Crisis control

Crisis control

'Almost Perfect' is an easy-going film that doesn't pretend to have solutions

By Jana J. Monji 09/21/2012

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Sometimes one’s family can hurt one's romantic opportunities, but not without one's permission. That's the topic of a new Asian-American indie movie, "Almost Perfect," in which a thirty-something woman must stop putting her life on hold if she wants a real chance at romance.

 The movie has no relationship with the almost two-season mid-1990s American sitcom of the same name. The color palettes of beiges, whites, grays and browns hints at the gentle nature of this film, which is set in New York City. Don’t expect flashes of flesh or too many clever quips as in the sitcoms of young New Yorkers but, as is the tradition of most movies set in New York, do expect impossibly spacious apartments and houses that are too neat to be actually lived in by real people.

 Kelly Hu stars as Vanessa Lee, a dutiful second daughter of the doormat variety. She has a career, well, sort of. She’s the head of the nonprofit portion of her father’s company. We first see her dressed casual in black, jogging down an urban road with her long hair rhythmically swishing back and forth in a practical ponytail. The opening credits then give us a quick overview of their family in a picture album montage. Vanessa comes home to find her brother, Andy (Edison Chen), camping out on her couch. His blonde Caucasian wife and their mother and father, meanwhile, have no idea where he is. But Vanessa is a good sport; she’ll cover for him.

At a concert, Vanessa bumps into her one of her brother’s old friends, Dwayne (Ivan Shaw). That reunion transforms into an almost date that is interrupted by a phone call from Vanessa’s mother, summoning her to another crisis. Dwayne isn’t the only man flashing subtle signals of interest, but Vanessa and her older sister, Charlene (Christina Chang), don’t consider marriage a good thing. That leaves Vanessa both reluctant and in a sort of social paralysis. Charlene isn’t so different; she has a long-distance relationship that has potential, but she can’t commit. She’s clearly upset, though, when her love connection wants to disconnect via marriage to another woman.

 Yet Vanessa’s problem isn’t just her attitude toward marriage. Vanessa’s apartment is a refuge, a way station for her family, and no one bothers to knock or announce their arrival, assuming Vanessa will be there alone, or if not, soon to be alone. Their problems are her problems, even if they’re not interested in hearing what she has to say.

 Her father, Kai Lee, is played as a pathetic over-the-hill lost boy by Roger Rees. Kai’s retiring but with no clear plan of what to do. He’s completely incapable of considering the plans of others — not his wife’s academic responsibilities, since he begs her to leave her teaching load for a pleasure trip to Shanghai, and not his daughter Vanessa, since he subsequently moves in with her...and Dwayne. Vanessa’s mother, Sandra (Tina Chen), with her frost-frozen face seems like the witch in the house, but it’s clear there’s more history there.

To director/writer Bertha Bay-Sa Pan’s credit, Vanessa and Dwayne don’t let passion push them into bed too fast, and it’s Dwayne who wants to wait. Clearly, as an old friend of “drama queen” Andy, he knows the dynamics of the family and throughout the course of the film, we never meet his. That’s unusual, especially during an engagement party that Sandra arranges for Dwayne and Vanessa, but Pan chooses to focus on the dysfunction of one family and how Dwayne gently guides Vanessa into building boundaries.

Tina Chen’s Sandra is the least sympathetic character, but whether you like the movie may depend upon how you feel about Rees’ Kai, who can’t even type and is now helpless without a staff to command. Edison Chen’s Andy is charming, but what passes for good boyfriend material in high school changes in the years after high school. His Andy has the charm, but not the drive of his father. Andy’s boyishness contrasts the maturity and quiet calm of Shaw’s Dwayne. You wouldn’t think the two could be friends now, but are left to wonder what kind of boys they once were.

“Almost Perfect” is an easy-going romance that doesn’t pretend to have solutions or to wrap up the problems in a pretty package. It ends on a hopeful note, but not without a struggle between two people who would be almost perfect for each other if they could just deal with her family. Sometimes one needs to pull away from family to learn to love them better and break the patterns of the past, and that’s what this movie subtly suggests.

 “Almost Perfect” is playing at the AMC Santa Anita 16 in Arcadia. In English with some Shanghai Chinese. 

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