark on almost every level.
“The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” (which had its world premiere at the 2021 Bentonville Film Festival) is directed by Anna Chi, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Donald Martin and Ella Lee. “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” is going to get inevitable comparisons to “The Farewell” because both movies are about families of Chinese heritage who have a grandmother matriarch with a health issue that’s the catalyst for what happens in the story. Her family members (including a granddaughter who was raised in the U.S.) are very concerned about and protective of the grandmother and her health issue, while the grandmother is very outspoken about wanting to be independent to make her own life decisions. That’s where the similarities end in these two movies.
In “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu,” which takes place in California, the stubborn and feisty widowed grandmother is Lily Wu (played by Lisa Lu), who isn’t very happy about living in Paradise Corner Nursing Home, which is in Los Angeles. Lily thinks she doesn’t belong in any nursing home because she thinks she doesn’t need help taking care of herself. The movie begins with Lily and her family members gathered at the nursing home to celebrate her 88th birthday at a party.
Lily is so cranky during this party that she’s rude to almost everyone, including a hired clown (played by Danny Cron), who’s taken aback when Lily acts like an irritable brat and pops one of the clown’s balloons. Lily has congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). She has to use an oxygen mask for help with her breathing, but she doesn’t need to wear the mask at all times. Lily also uses a wheelchair, but she has the ability to walk for limited distances. One of the reasons why Lily is so ill-tempered is because her caregivers aren’t letting her travel because of her health problems.
The people at this birthday party who end up having featured or prominent roles in the story are:
- Mary Wu Carter (played by Michelle Krusiec), Lily’s oldest child, who is a judgmental, emotionally high-strung control freak and the one who’s most likely to clash with Lily.
- Brian Carter (played by Adrian Pasdar), Mary’s mild-mannered dentist husband.
- Emma Carter (played by Tiffany Wu), Mary and Brian’s empathetic and slightly rebellious elder child, who’s about 16 or 17 years old.
- Henry Carter (played by Taeho K), Mary and Brian’s somewhat bratty younger child, who’s about 9 or 10 years old.
- David Wu (played by Archie Kao), Lily’s younger child who is laid-back and practical—in other words, he has a personality that’s almost the opposite of his older sister Mary.
- Angela Wu (played by Eugenia Yuan), David’s somewhat fussy and snobbish wife.
- Ben Wu (played by Brandon Soo Hoo), David and Angela’s only child, who’s about 17 or 18 years old.
- Karen Chan (played by Tiffany Wu), Emma’s lesbian best friend who’s about 16 or 17 years old and who’s struggling with when to come out as a lesbian.
- Charlotte Kelly (played by Joely Fisher), Lily’s former caregiver who’s originally from Ireland and who has a passion for singing.
Mary and her family live in Los Angeles, while David and his family are visiting from Seattle. Their mother Lily has refused her children’s offers to have her live with one of them. While at the party, a Paradise Corner employee takes Mary and David aside to tell them that Lily’s most recent infection “took a toll” on Lily’s health, which is so fragile that Lily probably won’t live to see another birthday.
This news shakes Mary and David to the core because they now know that the time that they have left with their mother is very precious. Mary wants to make sure that Lily gets the best care while staying confined at the nursing home, because Mary thinks that it’s the best way to keep Lily alive as long as possible. David is open to letting Lily have more freedom, because he thinks it will benefit Lily’s mental health.
The family’s dynamics and longtime resentments are eventually revealed, but they come out in bits and pieces in the story. This backstory goes a long way in explaining why certain characters (especially the very difficult Mary) are the way that they are. Mary is a major germaphobe who constantly uses hand sanitizer. It’s implied that this compulsive behavior is because several years ago, she lost another loved one due to a deadly disease.
Lily and her husband immigrated from China to the United States and settled in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a small beachside California city that’s more informally known as Carmel. At the time, Mary was over the age of 18, so she was not eligible to be included in the family’s immigration application, and she was not approved for the immigration. David was under 18 at the time, so he was allowed to immigrate with his parents to the United States, while Mary had to stay behind in China.
Mary wasn’t able to immigrate to the United States until six years after her parents and brother were living in America. This family separation caused a lot of jealousy and resentment from Mary. She has always felt that David was her parents’ favorite child. It’s why Mary is hostile and argumentative not just with her mother but also with her brother.
When Mary immigrated to the U.S., she wasn’t alone: She had 6-year-old Emma with her. Emma’s biological father was an ex-boyfriend of Mary’s named Michael Hong (played by Ludi Lin), who died in China. Michael’s specific cause of death isn’t named in this movie, but a flashback in the movie shows that it was from a fatal and contagious disease. Viewers can infer that it’s probably why Mary is a germaphobe.
