8Books Review: “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong

Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Ocean Vuong’s novel debut. In 2016, Vuong’s poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, earned national recognition, winning the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Whiting Award. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous sings with Vuong’s poetic voice, snipping the narrative form into bites of elegant prose.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written as a letter from a queer Vietnamese son to an illiterate Vietnamese immigrant mother; the novel is in English–a language out of the mother’s command. The premise itself is sentimental, and when compounded with the tender vignettes of Vietnamese matriarchy, poor immigrant lives, and deep war histories, the novel pushes emotional boundaries in a way that I found deeply Vietnamese. Vietnamese language and storytelling consistently play with words and imagery. Simple wording can give way to florid descriptions that toy with serious subjects like death, while also providing dissections of words (see Vuong’s surgery of the word nhớ). This novel exemplifies the importance of specificity.

As the neoliberal impulse of universalism continues to assert itself with the rising representation of minority voices, Vuong is able to capture the minutiae of a Việt American queer experience with subtlety. As a queer Việt American, I finished the book with dozens of dog-eared pages, sometimes frustrated that I wasn’t able to flag both sides of a page. Tiny details sparked memories from my childhood I hadn’t even stopped to consider: “…her breath a mix of Ricola cough drops and the meaty scent of sleep…”, a search for oxtail at the butcher, “bahgeddy” or spaghetti, Cool Ranch Doritos with jasmine tea. Amidst these were new threads: a gay hate crime in Vietnam to the recent Pulse shooting in Orlando, a death of a young lover to death of family, links of our collective Vietnamese history to contemporary Việt Nam burial customs

For those of us who read Vietnamese, Vuong inserts a gift in his spelling of Ma. The Vietnamese language has a variety of words for mom, but the Vietnamese Americans I know fall into two main camps, me or má. Vuong does not shy from using Vietnamese within his novel. He maintains the language of his mother and grandma throughout, adding the appropriate accents where necessary. His use of Ma for his mother then is a deliberate choice, hinting to the close assimilation of Việt Americans, but also Ma in Vietnamese means ghost, a choice that will overshoot many but those of us who understand this significance deeply.*

I highly recommend picking up a copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as soon as you can. Enjoy the richness that Vuong brings, the specificity that he captures brilliantly, and the nuance that his minority voice adds to American histories. Vuong’s writing captures joy and grief in stark relief and I look forward to his burgeoning career. I leave you with a particularly beautiful image that the main character recalls early in the novel (no spoilers):

You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

*I later found out Vuong gave this away in his New York Times interview! Still claiming this (and the entire novel) as something for us Viet kids–which Vuong also openly declares in the same interview.

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Timmy Pham lives in New York City and once said he would be happy with rice and ruốc as his last meal (read the book, you’ll get it).


NYC Theater Review: “Fruiting Bodies” by Sam Chanse

By Timmy Pham

Ma-Yi Theater Company presents Fruiting Bodies, a new play by Sam Chanse at Theatre Row in New York City until May 19.

When an elderly sansei father heads off on a mushroom foraging trip alone, his two hapa daughters are forced to trek into the woods of Bolinas, CA, to find him. Along the way, a Puck-ish boy brings up memories of a missing favorite son while the family fractures along father/child, sister/sister, and husband/wife lines are brought into relief against the forest fog and earthy shrooms.

In Fruiting Bodies, playwright Sam Chanse, director Shelley Butler, and a team of sharp actors are able to bring across a subtle portrayal of Asian American life; one that is grounded in place, history, and a surprising amount of science. At times the background on morel (and other) mushrooms feels like a step into National Geographic, but the underlying themes crept back into my mind in the days after seeing the performance. Chanse is able to weave in new and refreshing nuances of larger overplayed structures throughout: racism as a sansei father questions his ex wife’s new choice of a nisei husband, the daughters revisit their neglect when confronted with their father’s sexist favoritism, an absent son reveals the ways discrimination becomes a structural obstacle both in the political and filial relationship, the Tesla-driving techno-optimist is confronted when her flashy solutions can’t mend fissures, and the angry arty “fuck up” daughter is disenfranchised by the larger systemic forces and doesn’t seem to take care of anyone, including herself.

