Ed. Note: This is mostly fine to read before seeing the movie. I will indicate where you might want to stop reading if you want to watch the last ten minutes of the movie without knowing what’s going to happen.
4:44 a.m. 6/3/4/04
I have a new favorite movie, and it’s called Charlotte Sometimes. Now, you may be saying to yourself, huh? That was my reaction, too, when I saw it in the local video store, on video, mind you. I will come clean and say the only reason I rented it was because it had three and a half Asian people (one is mixed) starring in it. One of them was Jacqueline Kim whom I had seen and loved in Xena: Warrior Princess. It’s a sad commentary that I jumped on this movie without even knowing what it’s about simply because the faces on it looked like mine and because I had a crush on Jacqueline. Well, the faces were prettier than mine, but you know what I’m saying. Since I’m on this kick of not reading blurbs to movies or books, I had no idea what to expect when I popped it in the VCR.
It starts out with music and moody lighting and no dialogue. I’m intrigued from the start because of the absence of talking and of action. Most movies these days have a plethora of either or, God forbid, both, but few had a complete absence of both. I am hooked. Now, I have a disclaimer before I continue. If you are the type of person who whines, ‘There’s nothing happening in this movie’, then skip this review and this movie because it will drive you to distraction. There is no big action or even all that much dialogue, and from the low ratings it received on IMDB.com, it’s abundantly clear that most people didn’t understand this movie or more to the point, didn’t want to understand it. So again, if you need action in your movie, then pass by this gem.
The first person we see is Michael (Michael Idemoto), and it’s immediately apparent that he is the strong silent type. He rents part of his house to a woman named Lori who he is in love with but who has a boyfriend, the mixed-blood womanizer, Justin. Oh, you don’t find out he’s a womanizer until nearly the end of the movie, but it is clear from the beginning that he is a player. I found him the least interesting character of the movie, but partly because he is the least defined. He is the foil for the other characters so he never feels completely whole in his own right, but he is a necessary piece of the puzzle.
The movie is about loneliness and what we will do to avoid it. Lori is with Justin, but she sneaks upstairs to be with Michael after having sex with Justin because she’s lonely. Michael is lonely even though he declares that he doesn’t mind being alone. It’s obvious that he does mind, but he won’t even allow himself to think about it. Justin is lonely because he is straddling the white world and the Asian world, never quite fitting in either. When he overhears a conversation Lori has in Chinese with her mother over the phone, it only emphasizes the rift as he cannot understand the language or the reason Lori has to answer the phone. As for Darcy, well, let’s save her for later as she needs a whole paragraph to herself.
Another underlying theme is sexuality and how we express it. Justin and Lori have rousing sex, but it doesn’t satisfy Lori. They play games as they have sex, and sometimes those games turn serious. There is one unsettling sex scene where it isn’t entirely clear that sex is what Lori wants to be doing at that moment. It’s evocative because of the understatement and because there is no moralizing-indeed, there is hardly anything spoken at all. It is a testament to Eugenia Yuan (Lori) and Matt Westmore (Justin) that they convey so many conflicting emotions through their actions and the way they move. It’s hot, sultry and uncomfortable at the same time.
Then again, nothing in this movie is easy. There are interminable pauses between lines that make me want to scream, ‘Say something! Do something!’ With exquisite timing, however, the next action or line is presented just as I am about ready to go over the edge. This doesn’t just happen once or twice throughout the movie-the very fabric of the movie is woven from this thread. Of course, there are those who would say the timing isn’t right and that everything is too slow, but to each her own. This is a delicate operation that can only be performed with the surest hand, and these actors are in firm control.
The tension between Lori and Michael is uncomfortable. So much so, Lori offers to set Michael up with someone. He declines, declaring that he’s not afraid to be alone. What he’s not saying is that he’s afraid to be with someone, so it’s easier to fantasize about the woman he can’t have than to actually date a flesh-and-blood woman-especially when the one he wants is not available. He doesn’t have to say it, however, because it’s so evident in his mien that it need not be spoken. Just the look in his soulful eyes is enough to be informed of the hurt that he is harboring. His independence is also his shield from the inevitable pain that love brings upon each person at some point in his or her life. The awkwardness after Michael quickly shoots down Lori’s tentative offer to set him up with someone is painful, but it’s refreshingly real.
This is where Darcy enters the picture and while it’s abundantly clear who she is-at least to me-the way her character plays out is intriguing, nonetheless. I spent a great deal of time during the Darcy scenes wondering how Michael would react to her once he found out the truth, but I’m getting ahead of myself. He meets her at the bar he hangs out in, and he strikes up the nerve to talk to her. It’s hesitant and banal as these things tend to be in real life, but it works. She allows him to walk with her, and they spend the night together-but don’t have sex. She is only in town for a few days, so whatever they have they know is going to end soon.
