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Retro-mad film review: Red Doors (US, 2005)

The story:

In the tradition of dysfunctional family comedy-dramas (“Eulogy”, “Little Miss Sunshine”) comes director Georgia Lee’s “Red Doors”, the story of the Wong Family, a family, who must contend with their own problems.

Father Ed Wong (Tzi M) has just recently retired and does not know what to do with his life.  His wife, May Li Wong  (Freda Foh Shen) is oblivious and does not seem to care. They have a dog he despises, a teenager daughter he can’t quite understand and a house with little privacy. To cope with this, he tries to commit suicide numerous times, but each time,  he is interrupted and so in frustration, he leaves the family to become a monk.

Eldest daughter Samantha Wong (Jacqueline Kim), a successful professional,  is about to get married to her fiance, Mark (Jayce Bartok) but a chance meeting with brooding high school ex-boyfriend Alex (Rossif Sutherland) gives her second thoughts about marriage and her husband-to-be.

Second daughter Julie Wong (Elaine Ka) is the token (I’m sorry, it feels like it)  closeted lesbian daughter  who is a workaholic doctor (surprise! surprise! there’s a trend here somewhere) in love with a woman who, we are supposed to believe, is some famous actress named Mia Scarlett (Mia Riverton).

Youngest, teenaged, hip-hop loving daughter Katie Wong (Kathy Shao-Lin Lee)  is a misfit engaged in a (quite literally) battle of wits with fellow misfit Mark  (Sebastian Stan) that involve rats, crap and small home-made bombs exploding in high school lockers.

I like to call this film an extremely lighter version of Saving Face (like a “Saving Face” lite), with a little less charm and fun.  After watching loads of Asian films, I find watching Red Doors a bit surreal. This little Chinese American family seems so nuclear, so insulated, so removed from its Chinese American community (where are the doting, meddlesome, grandparents? The nosy relatives? The gossiping, sometimes judgmental Chinese American friends and acquaintances? The Chinese American get-togethers?  Where are the daily trips to China Town?) that I felt like I was watching a typical film about white family dysfunction, rather than a Chinese American one. Although of course, the other I have to consider is the fact that they live in the suburbs, right smack in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by what seems like a largely white community. I also am surprised that both heterosexual Chinese American daughters are involved with white men, and that the one inclusive daughter who dates somebody marginalized happens to be marginalized herself. It feels a little like this film is a bit sanitized, sterile, too restrained in its exploration of the Chinese American sub-culture in America.  This is by far the most assimilated Chinese American family I have seen, which is a bit strange, as the Chinese are one of the most culturally strong presences wherever you go.

As a story, it’s light as well, with occasional moments of interesting sub-plots, most of which are entertaining when concentrated on the father, whose failed attempted suicides come off as funny, painful, and melancholic all the at the same time, and it’s played by Tzi Ma with skill and sympathy. The youngest daughter stands at the opposite side of the spectrum, and proves to be the other one whose character is the most interesting and exciting, next to the father’s. As the youngest, and still teenaged daughter, the cross-sections of identity as Chinese and as American, as well as that of self-discovery, are explored in her and she is actually the most fun daughter to watch. I’m quite surprised she isn’t the daughter who turns out to be gay, for all her interesting secret life. ^^ As for the eldest and middle daughter, they both seem so self-contained that whatever crises they go through (wedding jitters and budding lesbian romance) come off as boring to the point of bland. Besides, the dillemma they go through both have already been explored in much detail and depth in other movies (Saving Face being the most notable successful example) and as such, this effort comes off as a half-baked attempt. Besides, chemistry seems lacking between the daughters and their respective love interests. Plus I had a hard time believing the middle daughter’s girlfriend is an actual famous, hot actress. You only have to re-watch “Saving Face” to see that whenever Lynn Chenn’s prima ballerina, Vivian Shing, walks into a room, the room lights up. She oozes with sex appeal and is quite believable as the intense, brooding, a bit pushy artist-girlfriend (I guess she was too busy to grace this film with her presence). ^^That is not to say,  Jacqueline Kim and Elaine Ka are not good actors. On the contrary, I like their acting in this film (and probably in other films where I’ve seen but can’t quite recall what), but the talent seems wasted on a wasted on less-than-well-rounded characters and a tired, formulaic storyline.

Overall, it’s a not-too-bad film. But after watching it, you feel like there is something missing, like you want something more out of this film that ends a little too soon, a little too happily.

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