Family dramas wrapped inside a frame of betrayal and homicide

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Philip Kan Gotanda was born in 1951 to parents who had been interred in the Manzanar concentration camp on the east side of the Sierra Nevadas. The work of his with which I had some familiarity dealt with Japanese Americans during the 1940s—in the Manzanar concentration camp east of Mount Whitney (Manzanar: An American Story) and the Japantown Fillmore District of San Francisco into which black workers had filtered during World War II (After the War)—and aging Filipino men during the 1970s (Remember the I-Hotel) .

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(2012 photo of Gotanda by Lia Chang (Creative Commons)

I didn’t know that some of Gotanda’s work had been filmed — low-budget, independent films based on his plays “The Wash” (1988) and “Life Tastes Good” (1999), which he directed and played a small part in.

Involving “missing” money, the search for the money by its gangster owner, homicide, and San Francisco homicide detectives (Kelvin Han Yee, Tim Lounibos), I thought that “Life Tastes Good” (1999) would be like “Chan Is Missing,” the very low-budget movie with an Asian American cast that launched the career of Wayne Wang (Eat a Bowl of Tea, The Joy Luck Club, Chinese Box). It has a lot less sardonic humor than “Chan Is Missing,” and, although it is a neo-noir, the movie that “Life Tastes Good” most reminded me of was Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s early (1994) “Vive l’amour.” The reason is that much of it takes place in what is supposed to be a vacant apartment. The man (Sab Shimono) who hides and observes the female occupant (Julia Nickson) is much older than the one in Tsai’s movies. But, as in “Vive l’amour,” there is a lot of dialogless watching—not just of the woman getting into a shower, but compulsively scrubbing a spot on the floor of the apartment that he has rented for a week.

I was afraid that the motivations of the characters were going to remain opaque, but was relieved that by the end I understood the relationships of the characters and the motivations for their seemingly odd behavior—well, at least most of the motivations. Why one became a junkie remains mysterious—as drug abuse often does.

Like many a noir and neo-noir, most notably “Sunset Boulevard” and “American Beauty,” the tale is told by someone who is dead at the start. With the corpse found in an abandoned car and a wallet with money, there is a tape recorder with recordings of musings (a memoir?) by Harry Sado (Shimono).

Early on, it becomes obvious that Harry has been involved in money-laundering for Mr Jones (Gotando) and that his partner had been cheating him, and that Harry has made off with a briefcase full of money belonging to Mr. Jones.

Harry has a junkie daughter, Julie (Tamlyn Tomita) and a nerdy, bespectacled son (Greg Watanabe, who looks quite hunky once his glasses and shirt come off) whom he abandoned when his wife died. Harry wants to explain things to them, though they don’t want to know about his criminal occupation.

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So along with gang-related homicides, police investigations, a gangland manhunt, the ghost-like woman scrubbing the floor, there is a family reunion trying to overcome years of silence and miscommunication. Quite a lot to be going on in one movie, along with the suspense about whether these matters are going to be tied together in ways that make some sense.

Providing reassurance that they do isn’t—at least I don’t think it is—plot spoiling. I found the denouement(s) quite satisfying.

I thought that “Life Tastes Good” was quite cinematic despite the obvious budgetary constraints and being the work of a writer for the stage. I don’t think that it is a great movie, but it is inventive with a satisfying ending, not just a showcase for talented and underemployed Asian American actors.

©2007, Stephen O. Murray

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