Film Review: Front CoverThis entertaining comedy-drama about a budding gay romance between a young Chinese hotshot actor on his first visit to the States and the Chinese-American fashion stylist assigned to oversee him is also a portrait of surprise denials and unexpected cultur
Having made the rounds at a number of important fests, including several gay-themed events, the recent new York Asian-American Film Festival as Closing Night selection and the Hong Kong International Film Festival as Opening Night selection, writer-director Ray Yeung’s Front Cover bows for its commercial run where the challenge is twofold. As scorecards tell it, neither gay nor Chinese-themed features, even if English-language, have it easy.
But Yeung’s film certainly has the makings of a way in. While venturing into less-trodden thematic territory, its story, set largely in lower Manhattan, is assuredly and traditionally a delectable cinematic fusion of trendy magazine/media frenzy, traditional Chinese-American life, the open mindset of young gays in a newly accepting society, and the angst of the still-closeted. And, of course, romance simmers throughout this flashy, phony, effusive world of mostly gay fashionistas, demanding editors, gruff photographers, P.A.s, self-important PR types and the usual wannabes.
This mélange works nicely and, appropriately enough, the core plot—the romance that blooms between the two men—is both sweet and sour. And spicy to the point of intimate scenes that flirt at soft-core edges.
Ryan (Jake Choi) is a near-thirty, Queens-born, openly gay fashion stylist who, in spite of his loving traditional Chinese-American parents, rejects his Chinese roots and background as the son of nail salon owners. Except for his orientation, with which he is completely comfortable, he’s another phony in the frenetic and demanding fashion sphere. Now rising in the field, he’s newly assigned to handle styling for young Chinese Mainland movie star Ning (James Chen), new to America and full of himself as actors can be.
The two first meet noisy when Ryan is sent to a funky, crowded Chinatown restaurant where Ning and his fawning female entourage hand-grab food at a messy table, much to Ryan’s disapproval. As a hip Millennial, such spots are foreign to him, even if blocks away. He confronts the cacophony awkwardly as Ning, a few years older and safe among his admirers, takes control.
After a bumpy start, the handsome star agrees to work with Ryan and the two are off as Ryan attends to necessary stylist chores like visits to clothing stores and fittings, with Ning in tow. Frissons of a mutual attraction gain further sparks even as the two fight over the clothes selected. Soon, Ryan reveals he’s comfortably gay, while Ning, claiming they are so “fire and water,” demands that he not show his gay side so openly.
Ryan complains to fussy boss Francesca (Sonia Villani) that Ning hates gays, but he knows his job is on the line and agrees to take him to a very straight place for dinner to calm him down. There, the two learn a little more about each other but Ryan lies, claiming his simple parents are in law and academia.
Ning has his own charade; he’s a total closet case (hence the double meaning of the film’s title). The two soon party together, then spend the night making love at Ryan’s apartment. A surprise visit by Ryan’s parents the next morning delivers a turnabout that has the two men joining the parents to see Ryan’s grandmother. Ryan reveals his humble roots to Ning but also embraces them to an extent. Most touching is Ning’s rapport with this older generation that speaks his language.
Inevitably as happens in this genre, the men’s lusty relationship grows into love before hitting those nasty speed bumps, as both must confront personal, career and moral issues. As their relationship is tested, so is each man, Ryan especially. And nothing effaces that complication of cultural divide separating the native and the assimilated.
Yeung, in dealing with his various worlds (fashion, movies, gay, Chinese), is never mocking. He’s upfront about gay male life (Ryan admits he’s a “potato queen” who only sleeps with white men, and details of modern gay life include the meet-up apps for fast encounters). And the filmmaker’s treatment of Chinese mores and values, whether Mainland or American, is especially enlightening. He can be forgiven for the running joke of Ryan’s old-gen folks calling him “Lyan.”
Also enhancing is Paul Turner and Darren Morze’s score, which serves the film’s many moods very nicely.
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