A Review by Rachel Kunjummen Paulose
“Seeking Asian Female” is a quirky documentary created by newcomer Debbie Lum, whose directing debut is a look at the virtually arranged marriage of American Steven Bolstad and Chinese Jianhua “Sandy” Bolstad.
The documentary takes its purposefully unnerving title from the project Lum originally intended: an examination of the disturbing fetish of some men for women of color, and in this case, for East Asian women in particular. It is a sociological topic laden with land mines from which Lum does not shy away. Indeed, Lum begins her film with personal interviews with a handful of these men, who unabashedly employ markedly objectifying terms to describe East Asian women: “submissive,” “mysterious” and “idyllic servant girl.”
Quickly, however, Lum zeroes in on one such obsessed gentleman: Steven from San Francisco, California. As narrator, director, and accidental co-star, Lum offers her own initial impression of Steven as a man whose “verbal filter seems broken.” It is a charitable description.
Steven’s tiny apartment is cluttered with the evidence of his quest for the “perfect Asian wife.” Boxes of pre-Internet, mail order bride catalogues overrun the apartment; pictures of hundreds, if not thousands of woman, dominate his computer files; and messages from a multitude of prospects flood his e-mail.
Steven seems particularly besotted with Molly, a Chinese woman whom he feels has given him indications of her interest in a lifelong commitment. Steven sends Molly extravagant gifts, including a laptop computer for her birthday, with no evident hope of marriage.
Eventually, however, Steven meets Sandy, another Chinese woman who agrees to come to the United States on a fiancée visa after Steven travels to China to meet her. Sandy and Steven have three months to decide whether or not to actually marry, at which time, like Cinderella’s horse drawn carriage, Sandy’s fiancée visa will expire.
All the while, the couple grant Lum extraordinary access to film their relationship. Lum is present as Steven and Sandy first meet in person at the airport. She records their arrival at Steven’s San Francisco apartment. And Lum is permitted to join all manner of other activity, including their visits to friends, private dinners together, and even their disagreements, which Lum increasingly finds herself translating and moderating.
Part of what makes this documentary charming rather than exploitative is the remarkable vulnerability Steven, Sandy, and Lum all share with Lum’s seemingly omniscient camera. Each person shares hopes, fears, and flaws freely, as if Lum’s camera is a personal video diary.
Steven works as a cashier at the local airport, and he brings much baggage to the relationship. In his sixties, Steven is twice divorced with two grown children. He is burdened with debt and hopelessly disorganized. When Lum confronts him as to what, precisely, Sandy stands to gain from a relationship with him, air bubbles nearly appear above his head. Still, Steven possesses optimism and a relentless cheerfulness best exemplified by his perpetually lopsided grin.
Sandy, too, has lived a less than charmed life. She is thirty, an old maid by exacting Chinese standards. She was raised in the countryside by parents too underprivileged to send her to college. On her own, Sandy moves to the city, obtains a factory job, and eventually rises to a desk position. Still, her city friends deride her as a country mouse. After meeting Steven on the internet, she says Steven will be the one to “make me happy.”
Even Lum’s lack of confidence comes through, first in the strain in her voice as she narrates the opening of the film, and more dramatically when the story takes an unexpected lurch towards disaster.
After Steven’s latest financial escapade threatens their wedding, Sandy fumes to Lum she will marry Steven so as not to lose face with her family and friends back in China. Then, Sandy asserts, she will find a job in America, stash away her money, and leave Steven. Sandy worries about Steven’s continued passion for Molly, his recordkeeping of the many women in his past, and his perpetual slovenliness. Communication is a challenge because Steven has never tried to learn Chinese, and Sandy’s English is limited. Lum wonders aloud about the ethics of her filmmaking, as both Sandy and Steven turn to her as a counselor.
Steven’s brother plunks down $20,000 to save the wedding, and the couple marry. Still, problems percolate. In one concomitantly hilarious and painful scene, Sandy hollers to Steven “lunch!” in Chinese, with all the patience of a short-order cook. Pounding the few steps to their bedroom, Sandy shouts again, “lunch!” while thundering in rapid Chinese, “How many times do I have to tell you to come and eat?” Steven, of course, understands not a word of this but does manage to arrive to eat his lunch before leaving for work.
After Sandy moves out, Steven seems to come to terms with how his life must change because he has committed to marriage. Lum challenges both Sandy and Steven as to their motives for the marriage. At the same time, Lum conducts her own internal dialogue. This in fact becomes an external self-dialogue, because Lum shares with the camera her concern about unwittingly becoming an actor in her own film. After both Steven and Sandy assert Lum’s mediation has been a factor in their decision to marry, Lum concludes, “I think my role here has become totally questionable.”
Eventually, the couple reunite, and Sandy and Steven again credit Lum with helping to save their marriage. Lum still questions whether the relationship can last. Still, Lum describes her own relief at Steven’s evolution: “I can see that [Steven’s] obsession with any Asian woman has been replaced by real life with Sandy.”
“Seeking Asian Female” is a unique take on the challenges of a marriage arranged by the Internet. Lum finds real people willing to share their humanity. In that process, Lum drops her own guard as well. The result is a heartfelt, unvarnished look at the challenges of modern love through an “only in America” story.
“Seeking Asian Female,” will air nationwide on PBS on Monday, May 6, 2013 at 9:00 p.m. The one hour documentary is a production of Independent Lens, and it is presented by the Center for Asian American Media. Film festivals also are screening the movie nationwide.