White On Rice – a full review and ticket giveaway

I mentioned briefly the opportunity to see the Utah premiere of White on Rice last weekend. Well, the bad news is that I know nothing so far of future cities the film may open in and whether or not it will make it to Minneapolis, New York or Wichita Falls. (I’m leaning towards a bit of brutal pessimism towards the poor folks of Wichita Falls, but I’ll keep gunning for you!). The good news is, it’s been held over for another week in Salt Lake and Provo. The best news is that we here at Motley Vision have the opportunity to give away four pairs of free tickets for this weekend’s shows!

To enter the drawing for the free tickets, you may do one of three things: Give a shout out to the movie on Twitter, as your Facebook status, or as a group email to your friends. Then either send a cc of the email or a link to your Twitter/Facebook status to tigerindustryfilms@gmail.com. The drawing will be held at 5:00pm Mountain Time on Thursday, Oct. 1. Winners will receive a Fandango confirmation number to their show of choice. So the contest is done entirely by email and you have no tickets to pick up anywhere. Let the games begin!

Now, onto a little fuller explanation of the film.

Most of the reviewers I’ve read can’t help but compare White on Rice to Napoleon Dynamite, which is an interesting enough commentary on what Mormons have been contributing to the world of cinema. We seem to do really well in two genres: first, there are the insular comedies and melodramatic dramas that are so inaccessible that no one outside of the Intermountain West even bothers to take a side in the debates that ensue over how appropriate they are, and then there are the screwball comedies about lovable, bumbling, socially inept protagonists that do remarkably well with sarcastic college kids across the nation.

White on Rice falls squarely into Category 2, but what I love about it is its ability to avoid some of the over-the-top nonsense (not that protagonist Hajime “Jimmy” Beppu isn’t over-the-top; it’s just not nonsense) that plagues Jared Hess’s films, and also the amazingly innovative stabs that director Dave Boyle isn’t afraid to take. At the risk of sounding like the deconstructivist nihilist that I’m not, here are the pleasant ways in which White on Rice effectively pushes the envelope:

1. It’s subtitled. Not the whole movie – in fact, I can’t remember what percentage of the dialog is in English; maybe half. But they jump over the American box office assumption that subtitles are too much for our poor little demographic to handle, and throw entire Japanese scenes into the film. This shows significant faith in their audience, an audience that Boyle knows probably includes a fair share of anime enthusiast white kids who are going to latch onto this quirky indie film like there’s no tomorrow, not in spite of, but because it hits a particularly live cultural vein. (NPR once called Japan the first nation whose economy is supported by its ability to be hip.)

2. It uses violence to humorous effect. Not that I’m a fan of violent movies. (I Am Legend kept me awake and shaking for two weeks.) But White on Rice manages to open with a parody of a bloody samurai film and twist it to a commentary on the ridiculous role that violence has taken in our entertainment culture. Why on earth would someone laugh at a bloody samurai film? I don’t know. Why on earth do we pay millions of dollars to see machine gun blockbusters? Why is it OK to send our kids on virtual alien-slaying missions and call it playtime? I don’t know. Perhaps that’s something we need to examine.

3. It tackles cultural stereotypes head-on. The Deseret News criticized White on Rice‘s use of ethnic humor. The fact that it was Asian people making the Asian jokes doesn’t seem to register. The most endearing and well-played character in the film is Justin Kwong’s 10-year-old Bob, Jimmy’s nephew who is a straight-A student, concert pianist and profitable entrepreneur. Because his strict Asian immigrant parents pressured him to achieve? No, actually, because he sneaks around and does it under their radar. Another highlight is when Aiko, Jimmy’s sister, is presented with  a woefully misunderstood attempt at “cultural sensitivity” by an emergency room doctor – and she laughs in his face.

4. It’s not actually an American comedy. Director and co-writer Boyle may be American; the film may be set and shot in Salt Lake City; the movie maybe be ostensibly western in its plot structure, but everything about this film, including the quirky, irreverent humor and the decidedly atypical approach to violence, is extremely Japanese. This movie had more in common with one of my favorite quirky Japanese films, The Taste of Tea, than it did with Napoleon Dynamite. It runs on a different cultural spectrum than what we’re used to seeing. For this reason, it might not sit well with a lot of American LDS audiences. But not for the same reasons that “edgy” attempts at art like the U of U’s production of The Bakkhai won’t sit well with those audiences. (Reviewers have claimed that White on Rice has sexual references – they’re not blatant and they’re not thrown in to tease and titilate or intentionally provoke the audience. In fact, they’re deliciously unromantic and Japanese-pragmatic and one of my favorite lines of the movie is what Aiko’s husband Tak says to the salesman at the adult store he enters to buy an anniversary gift for his wife.) It’s a truly international piece of cinema. Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for an original, international piece of LDS cinema?

The film is rated PG-13, mostly for the samurai-style violence and for one memorable use of the S-word, and probably isn’t appropriate for young children. But I think it would do well with teens and young adults and I encourage you to catch it while it’s still playing in Utah and California or at an upcoming opening in Denver or Hawaii. And let me know what you think – let me know if this indie take on entertainment has a future or deserves a spot in the Mormon art world.

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