In Steven Dunning’s “Now Chinatown,” the fabled L.A. enclave is no better for a young woman from the old country than it was for Jake Gittes. Presenting a host of cultural issues and stereotypes without coming to terms with many of them, Anglo helmer-scribe Dunning has made a film that at once displays an easy, casual familiarity with the more secluded back alleys of the neighborhood and a fairly crude approach to storytelling and character depth. Melodramatic conventions sink what could have been a moving fable about the struggles of a new emigre, and this alone will curtail indie pic’s chances of securing a distrib after gathering a string of awards in minor fests.
Dunning’s assured visual sense, aided by lenser Jeff Orsa, creates the illusion from the start that we’re in China, as Lee (Lianne X. Hu) trundles off to work from the tiny apartment she shares with her bossy aunt (Peggy Lu). Turning down a better job offer at a bank, subservient Lee starts another day as a waitress at the Mekong BBQ, owned by gruff, dictatorial Mr. Fong (Benjamin Lum). The shy, quiet Lee takes abuse from her boss and, especially, his second-in-charge Chiang (Michael Minh), an odious fellow with a stuck-up g.f. (Jo Chim) who adores reminding Lee that while they’re both recent immigrants, she is better assimilated to the new culture.
Checking out the eats at Mekong’s, Yank customer Steve (Dunning) witnesses Lee being pushed around by her obnoxious employers and foolishly steps in, leading to a tussle with Chiang. Taking pity on Lee, Steve comes back for more fried rice and conflict, over the next few days breaking down the frightened woman’s resistance to non-Chinese strangers while stoking Chiang’s wrath. Steve’s personality may be dull as a dishrag, but at least he doesn’t hit or insult her, which apparently is enough for her to open up to him.
In a scene with Steve and a later faceoff with the Chinese consulate official (Michael Yama) who controls her legal status in the U.S., Hu’s Lee lets out her pent-up emotions about having to come to a strange land three years earlier and earn money for her mother’s medical expenses, only to be forced by her aunt not to date or even go out with friends. Hu modulates the intensely emotional disclosure, subtly expressing Lee’s deep frustrations at not being able to visit the beach or Disneyland.
This is the one source of genuine feeling in “Now Chinatown.” Surrounding Lee are stock figures wearing black or white hats who seem to be the merest updating of stereotypes from Charlie Chan movies. The clearest sign of the script’s simplistic approach is how everyone is defined in terms as being either the heroine’s pal or her enemy, with little shading in between. That Dunning employs the extremely suspect device of having a mild-mannered Anglo guy walk in like a knight in shining armor to help save our damsel — as if only someone who’s not Chinese could aid her — tends to contradict other scenes in which he shows sensitivity and insight into Chinese-American cultural traits.
Given the narrow character types, several thesps appear constrained, if not wooden. This is particularly so for Dunning, who simply can’t act and is obviously burdened by taking on too many tasks. Minh makes for a hiss-worthy villain, even though Chiang is just this side of ridiculous, and Yama craftily reveals a more fearsome side to his bureaucrat under the serene surface. Despite its overly cautious staging, the film manages to convey the feeling of an ethnic community walled off from the outside. This credible sense of isolation is undercut, however, by having everyone speak English — certainly not the dominant language on Chinatown’s streets.