Seeking Asian Female opens by asking why certain Western men have a thing for Asian women. That might leave you with certain expectations for the film, but it’s best to leave them at the door. The movie is wonderfully surprising in how it explores some interesting and thought-provoking questions about the motives of the film’s subjects and the role of the documentary filmmaker.
Documentaries succeed largely on the strength of their subjects and director Debbie Lum finds an interesting subject in Steven Bolstad. He’s a 60-year-old, twice-divorced, airport worker with “yellow fever” (a Caucasian man who is into Asian women.) The first time Lum visits Steven at his home, she is tempted to turn around and leave. Steven greets Lum with a pleased smile and a giggle. “Your hair looks cute. You look very Chinese with the bangs. You know I like that,” he says. “I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid men like Steven, but when he agreed to let me film him, I just dove in,” Lum explains.
Thus begins the documentary about Steven’s quest for a young Chinese bride. His search for a young Asian wife began 5 years ago when he perused mail order catalogues to meet Japanese and Filipino women. Gradually his search moved to China and the Internet. “There seems to be an endless supply of women over there,” Steven remarks. He roams Asian dating websites with a personal profile that is surprisingly honest. It says he’s sixty, doesn’t make a lot of money and he looks more than a little goofy in his photo, but he still attracts responses from a lot of young Chinese women. During his search, Steven finds Sandy. Sandy lives in China and at 30-years-old, is considered an old maid. She and Steven appear to share similar interests and hobbies and form a bond via email. Steven visits Sandy and eventually brings her to the Unites States to get married.
Lum openly expresses her disbelief and amazement that Sandy could genuinely be interested in marrying Steven. She barely speaks English and Steven only knows a few phrases in Chinese. They use a translation program on the computer to communicate. Sandy feels like she’s ended up in another world because she doesn’t see any other Chinese faces when she and Steven walk down the street. Under the circumstances, Lum wonders, is it for real?
Before long, Lum finds herself working double duty as a one-person documentary crew and a translator for Steven and Sandy. Eventually she becomes Sandy’s confidante and the couple’s “marriage counselor.” Her role as confidante and counselor means that she is present during some awkward and personal discussions between the couple. She translates an argument between them that ensues after Sandy finds pictures and emails from a woman Steven had a past relationship with. Later, Sandy tells Lum that she’s going to work hard to improve her English and to get a nursing degree and when she’s more stable, she’s going to leave Steven. She is drawn more and more into the lives of her subjects and her emotional investment causes her to question the ethical dilemma of her conflicting roles, how much responsibility she bears for possibly influencing what happens between the couple and if she’s overstepped as a filmmaker. “Do you think I’ve had any influence on you guys getting married?” Lum asks Steven. “She’s already said that if it wasn’t for Debbie, I’d be back in China by now,” Steven responds.
After Steven and Sandy are married, Lum decides that she must stop filming them. “I think my role here has become questionable. Somewhere along the way as I was filming them, I got so caught up in their story that I started trying to make their relationship succeed even though I thought it was a crazy idea to begin with.” However questionable her presence and closeness to the couple, the open relationship she develops with them makes for an utterly compelling and involving story about finding love, crossing cultural boundaries, what drives these people to be in this relationship and the issues associated with a documentary filmmaker becoming actively involved, for good or bad, in her subjects’ lives. It’s a funny, interesting and multi-faceted film that is definitely worth viewing.
Seeking Asian Female is screening Sunday November 11, 2012 at 1 pm at The Royal