“In a New York Minute” is a film anthology that tells three loosely-connected stories about the female Chinese-American experience in New York.
It’s a melodrama that traffics in diaspora generalizations that aren’t necessarily the most flattering, and whose messaging and level of connectivity isn’t wholly cleared up in its finale. But it’s an intriguing enough debut feature by director and co-writer Ximan Li that one hopes she gets to film another, even if this one is only now making its way to the public three years after its film festival run.
Amy Chang plays a 40ish New York food critic and editor whose last break-up has landed her in therapy with a disastrous malady for someone in her line of work. She can’t eat. Food triggers her, and the stress of that, her work, her loneliness and her mother’s stereotypical “When are you getting married/having kids?” nagging is pushing her to the edge.
This persistent, annoyingly solicitous colleague (Jae Shin) is giving her the full-court press — cooking “porridge” and broth for her, so under foot that the viewer is on tenterhooks waiting for the accomplished Amy to blow him off with extreme prejudice. She doesn’t.
Angel Li (Yi Liu) is a Chinese actress married to an older, somewhat disinterested non-Asian (Erik Lochtefeld) who gives off a “mail order bride” vibe. The visual prompts of their “loveless” marriage don’t paper over Angel’s mercenary ruthlessness in pursuing her own agenda. Her younger lover/screenwriter (Ludi Lin) is keeping his options open, hitting the clubs for “meetings” every night he can. Angel’s “What if I told you I was pregnant?” speaks volumes, even if she says “Just kidding” afterwards.
She needs a man to support her acting career, and if she was willing to marry some 50something white businessman to get what she wants, what else might she try?
Nina (Celia Au) is a bottle girl, escort and sex worker whose love and main client is heading back to China, forcing her to take stock. She’s living above the family Chinese restaurant, and her money grubbing step-mother (Yan Xi) is making is making her pay for her father’s healthcare, underwrite her bratty step-brother’s education and pay back the small fortune they raised to buy/bribe her way to a visa out of China.
And there’s this down-to-earth food-truck operator Ian (Roger Yeh) whose American dream is his own place (restaurant) can be “our” own place. Her fellow sex-workers may remind her that “Nice guys don’t mix with girls like us.” But Ian’s offer has her dreaming and weighing the pros and cons.
Ximan Li’s first gimmick here is tying these three stories together. Two characters are neighbors, Amy’s magazine is doing “acted” video review/visits of restaurants they write about, which throws her and Angel together and Nina’s father’s restaurant is one of the places where these video reviews are shot.
The overlapping goes further than that, so much so that I had to rewatch portions of “In a New York Minute” just to see who winds up at whose karaoke “bottle” club table, who is ditching whom and just how Angel’s first New York indie movie — she plays a woman jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, an impossibility, her screenwriter beau notes — fits into all this.
It does, just not all that neatly. Li takes few pains to underline moments and connections that make this tale told with a largely unknown cast to make sense.
And then there’s the second gimmick, Early Pregnancy Tests that the women whip out and brandish as pleas, threats or just revelations to their men. Is that like a New York thing, or more Chinese and Chinese-American?
The performances are gutsy insofar as the men generally come off as feckless and the women as somewhat faithless, not that Li isn’t presenting them as victims — each in her own way.
The muddled climax to the film underscores how frustrating the picture is. “New York Minute” is both intriguing and off-putting, with a couple of seriously unromantic proposals suggesting “arrangements” and “mergers” more than love. The viewer can freely wonder if anybody on the screen is capable of love, and if the film’s contrived “choice” facing its heroines, “love” or “freedom,” is any choice at all, or even if the words mean the same thing in East and West.
Rating: unrated, sexual situations, sex work, profanity, alcohol abuse
Cast: Amy Chang, Yi Liu, Celia Au, Jae Shin, Yan Xi, Ludi Len, Erik Lochtefeld and Roger Yeh.
Credits: Directed by Ximan Li, scripted by Ximan Li, Yilei Zhou. A Gravitas Ventures release
Running time: 1:42