It’s unclear how old Emma was when her father died, but it was when she was too young to remember him. Based on what’s said in the movie, Brian and Mary met soon after Mary and Emma moved to the United States. Brian adopted Emma after he and Mary got married. Henry is the biological child of Mary and Brian.
However, there’s been some lingering emotional fallout based on what Mary experienced before she moved to America. One of the better qualities of “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” is how it shows an immigration issue that’s rarely depicted in American-made films: Families who are separated because an adult child cannot be included in a family’s immigration application.
During Lily’s 88th birthday party, her granddaughter Emma finds a VHS video in Lily’s room. Lily tells Emma that the video has a message from Emma’s late father. The problem is that the nursing home doesn’t have a VHS videocassette recorder/player for Emma to watch the video. Emma keeps the video to watch later when she can find a VCR to play the videotape. The message on the tape reveals a family secret that Mary doesn’t want Emma to find out.
Meanwhile, there’s another family secret that Emma gets directly involved with, at the request of Lily. During the party, Lily summons Emma and Karen into her room to tell them that she needs their help. Lily wants the two teens to help her sneak out of the nursing home and take her on a road trip to Carmel, because she wants to have a short vacation in Carmel before she dies. (Carmel is about 218 miles north of Los Angeles.)
Emma and Karen eagerly agree to this plan. Karen’s father Eddie Chan (played by Joseph Tran) owns a local casual restaurant called Magic Dumpling House, which has a customized van with the restaurant logo on it. This is the van that will be used on the trip, but Karen (who will be doing the driving) plans to take the van without her father’s permission.
Before this “escape” plan can be hatched, Karen gives Emma a ride home, and they have a conversation about their school’s upcoming prom. Emma has a big crush on a fellow student named Rick Larsen (played by Da’Vinchi), who is good-looking, popular and a star on the school’s football team. Emma would love to go to the prom with Rick, who’s a casual friend, but she’s shy and she think that he’s out of her league.
Karen gives Emma a pep talk and tells her that she’s very attractive and that Rick would be lucky to have her as a prom date. The compliment boosts Emma’s confidence but it isn’t enough to convince her yet to tell Rick that she wants to be his prom date. When Karen and Emma arrive at Emma’s house, Emma and Karen hug goodbye and give each other a friendly kiss.
Mary happens to be outside the house in the front yard, and sees this embrace and kiss, which Mary misinterprets as a sign that Karen and Emma are more than friends. Mary seems to be in shock over the idea that Emma might not be heterosexual. Mary goes back inside the house to join the rest of the family gathered in the dining room area. Emma will soon find out how homophobic Mary is.
At the dining table, Karen’s name comes up in the conversation, and Ben mentions that it’s obvious that Karen is a lesbian. Mary is very uncomfortable with the idea that Emma could have a friend from the LGBTQ community, so she tells Emma that she saw the hug and kiss between Emma and Karen. She accuses Emma of having a secret romance with Karen, but Emma vehemently denies it and says that she and Karen are just friends.
Mary then goes off on a rant and scolds Emma by telling her, “What if the neighbors saw what I just saw?” Emma replies, “Who cares? It’s West L.A.” Mary then tells Emma that Emma’s grandmother Lily would disapprove of Emma being a lesbian, and she orders Emma to stop seeing Karen. Emma then chastises her mother for wanting to keep Lily confined in a nursing home, which Emma calls a “prison.” Emma shouts at Mary, “You’re an even bigger dragon lady than Grandma!”
Emma runs into her bedroom and locks the door behind her. Mary feels bad and goes to the door to offer Emma her favorite meal (spicy noodles) on a tray. Mary makes an apology to Emma (who refuses to open the door), and says that Emma can still keep hanging out with Emma. However, the tension between mother and daughter remains unresolved when that night, Emma and Karen put their plans in motion to sneak Lily out of the nursing home.
Somehow, Lily’s former caregiver Charlotte is along for this ride too. Emma, Karen and Charlotte all go to the nursing home in “disguise,” since they know that there are security video cameras on the premises. But they didn’t disguise the van, so it’s easy to figure out what happened when Emma and Karen go “missing” too.
During this “stealth operation,” which they call Operation Songbird, Emma and Karen show up at the nursing home dressed like identical green dragons that look like something from a “Barney” cartoon. Charlotte (who doesn’t bother to hide her face) is dressed in oversized trash bags. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds and not nearly as funny as the filmmakers intended.
