“Seeking Asian Female” is billed as “a personal documentary by Debbie Lum” and the personal involvement, along with the sometimes amateurish cinematography mistakes, detracts from this tale of one man’s yellow fevered search for a new wife. “Seeking Asian Female” premieres on PBS on Monday, 6 May 2013 at 10 p.m.
Fourth-generation American-born Chinese Lum had long been aware of yellow fever having been the focus of some unwanted attention before she got married. Lum received an MFA in cinema from San Francisco State University after she received a B.A. in Religious Studies from Brown University. Lum teams with Tina Nguyen (editor, writer and co-producer) and Amy Ferraris (co-editor and co-writer). It’s important to remember that Lum is a fourth-generation Chinese American and she grew up in St. Louis and didn’t take lessons in Mandarin Chinese until she began college.
After interviewing several men about their interest in Asian women, she settled on the 60-year-old twice-divorced Steven. Steven has been searching for an Asian wife through catalogues and online dating websites. He’s become interested in Chinese women although he seems to know little about the Chinese culture and cannot speak the language.
Steven visits China to meet one 24-year-old woman, but it doesn’t work out and they remain friends. The woman who finally does agree to marry Steven is a 30-year-old Chinese woman, Sandy, who was raised in the country and didn’t have the opportunity to attend college.
To strip the matter down to its most basic facts, this is a movie about a trim attractive woman who is too old to marry in her country and a man who could not expect to marry a woman half his age in his own country because he’s not rich. Steven works as a parking lot attendant. Sandy worked her way up from the factory floor to eventually become an executive secretary in a fashion company. Imagine the kind of determination that must have taken. Sandy speaks her own dialect (Anhui), Mandarin and Cantonese. She also begins to learn English.
When Sandy comes over to the U.S., she is on a 3-month fiancée visa. Sandy and Steven use Google Translate (not always accurate) and Lum to help translate. One can’t help but think of the recent Terrence Malick movie “To the Wonder.” Lum, not being a professional translator, does a valiant job, but in doing so, she becomes Sandy’s friend and unable to distance herself from the couple. Yet because Sandy has no one to confide in, she tells Lum some things that don’t bode well for the marriage.
You have to stand back and wonder about Steven. He makes more than one trip to China. That costs at least $1000. Steven borrows money from this brother for the wedding. He has children from his first marriage and, I learn from the documentary’s website, grandchildren. His son is married to a Japanese immigrant, and the official website gives this as the reason Steven becomes infected with yellow fever.
We don’t really get to know his daughter-in-law or how she or his two children feel about this marriage. China is all about family and yet we don’t really learn much about Sandy or Steven’s family. Perhaps Steven would seem less creepy if we did or perhaps he’s seem creepier. We get Sandy’s assessment as to why she is 30 and unmarried, but isn’t there a shortage of women in China?
Perspective is something that is in short supply here. The movie won the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2012 San Diego Asian Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary the same year at the VC Film Festival. In English and Mandarin with English subtitles.