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Film Review: Red Doors (2005, US) – 紅門

July 8, 2008 Leave a comment

Quote

[Dad, with slight frown]: Kate, there's a penis in your coat pocket.
[Daughter, shrugging]: It's not mine.

Overview

Red Doors is the most lighthearted film in my – admittedly shallow – dip into Asian movies with gay and lesbian themes. Although to be honest, calling this a lesbian film is like saying Forrest Gump is a movie about sport.

This is a mainstream hollywood feel-good comedy, no two ways about it. Oh yes, and one of the characters is a lesbian.

Synopsis

The film is about a mildly dysfunctional, middle classed Chinese family living in the suburbs of New York. The father has just retired, the mother is a dedicated home maker and the three children are all intelligent and good looking.

08door600

That would be the euphemistic way to describe the Wong Family.

Just below the surface, problems abound. The father, splendidly portrayed by “Tzi Ma”, (watching his parts in 24 season 6 first just makes his lines even more poignant!) has lost his purpose after retirement and attempts to take his own life at every opportunity.

Dad

The oldest daughter, a successful businesswoman is having second thoughts about her marriage to a successful but inconsiderate yuppie. The middle daughter, the shiest of the three is an intern in medical school and is having second thoughts about her sexuality. The youngest and only remaining teenager in the family is the wellspring of much of the movies guffawing and comic relief has thoughts only about one, special boy in her life and not much else.

The story follows their father’s unnoticed depression as his energetic wife and daughters lead their busy lives oblivious to his plight and the chain of events that ultimately lead the disparate members of the family back together again.

The women

Impressions

These types of family comedies are clear, pattern driven movies with plots that follow well trodden paths through the forest of modern society and pressured family life with all its attendant problems. More than other categories, these comedies tend to fall cleanly into two groups: shite or genuinely funny.

Luckily for Red Doors, it falls squarely into the latter category and had me in stitches at several points, leaving me feeling good without more than the occasional smidgen of wincing sappiness.

OK, so the father feels disconnected from everything, the youngest daughter is the rebellious “rocker grrl” black sheep who spurns her family’s traditions and who nobody can really communicate with. So what’s new?

The Rebel

Well, there’s the coming-out of the lesbian daughter, which hasn’t quite been flogged to death in the context of family mainstream comedies to the extent of the other bits.

Really, there are only so many things that can be told when it comes to comedies featuring entire families and this film covers no new ground in and of itself. Yet what makes this film a success is how those stories are told and bound together by the chemistry of the excellent cast and how their characters relate to each other.

And the family members really do just plain work well together, foibles and all. Their interactions are believable, charming, touching and funny in equal measures.

However, this is no “Meet the Parents” or “Me, myself and Irene”, two landmark dysfunctional-family-taken-to-extremes comedies by which I benchmark all others

Firstly, having been involved in the BBC (British Born Chinese) community in the UK, I can really say that the portrayal of Chinese-American culture in Red Doors was hackneyed, littered with stereotypes and unrealistic situations.

When Red Doors’ community is lined up alongside the rich and suggestively deep background created by Alice Wu in Saving Face, it really fails to inspire. These differences are subtle, but very important for a culturally themed movie.

Where Saving Face built up a very specific and real image of a particular Chinese community in Flushing, (Queens, NY) that had character and substance – like a masterful portrait of a living, breathing person – Red Doors is more like a postcard from Chinatown.

For example, the characters, especially the older generation, talking English amongst themselves is just plain odd. Then there are the occasional “Chinese Customs” bits thrown in to remind the audience that this fluent, English speaking family is actually really, really Chinese.

My second big issue with this movie are the peripheral male love interests who for one, all happen to be Caucasian and while they are important enough to feature repeatedly and have direct impact on the Wong’s daily life, they appear as flat as the paper their scripts were written on.

The prime example here is the oldest daughter Samantha’s husband, an entirely unlovable and irredeemable “Hi I’m a PC” jobsworth who, while being reliable and trustworthy, would be immediately marked as “dead” in any teen horror movie, but is instead marked from the outset to merely be replaced by an “And I’m a Mac” old flame, complete with designer stubble and all.

In fact, the two are so “PC v Mac” I’m reminded that this blog is actually Technojunkie and not LesbianMovieReviewWeekly

OUT DAMNED PC!

I'm a PC

BRING OUT THE MAC!

I'm a Mac

To be honest, only the youngest daughter and her love interest show any real original character development, and that relationship is one of the many touches that make this film so watchable.

