In writer-director Ray Yeung’s Front Cover, Ryan (Jake Choi), a Chinese-American fashion stylist living in New York City who takes pride in never sleeping with other Asian men, is forced to work with a homophobic and closeted Chinese actor, Ning (James Chen). What begins as a rocky professional relationship in which Ning is more interested in partying with his gaudy entourage than working with the otherwise diligent Ryan quickly gives way to a game of seduction where aversion for gayness, or Asian-ness, is a very thin veneer of an actual desire for it.
In the world of the film, homosexuality is almost always a scandalous secret to be managed, revolving around essentialist notions of the closet and the painful inability to offer grandkids to one’s parents. The fact that Yeung utilizes Asian-ness and Asian-Americanness as a way to justify the film’s tired tropes makes this a particularly painful missed opportunity for actual screen diversity and re-signification. The very few instances where stereotypes are challenged are forced and didactically delivered, as in Ryan reasserting himself as a top despite his effeminacy, or his explaining, for all to hear, that “Asian men are rarely seen as sex symbols in this country.”
A common problem with filmmakers who try to compensate for a particular lack of cultural visibility is that they fall into the trap of not only wrapping every single element of a film in one single banner, but also of trying to right too many representational wrongs at one time. This propensity reaches its peak in Front Cover in a gratuitous scene where Ryan and Ning have their first alone moment in the latter’s bedroom and somehow end up sharing personal stories about the Tiananmen Square massacre. Ning’s father was in the military, so he has no compassion for the 1989 protesters, while Ryan remembers being asked by other kids if he was a communist. All of which culminates in Ning telling Ryan that he doesn’t want to wear Western clothes because his country isn’t poor anymore, and as such wants to represent the new China, promptly leading the stylist to go shopping in Manhattan’s Chinatown. On the soundtrack? A song with “Chinatown” in the chorus.
There are brief sequences throughout Front Cover where staleness gives way to short-lived insights. When Ryan is chatting on a hookup site, he’s asked how hung he is, to which he responds “6 inches.” This is followed by a series of attempts to mask his apparent ineptness so as to please the white guy on the other side of the screen. Ryan’s member may be only six inches, but it’s “very hard” and “can last all night,” he claims. When the other guy, likely the size queen or “no Asians” type omnipresent in cruising platforms, stops responding, Ryan offers a desperate, if not pathetic, “I can spank you too.” But it’s too little too late. The man on the other side has vanished.
Moments like these, though, are belittled as asides in a decidedly anachronistic film consumed by hackneyed dialogue and sappy piano music. In the end, they speak more deeply about the Asian-American gay experience than the threat of being outed by Chinese tabloids or holding back tears to announce, “I am gay,” at a press conference, as Ryan does, as though he were DeGeneres in 1996 and Queer As Folk had never happened.