Fruiting Bodies is a carefully crafted work built on a network of unfair family dynamics, the ever-changing Bay Area, a glimpse into Japanese American experience, and a deep sense of longing and loss. Like mushrooms, the carefully crafted touch points are ubiquitous but only really come into focus when you stop looking.

Tickets are from $32.25 to $42.25 and can be purchased by calling the Telecharge phone number 212-239-6200 or online at www.telecharge.com.

More About Ma-Yi Theatre Company

Founded in 1989 and now celebrating its 29th season, Ma-Yi is a Drama Desk, Obie Award and Lucille Lortel Award-winning, Off-Broadway not-for-profit organization whose primary mission is to develop and produce new and innovative plays by Asian American writers. The Ma-Yi Theater Company website for additional information, www.ma-yitheatre.org. Ma-Yi Theater Company productions have earned 10 Obie Awards, numerous Henry Hewes Award nominations, a Drama Desk nomination for Best Play and the Special Drama Desk Award for “more than two decades of excellence and for nurturing Asian-American voices in stylistically varied and engaging theater.” Ma-Yi Theater is under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director Ralph B. Peña.

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Timmy Pham was once in a community theater production of King and I where his family were the only Asians. Fake tan and dyed black hair featured prominently. He is grateful for progress in Asian American theatre.

8Books Review: “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” by Yukiko Motoya

By Timmy Pham

The Lonesome Bodybuilder, by Yukiko Motoya, contains eleven stories wrapped in a dark fantasy. Drawn from a collection of stories originally in Japanese, the work was only last year translated to English by Asa Yoneda, and published by Soft Skull Press in November 2018. This collection is Motoya’s English-language debut.

At the heart of the stories is “An Exotic Marriage”, a new translation of “Irui konin tan” (previously translated as Tales of Marriage to a Different Sort), for which Motoya won the 154th Akutagawa Prize in 2016. The novella-length story centers on a troubled wife who has noticed her individualism slipping away both figuratively and literally as her marriage continues. The story builds itself around the realism of neighbors, an apartment dog park, and her husband’s obsessive media consumption, but, as with all the eleven stories, takes turns of dark whimsy, their faces begin to droop and metaphors of snakes devouring one another become more reality than figurative gestures.

The other stories of the collection are similarly haunting in a way that feels like Motoya has brought Grimm Brothers to the 21st century. In the story “Typhoon,” a child waits at a bus stop and learns about flying umbrellas from a raggedy man. The title story, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” is the quiet journey of a housewife who channels her quiet determination into a newfound hobby. “How to Burden the Girl” is especially odd, centering around a new neighbor with an anime appearance and Oedipean backstory that sounds like it was lifted from bloody video game. The stories are indeed dark, but demure in a way that is haunting. To call the stories feminist is an easy, but lazy label, as Motoya is able to offer a range of dark insights from capitalism and consumption in “Fitting Room” to women in corporate culture in “I Called You by Name.” Give The Lonesome Bodybuilder a read, as Motoya’s work will undoubtedly leave you confused and amused.

*****

Timmy Pham lives in New York City and only recently trained himself to read on public transportation without getting a headache.

Two Filipino-American skaters will represent Southern California at the 2019 US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit

EDITOR’S NOTE/UPDATE: Aubrey placed second, earning Silver Medal at US Figure Skating Championships. On that strong performance, she received her first international assignment from Team USA, and competed at the 2019 Bavarian Open in Oberstdorf, Germany. Henry placed 7th overall at US Figure Skating Championships. He’s getting ready for the new season after taking some time off for an adventure to Shanghai, China.

By Helen Mendoza

Southern California teens Aubrey Ignacio (15) and Henry Privett-Mendoza (16) will compete next week at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, MI.  They have a lot in common: a love of skating; big families, and they’re both US Figure Skating novice level competitors. Together, these two Filipino-American skaters are bringing island style and a champion’s grit and determination to the championships.

