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My Mother is a Belly Dancer

(left) Gordon Lam and Crystal Tin, and (right) Sydney in My Mother is a Belly Dancer.
Chinese: 師奶唔易做  
Year: 2006
Director: Lee Kung-Lok
Producer: Daniel Yu Wai-Kwok, Wong Ching-Po
Writer: Erica Lee, Susan Chan Suk-Yin

Crystal Tin Yui-Lei, Amy Chum (Tam Yan-Mei), Sydney (Suet Lei), Monie Tung Man-Lei, Pasha Umer Hood, Gordon Lam Ka-Tung, Ken Tong Chun-Yip, Cheung Wing-Hong, Lam Chi-Chung, Andy Lau Tak-Wah

The Skinny: Well-drawn characters and situations make My Mother is a Belly Dancer enjoyable, though the belly dancing itself is surprisingly not that crucial. There are some questionable elements, but this is one of the year's most visually appealing and engaging Hong Kong movies.
by Kozo:

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?, 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)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Intercontinental Video, Ltd.
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various Extras
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images courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen