“Film Chinois,” a new play by Damon Chua presented by the Pan Asian Repertory Theater that takes place in Beijing in 1947, follows many of the basic rules of film noir, translated to the stage. Stylish and dark, it reeks (as film critic Roger Ebert once described this particular movie genre) “of the night, of shadows, of alleys, of the back doors of fancy places.” Men in fedoras and trench coats carry guns, tail their prey, and deliver or receive packages. There is not just one but two femme fatales in bright red lipstick. The characters smoke cigarettes and wear silk, the stage is scented with sex and mystery, and there is the unmistakeable sense that things won’t turn out well. Above all, like some of the best-known film noir, more than half the time I didn’t know what the hell was going on.
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Chinadoll (Roseanne Ma) sometimes narrates, taking the role usually played by a private eye. She is described in the program as “Maoist femme fatale” which would be something of a spoiler, if the plot were clear enough to spoil. Randolph (Benjamin Jones) is an American, a spy on a mission.There is a slimy Belgian diplomat (Jean Brassard), and Simone, a Chinese chanteuse (Katie Lee Hill), who is desperate for transit papers to get out of China. Rounding out the cast is James Henry Doan as (the program again) “The Man: A Mysterious Presence of Many Faces.” The labyrinthine interaction of these characters pits passion against politics and yields some attention-getting scenes, a highlight being a confrontation between Chinadoll and Simone, both toting guns — which brings to mind another one of Ebert’s ingredient for noir: “women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.”
It is hard to pull off a film noir these days that isn’t a parody. Pan Asian Repertory deserves credit for a serious attempt, which works best visually; kudos go to director Kaipo Schwab and the design team for the intriguing atmospherics. There is something refreshing and inspired as well in shifting this quintessential American genre to an Asian setting; and placing it during China’s civil war, between World War II and the Chinese Revolution. But when near the end of “Film Chinois,” Chinadoll says to Randolph, “Follow me; everything will be clear,” trust me, it isn’t. The playwright hasn’t set up the resolution solidly enough for it to feel like a sufficient pay-off for our many moments in the dark.
Pan Asian Repertory Company at Theatre Row
by Damon Chua
Directed by Kaipo Schwab
Sets: Sheryl Liu
Lights: Marie Yokoyama
Costumes: Carol Pelletier
Sound: Ian Wehrle
Stage Manager:Taylor Alyssa Marun
Assistant Stage Manager: Katie Kavett
Cast: Jean Brassard
James Henry Doan
Katie Lee Hill
Running time: 90 minutes, including one intermission
Film Chinois is scheduled to run through February 8.