For Aubrey Ignacio, who was crowned the 2019 Pacific Coast Sectionals Novice Ladies’ Champion in November, this is her first trip to the US Championships.  Aubrey fought through a back injury and faced tough competition to win gold in Utah. “I’m so proud and blessed to have watched Aubrey mature both as a person and a skater this season,” says proud mother Ophelia Ong. Prior to her championship performance in Utah,  Aubrey earned a Silver Medal at the 2019 Southwest Pacific Regional Championships.  In 2018, she was the Southwest Pacific Regional Intermediate Ladies’ Champion.  Aubrey is coached by Amy Evidente and Wendy Olson. Her short program was choreographed by Cindy Stuart. Her long program, a medley of songs from the Broadway show, “On Your Feet: The Musical”, was choreographed by Jamie Isley.

Henry Privett-Mendoza also fought through injuries for much of the 2018-19 season.  “It was tough being hurt,” said Henry. “I had to be really patient, keep working to get better, and trust that it would come together.” That patience and hard work paid off when Henry won the 2019 Southwest Pacific Coast Regional Championship in October and then followed up by placing 2nd at Pacific Coast Sectionals in November.  For Henry, who picked up a US Championship medal in 2015, this is his 5th trip to nationals, qualifying at every level he’s competed. Henry is coached by Robert Taylor and Rudy Galindo. Galindo, a USFS Hall of Fame inductee, is also Henry’s choreographer.

Aubrey represents the All Year Figure Skating Club and Henry skates for the Figure Skating Club of Southern California.  However, together at nationals, they are proud to be part of the great tradition of Southern California skating, and to represent their Mabuhay! heritage. The 2019 Geico US Figure Skating Championships Novice Ladies and Novice Men competitions will be held on January 21-22 at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills, MI.  The competition will be live-streamed through the USFSA Fanzone at https://usfigureskatingfanzone.com/.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Helen Mendoza is a film/video producer, writer, and photographer. She is a vocalist and a founding member of Vox Femina Los Angeles. She is also a mother of two and lives in Los Angeles with her wife.

8Books Review: “Blame This on the Boogie” by Rina Ayuyang

By Timmy Pham

There are many things to love about Rina Ayuyang’s Blame This on the Boogie, but one that stands out to me is her waxy, crayon depiction of skin tone. In her first autobiographical comic, Ayuyang captures snippets from her life growing up as one of few Filipino Americans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the struggles of motherhood and postpartum depression in sunny California. Drawing from the vibrant colors of Hollywood musical cinema and flashy television, Ayuyang crafts a beautifully scrappy look into a unique and relatable (for me at least) Asian-American experience.

But back to the art for a second. Asian-American graphic novelists have been the rise, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang from 2006 was the first graphic novel by an Asian American I read and fell in love with. More recently, I was thrilled to read and witness the success of Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do. Both illustrators present clean story-lines with equally distinct coloring and lines. Blame This on the Boogie provides an entirely different approach. Ayuyang’s stories bleed into one another, with no clean panels to guide the reader, and her colors are pure and stacked. It is a strong and well-executed choice that echoes her love of dance and sport. As a darker-skinned Viet boy, I grew up avoiding the brown crayon, reserving it for trees and ground, but Ayuyang artful layerings of yellow, red, orange, and brown all help lend the full range of tone and dimensions to her depictions of herself, her family, and the racial diversity of an American experience. Cheers to that.

Content-wise, Blame This on the Boogie reflected back much of what I knew as the child of immigrants. Living room dance parties, a hungry acceptance of new American culture (yay football–though I grew up in Seattle and therefore am obligated to grimace at her love of the Steelers), and the fascination with American pop-culture that bleeds onto the internet (Ayuyang stans Kym Johnson and Hines Ward’s partnership in Dancing with the Stars) all reflect a familiar experience of a blended Asian-American world amid loud visiting titas. Give this graphic novel a pass through, the ballet sequence at the end (as is customary with Hollywood musicals) is a treat.

