Watching TV With The Red Chinese

Jean-Luc Godard once famously observed, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” which is both a witty observation about cinema and a telling insight into his perspective on American culture as a European artist. Girls, guns, and the way American life looks to outsiders all figure into Shimon Dotan’s film Watching TV With the Red Chinese, an...read more

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Reviewed by Mark Deming
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Jean-Luc Godard once famously observed, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” which is both a witty observation about cinema and a telling insight into his perspective on American culture as a European artist. Girls, guns, and the way American life looks to outsiders all figure into Shimon Dotan’s film Watching TV With the Red Chinese, an occasionally witty but often tepid story of the eventually tragic interaction between three Chinese students and a handful of American bohemians in New York City.

Watching TV With the Red Chinese takes place in 1980, as Dexter (Ryan O’Nan), a professor teaching American literature and poetry at New York University, is living in a decidedly non-gentrified neighborhood in the city. One day while taking out the trash, Dexter meets his new neighbors, three twentysomething men from China who have come to the United States to study. Tzu (James Chen) and Wa (Keong Sim) have wives at home and are focused on their academic goals, while Chen (Leonardo Nam) is a bit more naïve and excited by the possibilities of New York life. Dexter befriends the students, and they discuss their views on science and philosophy as he introduces them to the pleasures of American football after they purchase a cheap television. Dexter also takes the students to a party where they meet a few of his friends, including pretentious aspiring filmmaker Billy (Michael Esper), high-strung and unstable Czapinczyk (Peter Scanavino), and Suzanne (Gillian Jacobs), a beautiful but deeply neurotic woman who was once involved with both Dexter and Czapinczyk. Chen gets a crash course in the ups and downs of life in the city when he’s brutally mugged by two black street thugs, which makes him paranoid about race, and next he becomes romantically involved with Suzanne. Chen’s new relationship troubles Dexter a bit, but it makes Czapinczyk absolutely furious, and the jilted lover bombards Chen with abusive and threatening phone calls. After the murder of John Lennon, guns become a hot topic of conversation among Dexter, Suzanne, and the students, and when Chen buys a stolen firearm from a kid living in their building, it leads to a confrontation with ugly consequences.

The movie was directed by Shimon Dotan, who also adapted the screenplay (from a novel by Luke Whisnant) with co-writer Netaya Anbar. Dotan was born in Romania, raised in Israel, and now lives in Canada, which means, like his Chinese protagonists, he views America and its culture as an observer, not a native. One gets a sense of this in the film, which maintains a cool distance from its characters despite their frequent emotional turmoil, and while the American characters often seem sketchy and one-dimensional, the Chinese students fare even worse: the film is well into its second act before they begin to display any recognizably individual personalities. (Dotan even has them dress identically throughout the movie, though as Chen becomes more infatuated with Suzanne, he buys a few extra shirts that set him apart.) While the players are neatly divided between neurotic New York proto-hipsters, various types of psychotic street dwellers, and the very mannered Chinese students, the actors manage to give them more color and texture than the script provides. In particular, Gillian Jacobs is broad but endearing as Suzanne, Ryan O’Nan makes something worthwhile out of Dexter’s mood swings and philosophical nature, and Ron C. Jones is impressive as a downstairs neighbor who coaches Chen and Tzu in black literature and touch football. Dotan and his cinematographer Mike Rossetti have given the film a sharp and striking visual style, but the movie is woefully lacking in period flavor, and if not for the introduction of John Lennon’s assassination as a plot point, one would be hard pressed to realize this is set in 1980. (The music is especially out of place, sounding like nothing so much as pretty but lifeless 21st century indie rock.) Watching TV With the Red Chinese is well-crafted, but seems to be reaching for greater depth than it can deliver. Ultimately it’s flat and unsatisfying for all its good intentions, and it unwittingly tells us as much about the people who made it as it does about the people who inhabit the story.

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  • Released: 2011
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Jean-Luc Godard once famously observed, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” which is both a witty observation about cinema and a telling insight into his perspective on American culture as a European artist. Girls, guns, and the way American li… (more)

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