Romance briefly bridges the cultural gap between an out Chinese-American fashionista and a visiting, ostensibly straight Chinese movie star in “Front Cover.” Ray Yeung’s first feature since his London-set debut “Cut Sleeve Boys” a decade ago is, like that film, a somewhat pedestrian gay romantic comedy distinguished by the way it mildly addresses ethnic/social differences and stereotypes. While there isn’t much subtlety or surprise in Yeung’s screenplay, his direction is restrained and graceful enough to make this a pleasant if unmemorable bittersweet love story, which Strand will launch in theaters on Aug. 5.
Once again denied an assignment masterminding a fashion-mag cover — for reasons he suspects are racially motivated — Manhattan stylist Ryan (Jake Choi) is not at all pleased by the bone his abrasive boss Francesca (Sonia Villani) tosses him as compensation. He’s been asked to oversee a photo shoot for handsome Ning (James Chen), a rising young Beijing film actor ready for his introduction to American audiences. Ning doesn’t want to soft-pedal his proud Chinese-national identity, however, and for that reason has insisted on a Chinese-heritage minder/collaborator.
But Ryan’s is a thoroughly mainstream, assimilated sensibility; he has little interest in his émigré parents’ culture, or even for Asian sectors of the New York gay scene. His initial dealings with Ning are awkward, complicated by the latter’s noisy, meddling entourage and what at first glance appears to be the visiting actor’s instinctive homophobia. After Ryan stands up to a star photographer’s racist insults, though, the two men begin to relax around each other. Their tentative friendship turns overnight into something else. But the sweetness with which Yeung pulls off this admittedly formulaic development is too quickly countered by a rather clumsy dose of romance-killing melodrama.
Despite the appealing leads’ efforts, it’s hard to care much about a thwarted relationship between two thinly developed characters who (as they themselves admit) have barely started to know one another. Yeung’s script could have used a subplot or two involving more interesting support figures than he manages here. But as missed opportunities go, the central theme of complicated overlaps and separations between mainland Chinese and Chinese-American experience holds far more potential than its superficial treatment exploits.
Nonetheless, the tasteful filmmaking polish Yeung achieves on limited means goes a long way toward smoothing over his material’s shortcomings, making the brisk narrative go down smoothly, if a tad innocuously. All the tech and design contributions are nicely turned, with the matter-of-taste exception of too much generic-sounding house music on the soundtrack.