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Move the romance to the concrete jungle of modern Manhattan, and tropes are a little more difficult to avoid. Front Cover tells the story of a gay fashion designer (see?) in his late twenties who apparently hates part of himself—the part that’s Chinese. Ryan (Jake Choi) wants to be all-American. He doesn’t speak Chinese, he doesn’t date Asian men, and he’s ashamed that his parents ran a nail salon. Thus Ryan is irritated when he’s tasked to style Ning (James Chen), an up-and-coming Chinese actor, for a photo shoot that will serve as his introduction to the States. Ning insisted on working with someone from the same background, even if that person has essentially whitewashed himself.
Writer-director Ray Yeung’s second feature is a clunky affair from its opening line: “Driver, step on it!” Ryan tells his cabbie in the parlance of a ’70s bank robber. The dialogue never gets much smoother and neither does the plot, even though the synopsis pretty much telegraphs all its moves. Whereas Ryan is exasperated by Ning’s insistence on, say, first meeting at a traditional Chinese restaurant while he chatters in Mandarin with his large, loud entourage, Ning isn’t too happy that Ryan is gay. Ning tells Ryan he won’t work with him “unless you don’t show your homo side so openly.” The problem with this roadblock is that Ryan was hardly flamboyant during their initial encounter and the subject never directly came up. He neither shows nor tells.
Considering this is a romantic comedy, you can fill in the blanks from there. A strained relationship becomes a grudgingly accepted one, then suddenly Ryan and Ning are BFFs. (Yeung threatens to include a “becoming friends while shopping” montage but opts for a “getting high and dancing” one later.) There’s an awkward misunderstanding with Ryan’s broken-English-speaking mom and dad who show up suddenly at his door, an awkward dinner at a romantic restaurant, and an awkward joke about the meaning of “pussy.” And if you don’t think that these two crazy kids won’t eventually get together, you’ve probably never seen a Katherine Heigl movie.
Front Cover means well. Yeung’s script speaks to the issue of how toxic it can be to deny who you are, both racially or sexually. There’s a message about family and relationships being more important than careers. (Though its key exchange is laughable: When Ryan tells his boss that he wants to take some time off, she says, “Do you want more money? Is it… love?”) And some scenes are fittingly sweet, even if you roll your eyes because you knew they were coming.
But these good intentions never translate into a good movie. Even Yeung’s direction is graceless, with many scenes just fading off to black, which essentially stops the film dead. And to complete his Final Draft arc, Yeung tacks on another conflict, tears in front of the television, and a purportedly joyful finale: Look! Lyan is being nice to Asians! This time, the fade to black is welcome.
Front Cover opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.