Tze Chun’s Children of Invention derives its beauty from its casually obsessed dwelling on the minutia of dreaming when you’re down and out. It captures a harrowing flash point in the lives of an illegal immigrant and her two children when they move into an unfinished condo after being evicted from their home. Similarities to Treeless Mountain abound, but while Chun’s vision isn’t as viscerally arresting as So Yong Kim’s, his sense of social observation is less cloying and cuts deeper. Elaine (Cindy Cheung), the brave and persistent mother hen, stings from—but isn’t beaten by—her recent divorce, trying to make ends meet on an expired visa by selling real estate, then as a representative for a pyramid scheme. The older Chinese characters are broadly sketched, and Lynn Mastio Rice plays her Madoff-lite Betty Cardellini—all viperous and presumptuous cultural condescension—as if she were an expat from Paul Haggis’s version of Los Angeles (when she’s somewhat called out for talking to Elaine’s kids as if they had just come off a boat, it’s as if the humor is for the enlightened audience’s benefit), but there’s a limberness to Chun’s framing and cutting that easily guides us past such noxious patches.
As in young Raymond (Michael Chen), in dreams, blowing on an ATM card—like he would into a Nintendo game—in order to get it to work, Children of Invention comes alive through its often bittersweet sense of detail. But more impressive is how the main actors subtly interpret their characters’ desperation: Cheung never states it aloud, but she makes you feel Elaine’s suspicion that she’s involving herself with the wrong people—confirmed when she runs from Betty’s home after seeing police outside. She persists for the sake of her children, Raymond (Michael Chen) and Tina (Crystal Chiu), who take off—in a heartbreaking show of naïveté—for Boston after their mother is arrested because the older Raymond believes he can only retrieve the money in his bank account from a single ATM machine in one of the city’s banks. It’s this cannily attuned sense for how children think and dream, act out of fear, try to save face and build walls (as in the wonderful scene where Raymond, silently boiling with resentment, replies to his Chinese-speaking father on the phone in English), that makes the film a small wonder.