Title: Front Cover
Genre: Contemporary, Realistic, Dramedy
Starring: Jake Choi, James Chen
Rating: ★★★☆☆ | 3.0/5.0
I might actually need to watch this film a second time to process it/my feelings/everything.
Ryan Fu (Jake Choi) is a self identified “potato queen” and an up-and-coming stylist in the New York fashion scene. His life consists mainly of work and parties, and all he wants is to establish himself––to have something to be proud of by the time he turns thirty. So when he gets taken off a cover job and put on styling Chinese actor Qi Xiaoning (James Chen), he’s not happy. Especially not when he finds out that Ning has explicitly requested an ethnic Chinese stylist on the assumption that they will better understand each other, because Ryan has never been invested in identifying as Chinese, has actively divorced himself from Chinese culture, and is flattered when people mistake him for something other than Chinese. But Ning brings another problem––Ryan is out and proud, but Ning is so deep in the closet he’s practically buried. But as they spend more time together, they may find that they have more in common than they thought. And they may find that they have the courage to embrace their identities––don’t they?
The pacing is choppy, the dialogue often awkward, and James Chen’s accent, while at least Mandarin-inflected (in that it’s recognisably Mandarin-influenced to a native Mandarin speaker and not, say a Cantonese accent, which has a different sound) feels forced and is often at the butt of jokes (though his Mandarin is much better than most of what passes for Chinese in most mainstream media), but what saves the film from being another substandard romantic comedy is the chemistry between Chen and Choi, the tenderness with which their attraction is handled, and, most surprisingly, the nuance of Chinese identity within the film (long sentence, sorry).
Chineseness, as a construct, is something that a) does not exist (how can one coherent identity last thousands of years of constant change) b) I’m interested in parsing in all of its myriad forms as someone who has been both diaspora and non-diaspora. And this film is one of the rare films that allow this particular, often monolithic identity room to breathe, room to enact itself in the specificities and vagaries. Unlike Shanghai Calling, where Chinese American Sam (Daniel Henney) needs to be taught The One Chinese Culture by white people, here, Ryan is allowed to embody an identity that is different from, but no lesser than, that of Ning’s.
For example, Ryan’s parents speak Cantonese, and are unable to communicate with Standard Mandarin speaking Ning except in English. Ning is unable to come out of the closet, because it’s still important to him to be a filial son and carry on the family name and because doing so would destroy his career in China. Yet he is able to be confident in his culture, proud of where he comes from, while Ryan, despite being out and despite working in an industry where, according to him, gay people outnumber straights, is often embarrassed of his Chinese identity not only because he lives in America, but also because he had a difficult time being bullied by other Chinese kids when he was growing up. These two ways of negotiating the world as two kinds of Chinese people are both allowed to exist as truths.
Yet the ending was intensely unsatisfactory. It’s not an uncommon ending where ethnic Chinese filmmakers are concerned––tragedy seems to be the backbone of our shared cultural reservoir. That sweet opera (not real opera; no man’s voice is that low in opera) they were all smiling at, the one where Ning lets himself begin to like Ryan? Not some cheery happily ever after. It’s set to the music of the one where they both die and turn into butterflies. #Cheerful #Inspirational #TrueLove
In fact, the ending of Front Cover reminded me intensely of the ending of Ma Jingle’s Hua Mulan––the sacrifice of what is cherished now for larger-scale rewards in future. Yet in an atmosphere where queer people are rarely afforded happy endings, this becomes just one more in a line of unconsummated (if technically literally consummated) love stories.
Perhaps it’s unfair to place this burden on director Ray Yeung. He is not accountable for the trends of storytelling at large, and he is in any case a gay Chinese director who has the ability to control his own narrative, and this was the one he wanted to tell. And we do get the sense that as heartbroken as Ryan is, he’ll eventually recover, having come out of this relationship with Ning all the better for it.
But I wanted to see the movie explore some of the more interesting propositions that the brought up, only to throw out with cliche drama––Ryan moving to Beijing to become a stylist for Chinese stars was interesting, particularly in a time where more and more diaspora Chinese are moving to China to pursue economic opportunities. And is Ryan wanting to visit China a function of his coming to terms with his ethnic identity or is it simply tied up in his attraction to Ning? Ryan already seems unsatisfied with his current status in life–despite a beautiful apartment and a job he finds fulfilling, he doesn’t seem to have many friends and is shown to be demeaned by colleagues who make offensive comments about his ethnicity. Were none of these more interesting plotlines to pursue than tired cliches and relationship drama?
Despite this, though, I did enjoy the film. There were parts I identified with, parts I didn’t. Parts I laughed at, parts I didn’t. But throughout the film the one thing that stood out to me was not only how tender the film felt but also how nonjudgemental it was. Ryan was allowed to resent his Chinese identity because of the bullying he lived with as a kid, but the film also opens doors for him to explore who he is and wants to be, if he so chose. Ning is allowed to not want to come out, and his reasons for not wanting to do so are not treated as illegitimate, but again, the film leaves room for his future success to offer him the social and financial cushion to come out.
Overall, a sometimes clunky film that was nevertheless worth the watch, even if the ending wasn’t really satisfactory to me. I’m tired of tragedy, you guys, I really am.