Curious title reference aside, neither Tony Orlando & Dawn nor returning G.I.'s have anything to do with the low-key Amerindie dramatics of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," writer-director Joy Dietrich's thoughtful first feature.

Curious title reference aside, neither Tony Orlando & Dawn nor returning G.I.’s have anything to do with the low-key Amerindie dramatics of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” writer-director Joy Dietrich’s thoughtful first feature. Centered on troubled young Asian-American women in New York City, pic is a tad uneven in story-development terms, and perhaps too internalized in tone for theatrical exposure. But its virtues outweigh its flaws, creating a generally involving piece that should attract attention from fests, DVD distribs and upscale tube programmers.

Production notes mention “abnormally high rates of depression and suicide among Asian-American women,” a telling factoid that might usefully have been worked into a script reflecting that little-acknowledged reality. Korean-born Jenny was adopted by U.S. parents, but her happy Midwestern upbringing came to an end when a perceived whiff of sexual attraction toward adoptive older brother Joe prompted abrupt expulsion from the family at age 14.

Ten years later, Jenny (Kim Jiang) is a Manhattan espresso slinger and aspiring photographer with understandable abandonment issues — which she handles by picking up Caucasian men for one-night-stands, keeping everyone at a safe emotional distance, and spying on strangers from behind her camera lens.

When Jenny moves out of her old place, her new circumstances seem an improvement: a spacious two-bedroom apartment owned by beauteous model-cum-college student Bea (Jane Kim), who showers the sullen, noncommunicative Jenny with sisterly affection. But Bea is needier than she at first appears, hidden insecurities exasperated by the high expectations of her parents and the callous treatment of a white boyfriend, Phillip (Gregory Waller), who treats her like a passive sex toy.

Hitherto walled off from personal attachments, Jenny finds herself responding to the genuine friendship offered by not only Bea, but others more in touch with their Asian-American identity. Chief among them are shy nursing student Sandy (Theresa Ngo) and her dashing graphic-artist brother Simon (Ian Wen), who creates romantic sparks with Jenny despite her off-putting attitude and blunt assessment that he’s “not my type.”

While Jenny struggles to accept these positive new influences, handsome but creepy Phillip manages to induce crises for both her and fragile Bea. Amidst all this, Joe (Patrick Heusinger) suddenly turns up, making it obvious that time has not dulled the quasi-incestuous vibe between him and Jenny in the least.

While in outline “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” might sound like overheated melodrama, in execution it’s sometimes restrained to the point of feeling underwritten. Given the story content, there should be more punch to the proceedings, but if anything, Dietrich errs on the side of discretion.

Character writing and situations could have been taken to the next level in terms of emotional impact, though what’s here is still reasonably engrossing and poignant. If pic doesn’t ultimately match its own thematic ambition and dramatic potential, it still makes a fresh, credible impression.

Solid perfs (especially by Kim, even if her character’s tragic arc proves predictable) are supported by a smart production package that achieves high sheen on a low budget.

Tie a Yellow Ribbon

Production

A Tie a Yellow Ribbon, ITVS production, with Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in association with Jed Films, Gigantic Pictures, Shouting Cow Prods. Produced by Joy Dietrich, Thomas Yong. Co-producers, Malaika Langa, Jason Garrett Lewis. Directed, written by Joy Dietrich.

Crew

Camera (color), Lars Bonde; editors, Rasmus Hogdall, Stephen T. Maing; music, John Schmersal; production designer, Tamar Gadish; art director, Mary G. Frederickson; costume designer, Taphat Tawil; sound, Joshua Anderson; assistant director, Bruce Hall; casting, Stephanie Holbrook. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, March 25, 2007. (In San Francisco Asian-American Film Festival.) Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Kim Jiang, Jane Kim, Patrick Heusinger, Ian Wen, Theresa Ngo, Gregory Waller, Deana Jacobsen, Michael J. Bressman, Henny Russell, Eva Wu, Yoshiro Kono, Zach Roerig, Mimi Hong, Vincent Piazza, Eve Kaminsky, Johnny Wu.

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