Bob (Justin Kwong) endures. At 10 years old, he’s bored in the classroom and goes mostly unnoticed at home. After school, he works odd jobs—mowing lawns, washing cars—in order to pay for piano lessons, unbeknownst to his perpetually distracted parents. As White on Rice begins, Bob is sharing his bedroom with his 40-year-old uncle, Jimmy (Hiroshi Watanabe), recently arrived from Japan following the collapse of his marriage. It’s not the best of situations, but Bob does what he’s told. Pepping through the bedroom doorway at his uncle, Bob pushes his glasses back on his nose and delivers his message: “Mom says to go wash your hands and pick up dinner.”
As appealing and clever as little Bob is, his story is actually not at the center of White on Rice, which premiered at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival 3 May. And that’s too bad, for the manchild whose story is at the center, Jimmy, is neither appealing nor clever. Established early on as naïve and bumbling, Jimmy is plainly a burden to his sister Aiko (Nae) and her husband Tak (Mio Takada). As they struggle with their own missed signals (Tak looking to rekindle their long-forgotten sense of romance, Aiko focused on her career as a florist), the so-called adults tend to ignore both Jimmy and Bob, except as the former is an annoyance or source of worry. While Tak wants to him to find his own apartment, Aiko is worried that he’ll end up “sleeping in his car again.”
These and other cross-purposes provide what structure there is for White on Rice. Jimmy has his heart set on the other guest in the house, Tak’s beautiful grad-student niece, Ramona (Lynn Chen). This despite her obvious interest in her ex, who happens to be Jimmy’s co-cubicle-worker Tim (James Kyson Lee). Alternately frustrated and unfocused, Jimmy schemes to put himself in front of Ramona, in ways not so different from Tak’s efforts to get his wife’s attention. Bob advises he be straightforward with her, then observes their ostensible date at a dinosaur park from a not-so-discreet distance, giving the thumbs up when Jimmy describes his ex-wife (she had “soulful eyes like marbles, long hair like a horse, and just the right amount of junk in the trunk”). Ramona smiles hesitantly, unsure if he’s serious, and Jimmy plows on. Posing for a day-in-the-park photo, he leans in to Ramona, his arm around her as she tolerates him.
Jimmy’s resounding incompetence and childish self-centeredness make him increasingly intolerable for Tak. Helping Aiko arrange flowers around a coffin-with-corpse at a funeral home, he complains that Jimmy is so inert around the house that “It’s just like having a dead guy around.” Aiko protests, “I know he’s a handful, but isn’t it fun having him around?” In fact, the movie offers little evidence of this “fun,” save for an opening scene where she and Jimmy share belly-laughs at a ludicrous samurai film in which he plays Villager #14, Tak sitting to the side on the sofa, sighing and rolling his eyes. Mostly, though, you see Jimmy’s ineptitude and errors in judgment, some without consequence and some illustrating Tak’s assessment that his brother-in-law is “retarded.”
While Tak can’t see that he’s behaving in ways that are equally clumsy and obtuse, the movie ensures that you do. This sort of outrageous-silly-boyness might be considered “trendy” (see: Napoleon Dynamite, Eagle vs Shark, even, in some universe, Knocked Up and its clones), but it tends to be repetitive, upping antes rather than innovating (even conceding that at least part of the point is to deliver gag after gag with conclusions foregone, the monotony can be numbing).
Of course, the hijinks in such outings tend to divide along gender lines: boys do their best to possess girls and girls put up with all manner of foolishness. Here Ramona and Aiko—and Bob, to a point—are cast as foils for Jimmy and Tak’s very slow lessons-learning trajectories (bizarrely capped by a trip to the emergency room, where Aiko has to put up with a Caucasian doctor’s egregiously racist stereotyping).
You might hope that Bob will grow up to be a different sort of boy. Though Jimmy counsels him on occasion (after “the puberty,” the boy will “be tall like the girls”), Bob is primarily left to his own devices. During a climactic mini-crisis set on Halloween, Bob dons a sheet and daunts an audience full of similarly costumed kids by playing the piano. This little ghost, so intent and so much cooler than cute, has access to a world quite beyond the one inhabited—so shrilly—by his parents and uncle. You hope he finds his way.