Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
There aren’t that many films that feature an Asian-American male as the lead. There are even fewer that feature or are particularly about an Asian-American, gay male living in modern or contemporary times. One of the most memorable was Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993). In the 30 years since, there really haven’t been much more, not until recently. Only two that I can point toward are Ray Yeung’s Front Cover (2016) and Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (2016). Yeung’s and Ahn’s films were both put into theaters the same year by the same distributor, that of Strand Releasing. I loved Yeung’s film, but, arguably, Ahn’s did better in terms of box office and even critical response. Ahn’s film even won more awards, including a Spirit Award. If one were looking for a filmmaker to do a film about an Asian-American, gay male living in modern times, Ahn is therefore the person to get.
For those who know a significant amount about the LGBTQ community, one knows that there are certain areas or neighborhoods throughout the United States where members congregate the most and feel the safest or more able to be themselves. Fire Island Pines, which is just outside New York City, is one of those areas. Some even see this island off New York as a gay mecca. The history of the place was that it used to be a retreat or haven for LGBTQ people from discrimination and persecution. It has since become a tourist destination, a summer vacation, mainly for gay men of a certain type. That type is usually White, young and muscular. It’s also a place for those who are wealthy or have a sizable amount of disposable income. Given how this film begins, it seems as if this narrative was going to be more critical of this place and what it has become than most films set there have been.
Joel Kim Booster (Big Mouth and The Other Two) stars as Noah, a young man living in New York City who works as a nurse at a free clinic for gay people. He clearly doesn’t make a lot of money. He’s relatively poor. Yet, he has whipped himself into great shape. Booster does in fact boast a muscular body. He’s Korean-American. He’s gay himself and he’s somewhat promiscuous. He’s going with his four other gay friends to spend a week, during the summer, at Fire Island Pines. He narrates his day-to-day experiences through voice-over, which also helps to explain the gay culture and traditions on the island.
Bowen Yang (Saturday Night Live and Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens) co-stars as Howard or Howie, the best friend of Noah. Howie met Noah when they worked as waiters in the same restaurant. However, Howie left New York and moved to San Francisco where he now works as a graphic designer for a tech company, making a tad bit more money. Yet, Howie is relatively poor too. The only way he can afford this trip across the country to a beach-side, vacation spot for a week is because he’s staying for free at the home of a fellow waitress, played by Margaret Cho, who came upon her Fire Island home by luck. Howie is Chinese-American and is more of a hopeless romantic, not as promiscuous, also not as buff. Howie hasn’t had the best luck in the romance department. He doesn’t have a boyfriend but wants one.
The seeming premise is that Noah makes a veritable pact with Howie. Noah’s pact is not to have sex until Howie does. Noah basically focuses on getting Howie laid. The problem is that Howie doesn’t just want to have casual sex. He wants to get to know someone and have a romance that perhaps leads to a loving and committed relationship. As we learn though, summer trips to this particular island aren’t necessarily for romance. Summer trips here are typically for casual and non-committed, sexual encounters. Howie seemingly knows this, but he can’t help himself but want to be a romantic person and get to know someone non-sexually. This creates tension between Noah and Howie because Noah just wants him to have sex without all the romance.
However, that premise is one that is grafted on top of another premise. This film’s underlying story is really supposed to be a remake of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), which has obviously been adapted numerous times. Booster wrote the screenplay for this film and Pride and Prejudice is the direct reference that he makes here. In fact, the opening scene of this film includes a direct quote from Pride and Prejudice, but, Booster makes other references to Austen’s other works, such as Emma (1816). Booster’s character of Noah is supposed to be a proxy or equivalent to Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, but, in various ways, Noah could also be a proxy for Emma Woodhouse from Emma.
Conrad Ricamora (The Resident and How To Get Away With Murder) also co-stars as Will, a half-Filipino lawyer from Los Angeles who is staying with his wealthy friends at a mansion-like house on the beach of this island. He’s supposed to be the proxy for Fitzwilliam Darcy or Mr. Darcy who is meant to come across as arrogant and snobbish. In Austen’s book, she played with the idea of marriage in the Georgian era in England and how marriage was seen as transactional, more about social class and money or property. Given that this film is structured as occurring all within the span of one-week, the narrative can’t really be a deconstruction of marriage in the same way.
In Austen’s book, she played with the idea of first impressions and how people can often judge others without truly getting to know them or without digging deeper past initial and superficial accounts of their lives and actions. In Austen’s book, the first impression was of a rich person. One could then see Austen’s book as some kind of advocacy for the rich, urging people not to judge them so swiftly and harshly. That’s of course a good advocacy for anybody, not just the rich, but, for anybody operating in the post-Occupy Wall Street and post-Bernie Sanders space, advocacy for the rich probably falls on deaf ears. Even in the current economic environment, which is seeing high inflation, Austen’s advocacy for a rich person isn’t exactly an appropriate message now.
This is probably why Booster’s film doesn’t make Will, a person who just inherited his wealth like Mr. Darcy did, but instead Will has a job as a doctor and who also notably works for non-profits. In reality, Will’s wealth isn’t really a factor here. In terms of social status, money isn’t really what makes the difference in this story. Austen’s book had a sense of urgency though because it felt like people’s lives or livelihoods were on the line. The relationships and marriages depicted were done out of a sense of security or survival. That urgency simply isn’t present here. Booster’s film is a romantic comedy, so higher stakes aren’t really required. It’s simply a matter of whether the main characters will partner up by the end or not.
James Scully (You and Heathers) plays Charlie, the best friend to Will. Charlie is a doctor who recently broke up with his boyfriend. He becomes interested in Howie and starts inviting him to hang out with him and his wealthy friends, including Will. Will is skeptical of the relationship but again not really due to money or status. It’s due to personal issues that both he and Charlie have experienced in the past or recent past. Yet, the question of whether Charlie and Howie will end up together becomes a weird tug-of-war, which feels overblown and not given enough due, and Charlie feels more like a puppet of the plot than his own person.
The other friends circling the main cast here aren’t given enough either. I ended up not caring about most of them, including sadly that of Margaret Cho’s character. Torian Miller plays Max, an overweight Black man. He’s unlike the others because he is overweight and representing a non-typical body type for that place. He is given a tight one-piece for one scene, but we don’t really get anything of Max’s sexuality or expression thereof. Even though Howie feels the most displaced, given that he’s not on the island to have sex, it seems as though Max isn’t having sex either or even trying, at least not in any scenes that we see. Therefore, it’s odd that Howie and Max never connect on that fact. We never see any scenes where Howie and Max connect at all actually.
What’s most enticing really is this film depicting relationships between a somewhat predominant group of gay Asian American people. In the independent film world and particularly queer cinema, there are several films about groups of gay friends. The majority of which are about predominantly, White, gay men. Examples include Greg Berlanti’s The Broken Hearts Club (2000), Douglas Langway’s BearCity (2010) or Q. Allan Brocka’s Eating Out: The Open Weekend (2012). Over the years, there have been some filmmakers who have tried to do more diverse versions of groups of gay friends, filmmakers like Maurice Jamal and Patrik-Ian Polk. Andrew Ahn can be added to this list.
Rated R for strong sexual content, language, drug use and some nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.
Available on Hulu.