The first half of Shimon Dotan’s Watching TV with the Red Chinese is a virtual compendium of high-culture references, topical concerns addressed almost in passing, and narrative fracturing devices. By contrast, the second half seems almost devoid of ambition, turning instead to a far more straightforward depiction of not-so-complex romantic geometry and impending violence. That the opening act is no more satisfying than its stripped down successor is largely the result of a dilettantish quality on the filmmakers’ part, the idea that cataloguing items of cultural and social significance is akin to addressing them and that constant editorializing on the proceedings is the best way to forestall criticism.
At least the film’s fractured aesthetic (jumping back and forth in time, cutting between color and black and white, employing screens-within-screens to suggest films-within-films) carries an easy enough justification—even if it proves more distracting than productive. As an African-American character opines on camera, the culture of the United States has become more fragmented than ever, a theme that the film takes and runs with. Set in 1980 in New York, the movie concerns the unlikely friendship of a young white teacher and three visiting Chinese students who live in the same apartment in the predominantly black South Bronx. Yes, race is very much an issue here, as are culture clashes, fate vs. free will, the responsibilities of the filmmaker, and any other subject that Dotan feels like throwing in. Employing the framing device of a meta doc being made by an obnoxious director friend of the main character (whose affected pronouncements amount to a ham-fisted round of self-critique on Dotan’s part) about the three Chinese men’s experiences in New York, the film draws on a myriad of aesthetic leaps to mirror the dislocation of both the foreign visitors as well as anyone living at the moment that both signaled the dawn of Reagan’s America and, as represented by the shooting of John Lennon, the definitive end of the 1960s.
All of Dotan’s thematic concerns are thus packed into less than an hour of screen time, ensuring that, despite their occasional intellectual provocations, none are dealt with in any kind of satisfying depth. Instead, we get a jumble of ideas and actions that may mirror the larger fragmentation of a culture, but don’t give us any insight into the nature of that disruption. But the film has other ideas, new directions to explore, and in the second act we get a slow-burn melodrama that leads inexorably to violence—the latter result inevitable given the frequent, if brief, glimpses of a gun that permeate the film. (See Chekov’s maxim.)
After being mugged by a pair of African-American assailants, one of the three Chinese men, Chen (Leonardo Nam), not only becomes terrified of anyone with black skin, but determined to protect himself against what he views as an inherently violent American culture. As he starts dating the onetime lover of his friend and neighbor Dexter (Ryan O’Nan), he finds his relationship with both that individual and his fellow Chinese students becoming hopelessly strained. Furthermore, the woman’s psychotic ex-boyfriend begins threatening Chen, causing him to turn his fear of violent retribution into a wary resignation to inevitable gunplay.
The problem with the film’s second half is not so much the paucity of narrative interest, nor the sudden abandonment of the flurry or ideas and aesthetic experimentation of act one in favor of a more or less straightforward narrative, it’s the conception of two of the principal characters. While Chen’s girlfriend, Suzanne (Gillian Jacobs), is so flighty as to be almost incoherent as a person, his would-be assailant Czapinczyk (Peter Scanavino) is so over the top in his petty jealousy and stupid-minded villainy as to upset the entire tone of the film. After the romantic/violent storyline reaches its inevitable conclusion, the movie returns to the film-within-a-film framing device and pseudo-intellectual narration that characterized its first act, but not only does this sudden return feel like too perfunctory an attempt to link the two parts of the work together, it mostly serves to remind us that the seeming plenitude of the project’s first act was no more emotionally or intellectually satisfying than its overheated, and severely miscalculated, follow-up.