Venturesome writer-director-distributor Quentin Lee continues his perceptive illumination of Asian American life with "Ethan Mao," at once a tender love story and a psychological suspense drama that lays bare the acute tensions that threaten to tear apart an upwardly mobile suburban L.A. Chinese American family. Despite some awkward moments and slow stretches -- hardly unknown to low-budget independent filmmaking -- Lee, in his second feature as a solo director, knows what he's doing and where he's going. His clear commitment gives "Ethan Mao" a strong resonance as it builds tension gradually but surely to an exceptionally strong payoff.
In the title role, Jun Hee Lee plays an 18-year-old student still living at home, working part time -- for no pay -- at his father's restaurant, as he has since he was 11. Boyish-looking Ethan has begun exploring his gay sexuality through anonymous, loveless online sexual encounters. He still grieves for the loss of his mother and loathes his stepmother, Sarah (Julia Nickson), a dragon lady through and through, who smiles at her discovery of a gay magazine under Ethan's bed, knowing that all she has to do is show it to her religious, ultraconservative husband, Abraham (Raymond Ma), and he will throw Ethan out, which he swiftly does. This rejection has quickly followed an ugly incident Ethan witnessed that completely turned him against a father he already resented.
Like many a gay homeless kid, Ethan becomes a male hustler. He is taken under wing by Remigio (Jerry Hernandez), little or no older than Ethan but a streetwise orphan. Somehow Remigio has retained a sense of humor and an innate gentleness and compassion.
Just as the youths are developing a solid friendship, Ethan asks Remigio to drive him to his family home when he knows everyone will be away for a Thanksgiving dinner. That way he will be able to retrieve some of his possessions and some cash he feels he has earned but, most important, a necklace that belonged to his mother that is of no great monetary value but would be a priceless memento for him.
But just as Ethan is searching for the necklace, his father returns home to retrieve something, and soon the armed Remigio is holding Ethan's entire family hostage. They include, besides Abraham and Sarah, Ethan's younger brother, Noel (David Tran), and Sarah's obnoxious son Josh (Kevin Kleinberg) by a previous marriage.
While it's clear that Sarah is pretty much beyond redemption, the hostage situation may play out in such a way as to cause Abraham to reevaluate his treatment of Ethan and his own values and priorities. That this could happen doesn't preclude things also going badly.
Nickson sparks the entire film with her brittle, materialistic Sarah and manages to make the woman seem recognizably human -- yet unyieldingly hateful and hypocritical to the core. The entire cast is expected to express a wide, ever-shifting range of emotions and is, by and large, effective.
"Ethan Mao" has much to say -- to anyone prepared to listen.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Strong adult themes, some violence, brief drug use
A Margin Films release. Writer-director Quentin Lee. Producers Stanley Yung, Quentin Lee. Cinematographer James C. Yuan. Editor Christine Kim. Music Steven Pranoto. Production designer Rodney Hom. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd. (at Fairfax Avenue), L.A., (323) 655-4010.