[Flixist will cover select films playing at the Reel Asian Film Festival, which runs in Toronto from November 6th through the 11th, and in Richmond Hill on the 16th and 17th. For more information about the film festival, visit reelasian.com.]
British television presenter Louis Theroux used to have a show called Weird Weekends, which I like revisiting every now and then. The show chronicled different subcultures, from demolition derby drivers to porn stars to survivalists to South African separatists. One very uncomfortable episode of Weird Weekends was about Western men who go to Thailand in search of brides. Special introduction agencies helped skeevy, clingy guys meet women who probably wouldn't want anything to do with them otherwise.
I bring that up because there are moments of discomfort like that in Seeking Asian Female. Director Debbie Lum looks into the obsession that white men have with Asian women, or at least it starts that way. It quickly narrows its focus from yellow fever to one man's quest for a Chinese bride.
As the documentary unfolded, it became more complicated and more personal in a very compelling way. This isn't just a movie about an obsessive guy's relationship with Asian women, but also about a filmmaker's relationship with the people she's filming.
Seeking Asian Female
When we first meet Steven in Seeking Asian Female, I'd already started making assumptions about him. Lum's handheld camera ascends a dark, narrow stairwell leading to his apartment. Steven looks unkempt and uncared for, and he comes across socially awkward. He's a little creepy, though in a harmless way. Steven's in his 60s and been married twice before. Now, he's obsessed with Asian women -- much younger Asian women. (His previous wives weren't Asian.) He even seems to make a pass at Lum, and he smiles broadly at her in a discomfiting way. Could be that Steven was just being polite. I'm still not sure.
He's been corresponding with Asian women through magazines and the internet for years, and he keeps a lot of letters and photos in jam-packed file cabinets. The camera is a bit shaky early on, which probably stems from anxiety. If I were Lum, I'd be nervous too. But as she continues to chronicle his obsession with Asian women, there's less nervousness and awkwardness between them. This growing familiarity will eventually complicate the situation in the film while adding to the drama.
We get to see one of Steven's attempted relationships grow then fizzle, and I there I began to form another set of assumptions. Not just about Steven, however, but the women he was meeting online. I wondered how many times he'd been led on by some of these women. I also wondered how many of these women weren't meek little lotuses. Grifters who knew how to work the game have an eager pool of lonely Western men at their disposal. This is part of the early intrigue of Seeking Asian Female. I thought Steven was both a sad and lonely guy as well as a manipulative pig looking for a subservient, desperate bride; and I thought the women he met were either victimized unfortunates or con artists.
But that's where Sandy comes into the picture. Steven and Sandy seem to hit it off. She's a 30-year-old from Shenzhen who accepts Steven for his faults. She's agreed to marry him, and the marriage has to take place soon since she's visiting on a fiancée visa. So she moves in. Sandy complicates the film because she seems like a victim but is too headstrong to be a victim. The first time she shows up in the film (in the flesh, at least) is with Steven at the airport. To be frank, together they looked like a guy hanging out with a confused call girl. He tries to make her feel welcome, and they're sincere attempts. She smiles and nods, like a polite, silent way of saying, "What?"
Steven barely speaks Mandarin and Sandy barely speaks English. By luck, Lum speaks a little Mandarin -- she's a Chinese-American raised in the Midwest, so cultural emphasis on American. She goes from director to on-call interpreter. Lum has the unenviable task of translating a major fight between the couple. Frustrated and depressed, Sandy yells at Steven that he doesn't understand Chinese culture at all. He loves the women for his own reasons -- maybe selfish ones, maybe pathetic ones. Any cultural understanding Steven might have is superficial, and I wonder if he would make any effort to learn, which is why Lum goes from documentarian to unwitting third party.
I was cringing at the screen so much and wondering how this would all end. Badly, I figured, but just how bad?
Lum's involvement leads to a larger question about filmmaker ethics. Does she have a moral obligation to say something or do something? Even Lum doesn't know if she should be personally involved. She only knows Steven and Sandy because she's making a documentary. Should she feel responsible for either of them, and should she even be a presence in their lives? These are the kinds of questions a lot of documentary filmmakers wrestle with, but usually it's kept off camera. For Lum, it becomes a pivot point for her own film.
In the Theroux Weird Weekends episode I mentioned, there was a distance to the show's style that allowed Theroux to take the piss out of his subjects whenever he felt like it. (That might explain why Theroux's more recent BBC work has been serious rather than flip -- atonement for his sins of condescension.) Lum's in a much different position, and her film's tone isn't mocking. It might have started that way (playfully mocking, though), but at a certain point, playtime is over. Since Sandy has no friends or family in the United States, Lum is the only sort of family she has. Is there a moral obligation to be a stranger's lifeline in case things go bad?
It's all these complications and questions that make Seeking Asian Female a disarming and at times spellbinding watch. When my cringes gave way, they gave way because there were new dimensions to each person to consider. Steven is more self-aware than he originally seemed, and Sandy is as well. She's feistier, too. And because Lum's forced to become a participant in these lives, her own thoughts about the people she's filming change.
Maybe it is love between Sandy and Steven. Or maybe it's just complicated? Maybe Lum is their friend, or maybe she's just an observer? You do get answers to these rhetorical questions, and you do get a resolution that makes sense. Well, let me qualify that: it makes as much sense as a snippet from real life can make. Mostly what you get from Seeking Asian Female is a sympathetic look at the things we do for love, or at least something that resembles it.
[Seeking Asian Female will screen at The Royal on Sunday, November 11th.]