Narrowing in on the realities of “millennial” relationships is one of those things Hollywood struggles in representing with any degree of accuracy, coming across as forced writing from those obviously disconnected from our generation. It’s always down to the indie maestros to make up for the shortfall; sadly their exhibition is often limited to festival appearances and art-house screenings. Winning the LA Muse Fiction Award at its world premiere during this year’s LA Film Festival, Tanuj Chopra’s fourth feature Staycation is one such film; providing an intimate albeit uncomfortably invasive portrait of phallocentric insecurities and destructive behaviours, it’s a sixty-minute fly-on-the-wall invitation steeped in Indian cuisine and awkward tension unravelling our two leads until they are at their most vulnerable.
Spanning the length of the day, Staycation follows Luke and Peggy (Anthony Ma and Grace Su, who also co-wrote the script), a Taiwanese-American couple whose co-dependency is rooted in low-budget sex-tape adaptations of indie horror flicks. Interspersed between the calamitous ordering and consumption of an Indian buffet, tensions rise over a conversation on Peggy’s ex which comes to a head after Luke stumbles on a dick-pic that still remained on his girlfriend’s phone. Clearly suffering from penis envy, Luke becomes increasingly distanced, especially during an awkward evening of bar hopping, to the point where his jealousy takes a completely unexpected yet punishing turn.
Whilst a brief film working on a minimal set-up, both Ma and Su take full advantage of these limitations and explode with such natural chemistry it’s almost difficult to forget this is a fictitious piece of cinema. Their verisimilitudinous relationship is made even more real with how they act around each other – Peggy’s reaction to Luke’s handjob request, his overreaction to everything related to her ex (even if this is blown out of proportion at times), the near-resolution of the whole conflict over food-poisoning – which only fuels the hilarity of their circumstances in the film’s first act even more. Though the issue clearly remains strong in Luke’s memory struggle for maturity makes for an amusing until the film’s second act; as the cracks of their relationship – and our experience as a whole – begin to appear we get to see exactly what sort of person he really is, and the introduction of his friend-come-employer Justin only unravels this more. Our impressions of him change just as rapidly as Peggy’s does.
Cloaked beneath the strong chemistry and the amusing portrayal of young sexually-active LA denizens is something even more real. Not only does the film explore themes of name-based perceptions and racial bias in a clever way the audience is treated to the real Luke and Peggy through voice-over narrations, though it is never clear how or when these came about in the course of the film’s cannon. They reveal a side to themselves that neither side knows about – their true feelings – and this concealment makes for an even more anxiety-riddled viewing as the narrative unfolds. Becoming more prevalent in the darker final twenty minutes, especially Peggy’s last narration where all space and trust have been abandoned, we cannot help but remain fixated to see if and how these truths manifest themselves. We find ourselves yelling at the screen for them to reveal themselves at their most vulnerable but are left as helpless bystanders watching everything implode.
As thoughtful as these hidden truths are in examining Luke and Peggy, Chopra’s own cinematography and editing help to flesh them out even more. With movements and angles to make any lover of indie-filmmaking as jealous as Luke is over the penis on Peggy’s phone, the filmic set-up makes use of every intimate space to create unique set-pieces – the setting up of dinner makes for a sumptuous watch for instance – whilst simultaneously adding an artistic dimension to this otherwise minimal film. These are as effective at evoking a situational awareness and personality as the original music from co-star Karin Anna Cheung and Goh Nakamura, grounding the film with its own identity and cementing it within the current moment.
Though there are moments of seeming implausibility dotted throughout Chopra’s latest, he ultimately wins us over with this charming window into the secrets and truths of two people trying to find each other within a mess of heightened sexual pleasures. A touching and funny watch before its unmistaken hard shoulder derails everyone involved, Staycation must be praised for its strong chemistry and stylish enframing. Very much a product of this contemporary age, this feature takes a modern yet puerile and disgusting phenomenon and turns it on its head; it makes the film more about Luke than it does his relationship with Peggy, who is often cast aside in this spiralling situation, but showcases the ruinous implications of his churlish inability to reveal himself and act like an adult. Whilst far from representative of all sexual relationships, this is certainly a step-up from anything white-Hollywood has provided us so far.
Staycation is showing on November 10 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.