Sex, Lies and Anime DVDs

Charlotte Sometimes puts a new, Asian face on a tired genre

Michael (Michael Idemoto) is a sad sack auto mechanic with a throbbing crush on his neighbor Lori (Eugenia Yuan), a giggly, jiggly beauty with a pesky boyfriend she shags rotten on a nightly basis only to then sneak over to Michael's grim bachelor apartment to pass out in his arms while watching anime. Just when Michael is in danger of succumbing to terminal blue balls, he hooks up with Darcy (Jacqueline Kim), a mysterious, sardonic beauty who's happy to screw our hero but who seems uninterested in any further intimacy. With his affections torn between his sweetie-pie dreamgirl Lori, and Darcy, the kind of woman who is out the door before a feller has his zipper done up, Michael has your classic madonna/whore situation going on, only the madonna here is kind of slutty, and the whore is emotionally untouchable. Come to think of it, it's hard to say which girl is his madonna and which is the whore, but it can be safely said that poor Michael has the kind of love trouble we just don't see nice Asian boys getting tangled up in very often in the movies.

Charlotte Sometimes is remarkable chiefly for the fact that it's so unremarkable; what I mean is that this is a dark, indie romantic drama, very much in the sex, lies and videotape mold, that features an almost entirely Asian cast while hardly commenting on their ethnicity at all. It's a fairly familiar movie with a very unfamiliar cast. Oh, there are little moments here and there where the race of the characters comes up (at one point, a girl posing for a picture with some new friends exhorts everyone to "smile really Asian"), but altogether the thing plays rather exactly like any number of dark, indie romantic dramas of the past decade if you fired all the honkies in the cast and brought in a bunch of comely young Asians. The script is fine, the cinematography is perfectly adequate, and the performances are generally quite good, even though there are times when (at least in the print I saw) crucial dialogue is lost by the characters' annoying tendency to whisper lines to each other in voices far too low for the human ear to comprehend. During the closing scene, for instance, I must have rewound my press copy videotape 40 times and played it back with the volume up so high that I could hear an extra eating a bagel over at the craft services table, but I still couldn't tell you what the lovely Ms. Yuan was murmuring about.

You've seen this sort of movie done better and you've seen it done a whole lot worse, but taken purely as a piece of filmmaking I'd say we're looking at a solid B+, the kind of picture you'd admire enough while watching but might not even remember having seen a year later.

And yet this dark, indie romantic drama has rolled into town amid the kind of rave reviews that a picture like this hasn't seen since Steven Soderbergh maxed out his credit cards to make sex, lies and videotape back in the days of the original Bush administration. "Would that all love stories were as sophisticated and amusing as the satisfying Charlotte Sometimes," writes Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times, while Jeffrey M. Anderson opines in the pages of San Francisco's Examiner that "Every line spoken echoes in the memory, and the acting is good enough to sell it," and The Chicago Tribune's Roger Ebert declares that the film "Drew me in from the opening shots. [Director Eric Byler] reveals his characters in a way that intrigues and even fascinates us." Either there's a lot more to this picture than met my eye, or Charlotte Sometimes is reaping the benefit of some whopping liberal guilt.

And that's the question with a film like this: Do we evaluate it objectively, or do we go the affirmative action route, cutting the film a little extra slack because, after all, the contemporary playing field is not level and just by getting made the picture has already achieved something? Does a film like this deserve special praise just for depicting the love lives of Asian Americans with the same kind of mopey eroticism we've seen in countless similar stories about white people?

Well, I'm as guilty and liberal as the next critic, and I'm inclined to think that even if Charlotte Sometimes isn't the best of its genre, it does merit some applause just for existing. But while we may celebrate that a picture like this has come out at all, the fact that in this day and age such a thing would still be such a rare gift is hardly, in itself, a cause for celebration.

Charlotte Sometimes was written and directed by Eric Byler, produced by Eric Byler and Marc Ambrose and stars Michael Idemoto, Eugenia Yuan and Jacqueline Kim. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.

 
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