J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Shopping for Fangs, on Chopso

It is the late 1990s, but Trinh is still down with the “sunglasses at night” style statement of the 1980s. At that time, independent film still had a rep for very personal passion projections, whereas today it is considered just as much an industry as the studio system. This lowkey quasi-horror comedy was very much a film of its time, but it is fondly remembered by many as one of several Asian American indie releases that have recently been dubbed the “Class of 1997.” Even without the zeitgeisty context, it would still be notable as co-director Justin Lin and co-star John Cho’s first features. Take a nostalgic trip back to the post-Pulp Fiction indie glory years when Quentin Lee & Justin Lin’s freshly restored Shopping for Fangs (trailer herepremieres on Chopso, the brand-new English-language Asian-interest streaming service.

Clarance idylls away a great deal of time in a Southern California coffeeshop, partly because it is comfortable looking and partly because he enjoys the company of the ditzy, blonde-wigged waitress, Trinh. It is strictly platonic. He pines for his long-distance boyfriend in Taipei, while she has developed a weird crush on Katherine, a mousy housewife, whose wallet and Gordon Gekko-style cell phone she swiped from a ladies’ room. Trinh seems to live in another world, so she has no reservations about sending Katherine flirting notes and photos of herself. Yet, much to her surprise, Katherine finds herself fascinated by this free spirit.

Meanwhile, the sexually and professionally frustrated Phil starts to suspect he is becoming a werewolf, due to the alarming increase in the volume and rate of growth of his facial hair. As fate would have it, his bossy sister has just shacked up with lycanthropy expert, so perhaps it is just the power of suggestion. In any event, poor Phil is getting a lot stronger and physically resilient, but also starting to develop anger management issues.

Like so many indie films of the era, the various characters and story arcs crisscross at key junctures, to demonstrate what an ironic little world we live in. However, the two main strands are more stylistically delineated, because Lee helmed Katherine’s sequences, while Lin handled those focusing on Phil. Even though Lin would become the industry powerhouse (Fast and the Furious installments 3-6, Star Trek Beyond), Lee’s Katherine/Trinh story arc has more zip. Frankly, Fangs could have been a rather intriguing (albeit idiosyncratic) little De Palma-esque psychological thriller without the lycanthropy storyline.

Lin and Cho became famous and Lee has built a reputation as a crossover indie-LGBT filmmaker (he also directed the bizarrely under-appreciated The Unbidden), but the real discovery here is Jeanne Chin’s amazing performance as Katherine. Initially, she seems almost distressingly passive, but when you least expect it, she reveals her extraordinary range. The young, fresh-faced Cho also exhibits the smart presence and on-screen charm that would lead to the Star Trek reboot (and the excellent sf series, Flashforward, which ABC inexplicably sabotaged, by giving it the NewsRadio treatment).

It is funny how innocent the late 1990s now seem in retrospect. In many ways, Fangs is a product of its time. You could argue, it works as well as it does, because the unhurried pace lulls viewers into its own rhythm. If a similar film were produced today, it would be expected to be louder, busier, bloodier, and more political. That is a shame, because it is rather pleasant to relax with a cup of coffee in the company of Clarance and Trinh. Recommended as a nostalgic indie throwback, distinguished by a dynamite turn from Chin, Shopping for Fangs is now available on Chopso.

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