I intended this this series of reviews to be a “lesbian-interest” point of view so I will just make my token mention here.

The lesbian plotline here is absolutely not a social commentary. It’s as lighthearted and humous a relationship with its shares of cuteness and mishaps as any of the other relationship in the film and is really just intended to add another twist to the movie.

Unfortunately, dispite having watched quite a few lesbian films over the last week or two, the relationship in this film looked contrived and was far more embarassing than I have come to expect from films in the last few years. I actaully found my finger hovering over the fast forward button during one or two of the cornier exchanges.

On the verge

One could argue that the fact that they just rolled it in without any special attention is a testament to how really and truly mainstream audiences of a family comedy have progressed to the point of acceptance.

As I said, this is a family comedy and not a psychosocial essay on the current interracial trends gender issues of the US, so it can be forgiven for these transgressions given the juicy characters of the father and the exploits of his three delightful daughters.

Final Verdict

Big thumbs up. Uneven but with a superb cast and some honestly side-splittingly funny bits. Oh, and not to mention the funniest T-shirt punch-lines I’ve ever seen!

Film Review: Butterfly (2004, Hong Kong) – 蝴蝶 /Hu Die/

July 6, 2008 Leave a comment

hudie-dvd-001

Synopsis

Hu Die – by Hong Kong film director Yan Yan Mak – follows the story of Flavia, a thirty-something school teacher married to Ming, the gentle and good natured father of their child Ting Ting and has what appears to be a stable and successful career and married life.

hu_die_09

However, a chance meeting with Xiao Ye, a beautiful young singer – at the supermarket of all places (more on this later) – reawakens forgotten memories of a bittersweet past and her stable life starts to crumble away, revealing something altogether different underneath.

As the film progresses, the deeply buried memories of her profound relationship with highschool girlfriend Jin are forced more and more powerfully to the surface by the catalyst of the film, Xiao Ye and reawaken in her the feelings she had successfully suppressed since getting married.

hu_die_16

As the films emotional tension ramps up, the past and present begin to mingle together in what is an initially confusing, yet deeply touching mosaic of flashbacks interspersed with the present and linked by Xiao Ye or other emotional triggers.

hu_die_52

From the begining to the end of the film, the story follows Flavia’s life which is unwrapped one delicate titbit at a time, gradually revealing more and more of the key periods and events in her life as she attempts to come to terms with her past and find peace in the present.

Impressions

I’d like to disclaim the highly unlikely and uncharacteristically contrived way the two women meet. It just didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the film at all. Luckily, that’s the only part of the film that ever drops below zero.

hu_die_04

The first thing that struck me about the movie was the atmosphere that pervades every scene of the movie.

There’s a palpable and delicious sense of nostalgia to the shots of her past that makes one feel as if one had shared the experience with her. I have been to several of the locations where this film was shot and I actually found myself feeling a little homesick.

hu_die_53

Then there’s the relatively silent, slow paced scenes of her life at work and at home in the present, shot in faded colours shadowy depths and glaring, high contrast. Like the world when you have a dull headache, these parts are tense and brooding.

hu-die-kitchen

Finally, there’s the scenes when Flavia is with Xiao Ye, uptempo, vibrant, emotional and moving scenes where the pace picks up, the camera is constantly in motion and closeups of small details abound.

hu_die_05

Butterfly is, without doubt more artistic and less mainstream movie that Saving Face or Red Doors and for that, will find its audience more restricted than those two movies. The focus is firmly on the ultraspecific details of Flavia’s past and her current relationships with Xiao Ye, Ming and her parents. In that sense, this is a very personal film about individual choice, rather than a film that makes broad sweeping and easily categorised statements about lesbianism.

There is no patronising, clear cut premise – as there often is in other films – where the main character is a perfect, model citizen who “just happens to be lesbian” and that all their problems occur because others don’t accept them.

Flavia, for example is stuck in the moral quagmire of being married with a child and yet feeling herself succumb to the temptations of her “true self” coming through. The film does not take the high road and try to justify her decisions by using lesbianism as an excuse to cheat on her partner. Instead, it shows Flavia as a normal woman rather than a hero, trying to avoid the pain and risks of loss by “testing the waters” before building the courage to make the decision that she knows she has to make, with all its ensuing fallout.

hu-die-ming

This film is strong on several levels.

Firstly is the believability of the whole tale: Besides the supermarket scene, Flavia is utterly convincing and there are no random or contrived “out of character experiences” to support the director’s pet theories. She acts and reacts in entirely believable ways, supported by the rich (and I suspect slightly autobiographical) background and the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square tragedy.

