The cross-cultural rom-com has specific tropes that diverge slightly from your typical rom-com. There tends to be at least one disapproving parent of at least one of the romantic parties and this disapproval is often fueled by stereotypes and stubbornness. Cultural differences between the partners are utilized for humor and dramatic tension. And there also tends to be the punishing panopticon of the gaze and gossip from the outsiders looking in on the couple crossing unspoken borders. In some ways, the cross-cultural rom-com can write itself, but that is why they, like any genre, can also seem repetitive.
But there’s a reason why these tropes are repeated. There’s a reason why we have such genres. However well or poorly executed, they touch on universal themes we experience. The benefit of such cross-cultural rom-coms is that the universal truths can ironically be made particular to the cultures represented. Roseanne Liang’s autobiographical Chinese-New Zealand cross-cultural rom-com My Wedding and Other Secrets (2011) provides such a narrative – universal themes of love and fidelity to partner and family within the particulars of the Chinese diaspora and the wider Kiwi culture the film is placed within.
The earliest example of an interracial couple on celluloid in New Zealand of which I am aware, and have seen on video, thanks to the collection at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, is Broken Barrier (John O’Shea and Roger Mirams, 1952), a film about a relationship between a Maori woman and a Pakeha (Maori for European) man. (Interesting factoid about the film – one of the two cameras used was claimed to have been taken from a dead German soldier in WWII.) In this film, both sets of parents disapprove of the relationship the couple has started. Although heavy-handed as these films can sometimes be, it appears to me as progressive for the time it was made since the Pakeha character’s false motives are challenged early on. (He enters the Maori community with exploitative intent as a tabloid journalist.) He eventually decides to change his ways through a friendship he develops with a male Maori colleague rather than solely through the motivation of his romantic relationship. Not being a New Zealand media scholar, I’m not sure how common the cross-cultural romance (comedy or drama) is in the wider New Zealand film and television canon, but I think it’s fair to say that Liang’s My Wedding and Other Secrets is a welcome addition to the long white cloud of NZ cinema.
In fact, according to actor Michael Ginn (the alternate ‘Nice Chinese Boyfriend’ option for the lead Emily Chu in the film), who was on hand for Q&A at the screening of the film I caught at the 30th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, NZ on Air saw such a need for this type of film and saw such potential in Liang that they approached her to turn her real-life student documentary Banana in a Nutshell (2005) into the feature length film My Wedding and Other Secrets. That potential was realized even before My Wedding and Other Secrets in Liang’s short film Take 3 (2008) which so impressed New Zealand film critic Hamish McDouall that he included it in his book 100 Essential New Zealand Films (Awa Press, 2009). (It’s from that book that I learned that factoid about Broken Barriers.) McDouall partly credits Take 3‘s appeal to Liang’s direction of comic timing and “witty use of split screen”. Two of the actresses featured in Take 3 are also featured in My Wedding and Other Secrets, Michelle Ang and Katlyn Wong. McDouall notes that they received special mention along with Liang from the Berlin Film Festival, quoting festival representatives as saying the short possessed “charismatic actresses and [a] fresh approach”.
My Wedding and Other Secrets carries that fresh approach to Emily Chu, (played with just the perfect bit of dorkiness by Michelle Ang who won a Best Actress AFTA – Aotearoa Film & Television Award – for her role as Liang while the real-life Liang and her co-writer Angeline Loo did for Best Screenplay), a nerdy, heavily-spectacled, college student studying computer science so her parents will acquiesce and let her take film classes. Her personal dream is to make a vampire martial arts film. Early on she stumbles on a tall, pasty, and handsome fencer, a gwai lo named James (Matt Whelan). (Perhaps similar to her split screen use in Take 3, Liang’s POV-within Emily’s fencing helmet actually works rather than coming off as a gimmick.) They quickly fall in love but Emily is determined to keep this love a secret from her parents, (played by Hong Kong film veterans Pei-Pei Cheng and Kenneth Tsang). Emily and James even maintain this secrecy after they decide to marry for the financial benefits provided to married students in order to help Emily fund her student film. (As unbelievable as all this sounds, this is indeed how things happened for Liang and her husband.) Emily is encouraged to keep her relationship a secret because she has already witnessed her father destroy her older sister’s relationship with a white boy. Convinced by her film school nemesis Eric (Simon London) to shift course and film a documentary of her romantic predicament rather than wasting her money on her genre mash-up, Emily proceeds to document her modern-day Romeo and Juliet. The film proceeds to weave this cultural tension towards various high-jinks, such as James making an effort to win over Emily’s father by learning Mandarin, a situation that has been done before, but the way Liang extends the humor of this idea through a montage of jokes shows even old ideas can be applied in refreshing, entertaining ways. I would mention how the fidelity switch between Emily’s parents in the film is a nice touch to the cross-cultural romcom, except every nice touch is based on what really happened, so it’s not as if Liang and Loo were trying to create made-up scenarios. Yes, they are spicing things up with wittier lines than what likely were spoken in the heat of the moment, and they likely broke up their own private space-time continuum regarding what instances took place in the real story, but the kernels of truth are at the core of what’s responsible for the impact of the larger popping dialogue and narrative.
As a feature length dramatic film that expands on an existing documentary made six years before, My Wedding and Other Secrets enabled Liang the unique opportunity to respond to how the documentary was misinterpreted by some Pakeha viewers. In the scene where the film is screened at the New Zealand International Film Festival, Emily finds the audience congratulating her for ‘sticking it to her parents’. I haven’t seen Banana in a Nutshell, but the film allows for the possibility that this might have been a legitimate interpretation by the audience. For example, the scenes of Emily editing her documentary allude to Emily not being true to the story in the final cut. So My Wedding and Other Secrets allowed Liang to take the story back to the editing room, the place where films are really made anyway. It is there that she returns to reconsider her part in making this drama. She knows her parents were trying to love her and her sisters as they knew best. But she also needed to break away from the script written for someone else. At the same time, she had to realize she was writing a script for her husband that put limits on his love for her. She had to find a compromise that would keep her family, her partner, and herself, happy. As Emily wonders, ‘Why can’t I have both?” In this way, My Wedding and Other Secrets shows how every generation blazes new trails on reaching that happiness, just as every genre is twisted by each new generation.
My Wedding and Other Secrets is not a brilliant film. It’s not the masterpiece Eric wanted to make. It’s more like the film he looked down upon when he and Emily first battled in film class. But Eric learned to see a different kind of love for cinema, the love for the entertaining date movie. The love for genre in all its manifestations. Here’s hoping Liang has another feature-length story in her besides this one she’s doubled-up on.
My Wedding and Other Secrets is screening this Thursday, March 15th, 2012 at 8:45pm at the Sundance Kabuki and Saturday, March 17th, 2012 at the Camera 3 Cinemas as part of the 2012 San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival. For more information and tickets, go to the SFIAFF page for these screenings here.
Suggested links from this article:
My Wedding and Other Secrets webpage
Banana In a Nutshell (film)
Broken Barrier (film)
Take 3 (short film)
Since 2000, Adam Hartzell has been a contributing writer for the premier English-language website on South Korean cinema, Koreanfilm.org. He has written extensively on Hong Sang-soo for websites, festival programs, and The Cinema of Japan and Korea (Wallflower Press, 2004). He contributed several essays on various South Korean films for the upcoming World Directory of Cinema: Korea (Intellect, Ltd., 2012). He has even written on films not from South Korea for websites such as sf360.org and Hell on Frisco Bay.