Purple Onion.
Purple Onion.

A once famous comedy club in San Francisco is the setting for a film with the same name: The Purple Onion. Although the North Beach hippie hangout was home to iconic comedians with radical political agendas (like Lenny Bruce), here the venue takes on a tedious quality as Johnny Li (Edwin Li), an unfunny comic, disgraces its stage.

A socially awkward and horny young man, Johnny wears his insecurity in plain view like the pimples on his face. But perversely, his lack of self-confidence doesn’t seem to interfere with his self-absorption. He may be a lackluster dishwasher by day, but at night his introverted personality is overshadowed by his need to perform stand-up comedy. Telling painfully bad jokes to sparse audiences, the dour Johnny is, ironically, determined to forge a career in making other people laugh.

Out of the blue, a family friend, Jeanie (Noreen Lee), knocks on Johnny’s door with suitcase in hand. Significantly, a cab drops her off on a street named Silliman. Although Jeanie’s much older, she’s not unattractive, although that aspect is lost on Johnny. Instead of welcoming her, he’s rude and obnoxious, warning her that she’s only allowed to stay two weeks. After all, she’s invading his space, preventing him from his perfunctory masturbation sessions while watching porn.

As the pimples on Johnny’s face multiply so do his terrible jokes. And, his increasing horniness leads him to develop voyeuristic tendencies; even following strange women in public. Meanwhile, Jeanie experiences her own romantic challenges while enrolled in job-seeking classes.

Polish American director Matt Szymanowski seems to know a lot about Asian American male angst. He weaves his believable script with masterful direction to guide the understated, but solid performance of real-life comic Edwin Li. Small touches like Johnny getting Sriracha sauce from the fridge, or talking to his grandmother on the phone in English while she answers in Cantonese adds authenticity to the film. Look for the scene-stealing Carla Clay with her ginger-colored natural and deadpan expression as she instructs her job-seeking students.

The music, composed by Dan Cantrell, perfectly conveys Johnny’s dysfunctional state, as does a wandering accordion player dressed like a gypsy. While not a spectacular film, this story featuring ordinary folks with messy lives—much like Johnny’s jokes about being an Asian American man—truly resonates.

‘The Purple Onion’ screens Sunday, February 21 at 2:30 p.m. at Cinema 2 at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival at the Northwest Film Forum.

* * *

My Life in China.
My Life in China.

My Life in China is another story about an angst-ridden Asian American man. But in this case, the man is old and regrets a major life decision that didn’t manifest in the way he had hoped.

In this documentary, filmmaker Kenneth Eng recalls his father’s story of escaping from mainland China in 1966 (where he was starving) by walking for seven days then swimming for four hours to Macau. From there, Yau King Eng went to Hong Kong, then the United States. But while his dream of immigrating to America was realized, his American dream was not. Not living the ‘successful immigrant’ life he had hoped for, the senior Eng found himself working in Chinese restaurants most of his life; the restaurant he opened closing in bankruptcy. Now, elderly and the sole caregiver for his mentally challenged wife, he wonders if they should return to his ancestral village to live.

In 2008, deciding to explore the possibility, Eng sets out with his son filming their experiences of reconnecting with their roots. Along the way, they meet with various relatives, some who have prospered greatly as China became an economic superpower. Unable to mask his disappointment for not sticking it out until China developed into a richer nation, he discusses his misgivings.

Besides a picturesque road trip, this film also features a delightfully engaging character in Yau King Eng. Unafraid to openly display his emotions, he makes an excellent interview subject—easily laughing and crying on camera. Scenes where he talks about his mother and how she cared for him and his siblings are especially touching.
Ultimately, Eng’s agony over his youthful decision is lessened when he arrives in his village and notes that some things never change—that, and his gratitude for having two successful American-born sons.

‘My Life in China’ screens Saturday, February 20 at 11:30 a.m. at Cinema 2 at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival at the Northwest Film Forum.

* * *

Brahmin Bulls.
Brahmin Bulls.

Brahmin Bulls is yet one more film about an Asian man experiencing anguish, although it’s not over his ethnicity. Au contraire, the handsome, Indian American architect, Sid Sharma (Sendhil Ramamurthy), has no issues with race. Instead, this feature narrative focuses on his relationships with both his father and his wife who has left him. The dream home he hoped to build in his Los Angeles neighborhood remains unfinished as he nurses his heartache. Emotionally despairing and adamant that his wife return, Sid refuses to let go and even lies to her about her cat, claiming that it’s lost so that a connection will remain between them.

Unexpectedly, Sid’s estranged father (Roshan Seth) turns up at his door. Ostensibly in town to visit his son from Boston, the Tufts professor is actually searching for his long-lost love, a woman (Mary Steenburgen) he had an affair with while his wife, Sid’s mother, was dying.

Before long, the two “Brahmin bulls” are locking horns. As their immaturity proliferates their environment, it’s exhibited in the way both men deal with women. Soon, it’s evident that the adage ‘like father, like son’ applies to them. While Sid attempts to drown his sorrows in bars and one-night stands, his father does something similar at a wedding reception they crash.

Director Mahesh Pailoor purposely steered clear of themes about being of South Asian ancestry in America to focus on a multigenerational story. Unfortunately, it creates an unrealistic ambiance, given the current state of race relations in the U.S. While it’s commendable that his characters can be interchanged with those of other ethnicities, it also contributes to the film’s overall lack of flavor.

‘Brahmin Bulls’ is available nationally via iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and other VOD channels: http://brahminbulls.com/.

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