Quentin Lee and Justin Lin's droll "Shopping for Fangs," a jaunty dark comedy with serious undertones, may well be a first: an independently made Asian American Gen-X movie that actually gets booked into selected theaters in Los Angeles and Orange counties. (There are plenty more on hold.)
UCLA film school alums Lee and Lin take us into the bustling, prosperous everyday existence of heavily Asian American San Gabriel Valley to acquaint us with two young people for whom everything is far from all right. Radmar Jao's Phil is a pleasant-looking clerk in an accounting firm whose yearning for love seems to be turning him into a werewolf. Meanwhile, Jeanne Chin's beautiful Katherine would seem to have everything: a spectacular-looking husband (Clint Jung), who is absolutely devoted to her, and a spacious, beautifully decorated home.
Yet Katherine, a hesitant woman who speaks barely above a whisper, seems to be coming apart. That her husband Jim is Phil's boss is coincidental, for these two increasingly desperate people are apparently unacquainted.
Lee and Lin suggest in their well-populated picture that on the surface Gener-Asian-Xers are just as trendy and no different from other young people. This in fact may be true for many, but for some there can be hugely conflicting questions of identity, culture and role-playing. We don't know why poor Phil should feel he's vulnerable to lycanthropy, but he clearly has lots of suppressed rage.
With Katherine things are clearer: In therapy, she is confronted with a horrendously traumatic event that occurred in her childhood, which seems to fuel her inability to integrate the traditional role an Asian wife is supposed to play with her need to be a far more assertive, independent woman.
Meanwhile, there are a number of other people in Katherine and Phil's lives whom we come to know and like. Phil has an endearingly busybody sister (Lela Lee), whose writer boyfriend has written a book about, yes, werewolves. Then there's the good-looking gay photographer (John Cho), who hangs out (a lot) at a coffee shop because he's struck up an acquaintance with a glamorous, hard-edged lesbian waitress who, for all her take-no-nonsense style, nonetheless hides behind dark glasses ("I was born with them," she says) and a blond wig.
Laden--but not overloaded--with hip references to other pictures, "Shopping for Fangs" is very much a first feature, one that could have used more clarity and some more polish around the edges. But its cast is fresh and engaging, it manages quite well the tricky business of being funny and serious at the same time and it succeeds in its makers' stated goal of projecting a postmodern Asian American sensibility that's moved beyond the immigrant experience that is the traditional heart of the Asian American cinema.
* MPAA rating: R, for language, sexuality and some violence. Times guidelines: The film's moments are brief and not exploitative, with language and sex fairly mild.
'Shopping for Fangs'
Radmar Jao: Phil
Jeanne Chin: Katherine
Clint Jung: Jim
Lela Lee: Naomi
John Cho: Clarance
A Margin presentation. Directors Quentin Lee and Justin Lin. Producer Quentin Lee. Screenplay by Dan Alvarado, Lee and Lin. Cinematographer Lisa Wiegand. Editors Lee, Lin and Sean Yeo. Music Steven Pranato. Art director Deeya Loram. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
* At selected theaters in Los Angeles and Orange counties.