This quietly engrossing character study concentrates on Paul (Richard Jordan), a callow American poet/academic who feels lost midway through life’s journey and whose mood changes from scene to scene, so that sometimes he projects his self-loathing in a very dislikable manner, and at other times he’s honest and tolerable. Like many of us, his personality depends on the people he’s with and what role he’s expected to play, and on his varying emotions and levels of discomfort. The French title, Alibis, is more apt.
He’s been summoned to Hong Kong because an old Chinese girlfriend, the mother of his daughter, has tried to kill herself. Their mutual friend (Betty Ting Pei) had always had a thing for him and thought her friend was lucky to have had a relationship and even a child with him when they met in America, but Paul’s ex felt adrift in her own land and never regained her footing while this other woman has been very successful.
The sequence that feels most false is when Paul humiliates a stylish French woman in his hotel by leading her on with dirty talk. This is when he’s at his most unlikable and hostile, and I found myself wondering if filmmaker Pierre Rissient, a Frenchman making an English movie in Hong Kong about an American protagonist and a Chinese woman, was expressing some kind of personal need to put his own nationality in its place.
Later famous as a French critic, publicist and distributor (and subject of the documentary Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema), Rissient directed a couple of films, and this carefully framed, searching, proto-Lost in Translation is one of them. If you can judge a film by its influences, it must be said that this one has a fine pedigree. Paul’s dialogue is constantly spouting quotations, but that feels convincingly like what his frustrated-poet personality would do. Rissient even cites his sources in the end credits: Dante, Shakespeare, John Ford, Bertolt Brecht, Coleridge, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Confucius, Henry Miller, Jim Thompson, Gregory LaCava, Fritz Lang, Henri Michaux and Guillaume de Machaut. That’s a catalogue of idols very much of its time.