Watching TV With The Red Chinese is based on a Luke Whisnant young-adult novel that co-writer/director Shimon Dotan (Diamond Dogs) seems to have fed into a blender. The film begins in garbled flickers of animation giving way to live-action footage, a portentous voiceover (“Everywhere there’s meaning, order, shared knowledge”), a doctor’s interview, and home-video clips. The timeline jitters out of order, dropping viewers into a scenario it takes far longer than necessary to discover is straightforward and self-seriously soap operatic. Ryan O’Nan stars as a New York-dwelling English teacher who befriends three Chinese exchange students who move into his building in 1980. One of them, Leonardo Nam, becomes romantically entangled with O’Nan’s flaky ex, Gillian Jacobs, while also growing increasingly paranoid and unstable after a mugging. Would-be documentarian Michael Esper films the foreign trio’s experience while spouting phrases like “It is my lifelong aesthetic mission to purge cinema of its decadent narrative element.”
It’s hard to say whether the story’s Summer Of Sam-lite urban-hothouse setup (here, John Lennon’s assassination serves as a pivotal point) would work on its own; Dotan’s initial indulgent fragmentation certainly doesn’t add anything except confusion, and from the occasional use of black and white to Esper’s quoting of Marshall McLuhan, it’s often wincingly pretentious. The film has a talented cast—Nam and Jacobs have shown off their comedic gifts in, respectively, The Perfect Score and Community, but their roles here aren’t guided by personalities, just the needs of the plot. Jacobs’ character in particular comes across as a series of irrational impulses, as she sleeps with, then breaks things off with different guys seemingly just to steer the film toward its tragic conclusion.
Watching TV With The Red Chinese is a film about how being dipped into a chaotic moment in American history affects three naïve foreigners hoping to experience life in the U.S. while remaining separate from it. It’s especially frustrating, then, that the film depicts so little interaction between the Chinese men and the pop media that’s supposed to provide them with a cultural bridge. No time is spent on actually watching TV—instead, characters rant about it (“TV has corrupted them, ruined their minds!”) in the same way they monologue about Charles Bukowski and The Beatles. It’s as though they know this is too small a production to afford the rights to these entities’ work, so they’re determined to suck the joy out of them in some other way.