Watching TV with the Red Chinese
Directed by Shimon Dotan
Like a late-night armchair philosophy session, Watching TV With the Red Chinese has lofty cerebral ambitions. It grasps—or more accurately, claws—to make sense to itself. The year is 1980 and the setting is an especially rough patch of Harlem. Students Tzu (James Chen), Wa (Keong Sim) and Chen (Leonardo Nam) have just arrived from communist China. They encounter turmoil left and right—homelessness, violence, urban grit—but they quickly make friends with their next-door neighbor Dexter (Ryan O’Nan), a literature teacher, and his friend Billy (Michael Esper), a struggling filmmaker.
From here, the film does a lot of thinking, which comes mainly in the form of isolated philosophical pronouncements from its characters. A shot of a malaise-filled Dexter waiting in a grimy subway station appears on numerous occasions, each accompanied by a different angst-ridden morsel of thought. These usually have something to do with chance and alternate reality, which seems to fill each character’s thoughts. These reflections quickly grow tiresome and repetitive, eventually bearing little more distinction or permanence than a passing subway car.
In scene after scene the Chinese trio serves as little more than backdrop to the lives of the film’s American characters. Billy makes the students the subject of his film, Watching TV with the Red Chinese of the same title. Grainy footage from this project is interspersed through the actual film. In these frames, the Chinese are represented as clumsy and dogmatic in their response to American culture. This film has elements to provide meaningful insight about cross-cultural exchange, but the characters have so little depth that cultures pass each other like ships in the night. There are a few moments of poignant cultural dialogue, like an impromptu game of football in the street, but these are few and fleeting.
Towards the end, the narrative devolves into a love triangle between Dexter, his ex-girlfriend Suzanne (Gillian Jacobs) and Chen. Each character becomes emotionally wrought to the point of melodrama, while the film fails to present a single scene of viable dialogue or romance between lovers. Especially problematic is the fact the Chen, who Suzanne does eventually date, never seems to be more than an aside to Dexter and Suzanne’s emotional troubles. Caught in the midst of this, Chen dies in a grisly accident; he is the literal victim of the film’s refusal to account for cultural or emotional nuance.
Watching TV With the Red Chinese suffers the same miserable fate that awaits much grandiose philosophical thinking: verbiage becomes an inadequate substitute for life. This obsession with idea of content suffocates the film from beginning to end.
Opens January 20