Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Full Moon in New York (Stanley Kwan, 1989)


Stanley Kwan’s absorbing Full Moon in New York is built around the friendship between three young women living in the big city, linked by common Asian heritage (Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China) but otherwise very different in their life experiences and aspirations. Ms. Lee (Maggie Cheung) spends some of the time working in her family’s restaurant, supplemented with various other deals and trades, prompting several discussions about the perceived risk of opening a Chinese restaurant anywhere other than in Chinatown, and about appetite for risk in general. Ms. Wang (Sylvia Chang) tries to make it as an actress, which at that time typically necessitates having to specifically explain her suitability, as an Asian woman, for a particular role. Mrs. Poon (Yat-Gam Chu) comes to America to be married while barely able to speak English – her husband treats her well, but won’t yield to her deep desire to bring her mother over, either ignoring the request, or rationalizing it away as an example of old thinking. In other ways though, old practices and expectations still apply, for instance in the notion of parents finding a suitable marriage match for their children (even applying to Ms. Lee, whose romantic relationships are with other women); Kwan’s view of New York is very much that of an outsider, filming the city mainly either through high-rise windows or in disembodied panning shots, and finding it to be imperfectly integrated.  Some of the film’s most delightful passages simple observe the women as they hang out together, messing about in the restaurant kitchen or chatting about such mundane matters as shaving their legs; Kwan presents such moments both as an assertion of individual identity and as formative experience. Of course, the act of formation, the balancing of self-discovery and assimilation never reaches an end point, perhaps rendering the film’s unresolved ending inevitable; even so, it’s among the relatively few films that one might certainly wish to have gone on for longer.

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