(Editor’s Note: Check out more of the gorgeous interiors over at Drawn & Quarterly)

*****

Timmy Pham lives in New York City and only recently trained himself to read on public transportation without getting a headache.

AA Industry Success, Geoffrey Owens & Acting Realities

by Tim Lounibos

It’s an amazing time

The past several weeks have been absolutely amazing for the Asian American entertainment industry. Crazy Rich Asians blew past $100 million at the box office in less than three weeks, becoming the most successful rom-com in almost a decade on its way to surely cracking the top ten all-time list for that genre.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a huge success on Netflix to the point where it has actually raised the popularity of the Japanese yogurt drink Yakult and the stock value of the company who produces it.

Searching had the second highest per-screen box office average in its opening week, trailing only CRA, and more than doubled its distributor’s box office expectations.

As a result, Hollywood has begun greenlighting Asian American projects left and right, and is being more inclusive in casting Asian American actors in general. It’s an amazing time, one to be celebrated.

Geoffrey Owens

Yet, thoughts of African American actor Geoffrey Owens dominate my mind.

His recent Trader Joe’s job-shaming has brought attention to how difficult it is today to make a living as an actor. The general public, for the most part, has a very skewed perspective. If people watch actors in the movies or on shows and recognize them in public, they conclude that those actors are well off—that they’re living the high life. If you’re an actor who’s made it to the top of the profession, this very well could be the case (at least, while you’re at that top); but for the vast majority of actors, this is sadly and laughingly not the situation—and for Asian American actors in particular, well, let me share my story.

Continue reading “AA Industry Success, Geoffrey Owens & Acting Realities”

Kids Meet Issues in New Web Series ‘Radical Cram School’

By Nako Narter

What does it mean to be an Asian American child in Trump’s America? New episodes are still rolling out for comedian Kristina Wong’s Radical Cram School, a web series featuring not merely a cast of Asian kids, but a diverse cast of Asian kids, with one identifying as gender fluid, and nearly half of mixed race. This series is this generation’s (and for lack of precedent, every generation’s) answer to how to be resilient to the racist and misogynist rhetoric of our times.

This groundbreaking new series is equal parts cathartic and informative, a window into the minds of our children who don’t always have a chance to speak up, and a spotlight on bright and eager young minds. For parents, older siblings, cousins, and babysitters who want to know how to facilitate conversations about ethnic and gender identity with kids, this web series spells it out through puppet shows, music, and games.

While the kids in the series are young (ages 7 to 11), they’re wise beyond their years and certainly old enough to notice that they aren’t seeing people like them on TV or in movies, to have had a few confusing race-based encounters, and to have questions and opinions of their own.

Issues such as intersectionality, wage inequality, and structural racism can be tricky topics to tackle, but they don’t have to be. Giving these girls a chance to vent and affirm each other, they are able to empower each other and us to be proud of who they are.

Episodes are launched weekly on Facebook, but you can watch all six episodes on YouTube.

Nako Narter is a senior majoring in writing for film and television at Emerson College. She is originally from the Bay Area and has read forty books so far this year.

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is not our ‘Black Panther.’ It’s a Movement.

By Tim Lounibos

Major strides (25 years ago)

Twenty-five years ago, an Asian American industry movement seemed imminent. I was young and returned from Hong Kong as the lead in Clara Law’s Wonton Soup. Major strides were being made with the successful releases of Dragon: The Bruce Lee StoryMap of The Human HeartThe Joy Luck ClubAll-American Girl (highest-ranked new series of the season), and Vanishing Son.

My acting success was directly entwined with this movement. From summer ’93 to spring ’94, I booked a high-profile indie film, big-budget commercial film, sweeps-period telefilm, Star Trek: TNG guest star (which was just plain cool), and the pilot episode of Margaret Cho’s ground-breaking series as a would-be suitor. My career was taking off and dreams were tantalizingly achievable. Success seemed right around the corner!

