Expanded from a short she made as a student in the graduate film program at Columbia University, Bertha Bay-Sa Pan's "Face" is a well-meaning but schematic drama about three generations of Chinese women in America.
Expanded from a short she made as a student in the graduate film program at Columbia University, Bertha Bay-Sa Pan’s “Face” is a well-meaning but schematic drama about three generations of Chinese women in America. Coming off like an attempt at a hipper, urban version of “The Joy Luck Club,” the story’s conflicts between modern and traditional attitudes, family and independence feel like familiar fodder, and the pedestrian approach fails to inject much freshness into the material. Cable looms as a more likely commercial avenue than theatrical for this modest first feature.
Opening reels shift somewhat awkwardly between 1977 and the late ’90s in Queens, N.Y. At a Chinese-restaurant wedding banquet, blossoming career girl Kim (Bai Ling) fends off the usual insistent digs from relatives about her own plans to find a husband and start a family. But she becomes pregnant after a drunken one-night stand with a selfish rich boy (Will Yun Lee) and is cornered by their respective families into marrying him. When she finds herself trapped with a daughter in a loveless marriage, Kim flees town, leaving the child to be raised by her mother (Kieu Chinh).
Two decades later, Kim’s daughter, Genie (Kristy Wu), has become a confident, independent young woman. She maintains a semblance of compliance with traditional Chinese ways for her grandmother’s sake while secretly hitting the downtown bars and hip-hop clubs of Manhattan. In one of these, she meets African-American deejay Michael (Treach), who quickly starts pushing for their casual trysts to become a full-blown relationship. (This plot strand led to the film being unofficially rechristened “Guess Who’s Coming to Dim Sum” in Sundance.)
When Kim reappears after years in Hong Kong, angling to get close to her resentful daughter while talking about transferring to New York, all three women are forced to overcome their differences and attempt to understand each other.
Performances are appealing, though not always subtle or naturalistic. Chinh supplies plenty of humor, while Wu makes Genie a plucky, rebellious force. Saddled with a hairdo that makes her look like a Vulcan in the ’70s scenes, Ling remains reserved and remote until the emotional closing scene in which she finally opens up to her daughter. Heavily tattooed rapper Treach (of Naughty by Nature) is given a hard character to sell, with Michael going so far against stereotype as to seem impossibly saintly. Some unintentional humor is provided in the supporting ranks by an endlessly grinning, toothy uncle that may be the cheesiest Asian caricature onscreen since Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
While the film is efficiently shot and warmly lit, director Pan’s lack of any distinctive flair is illustrated in the very obvious use of music to underline cultural placement, with traditional Chinese tunes ushering in grandma’s scenes, mellow Sino-pop accompanying Kim and contempo hip-hop backing Genie.
Genie - Kristy Wu
Mrs. Liu - Kieu Chinh
Michael - Treach
Daniel - Will Yun Lee
Mrs. Chang - Tina Chen
Willie - Ken Leung