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Asian Stories

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/23/08 22:57:54

"Of stereotypes and bad drama."
1 stars (Sucks)

Imagine “Better Off Dead” mixed haphazardly with “Garden State,” with a couple spare elements from any random bargain basement hitman thriller thrown in, and topped off with a heavy dose of self-serious melodrama. This is the recipe for the clumsy, cluttered, and downright clueless indie dramedy “Asian Stories.”

James Kyson Lee (“Heroes”) stars as Jim, “the cheapest Chinese-American in L.A.” We know he’s “the cheapest Chinese-American in L.A.” because the script stops itself more than it should so characters can repeat this chunk of exposition at the most awkward of times. We need to know he’s a skinflint so that when he starts throwing money around, we understand that this is a Big Character Moment. “Asian Stories” knows no subtlety.

The film opens a few days before Valentine’s Day. Jim was set to be married on the holiday, but his fiancé dumped him with just two weeks to go. Since then, he’s done nothing but wallow in his apartment, wearing his tux, drinking away all the champagne that was purchased. And he wants to die.

Fortunately for him, but not for logic or reality, his best friend, Alex (Kirt Kishita), is a professional assassin. What an odd choice for the screenplay, which works so hard at upending Asian stereotypes that remain in Hollywood. Rookie writer/directors Ron Oda and Kris Chin want to celebrate a sense of cultural community and tear down ethnic clichés; the script does not deny the Asian-ness of its characters but also does not want it to be a factor. And then it gives us a guy straight out of John Woo. What gives?

It’s nearly impossible to gauge the film’s ultimate intents regarding stereotypes and racism. After spending so much time setting up a multicultural mood (Jim’s friendly neighbor is Nicaraguan), the movie quickly shifts gears by giving us “hilarious” over-the-top portrayals of whites as ignorant hillbillies and Latinos as tacky buffoons. Are Oda and Chin trying to parody the notion of stereotype, or are they simply being cruel out of a sense of revenge? It doesn’t really matter - the jokes tossed at us are neither funny nor clever, and they seem to exist because the filmmakers knew some guys who could do “funny” redneck accents, and ain’t that a hoot?

In fact, the filmmakers spend more time on these throwaway bits of self-amusement than they do on actual story or character development. Scenes about Alex’s hobby as a gourmet chef and out-of-nowhere dialogue exchanges namedropping the real-life band who provided songs for the soundtrack - not to mention all those redneck jokes and the occasional “hey, isn’t it funny that Asian-American guys of a certain age all love Depeche Mode?” inside joke - fill up far too much screen time, leaving us with no time for the important parts of the script to rise anywhere above the dopiest cliché, the easiest joke, the flimsiest drama.

Not wanting to kill his best friend in downtown Los Angeles, Alex convinces Jim to spend the weekend in the country. This is where we encounter all those rednecks, who are baffled by the arrival of “Orientals” and ask the only Asian waitress in town questions like “Is this Chinese toast?” That waitress is Amanda (Kathy Uyen), your average soul-saving pixie (she’s also a poet and a painter and a hippie chick, and if the producers could’ve afforded the rights to some Shins songs, she’d probably try to get Jim to listen to them), here to rescue the uptight leading man from heartbreak and boredom. Jim and Amanda wind up falling for each other, which means, of course, he’ll figure out he doesn’t want to die anymore.

And that sets the stage for the movie’s seventh or eighth or maybe ninth tonal shift. After jumping from earnest drama to broad comedy to sweet romance and back again (often mixing and matching in obnoxiously erratic ways), the filmmakers decides they really want to make a thriller, so we get out-of-nowhere nonsense about Alex’s job and money and danger and why is this movie doing this to us?

A side note. When the film first hit the festival circuit (back in 2006; it spent two years wandering the indie jungle before finally landing a DVD distributor), it was called “Asian Stories (Book 3),” despite there being no Book 1 or 2. The filmmakers eventually dropped the meaningless subtitle, but kept the rest. Doesn’t make the movie any better, though.

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