Judge Dennis Prince thinks there's something wrong, but it's not the Wongs.
"So you want to give it another try?"
It's fun to screen the indie pictures since that's where you can typically enjoy films unafraid to stray off the beaten path of Hollywood focus-group fodder. Likewise, the indie market is where newcomers are welcomed to the industry, those who have the energy and vision to deliver film experiences that can truly make an impact. But what if the indie market is becoming, well, repetitive within its own realm. As many decry that Hollywood has become the great entertainment echo chamber where too many studio executives spend time believing their own PowerPoint presentations as another turd hits the silver screen, isn't it conceivable that the indie circuit could likewise fall into the trap of chasing a list of deliverables entitled, "Key Components of an Independent Feature?"
Suddenly, the independent isn't independent, not when it's behaving like so many others in its peer group.
Facts of the Case
Red Doors comes from first-time Writer/Director Georgia Lee, with some help from her co-Producers, Jane Chen and Mia Riverton. Nestled cozily within a suburban neighborhood sits a spacious home boasting bright red doors. Behind the doors lives the Wong family, a normal yet not entirely well adjusted fivesome. Ed (Tzi Ma), the father, has just celebrated his 60th birthday as he also embarks on his retirement. May-Li (Freda Foh Shen), the mother, appears to be the core that keeps the family gathering to dine together and generally remain, well, familial. Eldest daughter Sam (Jacqueline Kim) is busy in her corporate aspirations and is always ready to dispense a targeted dose of one minute management. Middle daughter Julie (Elaine Kao) is a committed pre-Med student while youngest daughter, Katie (Kathy Shao-Lin Lee), is dutifully providing a steady stream on teen angst sprinkled with hip-hop attitude and a penchant for pranks. There's nothing terribly different about the Wongs when compared to all the other nuclear families around them except that Ed is eager to succeed in one of his many suicide attempts over his despondence that his children are all grown up, Sam cannot ignore the panic rising within her as she prepares for her wedding to yuppie Mark (Jayce Bartok), Julie is struggling with her unexpected attraction to a visiting actress (Mia Riverton), Katie is locked in a one-upmanship prank-fest with the boy next door (Sebastian Stan), all the while May-Li goes about her household duties as if the space behind the red doors knows no discord.
And the red doors—oh, those are said to bring good luck.
Red Doors is duly commended for its commitment to characterization. Georgia Lee set out to deliver a quirky personality study and has achieved that goal. Her approach is that preferred method of patience that doesn't mind letting an audience get to know the characters on screen, helping to forge a bond and find commonality with viewers. The situations facing the Wongs are largely believable since they can—and usually have—happened to you or me or someone we know. Why, then, do they have that slight scent of plastic?
While it should be commended for normalizing the Asian-American family and dispels any potential preconceptions non-Asians might bring to the table, it subsequently presents the Wongs as so generic in a way that they seem like every other family I've met—in film and on TV. Their methods and motivations, while obviously intended as sincere and good-natured to viewers, seem like the sort of behavior we've watched again and again in romantic comedies, character-driven dramas, and TV sitcoms. In an effort to perhaps "fit in," I fear that Lee has stripped the Wongs of their individuality amid the melting pot that is America. This "dumbing down" of these potentially compelling characters, I fear, may have been done to improve the marketability of the product, thereby imposing a serious self-inflicted wound. There's no denying that "Americanization" can neutralize cultural traits, habits, and beliefs, but for those who are eager to learn more about others who have immigrated to this country, well, that's where their differences are to be fully explored and, ultimately, where the real stories are to be found. Red Doors, instead, comes across with a family of Wongs who could be easily and immediately interchanged with the Wachowskis, the Washingtons, or the Wilsons.
Ah, but we must stray away from stereotypes and those who draw upon caricatures of cultures and creeds, yes? Absolutely, but the odd thing at work here is the tinge of prejudice eking out from the deep corners of this script could very well be the coincidence (?) that each of the Wong sisters is involved with Caucasian love interests. Is that a sort of reverse stereotyping—the taking of "trophy whites"—or is it yet another example of the Westernization of the narrative that indicates it's unable or unwilling to challenge the dominant culture at hand? While we should insist that each Wong girl pairs up with a "matching" Asian suitor, it's nonetheless a bit suspect that each would universally entertain white partners.
And what of the earlier hint that the indie films may be falling into a Hollywood-like rut? Well, I would have chalked up the previous shortcomings to a lack of experience and an as-yet-undeveloped narrative style of the filmmakers had I not heard the following from co-Producer Jane Chen:
"Mia and Georgia went to Sundance and saw a bunch of films there and basically came away thinking, 'hey, we could do that too.' Because we came from a business background, because we were entrepreneurial individuals, we could make a little go a long way.".
As innocent as Chen's statement was, it nonetheless betrays the theory that Red Doors was a work or reverse engineering, identifying the earmarks of successful Sundance fodder and developing a derivative work from a carefully culled checklist of required elements. Oops.
Those observations aside, I contend there is much to like about Red Doors, beginning with the evocative cinematography from Zeus Morand coupled with the spot on editing by Youna Kwak. Their combined efforts, under the watchful eye of the undeniably capable Lee, provide a lyrical flow to the narrative that carries through the Wongs' situations like a feather wafting on a light breeze. As for the acting, I appropriately applaud all involved for their commitment to their characters and their interactions, however trite they may sometimes become, for the duration. And, I have to know that Ma's delivery of the starkly despondent patriarch, Ed, is perfectly underplayed and is where Lee should have spent more of her time—and ours.
Following its successful stints at Tribeca, Cinevegas, and Outfest, Red Doors comes to DVD from Warner Brothers under the Polychrome Pictures brand. The transfer, framed at a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, looks pretty good. The colors are warm and rich and the black levels are well managed to draw out details in the few dark sequences. The edge enhancement was a bit too severe for my tastes, resulting in frequent detail shift. The audio is delivered via a suitable Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix.
Extras on this disc are reasonable, beginning with an audio commentary from director Lee alongside co-producers Chen and Riverton. The information and observations they offer are interesting, especially as they divulge their various money-saving techniques to bring this low-budget affair into being (I especially love the Best Buy purchase-and-return tactic that gained them a flat panel TV to use within the store's 30-day return window). A short nine-minute featurette, Behind Red Doors, gives a quick glimpse of the cast and crew at the various festivals and includes footage of Lee accepting the award for Best Narrative Feature Filmed in New York. After this is Lee's short film, Educated, that provides a look at her initial sensibility when approaching filmic storytelling. A non-anamorphic theatrical trailer for Red Doors is also present as well as a photo gallery.
Certainly, Lee shows a capability in film, much which is very evident over the course of Red Doors. For that reason, it's worth keeping an eye open for her next work, hopefully one with a more committed script that is less concerned with market friendliness and more devoted to a poignant plot.
With minor infractions have been duly noted, Director Georgia Lee's frosh effort is found, overall, not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Director and Producer Commentary
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