by Samuel L. Leiter
As I trudged down 42nd Street after seeing the Pan-Asian Rep’s production of Damon Chua’s Film Chinois, the chill January night air slapped me in the face like a bowl of cold lo mein. I breathed deeply, hoping to settle my sour stomach, still struggling to digest the contents of this gristly dramatic repast. The drunk on the A train lying in a pool of his own dinner didn’t make the job any easier. Reviewing is tough, I thought, but someone’s gotta do it.
Chua’s film noirish caper takes place in 1947 Beijing, or Peking as the foreigners still called it. Mao’s communist hordes are fighting the Nationalists for control, and the exotic city crawls with spies and undercover missions. We see smoky restaurants and nightclubs; sexy femmes fatales in cheongsams, one a Red proselytizer called Chinadoll (Rosanne Ma), the other a nightclub songstress named Simone (Katie Lee Hill); a shady Belgian ambassador (Jean Brassard), Simone’s lover, who promises to get her out of the motherland if she’ll obtain something he’s after; a handsome American agent named Randolph (Benjamin Jones), passing as a tea trader; and a Chinese man of many faces (James Henry Doan), one of them noted for its prominent mole with a long white hair.
Tommy Dorsey’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and period Chinese tunes set the mood, everyone’s a tobacco chimney, bad guys are knocked cold with a single punch, there’s an elusive pair called the Twins, and the props include guns, a reel of film, cash-filled envelopes, and transit papers (a nod to or steal from Casablanca?). Characters, especially the beautiful but dangerous Chinadoll—who manipulates much of the action—break the fourth wall to talk directly to us, the irony poured on like hot sauce. In short, a shadowy world of intrigue, sex, money, bloodshed, torture, politics, and secrets.
Sounds promising. But, with uninspired direction by Kaipo Schwab, uninspired casting, and an uninspired script that’s both obtuse and lacking in dramatic torque, the 105-minute production (with one intermission) creeps when it needs to race. The tension sags—even during a Mexican standoff—and when the big reveal arrives you couldn’t care less. About that standoff, where the two dames level pistols at one another across a tabletop: tell me why, if I really want to shoot someone, how their holding a gun is going to stop me. They’ll be spare ribs before they can pull the trigger.
Film Chinois is about as close to a fine updated rendering of mid-20th-century Chinese film noir as your strip mall take-out place is to a Michelin-rated Chinese restaurant. For a movie equivalent of the latter, take a peek at Ang Lee’s 2007 film about espionage in wartime Shanghai, Lust, Caution. Unlike Film Chinois, I guarantee it ain’t chop suey.
410 W. 42nd Street
Through February 8
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).