Plucky, well-meaning and earnest to the point of strain, Bertha Bay-Sa Pan's "Face" chronicles two decades in the lives of three generations of Asian American women who struggle to maintain their identity while remaining true to their cultural heritage, or some combination of struggling and remaining true that sparks culture clashes in a cramped New York apartment. Sound familiar? Brazilian director Marcos Bernstein's "The Other Side of the Street," which also opens today, handles related themes of alienation much more lightly, all loopy surprises and oddball warmth.
An assimilation story spanning two decades, Bay-Sa Pan's "Face" originated as a Columbia University film school thesis project, and it bears the imprint of one too many graduate courses in identity theory and race and gender politics. The movie shuffles dutifully between the 1970s, when Kim (Bai Ling), a Chinese American college student with a traditional Chinese mother (Kieu Chinh), gets pregnant after a one-night stand with a rich Chinese boy, and the 1990s, when Kim's daughter Genie (Kristy Wu) chafes against the next generation of constraints, which mainly seem to consists of hiding her cropped T-shirts and her black DJ boyfriend (Treach) from grandma.
Cyndi Lauper video, as grandma flogs impossibly parochial lines like "You're too skinny!" and Kim, meanwhile, remains as remote, reserved and inscrutable as a bad Asian stereotype. It's never clear whether we're meant to like her, hate her or lurch back and forth between the two emotions as she fusses on the phone to a friend about how she can't decide whether she should transfer to New York or to California, where, presumably, she won't have to endure sniffs and sidelong glances from resentful family members. But she seems out of place from the start. In her early scenes as a Queens-raised Chinese American teen, Kim acts and sounds like a foreign exchange student. Even the minor characters, such as a jovial Chinese uncle and a nerdy college boyfriend, are so crudely drawn and heavy-handed they practically inflict blunt trauma. Despite its eager good intentions, "Face" is more interested in sassing its ancestors — metaphorically as well as literally (Genie is sarcastic even when talking to her dead Grandpa) — than in shedding any light on the human condition.
There's something especially frustrating about small, personal independent movies that adhere to the stodgy conventions of small, personal, independent movies as if compelled by a cadre of militant MFA candidates. I suspect some of the positive notices "Face" has received since premiering at Sundance in 2002 are attributable to a desire to encourage alternative voices, but no amount of goodwill can rescue "Face" from its painfully literal script and acting that's all about projecting recognizable attitude rather than drawing in viewers.
Almost as small and intimate as "Face," but considerably more enjoyable, is "The Other Side of the Street," which also uses naturalistic urban settings and deals with themes of family and adapting to change. Spritely, tender and unpredictable, it draws memorable performances from great Brazilian actors Fernanda Montenegro ("Central Station," which Bernstein co-wrote) and Raul Cortez, playing skittish sexagenarians in love.
A puckish and energetic divorced woman living in the Copacabana neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Regina (Montenegro) is having trouble dealing with the fact that her only son has invited his father, her ex-husband, to live with him and her only grandson. Regina lives alone with her old dog, Bettina, in a comfortable middle-class apartment nearby, and we're made to understand that, even though her ex-husband's alternate living arrangements might well have involved a park bench, she feels wronged by her son's generosity to his father, and it strains their relationship.
After dropping off her grandson at her son's home, Regina returns home, slaps on a pair of leather pants and some lipstick, and heads to a nightclub thronged with people not yet quite a third her age. Things get even weirder when she steps into the ladies' room and makes a call to Officer Alcides (Luis Carlos Persy) of the Rio police department, identifying herself as "Snow White." One scene later, people are being hauled out of the club in handcuffs, and Regina is strolling down an empty street toward her apartment. The day's papers announce that a child prostitution ring has been busted.
Rio's own Miss Marple? Sort of. Regina takes part in a modest community service program in which seniors pass along tips and bits of useful information to the police. Most — like the placid "Daffy Duck," who would rather spend her days in the park knitting for nobody — don't take it very seriously, but Regina, whose growing sense of alienation is exacerbated by her sense that the city is going to the dogs, treats it like a full-time job. Energized by the prostitution bust, she parks herself by her window with a pair of binoculars and, in a scene reminiscent of "Rear Window," witnesses what she thinks is a man murdering his wife.
When the man turns out to be a prominent judge, however, Officer Alcides is embarrassed by the incident and cuts Regina out of the program. Frustrated, she decides to pursue the investigation herself. She follows him around until one day she averts a robbery at a bank and he notices her. What ensues is a somewhat sweet, somewhat jittery cat-and-mouse story in which it's hard to discern which is which.
Regina accepts a date from Camargo (Cortez) and they wind up stuck in traffic most of the night. At first she lies to him about where she lives — she tells herself she's being cautious, but what really bothers her is the relative shabbiness of her apartment building compared with Camargo's. As the crime-solving problem recedes, so does Regina's confidence in Camargo's interest in her. Even Officer Alcides catches on, and humors her into continuing her "investigation." Stripped down to the bones, the premise sounds cloying and patronizing. But Montenegro's considerable talents as an actress keep the story from dipping so much as a toe in sentimentality.
"The Other Side of the Street" has its flaws, but to my mind, genre-bending isn't one of them. Told from Regina's point of view, we can't help but see her lovely but impersonal, roiling and often dangerous city as a giant crime scene, or at least a place where bad things happen to good people like her all the time. Shortly before meeting Camargo, Regina walks out of the bank where the armed robbery has almost taken place and imagines she is alone on the busy street. Officer Alcides has stopped taking her calls, so she takes out her cellphone, dials her home number and leaves herself a long message on her answering machine detailing what she saw, how nobody did anything, how terrible life has become. "I had to tell someone!" she says, before realizing how crazy what she's doing feels.
'The Other Side of the Street'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: One circumspect love scene between the two main characters
Luis Carlos Persy...Officer Alcides
Strand Releasing presents a Pássaro Films and Neanderthal MB Cinema production, a Columbia TriStar Do Brasil, Arte France Cinema, Escazal Films co-production. Director Marcos Bernstein. Executive producer Mariza Figueiredo. Producers Katia Machado and Marcos Bernstein. Screenplay by Marcos Bernstein & Melanie Dimantas. Director of photography Toca Seabra. Art Director Bia Junqueira. Editor Marcelo Moraes. Music Guilherme Bernstein Seixas. In Portuguese with English Subtitles. Running Time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; and Laemmle's and One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, (626) 744-1224.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Some profanity and sexual themes
Will Yun Lee...Daniel
An Indican Pictures release. Director Bertha Bay-Sa Pan. Producers Alexa L. Fogel, Joseph Infantolino, Bertha Bay-Sa Pan. Screenplay Bertha Bay-Sa Pan and Oren Moverman. Director of Photography John Inwood. Editor Gary Levy. Production design Teresa Mastropierro. Music Leonard Nelson Hubbard. Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes.
At Loews Cineplex Beverly Center 13, 8522 Beverly Blvd., (310) 652-7760; and the Magic Johnson Theaters, 4020 Marlton Ave., L.A., (323) 290-5900.