Another surprising strength comes from the way it leaves these moral questions to the viewer: One could argue that rather than being a heroine, she is no less selfish than anyone else who marries for the wrong reasons and ends up having an affair.

hu_die_38

Indeed, the main character appears to at first use her lesbianism to justify the situation, before she is wracked with guilt and realises what she is doing to her husband, who, although being busy and sometimes distant, clearly loves her dearly, and her child who will be thrown into a chaotic future.

I have watched this film three times now, and each time my personal opinions of the characters change. Overall, this is one of the most thoughtful and personal films I have ever seen that presents a difficult topic head-on, although if you’re expecting a transposed lecture on “lesbians are like you or me, just misunderstood”, you’re going to be disappointed.

This is much more of a “bring your own morality” art flick than either Red Doors or Saving Face, forcing you to think deeply about the consequences of hasty or ill conceived actions and make a decision on whether you feel Flavia was justified in her behaviour or not.

Two big thumbs up for this one.

Categories: 2) Music & Film Tags: , ,

Film Review: Saving Face (2004, US)

July 2, 2008 Leave a comment


Saving Face 2004

This is my first review since attempting to “Broaden my Horizons” and selecting Asian Gay and Lesbian Films as my category of choice.

This charming and gentle family drama first screened in Canada at the Toronto Film Festival in 2004. I call this a family drama and not a “gay movie” because that’s exactly what it is. It is one of the increasingly accessible breed of movies that tries to break away from the originality-destroying, art-as-product concept of “demographics”.

It’s a film where the gay aspect is central and crucial to the storyline yet neither belabours the issue to the point of preaching nor waters it down for the benefit of the right-wing American audiences, making this a true mainstream film without most of the compromises associated with them.

The main plot is so wonderfully involved that the fact of there being a gay relationship thrown in just adds to the fun. It’s one aspect among a number of interesting twists that keep this gentle and believable drama floating along with humour and verve, without the common mistakes of falling into farce or slapstick or becoming so hopelessly bogged down in emotion that you have to stop watching it half way through.

The plot hinges around a successful doctor who has been too busy for relationships for some time. She knows she’s gay and doesn’t appear to be in denial or have any issues with it per se, but it’s one of those things that she tends to suppress as an inconvenience that gets in the way of her all important career more than, say, a straight relationship would.

Michelle Krusiec as Wil

Moreover, her mother, who caught her “in the act” some undisclosed time ago knows she’s gay but has pushed it under the table in the hope that it might just go away. And to help it do so, her mother drags her along to a terrible series of dating evenings to try and get her hitched to someone, anyone, so long as they’re male.

Joan Chen

Things change when she meets a dancer, Vivian who she’d seen at one of those evenings. They hit it off, only to find that Wil’s busy schedule and continued “protecting” of her mother from the truth becomes a strain on their otherwise quite happy relationship.

The dancer and the dance - Vivian

Things start to disintegrate as Wil’s mother reveals a shocking secret, Vivian’s own career ideas start to take shape and Wil’s family suffers a tragic loss.

To be frank, I’ve never been a fan of family dramas, they tend to be a bit sappy and predictable. This one, though, has just enough meldrama and elements of surprise to bring a new, spicy twist to an old recipe of hope, disappointment, loss and personal fulfillment while -and I’m feeling a bit awkward writing this cliché- showing that lesbians are no different than anyone else. It’s so naturally woven into the fabric of the story that I completely forgot I was watching a film that triggered a ridiculous amount of controversy when it first showed!

I feel it is such a shame to see the film pigeonholed by large distribution chains into small art-house theatres and gay and lesbian “friendly” venues just because of its “lesbian-interest” moniker.

A big thumbs up recommendation for this one!

Film Trivia:

It includes the seemingly ageless definition of gorgeousness herself, Joan Chen (Those who don’t follow Asian cinema may recognise her from the 1980s TV series, Twin Peaks! How’s that for ageless?) Looking so young that it’s almost as improbable her being Wil’s mother as Wil being a surgeon.

Wil and Vivian’s first kiss on the screen was the first time they (Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen) kissed in real life, since there was no time for rehearsals. * It is not disclosed whether or not it was the first time they had ever kissed another woman…

The film was directed by Alice Wu, a Standford University BSc and MSc in Computer Science Graduate who went on to work at Microsoft in their multimedia division on a product called Cinemania, dispite wanting to be a film maker.

She started attending screenwriting classes while at Microsoft before deciding to leave and turn the semi-biographical book she had been writing about her own coming to terms with being gay in the Chinese community, into a film.

