by Chris Wood
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The feature-debut director of Red Doors, Georgia Lee, explains in her Director’s Statement that for the Chinese, painting one’s front doors red is said to bring good luck, fortune and harmony to the household. The Wongs, a Chinese-American family of five residing in New York suburbs, have front doors painted such a color. Ms. Lee opens them up for viewers to take a more personal look inside.
The movie begins with a typical family gathering around the kitchen table before the day begins. There is banter about eldest daughter Samantha’s (Jacqueline Kim, Charlotte Sometimes) wedding plans, talk of an upcoming presentation for middle daughter Julie’s (Elaine Kao, Chapter 21) medical profession aspirations and their father, Ed’s (Tzi Ma, Rush Hour), 60th birthday and approaching retirement. The printing on youngest daughter and high school student, Katie’s (Kathy Shao-Lin Lee, Gangs of New York), shirt perhaps gives the first wink that scratching below the surface of the family Wong could produce some dirt under the nails of the nuclear family. It reads: “God is dead—Nitchzie,” on the front and, “Nitchzie is dead—God,” on the back.
An exposure into each of the five’s individual lives ensues, which pulls at their family fabric. Ms. Lee uses an effective brand of humor, which acts as a sedative when dealing with sensitive family topics. For example, Ed has been attempting suicide. Samantha bought him prepaid sessions to see a psychiatrist for his birthday. He shows up to cash them in, telling the doctor: “I don’t need therapy.” The therapist says if Ed can prove he doesn’t need therapy, then he’ll refund him for the sessions. Cut to the doctor asking Ed how many times he has tried to kill himself. Ed, as calm as if someone asked him to pass the salt, reveals that he’s tried between 30 and 40 times to end his life, but someone always interrupts him. He then asks, “Can I have my refund?”
His suicide attempts are laughable, though. Take one attempt: Ed is going to cut his wrists in the bathtub. Katie walks in with the portable phone as someone is calling for him. After the call, Ed holds the device over the water and drops it into the tub as if it were a plugged in hairdryer. The phone just floats on the surface.
This was a personal undertaking for Ms. Lee, despite the picture being fictional. She bases some of the content on the true experiences of her own family and friends and infuses her actual family’s home videos into the movie. Maybe it was advice from her old boss, legendary director Martin Scorsese (The Departed), which prompted this unique filmmaking style? “Marty always encouraged me to write about what I know,” the former assistant to the acclaimed filmmaker recalls. It could also be that she has a fascination with the idea. “The home video is interesting to me… Is what we remember what really happened, or is it some amalgam of storytelling?” she wonders.
The videos, in essence, seem to be what keeps Ed going, or conceivably explain why his suicide attempts are so pathetic. Several scenes show Ed watching his children on the old videos as he’s trying to transfer them to DVD on his computer. But the present Ed can’t escape from returns again with Ms. Lee’s humor when Katie’s IM pops up on his computer screen saying that she needs to use the computer. Ed starts to type, hunt-and-peck style, but before he gets one word, Katie’s IM pops up again asking how much longer he will be.
The movie, then, as it does with all the characters throughout, like a merry-go-round, shifts to Samantha. The nearly 30-year-old appears to have it altogether with a successful job in the city and Alpha-male fiancé, Mark (Jayve Bartok, The Station Agent), but seems to be dragging her feet. Perhaps, it is because she wishes her feet were in ballet slippers, which her parents discouraged after high school. She also has a run in, while visiting her old high school, with her old boyfriend, Alex (Rossif Sutherland, I’m Reed Fish). He’s a music teacher and hopeful musician playing small bar venues in the city. He invites her to watch him play and Sam does attempt to take him up on the offer, but with conscience in toe she only makes it to the door before fleeing.
Middle child Julie, a medical student in the city, while doing her residency, befriends actress, Mia (Mia Riverton, Code). Mia is at the hospital to observe for an upcoming role. There is more than a friendship developing between the two.
Katie, the youngest, has hobbies like “stomp” classes and playing dangerous pranks on the boy next door. Example: He paints their family dog pink and she retaliates by blowing up his locker. Despite the “Spy vs. Spy” mentality, it has a cutsie, “I like you so much I hate you,” high school feel—just another testament to Ms. Lee’s quirky sense of humor (the audience really does latch on to it).
The mother of the family, May-Li (Freda Foh Shen, The Ladykillers) respects tradition in that she prays in Chinese before meals and wants her daughter Samantha to wear a red kimono-like dress for the wedding. She is also trying to cope with how Ed is recoiling from her and the children.
In cutting from one individual family story to the next, Ms. Lee overcomes one difficult hurdle in making an independent film: How to keep the audience involved and interested without having a big budget arsenal to dip into for special effects and crowd drawing actors? She keeps the picture moving at a good pace and just when a viewer might be wondering, “What’s happening with Julie and her love interest Mia now?” Ms. Lee cuts back to their story and resumes. Also, as mentioned before, Ms. Lee’s humor keeps things light throughout. Not all families have a father who flees from his family to a Buddhist monastery, but on certain levels, all can relate.
In addition, she is able to allow the audience to care about the characters, what happens to them and root for them and their decisions as the picture draws to a close. As well, Ms. Lee in presenting a Chinese-American family, does not, as she states, “place the cultural card front and center.” Keep in mind there is also a homosexual relationship in the story, in which, such a “card” can be used too. However, these were merely elements in a story about an American family and how the family added the elements to their overall makeup, hopefully making them a stronger unit in the end. Depending on the viewer, despite the irony of the Wong family’s red doors, one could agree that when the movie closes, this family is indeed lucky, harmonious and fortunate. And if their doors warrant the symbolic red paint, then might we all examine our own family structures again.
The actors, most of whom have not more than a handful of jobs under there belts, were very believable in their roles (the character Katie is actually Ms. Lee’s sister, who was in 2002’s Gangs of New York). Ed in particular, and probably the most seasoned among the cast.
The writing (the multitalented Ms. Lee is credited with the screenplay as well) was excellent. Keeping five different stories rolling, attached to the larger family story, is not an easy feat.
Furthermore, the film has already received such accolades as winner of the Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005, and winner of the Special Jury Prize for Ensemble acting at the CineVegas Film Festival in 2005.
Being an independent film, wide spread release may not be likely, but it is certainly one to enjoy on DVD. Watch it with the whole family!
Postscript: My father, like Ed in this movie, takes old home videos and transposes them to DVD or other digital mediums.
Chris Wood is a film critic living in New York City.
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