“White on Rice” is a winning Asian American movie

Hiroshi Watanabe as Jimmy and Nae as Aiko in "White on Rice"
Hiroshi Watanabe as Jimmy and Nae as his sister Aiko in director Dave Boyle’s independent film “White on Rice.”

Erin and I attended a screening tonight of a new movie, “White on Rice,” sponsored by Denver’s Asian Avenue Magazine at the Starz Film Center, and thoroughly enjoyed the film. It’s a sweet romantic comedy about an affable doofus of a Japanese man, 40-year-old Hajime “Jimmy” Beppu, who leaves Japan when his wife divorces him, and moves in with his sister and her husband and son in America. A hapless loser, Jimmy’s reduced (when he’s not living in a park or in his company’s broom closet) to sharing his young nephew’s bunk bed and pining after his brother-in-law’s niece Ramona, who also moves in with the family.

“White on Rice” pokes gentle fun at Japanese cultural values and personalities (the gruff, the clowny, the servile) but does it with respect, never lowering itself down to parody or worse, stereotype.

The movie’s chockfull of Asian Americans in addition to the rich portrayals of the Japanese characters: Jimmy’s employer,a customer service company, has several Asian Americans, including Jimmy’s friend Tim, played by James Kyson Lee of “Heroes” fame, who ends up being Ramona’s love interest, thwarting Jimmy’s obsession. The ensemble cast, which includes Hiroshi Watanabe as Jimmy, Japanese actress Nae as Jimmy’s sister Aiko, Mio Takada as Aiko’s husband, Lynn Chen (viewers may recognize her from “Saving Face”) as Ramona, and very young Justin Kwong as the strange and wonderfully straight-faced kid Bob.

The cast is mostly Asian and Asian American. Almost half the dialogue is in Japanese with subtitles. And, the co-writer and director, Dave Boyle, is a 27-year-old Mormon Caucasian from Provo, Utah.

“Yeah, that’s always the first question people ask,” he said tonight after the screening. “So, what’s with the white guy making a movie about Asians?”

As Jeff Yang pointed out in a recent “Asian Pop” column, this ia a good sign that Asian American film doesn’t need to be defined by its creators, and its creators don’t have to be exclusively Asian American. It’s a sign of progress that Justin Lin can make mainstream Hollywood films that aren’t about Asian Americans, while someone like Dave Boyle can make films that capture Asian cultural subtleties.

As it happens, Boyle also captured the intersections of American and Asian cultures in his first movie, “Big Dreams Little Tokyo,” which is described as “an independent film in Japanese, English and Spanish. A comedy about culture, language, and sushi.” Boyle first met Hiroshi Watababe during the filming of “Big Dreams Little Tokyo”; Watanabe has since starred in Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

Boyle’s no stranger to Japanese — he spent two years on a Mormon mission to Australia, where his assignment was to learn Japanese and work with a Japanese congregation. He can still speak fluent Japanese, although he says with humble modesty (very Asian-like) that his Japanese isn’t good enough to write the Japanese dialogue in the script.

He’s also so low-key, it’s hard to imagine him barking out orders to actors and production staff. He says he prefers to give little instruction and let his actors play their roles with a lot of freedom, including polishing their own Japanese dialogue.

His directing style works, because “White on Rice” is a smooth and seamless narrative from start to finish. In fact, the start grabs you in an instant, with the whole family watching a hilarious video of a poorly-synced samurai movie from Jimmy’s past as a movie extra. From there, Boyle sucks us in to Jimmy’s compass-less life, and the several layers of family dysfunction going on around him.

Ultimately, Boyle’s film tells a universal story, about family relationships, middle-aged puppy love, icky office dynamics, romantic rivalry and just plain cluelessness. That’s not just Asian or Asian American. That’s everyone’s family.

Boyle, who lives in Salt Lake City (where “White on Rice” was shot) and has a day job as a freelance film editor, is rolling the film out across the country market-by-market on his own instead of toiling for years in typical Hollywood tradition, trying to seek distribution. He has investors and hasn’t had to take out any loans yet. He’s optimistic that the film will do OK (he should be, it’s getting some solid reviews), and hopes to have a DVD out in January.

“White on Rice” is playing exclusively for a limited, one-week engagement that begins this Friday Oct. 9 at the Starz Film Center. Don’t miss it.

Here’s the trailer for the movie:

And here’s the cool theme song for the movie by San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura (credited as “Directed by Jimmy Beppu”):

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