Tuesday, October 26, 2010

White on Rice (Brainwave, Malatova Productions, Tiger Industry Films, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was White on Rice, a 2009 independent comedy about a 40-year-old Japanese-American named Hajimi (Hiroshi Watanabe), though he’s assimilated enough that outside his family’s domain he just uses the name “Jimmy,” who’s been in a bad way since his wife left him two years previously. He’s got a job, but only for 15 hours a week in a customer service center (the film takes place in Salt Lake City, Utah, though it’s not actually named), and just as the film opens he’s come in off the street and is living with his older, and far more practical, brother-in-law Tak (Mio Takada). Tak is married to a much younger woman, Jimmy’s sister Aiko (played by an actress billed only as Nae), and they have a 10-year-old son, Bob (Justin Kwong). Aiko has a house guest, a graduate student named Ramona (Lynn Chen) whom Jimmy immediately gets a crush on and tries to date — but she’s only got eyes for her boyfriend Tim (James Kyson-Lee), a Korean-American she’s known since grade school and plans to marry. The gimmick is that though he’s 40 years old (his 40th birthday is celebrated in the movie) he’s sleeping in the upper bunk in his 10-year-old nephew Bob’s room, and he’s very much a child in an adult’s body while Bob is very much an adult in a child’s body: he’s a quite good classical pianist and he’s also built up a lawnmowing business that is making so much money Jimmy is borrowing from him to survive.

Directed by David Boyle from a script he wrote with Joel Clark, White on Rice is a good movie that could have been a good deal better: the ads promised a laff-riot and a lot of it is funny but it’s hardly the brilliant laugh-generator Kabluey was, and a good deal of it is simply too morbid to be as amusing as Boyle and Clark thought it was. Part of the gimmick is that Jimmy apparently used to be a minor movie actor — the film shows him in the middle of a quite bloody (literally) samurai movie, badly dubbed from Japanese into English, in which his head gets severed and used as a soccer ball by the three samurai who ambush him. Later, of course, the camera pulls back and reveals this is a movie-within-the-movie, an old film Jimmy insisted that his family watch on TV — though before he gets his head sliced off he tells Bob to leave the room on the ground that the upcoming scene is not fit viewing for kids. Jimmy has similarly morbid fantasies throughout the film, including one in which he slumps over his desk at work, sleeping on the job, and dreams that he’s pitched Ramona’s boyfriend Tim out of an open window to his death and Ramona has agreed to marry him now that he’s got rid of the competition.

Somehow from the idea of a Japanese-American family in the middle of white-bread Salt Lake City I had expected a lot more about immigration, assimilation and culture clashes, and there’s a little of that — it’s surprising that the central family communicates with each other almost entirely in Japanese, except for Bob, its youngest member, who speaks only English — but Amy Tan or Ang Lee this isn’t: one could do this story with white people (or any other ethnicity) and it would work just as well. The film ends with a scene so macabre we at first think it’s just another of Jimmy’s dark fantasies — he’s trying to cook a meal in the kitchen, it catches fire, and Tak comes in to chew him out, only to slip and fall on a potato peeling Jimmy has let fall to the floor, with the result that Tak falls on the knife with which he was threatening Jimmy, stabs himself accidentally and Jimmy and a white (we think) friend whom Jimmy (apparently) knew from one of his movies have to race Tak to the emergency room. Only it soon develops that Boyle and Clark want us to see this as part of the story’s reality, not just a dark fantasy of Jimmy’s, and though they do ring a few interesting changes on this (notably a nice-looking blond doctor at the hospital who tells Jimmy he understands enough about Japanese culture to know the concept of “face” and why someone would do something drastic when he thought he’d lost it, and it dawns on Jimmy that this uncomprehending white guy thinks his brother-in-law attempted hara-kiri; and another scene in which the same clueless blond guy hears Tak say his brother-in-law was the perpetrator of the attack, not his rescuer, and his 10-year-old son is a successful businessperson, and thinks that’s just Tak babbling under the influence of his pain medications), the whole sequence is just too morbid to be funny.

White on Rice had me screaming with delight in certain parts, feeling for the hero in others (though Hiroshi Watanabe isn’t exactly the most compelling screen presence of all time, with a pasty face and a rather raspy accent when he tries to speak English; it’s easy to understand why Ramona prefers her boyfriend Tim since James Kyson-Lee is much hotter than his on-screen romantic rival!) and at other points just waiting for the damned thing to end (it doesn’t help that Boyle almost never dissolves between scenes; instead he fades to black and then fades in again, leaving this movie with more false endings than “In the Mood”); had he and Clark lost some of the more morbid gags and had he maintained the kind of comic pace Scott Prendergast did in Kabluey (also about a sort of man-child who moves in with an in-law, but a far better paced, more imaginative and much funnier film), White on Rice could have been a comic masterpiece instead of just a modestly amusing movie.