The Gotham adventures of three exchange students from mainland China are told from the vantage point of the neighbor who befriends them in “Watching TV With the Red Chinese.” Shimon Dotan’s 1980s-set pic scrupulously imports all the racial, political and sexual complications of the novel on which it’s based, as well as its convenient 16mm film-within-a-film device. But details formerly backgrounded become bullet points onscreen, and scenes that ostensibly build toward a dramatic climax follow each other dutifully without developing momentum. Opening in limited release Jan. 10, “Watching TV” might soon end up there.
Dexter (Ryan O’Nan), a young English teacher whose in-class poetry readings neatly dovetail with his own roller-coaster emotions, takes three visiting Chinese students under his wing when they move into the apartment opposite his. He squires charming, open-minded Chen (Leonardo Nam), doctrinaire Wa (Keong Sim) and soft-spoken mediator Tzu (James Chen) around town, teaches them to drive, and introduces them to downstairs neighbor Little (Ron Cephas Jones), a militant Black Power advocate, and his two young sons, Monty (Kwoade Cross) and Cortez (Elijah Cook). Dexter explains the vagaries of American language and pop culture to his Chinese guests as they watch TV together.
All goes swimmingly until Chen is brutally mugged by a couple of black men. The resultant paranoia, much of it racially directed, builds exponentially, fueled by assorted passing New York crazies. At the same time, Chen sleeps with the ebullient if commitment-confused Suzanne (Gillian Jacobs), unaware that Dexter still carries a torch for her. When the affair goes south, Chen’s heartache drives him to neglect his studies and greatly disturb his friends. Guns come into play.
Dotan essays all kinds of stylistic effects — sporadically switching to high-contrast black-and-white, shuffling chronology and having a student filmmaker (Michael Esper) and his camera pop up in the middle of scenes — but “Watching TV” feels fundamentally old-fashioned in its storytelling. Thesping is solid, particularly by O’Nan, Nam and Jacobs. But the conversations feel artificial, overly concerned with re-creating period detail or interjecting relevant philosophical life concepts, like a constantly rehashed theory of alternate universes built on different “what if?” scenarios.