Review: ‘Film Chinois’

Singapore-born scripter Damon Chua has fashioned a simplistic noir-esque legiter that is strong on atmosphere but a bit skimpy with its foreign-intrigue plot. Set in 1947 Beijing, the action follows the predictable machinations of callow U.S. government operative Randolph (Sean Dougherty) and the seductive but illusive Chinadoll (Elizabeth Pan) he accidentally-on-purpose meets in a smoke-filled bar.

Singapore-born scripter Damon Chua has fashioned a simplistic noir-esque legiter that is strong on atmosphere but a bit skimpy with its foreign-intrigue plot. Set in 1947 Beijing, the action follows the predictable machinations of callow U.S. government operative Randolph (Sean Dougherty) and the seductive but illusive Chinadoll (Elizabeth Pan) he accidentally-on-purpose meets in a smoke-filled bar. Helmer Kevin Cochran ably choreographs an inconsistent five-member ensemble through a plethora of pithy vignettes (ably abetted by the inventive sets of Leonard Ogden) but can’t evoke a dramatic tension that simply isn’t there.

Much of the storyline is laid out by Pan’s always in control Chinadoll, who uses the story-theater technique of self-narration to explain her motivations and the actions of anyone around her. She even offers alternative scenarios that are played out as brief interludes to the central thematic throughline. This approach underscores the basic weakness within Chua’s premise. There is never a doubt that Chinadoll is vastly superior to in-over-his-head Randolph and that the end result will turn out exactly as she has planned, even if she is a little sadder for the effort.

Pan’s Chinadoll and Dougherty’s Randolph exude the proper spy-vs.-spy wariness of Cold War operatives on the eve of the communist takeover of China. What’s missing is the requisite sexual tension that would cause Randolph to put his mission in jeopardy. The words are there but not the ardor. Pan handles every situation, even their lovemaking, with the same measured dispassion. Dougherty maintains Randolph’s perennial befuddlement.

A much-needed distraction is provided by the deliciously villainous Frank Simons as the reptilian Belgium Ambassador, who borrows some “Casablanca” shtick by offhandedly bartering the promise of “transit papers” for the physical favors of not-too-bright cafe chanteuse Simone (Joyce F. Liu). Simons is the only cast member who appears able to generate any heartfelt fervor, as the Ambassador executes his own angst-filled agenda for keeping Randolph from completing his mission.

Liu is certainly attractive enough as the ambitious bar girl but has trouble maintaining a character, especially when Simone ostensibly evolves from a capitalist wannabe to a potential Mao convert. Portraying a variety of roles, Sam Mak is quite effective as the giggling trench coat assassin whose only agenda is to destroy life.

Film Chinois

GTC Burbank; 65 seats; $30 top

Production

A Grove Theater Center presentation of a play in two acts by Damon Chua. Directed by Kevin Cochran.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Leonard Ogden; lighting, David Darwin; sound, Hunter Stephenson; stage managers, Scott Evans, Dylan Hoffman. Opened, reviewed, July 7, 2007. Closes July 21. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Chinadoll - Elizabeth Pan Randolph - Sean Dougherty Simone - Joyce F. Liu The Ambassador - Frank Simons Various Roles - Sam Mak
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