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Paulanne Simmons

"Film Chinois" Is a Well-Intended but Confused Tribute

Film Chinois
Directed by Kaipo Schwab
Pan Asian Repertory
Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row
Opened Jan. 22, 2015
Tues.-Sat. at 7:30pm, Sun. at 2:30pm
Tickets: $51.25, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Closes Feb. 8, 2015

Bejamin Jones is Randolph and Rosanne Ma is Chinadoll. Photo by John Quincy Lee

Damon Chua, who wrote "Film Chinois," making its premiere with Pan Asian Repertory at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, writes in the show’s program that his play is "largely informed" by film noir. The playwright identifies with "desperate people in desperate situations" as well as the genre’s "underlying pessimism."

However, Kaipo Schwab writes in the same program that "film Noir is a stylized film technique" and he is an admirer of "visual storytelling" and "cinematic expression." Inspired by such films as "The Maltese Falcon,""Citizen Kane" and "Blade Runner," he was eager to watch the "strong sense of alienation, moral ambiguity and suspense in film noir’s subject matter" in the "communal setting of theatre."

Left-Bejamin Jones is Randolph and Right-Rosanne Ma is Chinadoll. Photo by John Quincy Lee.

Aside from the obvious question of whether the three above cited films have much in common aside from certain stylistic elements, one can’t help but wonder if director and playwright were on the same page. Chua seems to be writing about plot, while Schwab seems to be concerned with technique.
All of the above may be why "Film Chinois" seems mostly a satire on the theme.

Set in Beijing in 1947, the play concerns the exploits of two couples who are entwined in a mysterious plot. Chinadoll (Roseanne Ma) is a Maoist femme fatale who forms a cat-and-mouse relationship with Randolph (Benjamin Jones), an American who is in China for reasons he does not want to reveal. Simone (Katie Lee Hill) is involved with the Belgian Ambassador (Jean Brassard). She wants transit papers (shades of "Casablanca"); it’s not clear what he wants. There’s a Mysterious Presence of Many Faces (James Henry Doan) whose purpose in the play may be the unintended mystery.

Katie Lee as Simone. Photo by John Quincy Lee.

Set (Sheryl Liu), lighting (Marie Yokoyama), costumes (Carol A. Pelletier) and sound (Ian Wehrle) are all well-coordinated to produce a true film noir experience. But the plot, filled with random twists, seems mostly a pastiche and the characters, exaggerations and stereotypes, are more likely to make us laugh than bite our nails.

If it’s hard to figure out what Chua and Schwab had in mind, part of the problem lies in the quality of the acting. There’s a lot that’s funny in “Film Chinois,” but the acting is generally so poor it’s difficult to tell whether the humor is always intended. If film noir is not done well, it becomes a farce. And if farce is not done well it becomes an awkward jumble.

"Film Chinois" can certainly be enjoyed for its atmospheric elements. But is this Mel Brooks or Alfred Hitchcock?



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