Front Cover (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
Very few movies, mainstream or independent, truly capture the Asian-American experience in modern America. Too often, to the point where it is almost insulting, Asians—including “Americanized” Asian characters to a degree—are not only depicted as stereotypes, their experiences are only ever glossed over for many of them are written to function merely as sidekicks and therefore treated as less important even though at times their subplots are far more compelling than their cis, white counterparts.
For a while, “Front Cover,” written and directed by Ray Yeung, shows promise, but its power is diminished noticeably during the second half. Notice how the final twenty to thirty minutes drags. This is because the machination of the LGBT-themed romantic drama is on full gear. The statements the writer-director wishes to make are carefully brushed to the side in order to focus on romantic feelings—so silly when compared to what the movie is truly about: ethnic identity, sexual identity, being a minority—still—in the diverse world of fashion.
Standout scenes involve the camera, capturing the shame Ryan (Jake Choi) feels when reminded that he is considered by others to have an ethnic identity. Non-white. We observe his self-whitewashing from the music he listens to, the clothes he wears, the type of food or drink he orders in restaurants, how he looks condescendingly at others who are in touch and proud of their roots. I admired that we are supposed to question at first whether to root for the main character rather than simply forcing us to default on what we come to expect.
What makes the story worth telling is how Ryan, who is quite proud to wear the label “potato queen,” an ethnic gay man who is attracted only, or for the most part, to white men, meets Ning (James Chen), a rising movie star in China. The former, a stylist, is assigned to make the actor look chic by western standards. It is interesting how even though these characters are both Chinese, there is a culture clash. When they disagree and there is friction between their ideals, the picture is alive. It is most unfortunate that their conflict is doused too soon.
Writers of LGBTQ-themed movies tend to feel as though they must have a romantic hook somewhere, anywhere in order to keep their audiences captivated. This is why many films in the genre do not turn out as great as they could have been. This movie is one of them. Although the romance here has a twist, and performers do share a strong chemistry, it might have been more interesting if the flirtations between Ryan and Ning were left to the viewers’ imaginations. Why can’t a straight man and a gay man just share something intimate between unlikely friends? Must everything be reduced to a beautifully lighted, well-photographed, creatively edited love scene?
“Front Cover” might have made more of an impact and, more importantly, been a better picture if the writer-director had made a statement piece. There are enough compromises here that made me consider that perhaps it is not the movie that Yeung wanted to make. In its attempt to try to get more people to see it, it had lost some of its fascinating identity.