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A decade after her 2002 debut Face, which starred Bai Ling, filmmaker Bertha Bay-Sa Pan returns with her sophomore release, a mildly amusing you-go-girl dramedy featuring Kelly Hu. Niche markets may respond to Hu’s name recognition and nostalgia for Pan’s first feature, while a supporting role for Hong Kong heartthrob and scandal-magnet Edison Chen suggests the film has some export potential in Asia, although domestic theatrical returns will likely be sparse.
Vanessa Lee (Hu) lavishes attention on her career as the nonprofit administrator of a music-education organization established by her reluctantly retiring dad (Roger Rees). Most of her free time appears to be devoted to placating her quarrelsome family, including her workaholic mom (Tina Chen), high-strung fashion-designer sister Charlene (Christina Chang) and irresponsible newlywed brother Andy (Edison Chen), who’s hiding out at her New York-borough loft after bailing on his recent marriage.
Mid-30s and still unmarried, Vanessa’s single state hardly spares her from her family members’ romantic disasters, which she’s constantly called upon to assuage, as her parents’ constant bickering runs their marriage aground, her sister’s commitment issues send men running, and her brother’s immaturity leaves him searching for any excuse to avoid returning to his jilted wife.
Despite the drama and dysfunctionality surrounding her, Vanessa gets the chance for a nearly normal relationship after she runs into Dwayne (Ivan Shaw), an old friend of her brother’s who’s still crushing on her years later. In no time they’re deep into coupledom, notwithstanding the aggravating distractions of Vanessa’s family, but when Dwayne starts talking about taking their relationship to a new level, it’s her chance to overcomplicate romance.
Pan showed a deft touch for character and tone with her drama Face, skills that are less evident here. While the broad outlines of a romantic comedy are identifiable, the schematic script has the feel of a TV sitcom that’s been shoehorned into a feature format with the requisite family conflict, boyfriend angst and career challenges. Pan gains points for her hesitancy to dwell on issues surrounding the characters’ ethnicity, but the lack of specificity and backstory also renders the narrative essentially generic.
Fortunately the filmmaking proves less distracting and although hardly distinguished it’s serviceable enough, although budget limitations begin to show around the edges with unremarkable production design and limited locations.
The performances are the film’s primary strength, particularly the casting of Hu in a nominally more serious dramatic role than her typical appearances, which she fills out nicely within the limitations of the script. Even with considerably less feature exposure, Shaw’s well-collected demeanor agreeably grounds his nice-guy character. Non-fans may barely register Edison Chen’s role, which goes from perfunctory to played-out with too few beats in between.
Editor Sheri Bylander neatly stitches together the conventionally shot footage, although an appealing indie-pop soundtrack could have been tasked to greater advantage.
Opens: Sept. 21 (Eleven Arts)
Production company: Slew Pictures
Cast: Kelly Hu, Ivan Shaw, Christina Chang, Tina Chen, Edison Chen, Roger Rees, Kristy Wu, Alice Callahan, Allison Mackie, Natalie Gold
Director/screenwriter: Bertha Bay-Sa Pan
Producers: Derrick Tseng, Riva Marker, Bertha Bay-Sa Pan
Executive producers: Jim Chu, Balazs Nyari, Eric Nyari
Director of photography: Sam Chase
Production designer: Wing Lee
Costume designer: Jenny Gering
Editor: Sheri Bylander
Music: Jeff Martin
Not Rated, 106 minutes
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