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"East Bay" Wins by Bringing Constance Wu Back to the Big Screen

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Daniel Yoon’s unsparing, self-flagellating indie comedy benefits from and excoriates the special interests in the industry that try to open the gates to movies from non-white talents. “East Bay” opens almost two years after its premiere at the Santa Fe International Film Festival. The release date is not an accident. In May, the US celebrates the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month -by now, you have seen the promotional menus on streaming services. The dearth of projects by Asian American talent must have worked in its favor regarding securing theatrical distribution. And good for Yoon.

There is a covenant between studios, theater owners, and audiences to pay attention outside the industry's margins following a ritualized calendar. It sure helps to streamline the job of film distributors! May is Asian Americans' time to shine in the entertainment industry. The same treatment applies to any other minority crashing against the historically white status quo, dotting the calendar with themes that ease programming. February is Black History Month. Hispanic Heritage Month goes from mid-September to mid-October. June is Pride Month for the LGBTQI community, and so on. Thanks, status quo! It’s a nice gesture but irremediably insufficient to correct systemic racism and discrimination in the industry.

She's too much for him: Constance Wu and Daniel Yoon circle around each other in "East Bay" / Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment.

She's too much for him: Constance Wu and Daniel Yoon circle around each other in "East Bay" / Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment.

Identity politics impose a certain simplification of cultural codes. The exotic has to be made understandable for mainstream - a.k.a. white - audiences. After all, the starring communities don’t have enough numbers to justify the expenses incurred to make these movies available. Some filmmakers give in and dilute their idiosyncrasies. For them, nothing is worse than scaring non-members of the culture away. Others double down on their particularities. Daniel Yoon belongs to the latter group.

In the autobiographical “East Bay,” Yoon plays Jack Lee, the Westernized son of Korean immigrants. A deep identity crisis diverts him from the path towards a successful career in technology towards art. He is a very, very indie filmmaker. Not content with failing his parents in such a way, he hits middle age without giving them a grandson. To add insult to injury, his white guilt-ridden girlfriend, Beth (Melissa Pond), reveals she is pregnant with someone else’s child. He moves in with his friends Stuart (Destry Miller) and Tim (Edmund Sim), fellow refugees from the tech industry slumming in office IT.

Jack’s one true respite is cinema, even if he is disenchanted about the whole endeavor. He struggles to get his latest movie accepted in “The Dim Sum Film Festival.” Fest director Sara (Constance Wu) champions his work, but her fellow programmers don’t think it’s Asian enough. When you see Wu as the female lead, you know her character, and Jack will move towards romance. Alas, he gets distracted by Vivanti (Ravi Ramachandran Ladnier), a self-described guru he meets while filming a documentary - or is it an essay film? - on spirituality. Will he be able to grab life by the horns and find peace within himself before it’s too late? Arrested development and existential malaise get in the way.

Guru of way too much self-love: Ravi Ramachandran Ladnier is hilarious in "East Bay." / Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment.

Guru of way too much self-love: Ravi Ramachandran Ladnier is hilarious in "East Bay." / Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment.

“East Bay” is the kind of passion project that only obeys its creator’s whim. You can see how a studio might have to rewrite, recast some roles, reshot, and re-edit the project to turn it into a serviceable, eccentric romantic comedy. Hollywood be damned. You can feel Yoon’s stubbornness in making exactly the movie he wants to make. The final result is unruly. The movie would have benefited from a more disciplined approach. But then again, meddling hands would have made it stray from Yoon’s vision. I’m guessing the movie is a faithful reflection of his mindset in this stage of life. 

This volatility and rough quality make it feel like a true indie movie. That is, indie movies before they got commodified in their own commercial niche. Watching “East Bay” felt, at times, like watching early Hal Hartley movies. We have arrived at a state of affairs where what we call “indie movies” have their set of codes and formulas. An ongoing joke that percolates occasionally refers to “the Sundance movie.” It may not be fair to the hallowed film festival, but it serves as a shorthand for an indie that plays by commercial rules: inspiring narrative arc, plucky hero or heroine, and life lessons that make you feel warm as you leave the theater. Easy sell, easy digestion. A day later, you might wonder, ‘What movie did I see that day?’ Think of the Oscar-winning “CODA” (Sian Heder, 2021), but the type goes way back. I remember people bemoaning the kind since “The Spitfire Grill” (Lee David Zlotoff, 1996). I'm sure there were others before it.

Never too old for making fun of yourself: Yoon knows he is too old for this crap in "East Bay" / Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment.

Never too old for making fun of yourself: Yoon knows he is too old for this crap in "East Bay" / Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment.

Yoon is at no risk of doing one of those, thank God. For all its indulgence, “East Bay” is never less than compelling. Sometimes, you may wish he were more careful in his creative choices. A subplot pushes the movie into the sci-fi real, but it’s easy to forget the strand exists. It reverberates in the background and gets lost. It caught me off guard when it came roaring back towards the end. Alas, what sticks to you is the warmth he feels for his characters. He consciously extends compassion to the deadbeat white girlfriend. Check out the arc of the roommates, who go from comic relief to fallible men contemplating their shortcomings with poignancy. Yes, there are life lessons here, too, but the movie keeps them understated instead of letting them dominate the narrative.

You can say that Yoon makes another concession to the industry by giving a lead role to a major star. Constance Wu has a long-running hit comedy under her belt - “Fresh off The Boat” (2015-2020) - and two bona fide hit movies, “Crazy Rich Asians” (Jon M. Chu, 2018) and “Hustlers” (Lorene Scafaria, 2019) - where she held her own against the incandescent Jennifer Lopez. As Sara, the beleaguered film festival executive, Wu bears the burden of wisdom. She can see through Jack’s insecurity and frailty. When she insists on pursuing him, it doesn’t come as stupidity - “I can fix him” - but faith in his humanity. 

We are proud Constance Wu Admiration Society members: Wu steals "East Bay" and runs away with it. / Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment.

We are proud Constance Wu Admiration Society members: Wu steals "East Bay" and runs away with it. / Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment.

It helps a lot that Wu is a marvelous actress. There is a scene where Jack has turned his camera on her for his bizarre documentary on spirituality. When he dismisses her open-hearted beliefs, you can see a full spectrum of emotions flashing through her face in seconds: disbelief, heartbreak, dismay, and fury. It’s a quiet moment that speaks volumes about a performer’s grit. It tends to disappear under too many bells and whistles in a commercial movie. If there is one problem here, it is that Wu blows Yoon out of the screen. His shortcomings as an actor become evident - Ravi Ramachandran Ladnier is great, too, and hilarious while acting circles around him. You feel like the movie would have benefited from him hiring an equal to these two performers to play his alter-ego. But then again, in that case, “East Bay” would not be his movie. And that is the reason for its existence. 

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