If you've never learned anything from the movies, you will take home at least one nugget of wisdom from Ethan Mao: "Taking it up the ass is not as bad as you think."
If that doesn't get your attention, nothing will, but it's a bit of a distraction from the real story at hand, as is the subsequent full-frontal nudity of an overweight, gray-haired sugar daddy (Erik Robinson). Ethan Mao (Jun Hee Lee) is a young Asian-American street hustler who sulks melodically under the neon lights of a city at night, but while the setup may be familiar to viewers who have seen cinematic sob stories of gay hookers before, from there it treads on fresher ground. Yes, he meets a handsome drug dealer with a heart of gold named Remigio (Jerry Hernandez), but their love is not one at first sight. They bond over shared hardship and mutual dissing of the naked rich fat dude, but then comes the key event that changes things forever. Ethan very casually asks, "I need to get some stuff from my parents' house. Can you give me a ride?"
Remigio agrees, not fully aware that Ethan's conservative, hard-assed Chinese-American father (Raymond Ma) had kicked him out a year prior for being gay, shortly after gunning down a burglar with no remorse. Nor does Remigio realize that Ethan's stepmom (Julia Nickson, best known as Rambo's love interest in First Blood Part II) was instrumental in getting the boy banished, by discovering his gay magazines and reporting them to Dad.
The parents are supposed to be away, but one of those convenient little accidents of plot leads to their forgetting a key item and having to come home. Here is where the real drama begins: Armed and dangerous, Ethan holds his family hostage and forces them to listen to him, as they never have before. If the explicitly gay stuff hasn't been to your taste, this is where the real drama kicks in. Who hasn't fantasized about tying his parents down and making them quit the nagging to listen to your grievances?
That said, let's be clear -- pointing a gun at your parents may feel empowering, but it ultimately leads to no good. Ethan's looking for a necklace that belonged to his late mother, but it's in a bank vault, and it happens to be Thanksgiving Day, so he can't get it right away. Unwilling to let it go, though, he opts to keep the hostage situation going until the bank opens at dawn. Tensions come to the surface, some awfully cheap dream sequences jack up the suspense, and bonds are forged. How does it end? You may not guess.
Writer/director Quentin Lee, who previously co-directed Shopping for Fangs with Better Luck Tomorrow wunderkind Justin Lin, shows an astute feel for drama and tension, and first-time director of photography James C. Yuan truly impresses with his use of shadow and contrast. The movie is made up of digital video and 35mm film, but (at least on the DVD provided to reviewers) the difference in stocks is not noticeable. For a low-budget indie with no special effects, Ethan Mao is a treat to look at.
There is a significant flaw, however, and that would be the acting. Hernandez's Remigio is a standout, believably warm and in over his head, and Ma has a great character-actor face, but most everyone else feels like an amateur. Star Jun Hee Lee mostly delivers a forced petulance reminiscent of Edward Furlong in every movie not directed by James Cameron, and Nickson's overdone performance as the "evil stepmother" feels like actorly indulgence (watch the scene where she pisses her pants). As Ethan's stepbrother and younger brother, respectively, former Power Ranger Kevin Kleinberg and newcomer David Tran are lightweights.
It's quite possible to get sucked into the story nonetheless, as the direction and writing are taut enough that even Chuck Norris and Lou Ferrigno would be interesting under Quentin Lee's supervision. But it does make one eager to see what Lee could achieve with seasoned pros at his command. Given that he tends to make only movies about gay Asians, that concept may be a pipe dream, but there's clear potential here to reach out to a wider audience.
Step 1: Lose the naked fat guy.
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