Darcy-the beautiful Jacqueline Kim-is everything Lori is not. She is moody and quiet whereas Lori is chirpy and talkative. Lori, to me, is a girl whereas Darcy is a woman. She captures the attention merely by appearing on the screen. When she tells Michael that she is not his type, nor that she is anyone’s type, really, it connects to something I feel as well. What she means is that while guys like to look at her and presumably enjoy having sex with her, they don’t want to be with her in the long term because she is not everything a prototype Asian girl is supposed to be. She even predicts that Michael’s type is a small, typical type of Asian woman, and Michael is upset, mostly because she is right.
This scene cuts to the heart of so many issues between Asian women and men. I wanted to stand up and cheer because it’s true to life-to my life, anyway. White men want to date Asian women because we are exotic whereas many Asian men steer clear of American Asian women because we are too American. When Darcy says that she’s not any man’s type, really, I want to freeze-frame the moment and remember it forever. There is someone else who feels like me-even if it’s only a character in a movie. Even though this is not specifically a movie emphasizing ethnicity, small moments like that do underscore issues that Asians grapple with, but not in a preachy sort of way.
When Michael finds out about Darcy’s deception by going through Lori’s belongings when she’s not home, he is devastated. He doesn’t show it on the outside or talk about it, but it’s palpable. The scene where he meets up with Darcy after discovering her secret keeps me on the edge of my seat because I am waiting for him to explode. I don’t know how he’s going to confront Darcy, but I know it’s going to be painful. When it doesn’t happen and doesn’t happen, I begin to wonder if he’s not going to confront her and just keep the knowledge to himself. After all, she’s only going to be there a few more days, so why bring it up?
I am lulled into thinking that he won’t mention it when he does something completely out of character. Well, not out of character, but a surprise, nonetheless. He kisses Darcy then becomes insistent. When she asks if he wants to make love to her, he says he wants to fuck her so hard she screams, or something to that effect. As he had turned her down earlier for sex because he thought it was the easy way out, she is shocked when he says this and even more so when he doesn’t stop at first when she wants him to. He is so in control of himself that when he loses it, it’s more explosive than if he were the type of person to go off all the time. Darcy’s pain is my pain as she stares at him with such hurt in her eyes as he turns away from her.
She doesn’t leave, though, because he doesn’t want her to go. They spend the rest of the night sitting side by side and not talking. When she finally gets up to go, she wants to say something to him, but he cuts her off. His pain is so deep, he can’t bear to hear anything that might cause him to break completely. Or to hear something that might weaken his resolve. The shot of Darcy standing by the door before leaving is the most powerful in the movie. Most filmmakers would ruin it by having her say something pithy as she leaves but in this movie, she simply looks at Michael one more time before exiting. Perfect.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. This is where you should stop reading if you want to watch the end of the movie unaware of what happens. Consider yourself forewarned.
In my opinion, this is where the film should have ended. The last part of the movie doesn’t add much to it, though it doesn’t really detract from it, either. The scene where Darcy/Charlotte and Justin have sex in a motel room is perhaps the weakest of the movie. It’s the only time where there is a monologue explaining a theme of the movie and even though Jacqueline does a fine job with it, it’s out of place. I already discerned the themes of the movie, and I don’t need them underlined for me.
Likewise, the last scene leaves me ambivalent. I would have liked to have seen Michael end up with nobody because the movie is, indeed, about loneliness, but I can’t begrudge Eric Byler (director) his choice of allowing some hope at the end of the movie. It’s understandable that after all Michael’s suffered, there would be a ray of hope to end the movie, but I would have preferred that he ended up alone. Not because I am a sadistic person as some might suggest, but simply because it’s more consistent with the tone of the film. The unbearable loneliness that haunts each of us as we go through our days. The ending feels more like a Hollywood movie ending, but thankfully, it stops short of complete sap. For those of us who are more pessimistic, the ending allows the thought that things will not work out as planned whereas the optimists can believe that all will be well.
I have to mention something about the music which I think is brilliant. I am not someone who likes constant music to be played during a movie because I think it’s obtrusive and obnoxious (see Donnie Darko), but it only enhances this movie. It’s subtle, but it sets the mood for each scene. I can’t imagine this movie without the music which means that it’s a job well done. The other thing I have to say is that I normally don’t like the director’s commentary because I prefer to come up with my own reasons for things happening, but I liked this one. Or two. There are two, and I’ve been through all of the first one and some of the second. I will finish listening to the second one, which is truly remarkable as I usually don’t even listen to one.
In short, this movie is my current favorite movie. Some would say it’s because it’s about Asian characters, but that’s not true. While it doesn’t hurt that it’s about Asians, that’s not the main reason I like this movie. I like this movie because it’s a quiet, elegiac tribute to the desperate ways we live our lives. I like it because it takes the ethnicity of the characters for granted, never making a big deal out of it. I like it because so much is said through subtext and context rather than through words. It’s a gorgeous, moody, sensual movie that holds my interest from beginning to end. This definitely should be number one in your Netflix Queue, but only if you have the patience and tolerance to sit through a movie that doesn’t dazzle or titillate. If you’re that kind of person, you’re in for one hell of a good movie.