red doors

2005

Written and Directed by Georgia Lee

As soon as I heard that someone had considered commissioning a TV series from Red Doors it suddenly hit me what was bugging me the entire time I was watching this film. It feels like a 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. As it is, if they get picked up at all they'll probably be relegated to cable, but that's where most of the best, groundbreaking television is made these days anyway.

There's so much to like here. I like the father who, on his sixtieth birthday, begins to feel the weight of his own existence and mortality. I liked the mother whose aim in life is to see her daughters happily married and settled, and is thwarted on all fronts but still keeps soldiering on even after her husband drops out of life. I loved Sam Wong, successful in business and engaged to be married, who comes to understand just a little more about the importance of family and tries to re-evaluate her existence. (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 despite her better judgement 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. In the end 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 preparation (what would a film about a Chinese family be without preparing and eating at least one meal?) and extended family to deal with. The three girls are also 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, because we understand. 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, in which case this film will make you feel like you're in the seventh level of hell.

Despite not missing any chance to pull decisively and delibeately at the heartstrings, I did not get any sense of cloying sentimentality from this film. The lesbianism is not the main point of the film, but neither is it hidden behind all the other heterosexual relationships. It's given equal time to create empathy. 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 a little, particularly with the often-unimaginative camera work, and we're made aware that this is an indie feature after all. Not all of the actors are experienced, but I didn't feel the film was at all lopsided with some actors noticeably better than others since the entire cast is extraordinarily 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.

As Katie, the youngest and most troublesome daughter, Kathy Shao-lin Lee (the director's younger sister no less) is quite mesmerising. I truly hope that she continues on in the role and fleshes out this fascinating character. When you watch the film you'll see as I did that there are so many more stories to tell for the Wong family, and I hope Georgia Lee gets the chance to tell them.

Red Doors is heartwarming, funny and utterly inoffensive on every level. If there was ever a film with a lesbian character in it with crossover potential this would have to be it. When I first heard about the film 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.

As I said, Red Doors loses something simply because I feel at times it tries to do too much, hence our satisfaction and enjoyment of each character is somewhat diminished by their restricted screen time. I would have loved for Julie and Mia's courtship be more developed. I would have liked to see the reforming of bonds between Katie and Sam as they get to know each other as people as well as sisters. I wanted more time with Ed and Sam to explore this mysterious connection they seem to have.

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.

Got a comment? Write to me at nancyamazon@gmail.com