REVIEW Ambitious “Fangs” falls short

A grim hilarity underscores two skewed tales of urban loneliness in “Shopping for Fangs, ” a film from the directing-producing team of Quentin Lee (“Flow”) and Justin Lin (“Soybean Milk”). Big-city malaise grips mild-mannered accountant Phil (Radmar Jao), who burns off repressed desires on his treadmill while slowly becoming a werewolf, and housewife Katherine (Jeanne Chin), shellshocked by repressed memories and an unfulfilling marriage.

Generously termed a psychothriller, “Fangs” meanders through a Los Angeles cosmos of predictable psychoses. Katherine suffers from inexplicable blackouts. She visits her psychotherapist to recount her latest episode, during which she mislays her cellular phone, organizer and wallet. Her material possessions sans driver’s license are later mailed back to her by Trinh, a brassy, gum-cracking diner waitress.

In a blonde curly wig and perpetual white-framed sunglasses borrowed from Brigitte Lin, Chin-Hsia’s character in “Chungking Express” (director Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 Hong Kong film), Trinh is the loud, fearless id to Katherine’s ego. She begins flashing Katherine’s license around, telling co-workers and a young gay customer whom she befriends that Katherine is her lesbian girlfriend. All the while, she leaves coy messages on Katherine’s answering machine and sends photographs of herself. The wispy-voiced Katherine dutifully relates these odd occurrences in successive psychotherapy sessions, but refuses to tell her husband, Jim.

Phil’s only point of intersection with Katherine is that he happens to work in the same company as Jim. Leading a lackluster existence, Phil has little luck with the opposite gender, whether with his domineering but well-meaning younger sister, the nightclub women who pull disappearing acts after his mating dance, or the next-door neighbor who practices off-tune solos at all hours. He meets up with his sister’s new boyfriend, a werewolf author defensively impassioned about his research.

Soon after, Phil finds himself shaving almost hourly. He exhibits other signs of werewolfdom, such as immunity to injury and uncontrollable rages. Convinced he is more a victim of an ancient curse, Phil desperately tries to take control of his emerging identity, which has taken on a nightlife of its own.

More intriguing then compelling, the film pits these perplexed heroes against the sterility of their own existence. Katherine’s story is ultimately weaker, especially when directors/producers Lee and Kim try to frame her husband, Jim, an indeterminate professional with a bodybuilder frame, as a symbol of despicable yuppiedom and implied brutishness. While he clumsily attempts to assuage his wife’s worries of adultery with unwelcome sexual overtures, Jim is still attentive and well-meaning. If anything, he is just as confounded and helpless as Katherine, and not a guilty party in perpetuating her zombie consciousness.

The film won some raves in the 1997 Asian American International Film Festival for its genre-jumping and a story line steeped in an Asian-American consciousness of here and now, rather than in the usual generational conflicts. The site of rebellion is deliberately set in Los Angeles, where too much materialism, strip malls and dry Santa Ana winds spark a crackling bonfire of tunnel-minded dementia. The wry tone and ensemble performances still create a strong momentum throughout “Fangs.”

Ultimately, though, the metaphor of Asian-Americans seeking identity is really not that much of an innovative departure, and caricatures ultimately become rather tedious symbols. “Shopping for Fangs” is a nice rough draft of urban California Asian-American ambiguities.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times