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June 27, 2013

White Frog

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Quentin Lee - 2012
Wolfe Video Region 1 DVD

It's a sign of the times that a film like White Frog is a modestly budgeted independent film rather than a studio production. Even something like Ordinary People would probably not get the green light these days. That the film is available through a niche distributor, Wolfe Video, means that while the coming out story of a gay young man will primarily play for the GLBT audience, there are aspects to the film that might be overlooked.

Not to equate Quentin Lee with Douglas Sirk, at least not yet, but the film shares a view of family life that is similar to be found in films like Imitation of Life and Written on the Wind in which family members are cocooned from life and often each other by money. The title comes from a story about a tadpole stored inside a coconut, growing to become a very edible frog for eating. The analogy is of letting people grow in an open environment, rather than in one of familial or social constraints. While the elder son Chaz can hide his sexual identity, the younger son, Nick, as Asberger's Syndrome, and as such, is unfiltered in how he expresses himself. Both sons have a sense of disconnection from their parents in affluent surroundings. Where Chaz appears to be the perfect son, fulfilling the dreams of his parents, Nick undoes the pair, particularly his father. The parents are wrapped in the illusion of an idealized sense of normality including a picture perfect house that doesn't looked lived in, and social connections that are solely church based. When the parents find out that Chaz was gay, and that he donated time and money to an urban center for GLBT youth, it's not quite like Lana Turner's last reel revelations during Juanita Moore's elaborate funeral, but there's a similar spirit at work here.

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While the film touches on divisions based on sexual identity, and to a lesser extent, economic class, race is never an issue. Though never discussed, it is significant that the Asian-American family name is the possibly Anglicized Young. The one time the family is presented eating a dinner with chopsticks, it doesn't take a sharp eye to note that it is of the home delivery kind. One might argue that Lee, and the mother-daughter screenplay authors, Fabienne Wen and Ellie Wen, chose to play down the Asian identity of the characters, although it might also be seen as part of the way the characters would see themselves. While Chaz's identity as gay almost causes a schism between his poker buddies, that one is Jewish, one African-American, and one is of South Asian descent is never remarked upon.

If I am stressing the concept of identity, it is at the core of Quentin Lee's films. The documentary, 0506HK was Lee's look at himself, friends and family members, all of whom have been affected in one way or another as former or current residents of Hong Kong. For someone of Lee's generation, even the country of their birth changed identity from a British colony to part of China, though in a limited sense, independent of the mainland until 2046.

Playwright David Henry Hwang plays a supporting role as the Young's family pastor, and had a hand in shaping the screenplay as script consultant. Where the film is weak is in the casting. As much as it is great that several Asian-American actors have lead roles, only Booboo Stewart and Harry Shum, Jr. as brothers, as Nick and Chaz respectively, were effectively cast. I love Joan Chen and have so since The Last Emperor, but it was hard to see her as married to BD Wong, who always was eclipsed whenever Miss Chen was onscreen. Kelly Hu is quite funny in a brief turn as Chen's sister, reminding Chen that even for relatives, she charges an hourly rate when working on their behalf.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 27, 2013 08:00 AM


Thank you for an intelligent and supportive review of White Frog. You totally got it!

Posted by: Quentin Lee at July 1, 2013 02:15 AM

Wow. Thank you.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at July 1, 2013 11:28 PM