However, despite the nation’s readiness to embrace Asian American actors on the large and small screens, the overall failure of All-American Girl – due to the network’s mishandling of Margaret Cho, unenlightened writing, and negative community reaction – brought everything to a screeching halt. The proverbial balloon popped and studios and networks reverted back to tried-and-true non-inclusive projects.

Popped balloons and fears of backlash
Over the next decade, though, I remained optimistic as I continued to land guest star roles, buoyed by the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition’s efforts to increase diversity on both sides of the camera—but my career eventually plateaued as momentum proved elusive for an Asian American actor in Hollywood. Along with being considered “too manly” and often hearing “we’re not going that way,” I sadly discovered that white writers hesitated to write POC-specific roles because they feared backlash from advocacy groups and feigned ignorance due to their lack of life experience.

Yet, I persisted in following my passion and overall conditions continued to improve with the help of various initiatives (internships, showcases, staffing mandates, etc.), but this forced transition of inclusive change often resulted in feelings of marginalization on staffs and in writers rooms. Some actors did find success as series regulars or supporting leads, but more often than not diversity and inclusion were reflected in the delivery guy, the nurse, or the silent extras in the background.  By that time, I reached an age where I just fell through the cracks.

Thus, as an Asian American actor, my optimism waned. I lost confidence that the industry would undergo real and meaningful change, not even allowing me the ability to provide for my growing family.  So I left Hollywood.

Business mandates, game-changers, and new optimism
Fast forward in my absence, social media and streaming content begin to wreak havoc on the Hollywood landscape. Tinseltown undergoes a seismic transformation, becoming an ultra-modern Wild West with seemingly unlimited access points and distribution outlets. Decision-makers are forced to adapt or be left behind. Content creators and viewers’ voices demand change on a viral level, and the small screen responds for Asian Americans with the shows SelfieFresh Off the Boat, and Dr. Ken.

This piques my interest.
Continue reading “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is not our ‘Black Panther.’ It’s a Movement.”

Asian American Youth and E-Cigarette products

by Chris Sedayao

While a little less than 1 in 7 of all Americans smoke, around 1 in 4 Vietnamese American men smoke, according to the Center for Disease Control.  The use of cigarettes has decreased significantly in the United States since the days of the Marlboro Man, with young adults smoking 18-24 less than the average.  Still, cigarette companies have found ways to sell into this younger demographic.

Asian American youth have found an alternative to cigarettes, but like their predecessors, use highly addictive products such as vapes, Juuls, Suorins, and countless other e-cigarettes products. According to a study posted by the US National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, use of these products was high among Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Chinese Americans in that order. Filipino American use was higher than the overall US average.  Being a young adult and growing in an Asian American community, I have been exposed to all these products. I have seen the effects vary from person to person, but in general, most people who use these products become addicted. These companies have become successful in targeting the youth with their products over the last few years.

Despite that, there is still hope in changing the way kids look at e-cigarette products as the government did with cigarettes throughout many years of stigmatizing advertising. Starting with FlavorsHookKids.org, one can share the downsides of using these products and help limit the use of e-cigarettes for current users and future generations of youth.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Chris Sedayao grew up in Northern California and is currently a student at Northeastern University.

(Disclaimerflavorshookkids.org is an advertiser on this site.)

Q&A with Paget Kagy of ‘Kat Loves LA’ and EXCLUSIVE new episode early release

By Dawn Lee Tu

Exclusive for 8Asians readers, check out Episode 6 of Kat Loves LA here before it gets released on 1/28!

Star, writer, and producer of Kat Loves LA, on not denying your Asian American identity, making that big leap into acting, and her love of rom-coms…

Paget Kagy (pronounced KAY-gee) is no stranger to talking about representations of Asian Americans in Hollywood. Kagy describes her parents as strong Asian American figures in her life who “always spoke about Asian American representation in the media and they were very well-educated in that way.” Her father, a successful lawyer, published Transpacific Magazine, one of the first Asian American magazines in the U.S., in the late 1980s which had a lasting impact on Kagy. He often spoke about “how there were never any Asian American role models in the media who weren’t stereotyped.” As a result, when Kagy took that leap into acting, she knew that she would create content and write roles with Asian American leads.

