Film, 2005, 4 stars
Written and Directed: Georgia Lee
As soon as I heard that someone had considered commissioning a TV series from Red Doors it hit me what was bugging me the entire time. It feels like a (really good!) pilot for a TV show. For a ninety-minute film there were too many characters, too many interlocking stories, thus too little exploration of each character and too many loose ends left untied. This is only frustrating because I liked every single one of these characters.
The Wong family, as created by first time director Georgia Lee, is so damned appealing they could probably, if it weren't for the lesbian storyline, exist quite happily on any major TV network.
There's so much to like here. I like the father who, on his sixtieth birthday, begins to feel the weight of his own mortality. I liked the mother whose aim in life is to see her daughters happily married, and is thwarted on all fronts but still keeps soldiering on. I loved Sam Wong, successful in business and engaged, who comes to understand more about the importance of family. (I also loved that she was played by the swoonworthy Jacqueline Kim) There is a parallel storyline which shows Sam and her father experiencing similar emotional responses to their vastly different lives.
Then there's Julie Wong, a dedicated doctor who hasn't told her mother she's gay. She meets a movie star doing research at her hospital, and begins to fall in love at the most inconvenient time in her career. Finally there's Katie Wong, gifted dancer and teenage rebel, who is attracted to a guy at school and spends her time inventing elaborate practical jokes to get his attention, and he reciprocates in kind.
The family rally together to deal with a crisis and a celebration: Ed Wong's suicidal tendencies and Sam's upcoming nuptials. Neither the suicide nor the wedding is successful, and the thwarting of both lends itself to much warm-hearted humour and associated heartbreak. In the meantime there is food and extended family to deal with. The three girls are desperately trying to hold onto their bonds as sisters, failing as often as they succeed, but always scoring points for effort.
The greatest compliment I can give Georgia Lee is that I felt at times like I was watching early Ang Lee. She has that same deft touch for handling human interaction, and the same obvious love of family mingled with the ability to make us laugh at its foibles. We're laughing because we can relate. It's that kind of laughter that seduces you and makes you feel all warm and gooey inside, unless of course you hate warmhearted family comedies.
Despite not missing any chance to pull decisively and deliberately at the heartstrings, I did not get any sense of cloying sentimentality from this film. The lesbianism is not the main point, but neither is it hidden behind all the other heterosexual relationships. The film is about the difficulty of communicating, on many different levels. Julie's problem of communicating her gay identity to her traditional, straight parents just adds a level of complexity to the overall themes of the film.
At times the production values do slip, particularly with the often-unimaginative camera work, and we're made aware that this is an indie feature after all. Not all the actors are experienced, but it didn't feel the film was lopsided with some actors noticeably better than others since the entire cast is talented.
The exception to this is perhaps the super-experienced Tzi Ma, who really captures the eccentricities of Ed Wong. At first I was worried that the father would simply be a two-dimensional laughing stock. When he finds himself in meditation, it becomes obvious that this was the whole point. Ed feels two-dimensional, until he is able to remove himself from his everyday life and regain focus. Then suddenly he blossoms and unexpectedly fills out the character.
Red Doors is heartwarming, funny and utterly inoffensive on every level. When I first heard about it I thought it would basically be Saving Face all over again. But no, not even close. This film has a unique voice and a truly wonderful script, which just goes to show that there is plenty of room for more films about lesbian Asian-Americans and their families.
Red Doors is just quirky enough, just melodramatic enough, just angsty enough. Here's hoping, if there are any intelligent TV executives left out there, that we all get the opportunity to spend more time with the Wong family in the future.