As mainstream cinema becomes more oriented on major tentpole releases and nothing else, it’s going to take coverage of smaller films to help break the trend of Disney’s domination of the cultural zeitgeist. One of my desires as a critic has always been to highlight indie productions, which is why I became interested in covering In a New York Minute. That and Cheng Pei-Pei has a minor role, so that was nice.
Complain as I may about major pictures, though, sometimes even smaller ones can prove to be disappointing. Promising to take a look at the modern Asian-American experience through a series of interconnecting stories, In a New York Minute succumbs to the same faults that movies such as Crash and Babel have: the disparate plot threads only loosely connect and don’t inform each other in an interesting manner.
In a New York Minute
Director: Ximan Li
Release Date: April 28, 2019 (Newport Beach International Film Festival), May 3, 2022 (On-Demand)
In a New York Minute is more an anthology film than a single, connected narrative. Following the events of three Asian-American women in possibly the worst week of their lives, we see events play out from different perspectives in an attempt to give us the bigger picture by the time each plot thread weaves together. Think Crash and you’ll be on the right track, minus all of the overt racism.
The first story is that of Amy Chen (Amy Chang), a moderately successful food editor that manifests an eating disorder while recovering from a past breakup. She’s stuck between wanting to please her overly traditional mother (Cheng Pei-Pei) and wishing to follow what’s true to her heart. The full nature of this story isn’t revealed until the end, but hers is perhaps the most compelling of the three protagonists.
The second story centers on Angel Li (Yi Liu), a television personality from China that is struggling to find acting roles in America while also dealing with her loveless marriage to a dismissive and inattentive husband. Since things can’t be simple, she also is embroiled in a secret affair with a young Chinese boy named David Qiao (Ludi Lin), a kid that hasn’t quite figured out what he wants from life.
Lastly, In a New York Minute gives us the tale of Nina Wong (Celia Au), a rebellious girl that moonlights as an escort at night to support herself in NYC. With her parents dismissing her and focusing their attention on her brother, she becomes distraught with the way things are and looks to eventually move out with her boyfriend, Ian Tam (Roger Yeh).
As is likely evident from those descriptions, In a New York Minute is a film about the diaspora that Asian-Americans face while living in America. Stuck between a lifestyle that was never really theirs while existing in a country that doesn’t quite accept them, it’s not hard to imagine that director Ximan Li is putting a lot of her own personal life story into this project. Sharing a co-writing credit on the film with Yilei Zhou, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that at least one of these stories is semi-biographical.
I can’t speak on that topic, however, because I’m not Asian. I love Asian cinema and love learning about the unique perspectives that different cultures have in America, but I don’t exactly know how authentic this story is. What I can comment on is the technical aspects and pacing, which In a New York Minute is mostly okay on.
I brought up Crash before because that is the closest analog I could think of for comparison. My issue with that film, apart from the hamfisted acting, was that the large cast of characters made each story feel truncated. Crash was about so many different experiences at once that you never got a clear idea of any of its characters. In a New York Minute suffers in a similar fashion, though at least the characters have similar backgrounds.
Just as Amy’s story begins to reach a boiling point, the focus shifts to Angel, and you’re left wondering what comes next. It’s definitely a way to build tension and get viewers to stick around until the end, but the ultimate conclusion of these different threads doesn’t feel rewarding. How each character intersects with the others is also a bit contrived, similar to Crash and its “hey, that one character was in the background” kind of inserts.
I don’t want to come off as dismissive of this approach, but the characters featured in In a New York Minute could fill out entire movies on their own. The work done by actors Chang, Liu, and Au is regularly solid, too. While the first two are maybe not as well known (Chang and Liu both have a lot of TV credits under their belts alongside independent films), Au should be recognizable to fans of Netflix’s Wu Assassins. She’s just as powerful here as in that series, helping to elevate the material from being overly simplistic. That she doesn’t completely dominate the film is a testament to her talent.
The supporting cast, too, is fairly good and even includes the surprise appearance of Shaw Brothers legend Cheng Pei-Pei. It’s nice to see her playing roles that fit her older age, even if she occupies the screen for roughly five minutes. Ludi Lin is the runaway star, though, stealing all of his scenes against Liu and painting the picture of a confused, scared youth in over his head. That’s not to say the other love interests aren’t decent, but they don’t quite leave a lasting impression.
Where the film doesn’t really come together is with its visual design. In a New York Minute is based in the big apple, but it could really be any other major city. You’ll see a few sights that are familiar to locals, but for the most part, this is a film dedicated to characters and their struggles. There is the occasional shot in Nina’s nightclub where shifting lights create dream-like images, but most of the film is very subdued in its approach. It can sometimes be a little boring to look at.
As I “trash” the film, though, I have to stress that the central theme of this film isn’t something that I can fully understand. For people that have lived through scenarios similar to the ones present, they may walk away from the film hugely impressed. It’s rare that you get to see an American-produced film with a mostly Asian cast, not to mention one that is dedicated to very real problems that immigrants and their offspring face in this country.
I don’t think that dismisses the criticisms I have of the hastily paced narrative or its ultimately disappointing conclusion, but being able to see yourself within a film can do a lot for your appreciation of it. It’s also plain nice to have a film where I simply dislike it because it’s a freshman effort versus being yet another god damned superhero movie or some over-budgeted Hollywood action spectacle. Stories like In a New York Minute deserve a place in the film industry because they cut through the fantasy and present us with narratives we don’t typically get to see.
Ultimately, I’m not sure I could recommend this film to the majority of viewers out there. If it were more tightly constructed or focused on a single protagonist, I feel In a New York Minute would be a better picture overall. The interlocking bits are fine but don’t add enough to distract from the rushed developments present in each narrative. Given time to flesh out these stories (or possibly even filmed as a mini-series), the final result would have been more captivating beyond a niche audience. At the same time, niches need their stories, too, so maybe there is something to Ximan Li’s first effort.
Even if this project doesn’t put anyone involved on the map, I hope it can open some doors for other similar stories in the future.