Charlotte is presumably on this trip to be the only other adult, in case something goes wrong. And, of course, some things go very wrong. Charlotte has a somewhat prickly relationship with Lily, because they are both strong-willed and outspoken women. For example, Charlotte isn’t afraid to tell Lily, “You can be a rude bitch.”
That’s as salty as Charlotte’s dialogue gets in the movie because unfortunately, this movie subjects the viewers to Charlotte’s hokey singing in multiple scenes. Charlotte warbles show tunes and pop songs like a karaoke drunk you don’t want to hear. She tries to get Emma to sing along with her, because Charlotte thinks Emma is a good singer, but Emma is too self-conscious about it. And that’s the part in the movie where you know Charlotte is going to find a way to convince Emma to sing somewhere in public.
The rest of the movie shows what happens during this road trip and the “race against time” when Emma’s parents Mary and Brian decide to track down these “runaways.” The most effective and best scene in the movie isn’t during the road trip shenanigans, but it’s the quiet moment when Emma watches the videotape message that her father left for her. If only “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” had that type of screenwriting in the rest of the movie.
Instead, the film is mostly just a hodgepodge of cheesy contrived scenarios, made worse by the substandard acting. Let’s put it this way: At one point in the trip, after the “runaways” get to Carmel, they end up in auditions for a TV singing contest that’s supposed to be like “American Idol.” It just so happens that Carmel is one of the cities during the show’s auditions tour. It’s an unnecessary and very corny detour in the plot. And it’s one of the worst scenes in the movie.
“The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” packs in a lot of issues, and handles some better than others. There are mother/daughter issues. There are sibling rivalry issues. There are Chinese immigrant issues. There are health issues. There are LGBTQ issues. There are elderly care issues. The problem is that these issues are presented in a very cloying way in clumsy dialogue and too many overly phony scenes.
The movie has some sly jokes here and there, but they are few and far in between. For example, the “runaways” get a flat tire and are helped by two tough-looking motorcycle guys, who reveal before they leave that they are a couple. “Everybody loves bears,” one of them says. If you don’t know what a “bear” is slang for in the gay community, then look it up or ask a gay man.
Speaking of the LGBTQ community, Karen’s coming out as a lesbian in the movie is adequately handled. To its credit, the movie doesn’t erase how Chinese culture often views homosexuality and how that affects LGBTQ people of Chinese heritage in their decision on whether or not to go public with their sexual identities. Emma is a very open-minded and tolerant person, whose only problem with Karen coming out is Emma’s wrong assumption that Karen told someone else before she told Emma.
However, there are some moments that are not very well-written, such as when butch Karen initially tries to scare off the biker guys by saying that she’s Bruce Lee. It’s supposed to be funny, but it comes across as lazy pandering to stereotypes. The jokes in the movie mostly fall flat. And there’s some tacked-on sentimentality at the end that is monotonously predictable.
Of the cast members, only Lu and Pasdar are able to deliver their lines with any believability. The rest of the principal cast members are amateurish and often say their lines in awkward and wooden tones. Krusiec is the absolute worst in this movie’s acting, and it doesn’t help that Mary is the most irritating character in the film. Even an experienced actor such as Fisher (who is American in real life) embarrasses herself with an Irish accent that’s not credible at all and sometimes sounds Scottish.
It seems like many of the cast members got these roles based on personal reasons, not because they were the best people for the job. There are are so many talented and available actors who could’ve elevated this maudlin material instead of the high-school-level acting that most of the actors have in this movie. And if director Chi couldn’t find more talented actors for this cast, then she wasn’t looking hard enough.
These filmmaking decisions are ultimately the responsibility of a movie’s director, so any bad judgment in casting is almost always the director’s fault. For example, the character of Charlotte did not need to be Irish. If Chi wanted Fisher for the role, she should have just let Fisher do the role in her natural American accent instead of having to fumble her way through an Irish accent that makes Fisher look kind of foolish. This type of directorial decision is one of many that ended up lowering the quality of this movie.
“The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” isn’t a complete waste of time. There are some lovely scenic shots of Carmel. And this movie might be considered enjoyable enough for people who have low standards. But for everyone else, there are plenty of better-made movies about bickering families with vivacious grandmothers. “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” comes across as an inferior dud.
UPDATE: Gift Productions Inc. will release “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” in the Los Angeles area for a one-week limited engagement on March 17, 2023. Freestyle Digital Media will release the movie on digital, VOD and DVD on March 21, 2023.