When Kagy began to write her web series Kat Loves LA (KLLA), currently available on YouTube, she was set on challenging Hollywood’s notions of being able to cast Asian Americans as leads in a mainstream and universally appealing and entertaining way.

I chatted with Kagy about the impact her parents had on her decision to go into acting, a very traumatic audition for The Lion King, and whether or not Kat finds love by the end of Season 1.

How did you grow up? What were some formative experiences?
I was born in LA and I grew up here to two Korean parents and they moved here when they were really young so they’re extremely acculturated. My dad went to law school at UC Berkeley and my mom’s very well-educated. I’ve always strongly identified as Korean but when I was growing up, I was one of maybe three other Asian Americans in my class which was predominantly Caucasian. So I remember having a confusing relationship with being Asian because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me who was setting the standard of beauty or popularity in the school I went to or in the media.

I do remember how kids can be cruel … kids would say, “go back to China” or they would pull back the corners of their eyes. I just thought that was the way the world unfairly saw Asians. I would always fight back but it was tough feeling like you’re an outsider just because of the way you look. I used to remember feeling like I wasn’t pretty or attractive. I didn’t set any kinds of standards of beauty or anything and it just made fitting in a little bit harder. I wasn’t a loner; I had friends but it was just kind of like a struggle that I internalized to a certain extent.

I guess it didn’t help that I was also kind of weird as a kid.

Continue reading “Q&A with Paget Kagy of ‘Kat Loves LA’ and EXCLUSIVE new episode early release”

Fun, irreverent Alice Lee on playing a badass in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Electric Dreams’ Series

By Dawn Lee Tu

PHILIP K. DICK’S ELECTRIC DREAMS – SEASON 1 – EPISODE 106 – “Safe and Sound” (photo: Elizabeth Sisson © 2017 Sony Pictures Television)

Alice Lee has been in the game for a decade and there’s a good chance you’ve seen her before.

Her impressive body of work includes Broadway (award-winning Spring Awakeningand Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark) and off-Broadway (Heathers the Musical), indy film (Jack, Jules, Esther and Me), television (Switched at Birth, Son of Zorn, The Mindy Project, Two Broke Girls), to reality-music talent show Rising Star. She finds time to cover songs and release original music on her YouTube channel. Lee is also the fresh-faced Asian customer service agent in the Discover Card commercialthat always sparks a fresh round of “Spot the Asian,” my favorite game to play while watching TV.

She can be seen in Safe and Sound, premiering January 12th on Amazon Prime Video. Safe and Soundis an part of Philip K. Dick’s anthology Electric Dreams, a sci-fi anthology series of ten epic, ambitious and moving standalone episodes, each set in a different and unique world – some which lie in the far reaches of the universe and time and others which are much, much closer to home. While the stories may be worlds apart, central to each is the poignant and warm exploration of the importance and significance of humanity.

Each episode is inspired by one of Philip K. Dick’s renowned short stories and has been adapted by leading British and American writers including Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander),Michael Dinner (Justified), Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), Matthew Graham (Doctor Who), David Farr (The Night Manager), Dee Rees (Mudbound) and Travis Beacham (Pacific Rim) among others.

Lee and I talked over the phone about her latest breakout role, balancing her love for singing and acting, and how she cultivates her creative energies.

Continue reading “Fun, irreverent Alice Lee on playing a badass in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Electric Dreams’ Series”

Film Review: ‘The Big Sick’ starring Kumail Nanjiani

By Michael Aushenker

Opening June 23 and going wide July 14, Kumail Nanjiani stars in The Big Sick, his autobiographical pet project—based on his real-life courtship with future wife Emily V. Gordon and their struggle after she is diagnosed with adult-onset Stills disease—and between the film’s Sundance buzz this year and Nanjiani’s signature butt-of-all-jokes geek Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley, this Lionsgate-Amazon co-release arrives on a wave of anticipation.

