Joe G.M. Chan’s slight but impressively loopy debut feature opens with a dictionary definition of the word “nonconformist,” a label its laconic slacker hero, Wolfgang, does his damnedest to live up to. Set in Gotham’s Chinatown and structured as a series of absurdist one-on-one encounters between Wolfgang and whatever friends or acquaintances drop by to express their condolences in the days after his mother’s death, pic offers a drolly oblique but surprisingly revelatory look into what it means to be male, Chinese and confused. Comic tale should do well in indie markets.
Opening finds Wolfgang chased halfway across Chinatown by a butcher intent on giving him a chicken to take to his mother’s grave in the first of three talky scenes exhaustively exploring niggling ritualistic niceties as related to Wolfgang’s mother’s death. Flashbacks establish that his mother, ridiculously tiny next to her towering son, could give yenta lessons to a Jewish mother, the mother-son exchanges quickly degenerating into bilingual yelling matches as he begs in English for her to “shut the fuck up” about his ethnically incorrect love life while she keeps offering him a knife and demanding in Chinese that he just finish her off.
Not only has Wolfgang lost his mother but he’s broken up with his girlfriend, who left him for a white guy. The whole question of his cultural identity seems to be wrapped up in these two woman.
Director Chan, like an Asian Hal Hartley minus the pretentiousness, keeps conversational duets delivered in oddly disconnected sing-song patterns, with repeated words quizzically ping-ponged back and forth creating all manner of weird rhetorical rhythms. In further harmonic convergence, older interlocutors speak Chinese while Wolfgang answers in English.
Yet some of the film’s most memorable moments, in a karaoke bar or a mod hair salon, involve no spoken dialogue, as befits Wolfgang’s withdrawn wise-guy unreadability. Our hero pauses to watch a mother and her little boy at a sidewalk coin-operated ride. The image of the unsmiling Asian kid framed between the ears of a bucking Mickey Mouse, while a particularly jolly version of “Old McDonald’s Farm” oinks and quacks on, lingers in the mind.
Some scenes work better than others, and Chan wisely makes no attempt to sew things up too tightly. Project was six years in the making, but any stop-and-start unevenness on view has been successfully integrated into the film’s overall desultory loose-ends feel. Lensing is superior, as are all tech credits and music. Hopefully the imaginative, skillfully synched rock-song samples can be cleared for final release: They counterpoint pic’s original scoring quite nicely.