Coming to America

Amos Lassen

A trio of Chinese exchange students, Tzu (James Chen), Wa (Keong Sim) and Chen (Leonardo Nam) arrive in New York City in 1980, anxious to participate in what America has to offer. They make friends including a literature teacher named Dexter (Ryan O’Nan) and his girlfriend Suzanne (Gillian Jacobs) but as they try to adjust to the New York City atmosphere, they become disillusioned, eventually buying a firearm for self-defense. The film is directed by Shimon Dotan.

Filled withhigh-culture references, topical concerns and narrative fracturing devices, we get a different look at America. Jumping back and forth in time and between color and black and white is a bit  distracting  but it shows that the culture of the United States has become more fragmented than ever, the theme o the film. We see the unlikely friendship of a young white teacher and three visiting Chinese students who live in the same apartment in the predominantly black South Bronx. Race is very much an issue here, as are culture clashes, fate vs. free will, the responsibilities of the filmmaker, and whatever else that Dotan feels like throwing in. The film draws on a myriad of aesthetic leaps to mirror the dislocation of both the foreign visitors as well as anyone living at the beginning of Reagan’s America  and the end of the 1960s. There is so much here that none of the issues are really effectively handled in-depth. Instead, we get a jumble of ideas and actions that perhaps mirror the larger fragmentation of a culture, but don’t give any insight into the nature of that disruption. The second-half of the film is a slow-burn melodrama that leads to violence.

After being mugged by a pair of African-American assailants, Chen becomes terrified of anyone with black skin, but determined to protect himself against what he views as an inherently violent American culture. As he starts dating the onetime lover of his friend and neighbor Dexter (, he finds his relationship with both that individual and his fellow Chinese students becoming hopelessly strained. Furthermore, the woman’s psychotic ex-boyfriend begins threatening Chen, causing him to turn his fear of violent retribution into gunplay.

While Chen’s girlfriend, Suzanne (Gillian Jacobs), is so flighty as to be almost incoherent as a person, his would-be assailant Czapinczyk (Peter Scanavino) is so over the top in his petty jealousy and villainy and he messes with the  tone of the film. After the storyline reaches its i conclusion, the movie returns to the film-within-a-film framing device and fake-intellectual narration of the first half but this just does not work—it mostly reminds us that the first half was not emotionally or intellectually satisfying.

On the surface, the film documents several months in the lives of the characters and is an examination of how we see ourselves and others through culture, both geographical and pop.

The characters are slightly underdeveloped, but they don’t have todo more thanexist within the whole. There is a  smart script and able performances from the cast.

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