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Case Number 03473

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Happy Birthday

TLA Releasing // 2002 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brian Burke (Retired) // November 3rd, 2003

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All Rise...

The Charge

"The human experience is universal, regardless of our gender, our orientation, our race, our appearance…I want Happy Birthday to be a mirror to examine ourselves."—Director Yen Tan, discussing his film

Opening Statement

Happy Birthday is the first feature-length film by Yen Tan, a 28-year-old filmmaker born in Malaysia. The film was screened at a number of gay and lesbian film festivals, proving popular with audiences and critics alike. It won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Gay Feature in Philadelphia, and the New Director's Showcase in Portland, Oregon. Tan financed the film himself from his personal savings, and contributions from his parents and his partner. Its success has resulted in this DVD from TLA Releasing.

Facts of the Case

The film follows five individuals linked by a common birthday, each facing a crossroads in his or her life:

• Kelly (Michelle E. Michael) has recently broken up with her girlfriend when her first crush, Martha, a college friend she hasn't heard from in years, calls to invite her to dinner.
• Ron (John Frazier) confidently runs a ministry for "ex-gays" at his church, until a church member (Troy) calls his bluff.
• Javed (Devashish Saxena), a Pakistani immigrant rejected by both his family and his Muslim culture, awaits the decision on his asylum application, while his porn star boyfriend (Greg) earns money to support them.
• Tracy (Ethel Lung), a Chinese-American woman who is not out to her family, tries to find common ground with her traditional mother visiting from Taiwan.
• Jim (Benjamin Patrick), an obese man too ashamed of his body to dance in a club, is named telemarketer of the year at "Fat No More." How will he face the diet pill company's founder, who has asked him to dinner?

The Evidence

Although the synopsis of the plot may make this film sound like a gay soap opera, Tan has tried to avoid the clichés where possible. His script features believable dialogue and recognizable situations, made interesting with unusual camera framing and good editing. He and his director of photography, Jack Burroughs, often choose to shoot the scenes from a distance with a stationary camera (as opposed to the jittery hand-held effects favored by many young directors). His compositions are interesting without drawing too much attention to themselves. Tan also understands the potential power of intercutting separate stories with a common theme (for example, Robert Altman's Nashville or Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia).

I admire the way Tan has populated the film with actors of diverse cultural backgrounds, languages, and body types. Personally, I felt the straight people in the film suffered from being conceived more like caricatures (particularly Martha and her husband, and Jim's male co-workers). Among the actors, two give especially natural performances: Ethel Lung (as Tracy) and Devashish Saxena (as Javed). The quality of the rest of the acting varies, but overall is on the order of a good community theatre production. Ultimately, I didn't feel the film achieved the emotional resonance it was aiming for, but for a first film, Tan has much to be proud of.

Happy Birthday is a small-budget independent film shot in black and white digital video. On this TLA DVD it is presented in its intended aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. Unfortunately, the transfer is quite problematic. The image shows blockiness within many of the backgrounds, and significant edge enhancement (especially when dark edges are seen against a light background). There is a lot of blooming and shimmering of the whites in the picture, and definition and grayscale are lost in the darker scenes. With regards to the sound, I should first mention the music. Steve Whitehouse's spare, beautiful piano score is wonderfully used here, and complements the production very nicely. Dialogue is easily understood.

A screen-specific commentary track includes director Yen Tan and editor Jay Wesson. They offer technical details on the production (locations used, how certain shots were obtained) and provide anecdotes about the conception of the screenplay, casting, et cetera. Also included is a three-and-a-half minute featurette showing Tan directing a scene, followed by a brief montage. A trailer is included.

Closing Statement

It's wonderful to see a small, privately financed film like this find an audience, and I congratulate both Tan and TLA Releasing for making this DVD possible. I don't want to mislead anyone into believing that this is a minor masterpiece with Hollywood-style production values, but if you appreciate the subject matter, I can recommend it.

The Verdict

Despite his best efforts, the district attorney has failed to ruin this particular party. The court suggests he quit moping in the corner and bring us a piece of cake. Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 67
Audio: 74
Extras: 75
Acting: 72
Story: 81
Judgment: 73

Perp Profile

Studio: TLA Releasing
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (on the non-English dialogue only)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Gay
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Scene-Specific Audio Commentary with Director Yen Tan and Editor Jay Wesson
• Documentary, "Behind the Birthday" (3:30)
• Trailer


• IMDb

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