In the ’80s teen film Sixteen Candles, Molly Ringwald’s younger brother shares a bunk bed with a character called Long Duck Dong, a foreign exchange student from some unnamed Asian country whose adamant desire to fit in to high school America is foiled by his bizarre English phrases and weird “foreign” habits.
While at first his host family sees him as a sexual zero — not predatory enough to be a threat to the teenage boy whose bunk he shares — that’s undone when Dong ends up at a high school party, making-out with the neighborhood’s tallest, most threatening woman. And thus, drunk on a lawn — having accomplished all the sexual successes high schoolers hope for – Dong’s arc is over.
In White On Rice, writer-director Dave Boyle has re-imagined the American stereotype of the goofy foreigner, living in the buttoned-up family’s house — and given him a feature film in which to reveal his true ambitions. What results is a quirky film as much about living in a culture as it is about living in a house.
Jimmy/Hajime is the bizarre older brother of Aiko, a petite florist with a growling, successful husband and a quiet, studious son — whose bunk-bed he shares. A former movie extra, salesman, and tuna canner — Jimmy has flitted from job to job, only leaving Japan because, he explains to a co-worker, “I ran out of food”; His ex-wife had left him with three-months of meals, so he wouldn’t starve.
That’s a good measure of how dependent Jimmy becomes on his new family — angering the father, played to delightful exuberance by Mio Takada (looking at a coffin his wife is decorating with floral bouquets, he says, gruffly: “This coffin is just the right side for Hajime”). So over a pizza dinner one night, Jimmy promises to move out when he finds a bride to move in with.
Thus, the film’s plot is structured as a typical romantic comedy: find the girl, save the Empire. But the arena in which it plays out — the bilingual, Salt Lake City home of a Japanese American family — is not, thus allowing this indie rom-com to tell the oft-told story of a disconnected family and love-hungry man through moments that feel completely original and thus, laugh-out-loud.
Father Tak feels disconnected from his wife and attempt to write her a haiku on a yellow post it note — only to see the poem’s awkwardness on the yellow square and replace it with a more American epithet: “See you tonight.” When Tak follows his quiet, mysterious son one afternoon — hiding behind trees and gamboling over fences — he find that the boy has been secretly performing chores for neighbors in order to subsidize his piano lessons (a nice inversion of the stereotpye against Asian parents pushing children to excellence). It’s touching to see this dependent man — uncomfortable in American culture — interact with his bunk-mate, a ten-year-old prodigy who wears button-up Oxford shirts and makes enough gardening money on the side to loan some to his uncle.
Hoping to speed Jimmy along the road to love, his sister and coworkers set him up with a montage of dating failures — including a Korean American woman who asks him where he lives: “I live with a ten years old boy in the basement.” And then there’s a woman who is far too tall (a la Long Duck Dong’s mate), whom he asks “Do you eat lots of protein?” — launching her into tears. He likes his part-time job in an office, he tells another woman, “Because there are low ceilings…It’s warm.” When he falls for the family friend, Ramona, he tells her pals that she’s a genius: “She’s like that guy in the wheelchair who talks like a machine.” For excusable reasons, she finds him creepy.
Like Long Duck Dong or any other stereotypes of the goofball foreigner — Hajime, or Jimmy, says the wrong thing all the time — but this wrong thing is simply the blatant truth. Without a nuanced knowledge of what the culture finds acceptable spoken aloud, Hajime simply says everything he’s thinking.
The Official Trailer:
Photo Credit: White on Rice LLC