Thursday, November 5, 2009
For some films there is life after a film festival. “White on Rice” played at the recent San Diego Asian Film Festival and now it is getting a theatrical run in San Diego (opening November 6 at the Reading Gaslamp Theaters with talent from the film in attendance on November 7).
Most Asian American filmmakers have an agenda. As a minority not often heard from in American cinema, they understandably want to tackle questions of identity and assimilation. Filmmakers such as Wayne Wang have made a career out of exploring cultures in conflict, and he’s found clever, provocative ways of addressing those issues. But Wang is the exception. More often, indie films about Asian Americans place message ahead of creativity, and good intentions and earnestness before artistry.
In the new film “White on Rice,” director Dave Boyle and actor Hiroshi Wantanabe tackle expected issues of culture and identity but at least they have the good sense to couch their message in comic terms. In fact, it opens with a hilarious spoof of cheesy, badly dubbed samurai films.
CLIP: Warlord: "What is this nonsense, restore our honor, unsheathe your dagger and slit your belly."
That’s unfortunate villager number 14, and the role was the high point of Jimmy’s film career. Jimmy's a 39-year-old-Japanese man who fancies himself a movie star. But the reality is he’s a recently divorced man-child with an inability to hold down a job or focus on much beyond his love for dinosaurs. He’s recently arrived in the U.S. and his circumstances could be better.
Woman: "Can I ask you a personal question?"
Jimmy: "Yes of course."
Woman: "Do you really live in your car?"
Jimmy: "How do you know about that?"
Woman: "It’s okay if you do I won’t judge you."
Jimmy: "I sold the car and I live in the basement with a ten years old boy."
That boy is Bob, Jimmy’s nephew. Jimmy has moved in with his sister and her disapproving husband. They want Jimmy to focus on getting a job. Jimmy, on the other hand, is more interested in finding a girlfriend to help him get over a painful divorce. But he's having trouble navigating American culture and the singles scene.
Jimmy: "Do they have lots of Japanese food in Korea?"
Woman: "I’m from Southern California."
Then he sees Ramona, a family friend who’s no longer the little girl he remembered but rather a sexy college student. Jimmy pursues her despite the fact she’s quite clear about seeing someone else. But it’ll take more than a boyfriend to stop Jimmy.
Jimmy: "I think you’re right, I’m not your stalker, but I’m sorry I followed you and
read your journal and smelled your perfume and watched you sleeping."
And here’s where the film starts running into problems. Jimmy’s obsession starts to get creepy. Plus his inability to see that Ramona’s not interested may be funny at first but it grows old fast and he starts to look like an idiot. In this and other aspects of the film, writer-director Dave Boyle misjudges his comedy.
But the film has two saving graces: Hiroshi Watanabe as Jimmy and little Justin Kwong as Bob. Watanabe, who has done serious work in “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “The Last Samurai,” proves quite appealing as Jimmy. He almost glosses over the icky stalker elements with his goofy innocence and perseverance. He’s funny even when the material is marginal.
But it’s Kwong’s Bob that steals the film. Isolated and ignored, he quietly goes about setting up his own business and developing insane piano skills. He also has a great deadpan sensibility. Take his phone message to his mom: "Hi mom, I’m home from school and dad stabbed himself in the stomach. Bye."
Bob proves to be the most mature character in the film as well as the most interesting and real. If the film had focused on him and made Jimmy a comic supporting character, the film might have delivered something fresher.
In the end “White on Rice” (rated PG-13 for some violent images and sex-related humor, and in English and Japanese with English subtitles) doesn’t bring anything new or exciting to table in terms of exploring issues of identity and assimilation. But Watanabe and Kwong are a talented pair that perk up this routine menu in much the same way that Jimmy Tsai made "Ping Pong Playa" fun to watch.
Companion viewing: "Chan is Missing," "Ping Pong Playa," "Disoriented"