One might think it a bit odd that writer-director Dave Boyle’s first two films have been primarily centered on Japanese culture… since he’s not Japanese, but there certainly is a reason for it. His debut film, Big Dreams in Little Tokyo, was loosely based off his experiences trying to learn the Japanese language while doing missionary work in a Japanese community. His follow-up film to that cult comedy hit, White on Rice, explores the Japanese culture in almost the reverse manner. While Big Dreams, which Boyd also starred in, dealt with an American who hungered for success in the Japanese business world, White on Rice takes a look at the difficulties of a Japanese man assimilating to American culture, with off-beat and humorous results.
The film centers on Jimmy (Hiroshi Watanabe), a 40-year-old who, after the divorce from his wife in Japan, moved stateside to live with his sister Aiko (Nae) and her grumpy husband Tak (Mio Takada). He lives a rather menial existence, working at a mindless office job by day while sharing a bunk bed with his 10-year-old nephew Bob (amazing newbie Justin Kwok in his feature film debut), who is vastly more mature than his uncle, by night. Jimmy really just wants to find love again, constantly set up by his sister on dates, trying to find a woman to marry him… so he can move out and start his life again. The problem is that Jimmy isn’t the most mature of men, with his two passions in life being dinosaurs and geology, which is only made worse by his minimal knowledge of basic American culture. Jimmy thinks his prayers are answered, though, when Tak’s lovely niece, Ramona (Lynn Chen), moves in with Aiko and Tak while she’s going to college… even though she still harbors feelings for her ex, Tim (James Kyson Lee), who works in the same office as Jimmy and is good friends with Tak as well.
The film isn’t quite as funny as I thought it would be, but it definitely works on the same sort of plane as The Station Agent did… although I have a feeling that this is one of those movies that gets funnier after each viewing. There aren’t any frills here and the film is almost fully character-based, while subtly dropping nuggets on the culture we live in at the same time. Writer-director Dave Boyle does have a very distinct style and he puts these characters in some funny situations, some that even poke fun at Japanese stereotypes, including a blind-date set-up with Jimmy and an abnormally tall (by Japanese standards) woman, which is one of the funniest scenes in the film. This doesn’t exactly have the most sound of structures, and it would’ve benefited from better transitions between scenes, but still you continually feel drawn to these characters and their contrasting lives. On the one hand we have Jimmy’s sister Aiko and her husband Tak, a normal successful suburban couple on the outside, but bored to death on the inside, both of whom want something more out of the marriage but they don’t know what that really is. Then there’s the free-spirited Jimmy, who by most standards is a loser and to some could seem partially retarded, but who also goes after his dreams and pursues his goals, no matter how bizarre they might be. It’s quite a wonderful duality of the American dream that Boyle portrays here, which plays out wonderfully at the film’s end.
Hiroshi Watanabe, who was cast in a smaller supporting role in Boyle’s first film Big Dreams in Little Tokyo and who Boyle wrote the lead in this film for, has quite a unique flair for comedy and who’s delightful awkwardness is pretty fun to watch on screen, almost the Japanese equivalent to Paul Rudd’s pitch-perfect awkward character in I Love You, Man. Like I Love You, Man, I wasn’t busting out laughing from jokes every few minutes, but I almost always had a smile on my face in watching both performances. While we get fine performances from the gorgeous Lynn Chen as Ramona, James Kyson Lee as Tim, Nae as the caring sister Aiko and Mio Takada as the grouchy Tak, the real show-stealer here is Justin Kwong as Bob. I almost wish they would’ve focused more on Jimmy and Bob’s performance because, like the American dream duality, there is such a wonderful connection between this 10-year-old Bob, an incredibly mature, practically self-sufficient, piano prodigy who runs his own business doing odd jobs around the neighborhood (think a less crass, Japanese, live-action version of Stewie in Family Guy) and Jimmy, who seems like he’s a 10-year-old trapped in a 40-year-old body. Kwong is just wonderful here, and the kid is actually a real prodigy himself, as he actually does play the piano proficiently and he even served as a second camera assistant many times on the film. Amazing. I’d love to see what this young talent can do next.
Dave Boyle does a fine job in his second feature film, working nicely with his cast, but the storytelling could use a bit of tweaking. It’s not that the film is hard to follow, but it might be a tad too ambitious for an 85-minute film that I wish would’ve pared down some aspects and enhanced others. Hell, I would’ve loved to just have the whole film deal with Jimmy and Bob, to be honest, but one can’t rewrite a whole film after finding an actor like that. Still… that would’ve been pretty sweet.
White on Rice gives us a very different look at American and Japanese culture through the eyes of a man who has kind of slipped through the cracks of both cultures. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny (or LOL for you lazy young kids), but it’s a charming slice of life that should put a smile on your face throughout.