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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I try to keep up on all the latest releases, be they big or small. But every once in a while, I end up seeing a movie that I literally know almost nothing about. All I knew of Red Doors prior to seeing it was that the film had won an award at the Tribeca Film Festival. In some ways, I think this is the ideal way to see any movie, even though I realize that’s impossible. By removing the burdens of hype and expectation, you have the chance to receive a film at its own level; if you are lucky, this can create a sense of discovery that any genuine cinema buff knows is like a drug. All this is my way of saying that Red Doors emerged for me as a very pleasant surprise, made all the more satisfying by the fact that I didn’t see it coming.

Of course, a critic can’t convey his or her enthusiasm over a discovery without putting a certain amount of expectation into the reader. With that in mind, I’ll try to convey a sense of the movie’s tone, then allow you to discover its charms on your own.

This is the story of the Wong family, a Chinese-American clan residing in the suburbs of Connecticut. Father Ed (Tzi Ma) has just retired from his job and seems to be depressed. He rarely speaks and often appears zoned out. His family barely notices because they’re all wrapped up in their own stuff. Eldest daughter Samantha (Jacqueline Kim) is second-guessing her engagement, especially after running into a former flame. Middle daughter Julie (Elaine Kao) is a med student who finds herself unexpectedly attracted to a female movie star (Mia Riverton) who is doing “research” at the hospital. Youngest daughter Katie (Kathy Shao-Lin Lee) is a high school student engaged in a bizarre flirtation with another student. He gives her a dead rat in a chocolate box; she blows up his locker. The family is put into turmoil when Ed suddenly up and leaves, without so much as a word of explanation. No one is more affected than his wife May-Li (Freda Foh Shen), who realizes too late that her husband was serious in his unhappiness.

Red Doors kind of falls into that genre of ethnic family comedies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This one cuts a little deeper, though. Whereas Greek frequently had a sitcom feel, Doors comes off as more authentic. Only on one or two occasions does it try to force a laugh. Mostly, in fact, it allows the humor to spring forth naturally. The characters are all realistic and sympathetic, so we laugh in recognition. Dramatic moments are equally effective. Some of the plot elements may seem familiar (such as Samantha’s romantic quandary), yet they don’t play out exactly the way you would expect. The ending, which brings a lot of the story’s themes into focus, is particularly revealing, packing even more meaning into what it doesn’t show than in what it does.

I really like the performances here, because all the cast members are so natural. The actors uniformly play the emotions straight, rather than over-acting or hamming it up. Tzi Ma (who has appeared in everything from Akeelah and the Bee to The Ladykillers) is a perfect example. What Ed does seems extreme, yet the actor convinces us that the character has reasons for doing what he does. The best performance, though, comes from Kathy Shao-Lin Lee, who plays the free-spirited Katie with just the right mixture of innocence and mischievousness. The character is so interesting and so well played that I’d like to see a second, separate movie focused solely on her.

Red Doors is simple and unassuming in its tone, carefully and lovingly examining the Wong family through their ups and downs. A few scenes here and there feel unnecessarily truncated, and I wish the mother character had been developed a bit more. However, those flaws don’t detract from what is a smart, observant, and very entertaining film.

Since I was not familiar with Red Doors beforehand, I found the DVD’s special features to be of particular interest. The making-of feature “Behind Red Doors” introduces us more closely to writer/director Georgia Lee and producer Jane Chen. More information about the production can be found on the informative audio commentary. The disc also contains Georgia Lee’s short film “Educated” which presents Kathy Shao-Lin Lee in a vastly different yet equally engaging role.

( out of four)

Red Doors is rated R for brief sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.

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