A consciously vigorous display of color pops out in almost every frame of Signature Move, with director Jennifer Reeder confidently celebrating the vibrance of Pakistani culture. In the opening shots, Pakistani clothing, groceries, DVDs, jewelry and food trucks are marked by the high saturation and diversity of colors, a visual signature in the film that both exhilarates and exhausts. Set in America, the film’s celebration of culture is decidedly preoccupied with a delicate and clashing bi-cultural existence. While there are films that deals with bi-cultural existence as a backdrop to their stories, this film, despite its refreshing characters and sincere narrative, stitches ‘Bi-cultural Existence’ into its stage curtains but leaves the theme unexplored.
In this romantic comedy with a familial bend, a daughter’s disconnected relationship with her mother is first sparked by cultural differences, then further severed by the former’s homosexual identity, similar to the way Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) struggles with familial, cultural and religious expectations about dating in The Big Sick (2017). Yet, for every effortless beat of hilarity and drama in the latter, Signature Move counters with cliches and contrivances, spelling out every feeling the viewer is supposed to feel.
Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lisa Donato) is a second-generation Pakistani American immigration lawyer who lives a comfortably solitary lifestyle. She has stylish, wavy and short hair, drives a scooter, and trains with an ex-pro-wrestler, Jayde (Audrey Francis), for fun. Her homebody mother, Parveen (Shabana Azmi), has moved in with her ever since Zaynab’s dad passed away a year ago. Other than Pakistani dramas on TV and praying, Parveen’s primary mission in life is to hunt for a potential husband for Zaynab, who hasn’t shown any interest in getting married, let alone to a man. As one of the more comedic devices used in the film, Parveens’ binoculars become the tool for her to literally spy on single men on the streets.
After a fun one-night-stand with Alma (Sari Sanchez), who is second-generation Mexican American, Zaynab starts seeing her on ‘casual’ terms. The two go on dates but never want to commit to a relationship, which is made clear when Alma refuses to meet Parveen, who is left alone at home all this time. Eventually, Alma agrees to meet with Parveen, only to realize that Parveen is clueless about their relationship. After confronting Zaynab about her dishonesty towards her mother, Alma leaves on a bitter note. Dejected, Zaynab expends her energy on wrestling, one of the film’s overt metaphors about dealing with identity, and foolishly decides to compete in a Lucha Libre wrestling contest, where she would face professional wrestlers. The film rushes to a culmination at this wrestling contest, where more metaphors and loose ends surface to wrap things up.
A resolute exuberance, created by the loud mies-en-scene, Bollywood-esque soundtrack, and forceful performances from the lead actors, Fawzia Mirza and Sari Sanchez, pervades the film, and is especially successful in arresting the viewer’s attention in the first act. The impression of an American rom-com borrowing the Bollywood aesthetic is hard to miss, which is a formal choice that injects new blood into the stream of culture-themed films that wholeheartedly adopt the Hollywood form (The Big Sick would fall into this category). Where Signature Move disconnects with the viewer is in its superficial treatment of the nuanced conflicts of bi-cultural identities, a vice its Hollywood counterpart did not commit (for the most part).
The comparison between The Big Sick and Signature Move is almost unavoidable, not only because of the Pakistani protagonists and the genre, but also their earnest portrayals of the disconcerting nature of bi-cultural existence in America. Having to compromise their liberal American identities with more rigid cultural and familial expectations, Zaynab and Kumail are confronted with the reality that they will never be accepted as fully American or fully Pakistani. While The Big Sick wraps this theme neatly into a feel-good and thorough storyline, Reeder, best known for her 2014 short film A Million Miles Away, which screened at Sundance and International Film Festival Rotterdam, seems to be more interested in telling rather than showing. We get a couple of confrontation scenes between Zaynab and Parveen, as well as Zaynab and Alma, where Zaynab verbalizes her frustrations with her bi-cultural identity, only to see this central conflict disappear completely in the last act. Instead, we watch an especially forced, almost cringe-worthy, monologue by Zaynab, announcing that, because of their cultural and familial differences, she will go on her own ‘path’ while Alma will go on hers.
While it’s clear that Reeder utilizes the device of wrestling as an overarching metaphor of ‘wrestling’ with one’s identity, and the wrestling masks as metaphors for the false identities people put on, they feel too on-the-nose to resonate. Most of the film’s dialogue achieves a similar effect, lecturing us with cliched statements about cultural identity. Zaynab, mostly notably, says to Alma, as if condescending to the viewer: “look, I’m just trying to figure it all out, it’s hard. You don’t know the way I was raised.” This line in the film also exposes the innocent flaws in Mirza’s performance, which is noticeably tentative.
The performance that does stand out is Shabana Azmi’s Parveen, which salvages the otherwise unimpressive ensemble, shining a light on an awfully lonely, misunderstood and broken soul. Moments of her sulking at home alone are powerfully poignant, trusting the viewer to immerse in the more detached bi-cultural existence of a first-generation immigrant. It’s moments like these that make me wonder if Signature Move could have sustained its narrative affectivity for much longer if Reeder had let us indulge in the quieter and more reflective portraits of her lead characters, instead of the more performative ones.
Signature Move was shown at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival on February 22.