You might be forgiven if it takes you awhile to figure out exactly what’s going on in Shimon Dotan’s new film Watching TV With the Red Chinese. Based on a critically acclaimed first novel by Luke Whisnant, the film rejects linear narrative as it both fractures time and form to tell its story. Not only does it begin in medias res, but it scoots back and forth in time through the whole of the film, and as it does, it mashes up black and white footage, color footage, and what amounts to a meta-film within a film.
Separated from the narrative hi jinks the story is fairly simple. Three Chinese college students—Chen, Tzu and Wa–come to New York for advanced study. They are befriended by their next door neighbor, a young literature teacher, Dexter Mitchell played by Ryan O’Nan, who comes to the aid of Chen (Leonardo Nam) who gets mugged on the way home from the library one night. Things become more complicated when Chen falls in love with with Dexter’s sometime girlfriend Suzanne (Gillian Jacobs), raises the hackles of another jealous boyfriend, and gets himself a gun for protection. Add to the mix a documentary film maker using the Chinese students as subjects in a study of the clash between cultures, and a black family to illustrate some of the local racial issues and tensions, and you’ve got the makings of what could have been a fairly conventional story line.
While the film certainly takes aim at social issues in America, its real interest is in form. Early on Billy Owens (Michael Esper), the documentary film maker is talking about the nature of the medium. Perhaps a little pretentiously, he parrots Marshall McCluhan on the medium and the message and then goes on to describe what he wants his film to do. He wants he says to “purge cinema of its decadent narrative element.” In a choice between montage and mise en scene, he chooses montage. It is almost a parody of what Dotan is doing in his film, almost but not quite. Traditional narrative is a way of imposing an order on events from the outside. When we are too close to what is happening while it is happening it is impossible to understand narrative relations. There are causes and effects but we are too close to them to understand them. The film presents snippets of what seem to be random events which only cohere in the context of the whole.
From the very beginning Dotan creates a visual style that is dramatically innovative. A line drawing opens into a restaurant as Jacobs walks in trailing a suitcase. We shift to a TV frame with a man selling coffins, then a shot of O’Nan seated on a subway platform through the windows of a moving train. Later there are shots of half of his face reflected in a cracked mirror, shots of Nam walking on what looks like three dimensional flooring, and live action shots mixed with cartoon elements to indicate other possible realities at the end of the film. He likes to fill the screen with close-ups of his actors, keeping the viewer from the forest by focusing on the trees.
Watching TV With the Red Chinese takes an intellectually stimulating concept and tries to translate it dramatically to the screen. Focus on the intellectual ideas and the film works nicely; emotional honesty on the other hand is more problematical. Characters too often come off as mouthpieces for ideas. Suzanne, the girlfriend, spouts philosophy in the bathtub with Dexter. Chen and Dexter talk fate and free will. The documentarian pontificates about aesthetics. Ideas are paramount, but when the ideas have to lead to an emotional climax it doesn’t quite work. Characters haven’t earned that climax.