She fought long and hard to get the movie cast the way she wanted it, with Hollywood pressing her to cast it as a straight film, oh… and while she was at it, why don’t they just replace the Asians with nice, decent upstanding white people. Her stubborness gene kicked in, and refusing to budge she looked for another production company and found Wil Smith’s production company who were willing to cast it no questions asked the way she wanted it: Asians, lesbians and all!

Thus, another minor landmark was made: this was the first, big buget, All-Asian Hollywood film since the Joy Luck Club!

Broadening my Horizons

June 30, 2008 1 comment

About a year ago, I joined emusic.com, a fabulous site which, for US$9,99 a month allows me to download 40 songs. That’s 25c a song. At first, I just downloaded a few of the artists I already knew and enjoyed, but soon I found that there were no more artists I knew and liked available. Most of the downloads of the majors are restricted to the US, Canada and UK.

This forced me to come to a decision: give up because it doesn’t have any music I want to hear or force myself to start listening to artists I’d never heard of. Fortunately for me, I chose the latter option and during my emusic journey, I’ve expanded my selection to include various artists I’d never even heard of.

I honestly feel the richer for the experience.

Here are some of the more notable artists I heard for the first time on emusic and have had repeatedly my playlists over the last year:

  • Badly Drawn Boy
  • Cat Power
  • Damien Rice
  • Elbow
  • Elliott Smith
  • Gogol Bordello
  • iLIKETRAINS
  • The Mountain Goats
  • Sarah Nixey  
  • Sia
  • Spoon
  • Susu
  • The Vanden Plas

The problem with the Internet and the supposed “freedom of information” is that we are given “ultimate choice”, we ultimately choose nothing. We just end up pumping ourselves up with what we already know and want; with what’s comfortable. So I asked myself, what’s the point of having a choice if we never use it?

It was as if hearing this music was a catalyst. I’ve started exploring the Internet wider and further afield, reading news and blogs outside of my usual narrow field of interest: computers, specifically Apple/Mac.

One of the more difficult decisions to make, when one has only a few hours per week available to one’s self is the choice of entertainment. I have forced myself to start reading and listening to novels again and am really enjoying it after a hiatus of nearly 10 years! 

Another was to change the area of films I’m watching and try to watch one film a week rather than spend another two hours on the internet.

Instead of going to the video shop and ending up renting another Sci-fi flick, I’ve spent a few of my lunchtimes at work over the last few weeks creating shortlists of films in different categories I want to rent and see and perhaps buy if I enjoy them.

I only had a few criteria:

Avoid the following genres:

  • Scifi (ala Matrix)
  • Techy/Geeky (ala Swordfish) 
  • Fantasy (ala Lord of the Rings)
  • Action (Ala Bourne Identity)  
  • Political/Police Thriller (ala 16 Blocks)
  • Horror (ala Ring) 
  • Documentary (ala An inconvenient truth – it’s just a form of news)

The above categories account for over 90% of the films in my collection! For a while, I thought… Christ, what’s left? Comedy? But actually, there’s a lot more out there than just plain comedy.

  • Historical – for example Period dramas
  • Biographical – stories about famous people, perhaps.
  • Human Drama – Overocming tragedy etc.
  • World Cinema – a condescending title for stuff not in English.
  • Gay & Lesbian – A kind of pigeonholing of a broad range of films.

Oh yes, 

  • Comedy – Funny stuff. I added this because I realised that besides Jim Carey, I have virtually no comedy at all in my library!

 

I’ve been interested in Asian Cimena, especially cross-cultural films for some time but never seem to have the chance to watch any films by myself, for myself. So, I decided to delve into the deep end and mix a few of these themes together.

I found some killer websites which detailed films based on various genres, but after a few days, one clear winner emerged for me. By far the most active, exciting, vibrant and colourful selection of movies was under Gay and Lesbian films. They have such a great community built about them, discussing, comparing, recommending, reading into and extrapolating them. It was a no brainer.

Even more surprising was the fact that Asian gay and lesbian films were extremely prominent. And, so as to start myself with a reasonable selection, I chose this genre and have drawn up a shortlist of about 15 films.

A couple, The Butterfy and saving Face, both from 2004, I watched last week and the week before and will talk about in another post. The rest, I’m awaiting a few hours to watch with eager anticipation!

I’m glad to have taken the plunge and tried to escape the self imposed restrictions that ultimate freedom of choice incurs!!!

Categories: 2) Music & Film Tags: , ,