‘Front Cover’: Film Review

Front Cover Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of NewVoice Films

Front Cover Still - Publicity - H 2016

Slight but endearing.

Ray Yeung’s romantic comedy centers on a Chinese-American fashion stylist and a Beijing movie star who have little in common.

With its gentle melodramatic take on matters of cultural and sexual identity, writer-director Ray Yeung’s second feature (after 2007’s Cut Sleeve Boys) feels in some ways like an old-school throwback, wavering earnestly between schmaltz and charm. Whatever nuance can be found in Front Cover, the story of an openly gay fashion stylist and a seemingly homophobic Chinese movie star, belongs chiefly to the performances of Jake Choi and James Chen. 

Choi, in his first lead role, is especially good as Ryan, who’s nearing 30 and feeling shut out of coveted glossy-mag assignments by his barking boss (Sonia Villani). But he fits the bill when Beijing star Ning (Chen) arrives in Manhattan for a high-profile photo shoot and demands a Chinese stylist. It’s a superficial fit: Ryan has less than no interest in his Chinese heritage, and is horrified to be summoned to unfashionable Chinatown for their first meeting. 

The actor’s stateside visit is designed to pave the publicity path for the U.S. release of his Mainland hit film, the briefly glimpsed historical drama Springtime in Nanking. Yeung’s screenplay touches glancingly on matters of global economics as well as Chinese history, from flat one-liners referencing Mao to a brief but character-illuminating conversation about Tiananmen Square. But the main area of culture clash between the two men concerns Ning’s discomfort with what he calls Ryan’s “homo side.” He’s shocked by the New Yorker’s openness regarding his sexual orientation, and the sight of men holding hands in the street makes Ning stop in his tracks. 

In a film that offers few unforeseen twists, there are obvious hints that Ning’s troubled and troubling attitude is about more than a lack of sophistication. For starters, there’s the emphatic way he announces that most of his fans are women. Then there’s his guardedness in discussing his girlfriend (Li Jun Li), whose arrival in New York pulls the story into stagy melodramatic terrain, the climactic event being an implausible press conference. 

Before then, between the well-played comedy of Ryan’s eye-rolling and Ning’s entourage-enforced swagger, the men’s mutually skeptical work relationship circles an undeniable spark. Antagonism gives way to awkward friendship. Though it’s no surprise when the tentative bond hits a deeper register, the combination of decisive encounters leading up to that moment arrives as a nicely conceived one-two punch. 

First, there’s an eruption of racist verbal abuse at a photo shoot, uniting the duo in rebellion. Then there are the sweetly comic hours they spend with Ryan’s parents (Elizabeth Sung and Ming Lee), giving Ryan a new perspective on the elder couple’s marriage and on Chinese traditions that he’s scorned, if he’s given them any thought at all. A trip to a gay club clinches the deal. 

Chen’s career-driven Ning defies easy labels, but ultimately the movie is about Ryan’s transformation, one that Choi deftly conveys. With the exception of the long-married couple played by Sung and Lee, supporting roles are drawn in broad, thin strokes — key among them Ryan’s makeup artist friend (Jennifer Neala Page), a big-shot celebrity photographer (Tom Ligon) and Ning’s Mandarin-fluent American publicist (Benjamin Thys). 

Though Yeung’s script often lapses into on-the-nose clumsiness, his direction has a pleasingly light touch that’s matched by Eun-ah Lee’s cinematography and the contributions of the behind-the-camera creative team. Notwithstanding the competitive fashion world that Ryan inhabits, the filmmakers capture an easygoing side of New York that's rarely seen on the big screen.

Distributor: Strand Releasing
Production companies: A Fortissimo Films presentation of a NewVoice Films production
Cast: Jake Choi, James Chen, Elizabeth Sung, Jennifer Neala Page, Sonia Villani, Ming Lee, Benjamin Thys, Li Jun Li, Peter Benson
Director-screenwriter: Ray Yeung
Producers: Kaer Vanice, Raymond Yeung
Executive producers: Cecilia Lam, Eugienie Wong
Director of photography: Eun-ah Lee
Production designer: Kate Rance
Costume designer: Annie Simon
Editor: Joseph Gutowski
Composers: Paul Turner, Darren Morze
Casting: Donna DeSeta

Not rated, 87 minutes