“Watching TV with the Red Chinese” is a captivating, yet difficult film. Contrary to the title, it doesn’t contain much television viewing, and is more about Americans than it is about the Chinese. The film is quiet and pensive, a bit too slow, and relies too much on dialogue. But more importantly, “Chinese” is a powerful story about the importance of accepting love, and how Americans have an awfully hard time of doing just that.
Directed by Israeli filmmaker and NYU professor Shimon Dotan, “Chinese” tells the story of Dexter (Ryan O’Nan), a hip young man living in 1980 New York. His new neighbors, Chen, Tzu, and Wa, are students from China, and are lucky enough to have Dexter take them under his wing and teach them basic American concepts. Dexter also brings them into his social life, where his on-and-off girlfriend Suzanne (Gillian Jacobs from NBC’s “Community”) takes a liking to Chen (Leonardo Nam), and corrupts his life with her unstable American values.
The contrast between the American and Chinese characters is fascinating. The three Chinese men are compassionate and likable, and could not be more different from the Americans they befriend. Dexter is an unbalanced, unlikable protagonist, and Suzanne (in a brilliantly irritating performance by Jacobs) is even worse. Dexter and Suzanne treat their foreign friends like they’re hopeless, when in fact it is Dexter and Suzanne who are hopeless. Well into their adult years, they behave like college freshmen in a philosophy class, having conversations they don’t understand. While they sit in the bathtub, whining over their love lives, Chen, Tzu, and Wa are busy studying, seeking out the education they came to America to receive.
At the film’s core is an ingenious story of friendship, race relations, and most importantly, the “dumbing down” of America. The film speculates that Americans have lost their sense of identity and their ability to sympathize, and that each individual American exists only for himself. Perhaps too much television is to blame, though one character suggests that television is the only thing that actually unites Americans. “Chinese” is a film worth thinking about, and asks a number of provocative questions.
But on the film’s surface is something a bit different, as Dotan makes some questionable artistic choices. It’s easy to misinterpret Dotan’s sense of humor, as his gritty, melancholy style of filmmaking gives off the impression that it takes itself too seriously. The characters have long, drawn-out conversations that sound like they mean something profound, but really don’t. The actors portray their characters without any sort of goofiness. Dotan’s vision is either a work of genius or just a mistake. “Chinese” plays out like the most pretentious of films, and not until it’s over, does it become clear that Dexter and Suzanne’s behavior, dialogue and general aloofness is meant to be laughed at. A different filmmaker might have chosen to make “Chinese” more of an outright comedy in order to get the point across, and perhaps that would’ve made for a more lively movie-going experience. But this is Dotan’s film, and these are the choices he made.
All the American men in the movie are dirty and conceited, while the Chinese men are smart and good-natured. But the film isn’t trying to say that either race is superior, just that perhaps Americans are a bit confused. “Chinese” takes place in 1980, but its themes are just as fitting today. It’s worth overlooking the shaky narrative and slow pacing in order to witness what may be one of the most culturally relevant films of the year.
Jeremy Grossman is entertainment editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.