“We can’t live like this, hand to mouth, minute to minute, second to second.” The first words spoken in Children of Invention are at once a lament and an exhortation. As the speaker goes on to describe his solution — to sell Vitafuture vitamins — Elaine Chang (Cindy Cheung) listens intently. Moments later, she speaks too, describing her own experience selling Vitafuture vitamins: “My customers saw the story they did on channel seven,” she says. “They want their money back.” Err. She’s hustled from the room, advised summarily that someone will “call corporate: they’ll sort it out.”
Outside, Elaine makes her own lament, to her 11-yearold son Raymond (Michael Chen): “When you’re older, you’ll have to start taking care of me better.” For now, though, they cross the street to collect six-year-old Tina (excellent Crystal Chiu) and head back home. As Raymond tries to ease his mother’s frustration (“We should call the police!”), the camera keeps a low, tight angle on Tina, oblivious to the catastrophe that’s in motion, the blurry forms of Elaine and Raymond, coming closer by the second. “So,” sums up Michael (Jackson Ning), who’s been looking after Tina, “No good?”
It’s a fair, if brutally concise, assessment. Elaine’s situation is “no good.” An immigrant whose student visa has long since expired, Elaine is finding it hard to support her American-born children. That is, she shows houses for Michael (who has a small real estate firm) and seeks success in “marketing,” her home increasingly cluttered with cases of unsellable products, as she buys into one bad scam after another. It’s been months since her husband — now returned to Hong Kong — sent a check, though he still calls Grandma’s on Sundays to say brief hellos to his children (he speaks Cantonese, they answer in English). When the bank forecloses on Elaine’s house, she accepts Michael’s sketchy-generous offer to stay in an apartment not yet “zoned for living”: they only have to be quiet and avoid the occasional inspector.
While Tina asks repeatedly to go visit the old house, worried that someone new will be moving in, Raymond makes ramen dinners, Elaine is smitten by yet another “direct marketing plan,” a typically vague ponzi scheme with a $2500 membership fee. When the white lady in charge (Lynn Mastio Rice) waives her fee and invites her to help “conquer the Chinese market,” Elaine acts like she’s found her ticket at last. A subsequent montage of pitches under uninspired music indicates that Elaine knows the drill, in English and Chinese: “The membership fee,” she smiles, “will be made up very, very quickly.” “There are no guarantees in life, but the odds are very much in your favor.”
As Tze Chun’s film follows Elaine, the plot just seems in the way. Her mistakes look obvious, her apparently willful blindness convenient (which is not to say her actions can’t be true, in the sense that the story s based on Chun’s own experience as a child). But when the camera turns to Raymond and Tina, the film becomes something else, less a series of bad decisions that lead to crisis, more a consideration of how children see the world, make sense of adults, and survive.
When he and his sister are left alone for several days, Raymond comes up with his own scheme, a way to use his birthday money (a gift from his grandmother, who warns, “Make sure your mommy puts it in your bank account”) to bankroll his own inventions, including spaghetti spinners (forks that twirl). If he and Tina can sell each item for $10, they can put the money back into supplies, make more inventions, and keep on until their initial $500 turns into a million dollars, which he figures is what they need to buy a house. “We have to stop going to school because we have to work,” he tells Tina, who whimpers that she’d rather be in school.
Raymond does his best to look after Tina while also resenting her refusal to go along without questions. After they spend a full day taking trains and walking sidewalks into the city to find the bank (when they ask for directions, Raymond reminds Tina to follow mom’s guidance: “Only talk to women or people who have kids”), they find it closed for the night. “We’ll need to walk around until it opens in the morning,” he announces, at which point Tina — hungry, tired, and confused — finally says no, walking away down the darkening street. Though Raymond is first so annoyed he’s glad to be rid of her (“Fine!”), he instantly realizes his mistake and spends several montagey minutes looking for her.
While the movie relies too much on such contrivances, not to mention montages, it has specific charms, all having to do with the kids’ perspectives. Each has a notion of what it means to have “a million dollars,” and each has a dream where that miracle comes true (the money handed over by an adult in a crisp single bill, in thrilling close-up). But even apart from such fantasies, observing Raymond and Tina as they observe, whether their brows are knitted or their eyes wide in wonder.
Close on their faces or approximating their points of view (which are not quite the same, allowing that each child has particular concerns and experiences), the frame in these moments is part impression and part reflection. Tina wakes to see a dream-catcher hanging from the ceiling; Raymond plays video games for hours during a visit to the mall, doing his best to ignore the clerk eying him; Tina writes a note for Elaine, “just in case she comes back”: detailed and concise, each of these scenes conveys exactly ow the kids are feeling, even before they speak. If they are invented by Tze Chun, looking back or imagining forward, they also seem to invent themselves, their lives vivid and naïve, transitory and lasting — minute to minute, second to second.