San Francisco -- Despite its frank approach to the controversial issue of race, Americanese
, writer-director Eric Byler
's lethargic adaptation of Shawn Wong
's novel, American Knees
, limps along without a sense of narrative drive. A collection of scenes in search of a coherent story, the film's characters don't develop, and plot lines fail to coalesce by the movie's conclusion. In a word: it's dull.
The film may resonate with Asian-American audiences, too long deprived of seeing images of themselves onscreen, especially as romantic leads in a modern love story. It should have long a run on the festival circuit but has limited art house potential.
Perhaps stymied by the inherent difficulty of transforming the internal world of a novel into a movie, Byler, who demonstrated more storytelling finesse in his feature debut, Charlotte Sometimes
, hasn't succeeded in opening up his story to cinematic or dramatic effect. However, he does convey the confusion that follows a breakup, how rapidly intimacy turns into estrangement. To be fair, Byler had his work cut out for him. Somehow, he had build an entertaining film around characters who are stuck and not particularly interesting to begin with.
The story begins after the protagonist, Ray (Chris Tashima
), a middle-aged, divorced Chinese-American professor, and his considerably younger bi-racial girlfriend, Aurora (Allison Sie
), have broken up. She wants to move on, he can't let go. Tashima, a classically handsome, photogenic actor, struggles to make a stiff, inexpressive character, short on charisma, psychologically interesting. Unfortunately, Ray remains opaque as he mopes his way through life and, sadly for the audience, the entire movie. It's hard to tell if the fault lies in the script's uninspired dialogue, ineffective direction, poor acting or a combination of all three.
Things heat up when Ray embarks on a troubled love affair with Betty (Joan Chen
), who delivers a raw performance as a needy, neurotic co-worker with a mysterious past. Betty adds intrigue and a needed injection of adrenaline, but then she suddenly drops out of sight. Kelly Hu
overacts as Allison's friend, Brenda -- a loud, nasty vixen and a misogynist stereotype.
Veteran actor Sab Shimono
is marvelous as Ray's heartsick father, a man still deeply in love with his late wife. The film perks up whenever Shimono is onscreen. With his vitality and endearing goofiness, it's tempting to wish that the story centered on him rather than his self-absorbed son.Americanese
, with its focus on love, race and sexuality, is a departure from Asian-American films that have focused primarily on cross-generational conflict, the tension between traditional immigrant parents and their pop-culture-intoxicated American offspring. If only the film was good as its intentions.
American Knees Prods.
Director: Eric Byler
Screenwriter: Eric Byler
Producer: Lisa Onodera
Executive producer: Allison Sie
Director of photography: Robert Humphreys, Stacy Toyama
Production designer: Ben Woolverton
Music: Michael Brook
Costume designer: Jeanette Fuller
Editor: Kenn Kashima.
Raymond Ding: Chris Tashima
Aurora Crane: Allison Sie
Wood Ding: Sab Shimono
Brenda Nishitani: Kelly Hu
Jimmy Chan: Michael Paul Chan
Betty Nguyen: Joan Chen
Steve: Ben Shenkman
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 114 minutes