A documentary observing the marriage between a Caucasian American and his Chinese mail-order bride, “Seeking Asian Female” brings stereotypes of “yellow fever” and “gold-digging immigrant” into compelling interplay. No radical cultural deconstruction ensues, but preconceptions and expectations are discreetly overturned in the wake of real-life experience. Although Chinese-American helmer Debbie Lum only scratches the surface of issues relating to mixed-race relationships, what will impress and engage auds is the honesty on display, including Lum’s own admission of reservations about her subjects’ motives. The pic is a perfect fit for Asian-American festivals and family channels.
Having been regularly racially pigeonholed, despite an upbringing as American as apple pie, Lum makes no bones about her distaste for and involuntary fascination with the phenomenon known as “yellow fever.” Her attitude accounts for the film’s initial barbed tone and makes the early scenes a hoot, especially interviews that brim with outrageous racial stereotypes, as when a man notes that, after watching the Vietnam-set drama “The Scent of Green Papaya,” he wanted “a lovely servant girl who’d cook … these wonderful dishes.”
Lum herself says of her chief male subject early on: “I have spent my life avoiding men like Steven (Bolstad).” Flaunting his colossal collection of portfolios of Asian femmes he’s dated, mostly online, the twice-divorced sexagenarian San Francisco airport cashier waxes lyrical about the supposed virtues of the Chinese race, from their slit eyes to their belief in everlasting love.
After shopping around on matchmaking sites, Bolstad settles on thirtysomething Sandy, from a poor family in Anhui province. She arrives with a three-month “fiancee visa.” The remarkable thing is how outspoken she is oncamera; although she denies being mercenary, she nonetheless admits to choosing Bolstad partly because her marriage options back home are dwindling. Upon discovery of Bolstad’s economic situation and other unflattering attributes, Sandy’s reactions prove she’s not the guileless Chinese waif he fantasizes about. Yet it’s all the more touching that, after asserting her hard-nosed, even calculating side, she reveals a soft spot for the man, almost in spite of herself.
Beaming like a tot handed a lollipop, Bolstad seems to epitomize arrested development with his irresponsibility and infuriating optimism. But like Sandy, he surprises by showing an occasional awareness of his inadequacy and a capacity for change.
“Seeking Asian Female” doesn’t delve into the couple’s past relationships; nor does it explore cultural differences more deep-rooted than such banalities as rules of dating or spending money. And Lum’s no Frederick Wiseman: The film is saturated with her running commentary, which is colored by her background as well as a small dose of condescension. Yet, her emotional investment is what makes the film involving, and the ethical dilemma of her conflicting roles as filmmaker, confidante and counselor also raises dramatic stakes when the Bolstads’ marriage hits the rocks.
Largely a one-person project spanning a year, the pic boasts simple but serviceable tech credits.