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Montage | Screen

Suburban Angst, Chinese-Style

September-October 2006

Imagine American Beauty with a Chinese-American cast, or Eat Drink Man Woman transplanted from Taipei to an affluent New York suburb: such conceits suggest Red Doors, a dark comedy about a contemporary, dysfunctional Chinese-American family that opens in theaters in September, with a DVD due later this fall. Mainstream media typically depict Chinese-American homes as traditional, conservative, hard-working, serious, family-oriented places that emphasize achievement and upward mobility. But early in Red Doors, father Ed Wong stands atop a stack of weighty philosophical books (Being and Time, Civilization and Its Discontents) as the camera, panning upward from his feet, shows him fitting a noose around his neck. At this juncture, teenage Katie pops into the room, startling her father—but Katie, jaded by her father’s long history of failed suicide attempts, nonchalantly announces, “Time for lunch, Dad,” and walks out.

If Red Doors, which has won several awards, including Best Narrative Feature at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, demolishes received stereotypes of Chinese-American family life, it is probably because the three Harvard women who joined forces to create and finance it—Georgia Lee ’98, Jane Chen ’96, and Mia Riverton ’99—all come from Chinese-American families. (Riverton, an actress who also plays a major role in Red Doors, is half Chinese, and jokes that their team—they met as undergraduates—consists of “two-and-a-half Asian women.”)

Movie star Mia Scarlett (Mia Riverton ’99, left) seduces shy medical student Julie Wong (Elaine Kao) over a special drink in Red Doors.
From the film

Chen, who once worked with Lee at McKinsey & Company, spearheaded the fundraising; the film’s lean $200,000 budget came entirely from family and friends. “One advantage of a traditional New York business background is that most of our friends are still gainfully employed,” Chen says. “They were very excited to live vicariously through us with this creative venture.”

Writer/director Lee (no relation to the celebrated Hollywood director Ang Lee) based the Wongs loosely on her own family, and even shot a good deal of the footage at her parents’ suburban home in Waterford, Connecticut. For the Chinese, painting front doors red is said to bring a household good luck and harmony, so the title, Lee explains, strikes an ironic note for “a family that is emotionally distant and struggles to communicate”: remote, depressed Ed, who has just retired, his intrusive, domineering wife, and their three daughters, all of whom have problematic love lives.

Lee herself is the eldest of three sisters, and her younger sister Kathy plays Katie, a sassy teen who leads a camouflage-clad hip-hop dance ensemble. Riverton plays Mia Scarlett, a movie star who begins a relationship with the Wongs’ middle daughter, Julie, a shy medical student. (“There was a lot of feminine energy on the set,” says Riverton. “With a male director, it might have been intimidating to shoot lesbian love scenes.”) Ed (played by Tzi Ma, of Akeelah and the Bee and Rush Hour) runs away from his family to join a Buddhist monastery; in a memorable scene, he eventually hitches a ride back home, clad in a black monk’s robe, behind a biker on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. (Ma relished his role; he confided to Lee, “I’m so sick of playing the Chinese ambassador.”)

Lee says she “did not set out to make Red Doors representative of Asian-Americans, or lesbians, or any marginalized group. I only tried to tell an honest story of people I knew.” Indeed, the film seems to resonate with audiences more as a family story than an Asian one. After one screening, a 70-year-old Jewish man thanked her: “It’s the first film that represents what a man who is retired is going through,” he said. Such feedback encourages the filmmakers and their production company, Blanc de Chine Entertainment, about future projects. Lee’s next script is a story about love, loss, and grief, centered on her late mother. “Film,” she says, “can be a very expensive form of psychotherapy.”

~C.L.