On the surface, the story of Watching TV with the Red Chinese is a simple one, documenting several months in the lives of literature teacher Dexter Mitchell (Ryan O’Nan), his on-again-off-again girlfriend Suzanne (Community’s Gillian Jacobs), and the three Chinese students (Leonardo Nam, James Chen, and Keong Sim) recently arrived to America who move into his building. But the film, based on the novel by Luke Whisnant, is a lot meatier at the core, serving as an examination of how we perceive ourselves and others through the veil of culture, both geographical and pop (with a side order of destiny versus free will).
The film takes place in New York in the fall of 1980, a pivotal time for America, which was transitioning from the “Me” decade into the “Me” decade with money, and a pivotal time for the city, which had yet to clean up its act after the grimy decadence and burgeoning class divide of the ’70s. In other words, tensions were running kind of high, culminating in nothing less than the symbolic death of the peace movement through the actual assassination of John Lennon.
It’s an effective backdrop—with such uncertainty in the air, the characters are pressured into a kind of myopia. Dexter takes on a brotherly role with the Chinese, teaching them English and football, and introducing them to his friends, but his feelings for all of them turn on a dime when one of them, Chen, snatches Suzanne out from under him. Suzanne herself is so fickle that she rebounds between men like a ping-pong ball. (Yes, in a pre-AIDS society, love was a lot freer, but all the historical context in the world can’t endear the audience to someone who makes little effort to rise above it.) Chen comes to fear all black strangers when he’s mugged and beaten by two of them. Dexter’s filmmaker friend Billy, making an artsy documentary about the three Chinese, and Suzanne’s creepy stalker ex are both similarly single-minded.
So, yes, the characters are slightly underdeveloped, but much like an apple in a still life, in this case they don’t have to change so much as exist within the whole. In a step that adds to the whole artistic metaphor, director Shimon Dotan bookends the film with cartoon imagery that blends into the shots, perhaps in order to reinforce the idea of a fluid, unfixed reality—a theme in many of the characters’ heady conversations.
Dotan pads the first act of the film with a loose narrative structure that jumps back and forth through time and hits on each vignette with all the disjointed continuity of a round of speed dating, which gets a little disconcerting since the audience isn’t yet familiar with all the players. Billy the filmmaker says at one point early on that the medium of any art should be its message, that “images and concepts should always take precedence over story.” For a moment, one fears that Dotan feels the same way, but as the film eases off and lets the narrative breathe, with its hints of impending tragedy, all the pieces start to come together nicely.
Overall, the film rises above the usual trappings of low-budget productions and succeeds with a smart script and able performances from the cast of (mostly) unknowns, whether you’re looking for sociopolitical commentary or just a small tale well told.
Director: Shimon Dotan
Writer: Netaya Anbar & Shimon Dotan (screenplay); Luke Whisnant (novel)
Starring: Ryan O’Nan, Leonardo Nam, Gillian Jacobs, James Chen, Keong Sim
Release Date: Jan. 20, 2012 (limited)