When Shawn Wong first penned his novel American Knees way back in 1995, he may or may not have realized that he was writing what would become a classic of Asian American literature. As an undergrad, Wong looked for works by other Asian American authors, and was astounded to realize how few there were. Ultimately Wong, along with some fellow Asian American scholars, edited a compilation called The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, which became as noted for an essay by editor Frank Chin about what was and was not true Asian American literature as for the astonishing collection of writings compiled therein.
This background is important to know because American Knees was far more than a steamy tale of relationships between people who happened to be Asian American; beneath that sexy surface, the book is about conflicts and misunderstandings between Asian Americans of different backgrounds, the subjugation of Asian Americans, and the subtleties of racism. Writer-director Eric Byler's film adaptation of the book, titled Americanese, because Byler felt that more people would "get" the intended meaning of the film with the title spelled that way, loses much of the steaminess of the novel, while focusing more strongly on the underlying themes.
Raymond Ding (Chris Tashima) is a divorced Chinese American professor who still isn't over his recently ended relationship with Aurora Crane (Allison Sie), who has inherited enough of her Caucasian father's genes to pass for white when she wants. A crucial bit of tension in Raymond and Aurora's relationship was the issue of race -- not that Aurora is half-white, but that she doesn't see how being half-white has impacted her. Post-breakup, Raymond and Aurora are having trouble letting go. Byler demonstrates great maturity in his filmmaking by executing the art of "show, don't tell" while letting us see this.
Aurora still lives in Raymond's apartment, which he rents to her for way under market value; when she's gone during the day, Raymond stalks Aurora by going to her apartment alone, where he carefully puts everything in order, turning off lights, closing cabinet doors, putting away the milk left out on the counter. He communes with the ghost of his ended relationship for a while -- one intuits that he just wants to be with the essence of Aurora -- before just as carefully restoring the chaos to the apartment as he found it. There's a particularly lovely scene where Byler has Aurora and Raymond's transparent figures crossing paths on the sidewalk -- him leaving the apartment, her coming home -- a beautiful visual representation of these two people whose lives are still intertwined, even though they've separated.
Byler doesn't rush his storytelling; this is a deliberately paced, thoughtful meditation on racial issues and relationships, not an action-movie with lots of Asian ninjas doing cool high-wire stunts, and not a typical romantic comedy where the pace flies along with zingy one-liners. There is depth and poetry to the way Byler has chosen to tell this tale, and although the pace of the beginning third may seem to drag at times, there is a rhyme and reason to the structure. In a way, the structure reminds me a bit of Tony Takitani, one of my favorite films of the last year, which moved along with deliberate exactitude in creating an incredibly moving piece of poetry. Americanese has more of a political underpinning, though, and it's a calculated attempt as well to move past the stereotypes many people have come to expect of Asian American literature and film.
Trying to move on from his relationship with Aurora, Raymond embarks on a new relationship with Betty (Joan Chen), a Vietnamese immigrant who teaches at the same university. Raymond and Betty have sat across each other at meetings for years, most likely the only two Asian people in the room, and yet they've never connected. Then again, why should they have? The whole point of this story is to challenge assumptions about Asian Americans, one of them being that because an Asian man and an Asian woman are coworkers, or acquaintances, or at a party together (which is how Raymond and Aurora meet in the book), they should automatically be attracted to each other.
Raymond and Betty, in fact, have very little in common. Raymond was born in America to a Chinese-American father and a Chinese immigrant mother. He was raised as an American; he doesn't speak or read Mandarin, he's never been to China, and neither has his father. Betty, on the other hand, immigrated during the Vietnam war. She bears many scars, both physical and emotional, from both her childhood in war-torn Vietnam and a subsequent abusive marriage. There's a poignant scene that illustrates the vast gulf between Raymond and Betty, when Betty warns Raymond of the scars on her legs before they have sex for the first time. Raymond, trying to bridge the gap, enumerates for Betty his own scars: This one from a bike accident, that one from another equally innocuous event. By contrast, the enormity of Betty's scars paint a vivid picture of how different the two of them really are.
Raymond's father, Wood (Sab Shimono), has been mourning the death of Raymond's mother since Raymond was a child, and now, in his old age, has finally decided to go to China to find himself a second wife. He jokingly tells Raymond that they'll find and marry sisters, so they only have to worry about one mother-in-law. But Wood's talk of finding a second wife is largely posturing in the wake of deep loneliness; he spends intimate moments in his garage, touching his dead wife's carefully preserved dresses, smelling her perfume, sobbing piteously over the loss of her. Her absence in his life has created a void no other woman could properly fill, and one senses that what Wood wants most for Raymond is for his son to have a love like that -- preferably with Aurora, of whom Wood is inordinately fond. "Too easy," Wood tells Raymond as the film opens on Raymond packing his stuff to move out of his dad's house into a new apartment. "She thinks you gave up too easy." But is he talking about Aurora, or himself?
Aurora and Raymond dance around the edges of their relationship, neither of them willing to completely let go, in spite of advice from her spunky friend Brenda (Kelly Hu) to forget him. When Aurora goes home to help with her dad's retirement party, though, she must face the proverbial pink elephant of her father's subtle racism, when she confronts him about why Miles, her sister Julie's black boyfriend, isn't invited to the party. Her father stumbles and fumbles around the issue, but the confrontation with her father forces Aurora to reconsider one of many conversations with Raymond, where he tried to convince her that her father wants her to be white, and that his objection to Raymond was about Raymond being an Asian man.
There's some excellent acting in the film. Tashima gives a deeply astute performance as Raymond; in his hands Raymond is by turns intelligent, conflicted, humorous, obsessive, in love and out of love, and Tashima conveys these subtle shifts in Raymond's moods and motivations through the most minute changes, never overacting the part. Sie gives an engaging turn as Aurora; there's a scene early on when Aurora is showing the car she's selling to a white man, who casually asks her, "What are you?" It takes a moment for it to dawn on Aurora that he is talking about her race, and that hesitation tells us all we need to know about Raymond's assessment: Aurora, though she is half-Japanese, doesn't see that part of herself as crucial to who she is.
Chen is perfectly cast as Betty; she is like a gem being rotated in sunlight, with each facet reflecting a new view of her. Just when you think you have Betty all figured out, you don't. Actually, my one tiff with the film is that I would have liked to have seen more of the relationship between Betty and Raymond, which was fascinatingly complex. As aforementioned, the pacing of the first third or so of the film may be a bit slow for some viewers. I happen to like films paced this way, but some audience members may start to lose patience with the deliberation of the set-up. Stick with it, though, because Americanese has a lot going on under the surface. You may just come away from it questioning your own assumptions about race in general and Asian Americans in particular -- and that's just the way Wong and Byler would want it.