Cultural condescension and political correctness are two reasons that explain why Georgia Lee’s disheartening Red Doors has earned raves since it won the Best Narrative Feature award at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Another is bad taste. It’s painful to rag on a film this sincere, but Lee, like her Chinese-American characters, has been swallowed whole by the dominant culture. The director attempts a disquisition on the beast of ethnic assimilation, except her point is obvious only in the way she lazily cobbles her story together from the worst indie-movie clichés made fashionable in the wake of American Beauty. The film isn’t as appalling as The Chumbscrubber and Thumbsucker, but it still feels as if it was outputted by the same computer program that requires leaden metaphors, a keeping-up-with-the-fucking-Jonses soundtrack, perpetual snark, and flipness about death.
Ed Wong (Tzi Ma), a 60-year-old retiree whose attempts at suicide are constantly frustrated by his family, replaces Allison Janney’s character from American Beauty, just as his front door is a stand-in for Sam Mendes’s plastic bag—a sign of his family’s wondrous arrested development. If you think there’s no reason for Ed’s comatose demeanor, do as American Beauty‘s tagline advises and look closer at the screechy predicaments his daughters attract: Samantha (Jacqueline Kim), pace Reality Bites, must decide if she wants to live the rest of her life with a yuppie jackass who answers the phone “mushi mushi” or rekindle a high school crush with a droopy-dog guitar player; Julie (Elaine Kao, whose overzealous acting and inflection would only be acceptable from a graduate of silent film) gets the lesbian sussed out her by some movie star who apparently had a relationship with an actress with the name Angelina (Jolie? How droll!); and Katie (Kathy Shao-Lin Lee), in a spectacle of pure indie quirk, engages in a war of practical jokes with a classmate that stops just short of the love birds pooping into each other’s buttholes…back and forth…forever.
The audience shares Ed’s grief because we’ve seen this mess a good hundred times before, only never quite so concentrated. Worse, though, is how the film invites our condescension: Critics can walk away from it praising its universality (they’ll say: “The Wongs are just like me, you and everyone we know!”), when all Lee has done is rip pages from the same Alan Ball Playbook filmmakers Arie Posin and Mike Mills used to pander to hip movie trends that nowadays guarantee a distribution deal. The film says nothing profound about racial and spiritual struggle, but it does indicate that today’s filmmakers, regardless of their race or creed, are equally prone to seeking inspiration from the same totems of bad taste. Lee should trust her instincts (especially in what appears to be a natural gift for ellipses), but first she must cancel her Netflix account. Until then, check into Michael Kang’s The Motel instead.