Movie Review: White on Rice (2009)

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Even if White on Rice wasn't a modestly budgeted, wholesome charmer of a film from director Dave Boyle or if he'd filled the movie with the greatest of special effects, the best soundtrack and enough flashy cuts to make Guy Ritchie green with envy, your complete attention would still go right to the adorable and comically charismatic youngster Justin Kwong.

Making his feature film debut in a work he also aided as a second assistant cameraman "on many occasions" as the press release reveals, Kwong portrays the quiet, obedient, and often ignored precocious ten year old successful entrepreneur/gifted classical pianist Bob. Basically a distant and much more clean cut cousin to the type of worldly youngsters that populate the oeuvre of Wes Anderson, Bob's extreme self-reliance and ingenuity find him repeatedly forgotten about by his parents and his immature uncle and bunk mate, Jimmy (Hiroshi Watanabe).

Having worked various odd-jobs including being executed in a cheesy Japanese gore-fest dubbed by the one-and-only Bruce Campbell in the movie's opener, the forty year old Jimmy waits until the three months of food his ex-wife had prepared for him ran out before relocating to Utah. Sharing a room with his more mature nephew, the way-too-blunt and culturally shell-shocked Jimmy mooches off the kindness of his sister Aiko (Nae) and her much older, curmudgeon husband Tak (Mio Takada) just until he finds a replacement wife whom he vows will be much better than his previous one.

To this end and to hopefully eject him from the household where he's barely tolerated by Tak who is suffering a rough patch in his dull marriage to Aiko, the couple try to turn his goal into a reality. Yet after endless disastrous fix-ups with women as well as making the rounds of cubicle colleagues in dates typically arranged by his smooth and far more handsome coworker Tim (Heroes actor James Kyson Lee), Jimmy eventually discovers that he's foolishly attracted to the one woman connected to all of them in a relationship he tries to create out of thin air that would be approved of by none.

When he's reunited with Tak's gorgeous young college aged niece Ramona (Saving Face's Lynn Chen), Jimmy pulls out all the stops he's picked up via a crash course in American culture by sharing inappropriate pick-up lines, trying to pick her up from school and locking himself out of Tak's car, and above all trying to sabotage her relationship with Tim. Oblivious to the fact that Ramona and Tim are head-over-heels and have quite a history, Jimmy becomes more determined to win her heart while making an even bigger nuisance of himself than usual in the process.

For his follow-up to his acclaimed previous work Big Dreams Little Tokyo, Boyle makes the most out of a strong ensemble cast including the movie's most reliable scene-stealers like Kwong and Takada in what the filmmaker described as a "speculative autobiography" about a "bleak future..." wherein his "fantasies became more elaborate and ridiculous" to the point that "they gradually started to make me laugh."

Promoting Little Tokyo supporting player Hiroshi Watanabe to the film's lead in a work he chose "to tailor" exclusively for the talented and likable actor, Boyle designed the film so that it would fulfill his "lifelong ambition to be a cartoonist" by styling it a la influences Calvin and Hobbes and Fox Trot.

And fortunately, overall Boyle's ambitious decisions mostly paid off in this warm, big-hearted film that I enjoyed even more than another recent Asian stereotype-busting comedy Ping Pong Playa. However, one tiny flaw that pervades Rice is aside from Watanabe's indisputable talent, the overly animated and cartoonish character of Jimmy is so over-the-top and juvenile that we lose empathy for him fairly early into the film. In fact, we even find ourselves rooting against him especially when he goes beyond simple cultural misunderstanding to insulting women like a date he ridicules for being too tall.

Yet despite some of the missteps in the construction of the overly broad and cringe-worthy Jimmy and the fact that, as is often the case in comic strips like The Peanuts wherein Charlie Brown is far from the most beloved character, Boyle more than makes up for it via some unique characters and types I hadn't come across on film before such as the movie's MVP in the form of the irreplaceable young Bob who engages us completely such as in a straight out of a comic-strip Halloween evening.

Entertaining, gentle, and sweet enough to be suitable for family viewing aside from an Elf-like misunderstanding involving lingerie and the opening gory spoof of Japanese ultraviolent works, Boyle's festival award winning White on Rice which is opening in CA this weekend is sure to pick up some word-of-mouth buzz from moviegoers.

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