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Now Chinatown

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Now Chinatown
Directed by Steven Dunning

Starring: Lianne X. Hu, Chao Li Chi, Jo Chim, Steven Dunning
Running Time: 1:52
Country: USA
Year: 2000
Web: Official Site
Now Chinatown is a promising debut that pulls us into the difficult life of a recent Chinese immigrant finding her way in Los Angeles. Realistic and tender, the film offers no easy answers for the hardships newcomers to the U.S. often endure.

This movie could have been filmed in any immigrant community in Los Angeles. From Salvadoran to Vietnamese to Somali, the struggle is much the same. Producer/director/writer/actor Steven Dunning has chosen Chinatown as the story's axis. Main character Lee (Lianne X. Hu) rarely ventures off of the path between work at a dingy restaurant and home to care for a drunken aunt. Sent here by her family to work, she's basically an indentured servant who battles daily to keep the paws of aggressive men off of her. Though her wise eyes take everything in, she hesitates diving into an unknown world and has never taken the bus or seen the ocean. When she meets Steve (Steven Dunning), a door of opportunity opens. An engineer who has worked in China, Steve becomes her link to the outside world without ever leaving Chinatown.

The strength of this film lies in the fact that it is not a love story of two people from wildly different cultures. Instead the focus remains on Lee and her self-realization. Steve is no knight on a white horse ready to take her away into the wilds of Los Angeles; the film has nothing to do with this type of ultimately patronizing plotline. Instead, he's a much more realistic friend.

The film centers on the definite pecking order in established immigrant enclaves and the societal hierarchy that quickly puts people in their place. While there is much comfort in finding people who speak the same language and can help with initial employment, a natural dependency and inclinination to remain in the zone of the familiar grows. On the one hand people who held high positions in another country continue to be respected, whereas in mainstream culture, they are "just another immigrant". On the other hand, those on the lower rungs can be exploited and totally isolated from the outside world and their rights. In the film Lee must endure abusive language and sexual harassment at work. The only true kindness she's shown is by a lady named the Empress (Jyne Kyoto Lu) and Steve. In one tender moment of the film's most difficult scene, the Empress invites Lee and the busboy to sit at the table with the restaurant owner and guests, reminding everyone that they too are Chinese and should be allowed to join the banquet thrown in the honor of the Assistant Deputy Consul (Lo Ming). This unleashes a whirlwind that leaves Lee aware that it is time she makeS decisions whose consequences she can live with.

Dunning has touched on a nerve present in other recent films. One need only see the success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Real Women Have Curves or to a lesser extent Catfish in Black Bean Sauce to demonstrate that audiences can connect with cultures present in the U.S. that they may initially find unfamiliar.

For its limited budget, Now Chinatown shows the human cost of coming to America and a little bit of what those who have settled here have had to go through to get here.

  Anji Milanovic

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Now Chinatown