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A beautiful, mysterious, silent woman. An intrepid, idealistic outsider casting light on a world of shadows. All these are tropes common to film noir: and to the opening of Pan Asian Rep’s gorgeously atmospheric Film Chinois. A Chinese femme fatale encounters an American “tea trader” in a Beijing restaurant, circa 1947. He asks her for a light. She gives him one, silently. We think we’ve seen this story before.
Randolph and Chinadoll “stand in” for their respective countries: “Shades of gray,” is how Chinadoll describes Beijing. Later: “I am not weak; I am a communist.” As written, Chinadoll and Randolph are less characters than mouthpieces for ideas, and the play suffers for it.
More interesting is the show’s secondary pairing. As the nervy nightclub singer Simone, Katie Lee Hill is eminently watchable. Her acting choices are sometimes curious – it’s never clear whether Simone is feigning her helplessness, and so Simone herself comes off rather erratic – but they always seem deliberate, and Simone’s journey from “capitalist” courtesan to committed Maoist is among the play’s underexplored elements, even if our final image of Simone owes a bit much to the Cabaret school of historical exposition. (As her Belgian ambassador lover, Jean Brassard is a stock degenerate, but an effective one).
Still, Film Chinois is nothing we haven’t seen before. Macguffins abound (somewhere in there, there’s a plot about some missing twins and a compromising film strip, but the details are virtually irrelevant), and the relationship between the play’s central lovers too tepid to serve as a lynchpin for the kind of ideas Chua wants to explore. In the end, Film Chinois cannot provide an emotional complexity to match its promised “shades of gray”: leaving us with stock characters that feel all too easily black and white.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.