Nanjiani and Gordon co-wrote the screenplay with the guidance of producer and comedy zeitgeist filmmaker Judd Apatow. Michael Showalter (best known as co-writer with David Wain of the Wet Hot American Summer franchise) takes a major career step forward directing.

The movie also co-stars Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as the parents of Emily, played here by Zoe Kazan.

From L to R: Bo Burnham as CJ, Aidy Bryant as Mary, Kurt Braunohler as Chris and Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail in The Big Sick.  Photo by Nicole Rivelli.

In THE BIG SICK, Nanjiani plays a years-ago version of himself as a struggling stand-up comic in Chicago who becomes caught in the cross-cultural crossfire of his Pakistani immigrant family and his deepening romance with Emily, a blond Caucasian he meets after she heckles him during one of his comedy club routines.

Reeling from the toggle between Kumail’s overbearingly traditional Pakistani immigrant parents (who hilariously and repeatedly try to set Kumail up in an arranged marriage) and the trappings of modern romance, Kumail and Emily’s budding relationship has its ups and downs right before Emily is plunged into darkness due to her emerging illness. After Emily lands in a medically induced coma, the tense situation creates an unlikely trio, yoking Kumail with Emily’s parents, Terry (Romano) and Beth (Hunter), in a weeks-long triangle of worry and antics.

Zoe Kazan as Emily and Kumail Najiani as Kumail in The Big Sick.  Photo by Sarah Shatz.

Comedy nerds may experience some déjà vu watching The Big Stick. Medical dilemma aside, Kumail and Emily’s grand love affair and its cross-cultural obstacles had its thunder stolen by season one of Master of None, where many of these issues were already explored and entertained (more deftly and with more depth) in the grand love affair between Dev and Rachel.

But like with that couple, it is the actress who is the secret weapon here: just as Noel Wells brought much nuance and naturalistic charm to her role opposite Aziz Ansari, Kazan does so here with Emily.  Which is not to say Nanjiani is merely rehashing Dinesh here.  He’s not. However, he’s not as good a dramatic actor when the movie calls him to be.

The Big Sick is entertaining enough, if overlong and melodramatic; not the kind of wearing-out-its-welcome-early bloat found in Apatow-helmed features Funny People and This Is 40 (Barry Mendel, producer of those movies, also co-produces this film), but dragging in places (perhaps suffering from a touch of Apatow-style self-indulgence). Meanwhile, a few minor details, such as Kumail’s “bag of devotion,” could’ve used more set-up earlier in the film.

From L to R: Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail, Holly Hunter as Beth and Ray Romano as Terry in The Big Sick.  Photo by Nicole Rivelli.

To be expected by anyone familiar with Nanjiani’s stand-up act and interviews (such as in last month’s New Yorker), the dramedy comes loaded with jokes riffing off of Kumail’s cultural identity issues as a Pakistani American afloat in mainstream white culture, but it’s not enough to lift the film out of the soapy suds.

On an aside, Apatow’s own films have received criticism for its conspicuous placement of ethnicity in the background of his stories, and in The Big Sick, the only Asian faces in the film—Nanjiani, his family and family friends aside—are (you guessed it!) the doctors and nurses at the hospital. But this is a minor stray observation, not a major complaint, given the movie’s A-story, which benefits from richly comedic performances of Adeel Akhtar as Kumail’s brother Naveed; and Anupam Kehr and Zenobia Shroff as Kumail’s parents. Concurrently, Romano plays Terry as a straight man to Hunter’s feisty, two-fisted Beth.

The movie has its contrivances, especially when Kumail’s and Emily’s parents are stuck together. And even the most casual of viewers schooled on enough rom-coms will see that very Hollywood-ish last scene coming a mile away.

However, it’s great to see multicultural stories being told at a time when we obviously need more human-sized stories at our year-round CG-saturated multiplexes.