Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun May 18, 2003 4:27 pm 
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Resonant understatement

'Charlotte Sometimes' is another highly accomplished Asian American movie released in 2003. Unlike the enjoyable, more mainstream high school black comedy 'Better Luck Tomorrow,' which MTV publicized and distributed, this one is quiet and subtle and focuses on relationships and choosing a mate. Michael (Michael Idemoto) has inherited his garage from his Japanese American parents. He lives in the top half of the family house and rents the bottom half to an Asian girl and her half Asian boyfriend. The couple has noisy sex every evening and loner Michael, who otherwise spends most of his time reading, goes to the local bar to avoid hearing. When he returns, the girl (Lori, Eugenia Yuan) comes up to watch a video and have a chat and a cuddle -- amenities the boyfriend apparently doesn't provide. Lori seems to have a purely sexual relationship with the hunky Justin (Matt Westmore, who's half Asian, like Eric Byler, the writer/director behind this movie).

Lori wants them to double date with a friend of hers, but Michael refuses, saying "I’m not afraid of being alone." He does his reading. He works in the garage. That is his life. He seems cool with himself, content with this. On Sundays he hangs out with a relative, following a traditional obligation that he neglects during the affair that's about to begin.

Next time he's at the bar he sees an attractive Asian woman (Jacqueline Kim). He leaves, then comes back. She talks to him. The non-committal Michael denies he came back for her, but when she leaves he runs out, admits he is interested, and invites her to his house, where they have some drinks, and then some more. He tells his story, but she reveals little, remaining mysterious. She says she's just visiting. She tells him her name is Darcy. When Lori comes up for her post-coital cuddle, Michael turns her away saying he's with someone. Darcy says she's only there for a few days and wants a quick sexual affair. Michael can't accept that -- he's probably too interested and too needy to get his mind around the idea of something temporary -- and he puts on the brakes. She spends the night, but they sleep separately.

Darcy has a secret, which Lori knows and which soon is revealed when Justin comes up in the morning to get help opening the shared garage and Darcy suggests that all four have lunch. Lori doesn't reveal anything to the group, but in the ladies' room we find out that the two women are old friends, and Darcy, whose real name is Charlotte, was the other women Lori wanted to double date with. She has lied in denying any interest in Michael, and has lied to Michael about who she is and presumably about where she lives. In being mysterious with him, she's been playing the femme fatale, and Lori knows she's dangerous and not to be trusted. She warns Darcy/Charlotte to steer clear of Justin because "he may be the one I will want to marry."

Eventually Michael finds out the secret and that changes everything. Lori challenges Justin by impulsively demanding after sex that he take her up to Monterey for the weekend. When he refuses she accuses him of being a "user." Stung, he storms out of the bedroom to leave, but later comes back and takes her on the trip. While they're away Michael goes into their place and finds old photographs that reveal Lori and Charlotte's friendship going back to their childhood.

When Darcy/Charlotte next appears, Michael turns her away ruefully, deeply hurt to have been deceived. Charlotte runs into Justin in a coffee shop and disobeys Lori's request by letting him come on to her. They go to a motel to have sex. Lori realizes Justin has left and throws out his things and goes up to Michael again. This time it's no longer just cuddling and they kiss as the film ends. Clearly it's turning out that the feelings they had for each other were more than friendship all along, and their previous matches were the wrong people.

'Charlotte Something' is as much about choosing the right mate as a Jane Austen novel, but it's all done with suggestion instead of elaborate speeches and analyses and there are just a few repeated patterns of scenes instead of many chapters of narrative. The roles are also reversed. Justin, who's part Caucasian, is the sex object rather than Lori, and Darcy is a girl. Michael's laconic nature doesn't mean he isn't desirable or strong. Because all the characters hold back, but know what they want, and because the filmmakers know what they're doing, every word and every shot count. The movie shows rather than tells, and never shows much, but it's amazingly rich and fresh considering the simple raw materials of four people and a house in Glendale. Michael's moment of final disappointment with Darcy is powerful and Charlotte's scene with Justin is shocking. The reunion of Justin and Lori is a dénouement. The resonance of the loaded scenes continues long after one has left the theater.

Everyone in the film is Asian, so that isn't an issue--except perhaps for Justin, who's only half. His non-Asian side seems to be what brings out the stereotypical pattern of seeing his Asian girlfriend as a sex object, but the paradox is that this is what he turns out to be. An emotionally loaded and thought provoking piece, 'Charlotte Sometimes' is subtler than the nonetheless excellent and more popular 'Better Luck Tomorrow', which has had wider distribution due to its MTV imprimatur. It's admirable of Roger Ebert to have strongly supported both movies.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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