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Can Damon Chua’s Film Chinois Deliver on Its Eastern Promise?


Peking, 1947: A bustling city teems with international
operatives and suspicions. World War II has ended. Communists and nationalists vie for power in China, which sided with the Allies but now faces tumultuous change: Revolution’s in the air. In embassies, on backstreets, at nightclubs, Western diplomats and spies carry out murky missions while navigating a silken web of hidden (and shifting) allegiances.

Film Chinois, a studious new play by Singaporean playwright Damon Chua, now at Pan Asian Rep, looks at this power conflict through a familiar cinematic lens. This is postwar Peking as Orson Welles or Raymond Chandler might have rendered it: shadowy parlors, dark alleyways with silhouetted assassins, cabaret singers who pack pistols in their purses, dapper men with ungentlemanly desires. Randolph (Benjamin Jones), an American “tea trader” who seems uncannily focused on politics, reckons with Chinadoll (Rosanne Ma), a femme fatale who shrouds her motives in a perfumed mist. Meanwhile Simone (Katie Lee Hill), a Chinese chanteuse, tussles with a Belgian diplomat (Jean Brassard) for
affection and — even better — information.

A couple of menaces weigh heavily on everyone’s mind. One is Mao Tse-tung, whose burgeoning national campaigns portend an unknown future. Some
unlikely people turn out to carry Mao’s little red books on their person. Everyone wants to get their mitts on an important film roll that has gone missing. A more pressing concern, though, is the Man (James Henry Doan), described in the dramatis personae as “A Mysterious Presence of Many Faces.” He has a habit of appearing at sinister moments — late at night in a hallway when shots suddenly ring out, for instance — then slipping away unseen.

Chua set out to write a good noir homage, not a political drama. But he finds some striking elements beyond self-conscious movie styling — at least as far as we can tell from this mostly uninspiring, literal staging. Film Chinois sometimes seems to privilege the perspectives of the Western men while it questions their
actions. The sagacious Belgian and fresh-faced American don’t know this rapidly transforming China as well as they think they do — a point that resonates in our present decade’s Sinophile gold rush. As in any decent noir potboiler, no one can claim authority or authenticity for long; Simone, the beguiling but elusive songstress, even performs her club act using someone else’s vocals.

What can be hard to square here is how all these atmospherics work with, or against, ancient Western perceptions of China as unknowable and duplicitous. At times Film Chinois capitalizes on those archetypes of suspicious foreigners, encouraging us to enjoy them — as a midcentury Hollywood flick might. In other places the play deflates the types to show us underlying historical realities. That’s a tough balancing act to pull off onstage.

Director Kaipo Schwab’s production works hard on the shadows and glamour but never gathers enough force or specificity to deliver thematic undercurrents in full. Ma has some memorable moments, particularly in the late scenes when Chinadoll reveals her true sympathies, and she can cock a gun with verve. But you wish the playful dialogue had more urgency and depth to supplement the style. More new voices from Asia would make a welcome addition to the New York theater, where they remain rare. Chua offers appealing ambiguities, and no doubt he has something more unexpected lurking in the shadows.