Lynn Chen’s “I Will Make You Mine” proves yet again that black-and-white films are often anything but. Overseeing a debut that’s nuanced and gently wry (and shot to sumptuous effect), she brings fine shading to the story of three very different women and the thwarted musician who still exerts some gravitational pull in their lives, and vice versa.
While “I Will Make You Mine” stands firmly on its own, it concludes a very indie trilogy that began with “Surrogate Valentine” (2011) followed by “Daylight Savings” (2012). The earlier features were directed and co-written by Dave Boyle, starred Goh Nakamura (also a co-writer) as a version of himself and premiered at South by Southwest. Chen appeared in both as Rachel, Goh’s friend, never quite girlfriend. In “Daylight Savings,” Ayako Fujitani arrived as girlfriend Erika, and musician Yea-Ming Chen appeared as a version of herself. The three actresses take control of “I Will Make You Mine.” (The title is based on a song Chen wrote and recorded with her former band, Dreamdate.) Chen’s final installment was set to premiere at SXSW as well, until the coronavirus changed everything. (Instead, it released straight to digital and on-demand platforms.)
Born out of Chen’s desire to switch from actress to filmmaker but also her hankering to sew up Goh’s unresolved love stories, this quasi-collaboration (Boyle is one of the producers) adds a layer to her fine achievement. While viewers aren’t necessarily obliged to have seen the earlier films, watching them in retrospect is a study in both creative alliances and reenergized point-of-view. Nakamura composed the score. Bill Otto, cinematographer of the earlier Goh chapters (also in black and white), shares credit with Carl Nenzén Lovén. Chen’s husband Abe Forman-Greenwald edited. Their trilogy has an assured tonal and visual continuity but something more, too.
In retraining the focus from Goh to Erika, Rachel and Yea-Ming, Chen makes a female-forward work with three generously drawn roles for Asian women actors. She shifts a storyline in which she appeared as a pretty (possible) love interest and writes this older Rachel as a woman experiencing a thorny moment in her understanding of self and marriage. Both Erika and Yea-Ming’s lives also get more screen time to breathe. Even the secondary characters pleasantly earn their keep, as Joy Osmanksi reprises her role as friend and social media maven Amy, while wee Ayami Riley Tomine debuts as Goh and Erika’s five-year-old daughter, Sachiko.
Nakamura portrayed a wonderfully understated indie rock dude in the first two installments; his low-key vibe proved its own kind of magnetism. Eight years hence, Nakamura remains an appealing, pacific presence. He’s a dad now and there’s clearly strain between him and his baby mama/partner Erika. A professor in Madison, Wisc., Erika’s traveled to Los Angeles (where the film is set) for a family funeral. It’s not an optimal situation and when she lands, she basically throws little Sachiko at Goh, who gets an earful.
As for Goh, he’s a figure of regret and kindness. He’s a considerate dad but his music career has gone from promising, if modest, to singing in the storeroom of his workplace. Yea-Ming is still making music but also working at a bar/restaurant and taking a nanny interview for a gig that doesn’t sound at all like a good fit. Haunting her father’s house, Erika experiences a raft of conflicting feelings. Each of them are of that age when they’re wondering about the paths they took.
While the female leads reflect Chen’s desire to create richer parts for Asian actresses, the writer-director has said they also reflect facets of herself. That may be, but she’s written her character as the most aggravating of the three, which makes for a risky but also compelling ask of the audience. Rachel’s vexed by husband Josh (Mike Faiola) — who’s given her cause — but also experiencing a deep malaise that has her looking with little self-awareness at the past for resolution.
Veterans of marriage, who recognize her attempts to fix present day misery with her unresolved feelings for Goh, might want to yell “stop.” Whether she does or doesn’t is more than worth the watch. As for the nascent writer-director, Chen’s debut suggests she knew exactly what she was aiming for all along.