by Ed Malin · January 20, 2015
If you like the Film Noir genre, you can now have it with a twist. Pan Asian Repertory presents Damon Chua’s new play Film Chinois which takes place shortly after World War II in a smoky, dangerous part of Peking (which all the Chinese characters remind us is pronounced “Beijing”). There are Maoists, there are chanteuses, there are guns, and nothing is what it seems.
In a nightclub, Chinadoll (Rosanne Ma) is approached by the very foreign American tea trader, Randolph (Benjamin Jones). Chinadoll stops the action frequently to tell the audience what is going through her head. She knows a lot about men, and is fairly sure Randolph is really a government agent. The Western intelligentsia (hypocrites, incidentally) regard Mao Zedong as a killer and a menace to China’s postwar recovery. As Warlord Mao gains ground, everyone around Beijing’s talking about him. The Belgian Ambassador (Jean Brassard), who had been to Peking and has returned after the war, is romancing Simone (Katie Lee Hill), a young singer of sorts. Simone wants transit papers, and in exchange the Ambassador wants Simone to recover some mysterious property. Both sets of characters cross paths in pursuit of some very secret people called The Twins and of the Ambassador’s sought-after, somewhat incriminating pre-war film (see title).
Sheryl Liu’s set is an elegant, traditional Chinese structure which hints at a decade of neglect and of change to come. We know we should expect the dark shadows and tension of the Film Noir genre. Marie Yokoyama’s lighting reveals all of the glamour and smokiness of Beijing. Ian Wehrle’s sound brings us back to the happy songs they were playing in Peking during the war. Carol A. Pelletier’s costumes further identify the femme fatale and other characters we might expect to meet in this period….except the play throws some brilliant curveballs in terms of disguise and gender role swapping. I will not compromise the identities of the secret agent involved by revealing more here; go see the show. Damon Chua’s writing is complemented very nicely by Kaipo Schwab’s directing. I got a real sense that the characters had complicated motives which would take the length of the play to be revealed. The mystery of the secret film was such that, even after seeing it, there is some mystery why lives were lost over it. As an indictment of American cowboys and supercilious Belgians (the “good guys”), the play nicely subverts the genre.