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Film Review: Brandon Judell

Another Year, Another Depression: "Happy Birthday"!

by Brandon Judell

Watching the trailer of Yen Tan's "Happy Birthday" is as much incentive to viewing the film as is seeing a Carrot Top commercial and wanting to spend a night with the comic. It just doesn't come off as a happy prospect.

Just take the trailer's come-on: "2 days in the lives of 5 born on June 12th." We are then greeted by a parade of very unhappy faces shot in stark black
and white looking very depressed. Now these aren't your everyday Hollywood in-shape, beautiful faces for the most part. These are folks of various ethnicities and varied weights, none of whom are smiling. In fact, these characters seem like they'd have a better time watching you, then vice versa.

What's surprising though is when you finally force yourself to watch "Happy Birthday", you do eventually get involved, and you do start caring about each and everyone of these dispirited souls. Well, almost.

There's the porn star, Dick Throb, and his Pakistani lover, Javed, who is facing deportation. Disowned by his family, Javed fears imprisonment and possibly death if he's sent home. Throb is so upset at this prospect, he has trouble showing joy while he gets rear-ended in a feature he's making. Cut!

Kelly, meanwhile, was just dumped by her girlfriend, and is now looking forward to a college reunion with an old female pal. Little does she suspect the
gal's gone very Christian.

Then there's Tracy, a semi-closeted Taiwanese lesbian living in the States, who gets a visit from her very traditional mom. Ma, while cleaning up, finds
some very incriminating materials under her daughter's bed.

As for Ron, he's an ex-gay minister out to convert homos into straights; that's when he's not watching Dick Throb videos such as "Splash and Shoot."

Finally, we meet Jim, an overweight, diet-pill telemarketer, who just wants to go to a disco and dance his butt off with the boys. Instead, he winds up
attending obese person's therapy groups when he's not stuffing his face.

Cutting from one angst-filled moment to another, Malaysian-born Tan has created an honest exploration of what it is to be gay and have more on your mind than creatine, Ellen's talk show, and Queer Eye on the Straight Butt.

Consequently, the film has been greeted with some acclaim. Not only has "Happy Birthday" played at film festivals worldwide, it won the 2002 Grand Jury Prize at the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Even better, according to Tan on the DVD's director's commentary, gay couples have come up to him after screenings and said how realistic Dick Throb and Javed are in bed, or for an exact quote: "It's very realistic the lovers returning the blowjob thing."

Beautifully shot by Jack Burroughs with a finely attuned score by Steve Whitehouse and wise editing by Jay Wesson, it's Tan's simple screenplay with his
unobtrusive direction that show the most promise for future success. He's gotten quite fine performances from an unknown cast, especially from first-time
actor Benjamin Patrick as Jim. Though you might recognize him from his sound mixing, if you believe the Internet Movie Data Base. He's listed there as enhancing such features as "Shriek if You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth."

Returning to Tan, he noted in an interview on gayreading.com that he thinks "there are a lot of good gay films out there, but a lot of the ones I see are
very hollow. I don't mind movies that feature cute young white boys, but I want to be challenged and engaged by the story. Unfortunately, most films that
have cute young white boys are just for the sake of eye-candy entertainment." Tan has come up with the cure: mind-bonbons. [Judell]

Copyright © Brandon Judell 2003


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