Bravely navigating the usual interracial conflicts and claustrophobic familial schtick that have been a hallmark of Asian-American movies since The Joy Luck Club, the 2011 festival favorite Almost Perfect comes to the Doris Duke on Friends of Film Friday, Sept. 21 (opening reception 6-7:30 p.m. with director’s discussion following the film).
It should draw audiences for several reasons, starting with the comfortable mixed-race (if predominantly Chinese-American) ensemble, in a story that is about individuals, not archetypes. Not only does it star Hawaii’s own Kelly Hu, but brings back the excellent and underused Tina Chen, Charlton Heston’s love interest in 1970s The Hawaiians, as the dour matriarch of a New York family on the emotional skids.
Director-writer Bertha Bay-Sa Pan’s second feature-length effort focuses on Hu’s Jennifer Aniston-like Vanessa, a dutiful/beautiful doormat daughter, always at the beck and call of her estranged parents and her self-centered siblings–her caddish, maritally estranged younger brother Andy (Edison Chen) and brittle self-centered man-eater older sister, Char (Christina Chang), a fashion designer.
When you add the veteran British actor Roger Rees as Chen’s feckless and philandering husband, the film enjoys a rock-solid baseline of performance that should allow Hu and the younger cast members to really step into their roles.
Pan cracks her director’s whip putting the cast through the paces of a frantic farce created by the siblings’ and father’s unannounced entrances, explosive interactions and extravagant demands on Vanessa.
She may have a perfect Brooklyn loft (upholding the film tradition of giving young people absurdly gorgeous living spaces they could never afford) but, alas, no one to share it with–until Dwayne (Ivan Shaw), a chum of Andy’s, drops by, hooks up, falls in love and proposes. That suspense out of the way, the plot revolves around the impossible behavior of Vanessa’s family, whose arias of rudeness and self-centeredness spill out like those crazies you give a wide berth to on the Fort Street Mall. No wonder Dwayne is soon all for calling the whole thing off.
Timing is everything in farce, and the right mix of door-slammings, quick exits, tantrums and operatic monologues can usually cover for a thin plot. In this case, director Pan seems to have eclipsed writer Pan, choosing slapstick and hair-trigger volatility over coherent emotions by recognizably human characters.
Dwayne’s and Vanessa’s courtship seems to revolve around a couple of mumbled one-liners and a sleepover: no pillow talk, no dreams of a life together. The rest of the cast simply behaves badly until, voila, the third act demands they change so the happy ending can wrap.
Contributing to the distancing we feel is the choice to shoot every scene with plenty of foreground–with the exception of Chen and Rees, we never close in on the actors’ faces to see them register smaller emotions. In a way, the film undermines itself by reminding us that grownups really do have deeper springs to draw on.
All of which is a pity, because with just another rewrite of the script and a director who trusted her actors a little bit more, Almost Perfect really could have been just that.
Also at Doris Duke, the opening of Goodbye First Love is a primer for young directors. A young man rides a bike through frosty streets, buys a couple of items, is buzzed into an apartment and there smiles down on a sleepy young woman under a quilt. He yanks the quilt; she yanks it back–and we know them as lovers the way we never do the pair in Almost Perfect. Directed by Mia Handsen-Love, this French/German film about two young people who try, and fail, to bridge an eight-year separation steals your heart. (9/22, 1, 4 and 7:30pm; 9/25–26, 1 and 7:30pm.)