The tangy, thoughtful Chinese-American drama In a New York Minute has taken much longer than that to find its way to an eventual wider release next month, but its prospective viewers have a tasty delight to cherish. Ximan Li’s interconnected triptych of three women struggling with life and love in New York City makes not only for an accomplished debut but for a visual delight with plenty of food for thought.
If you’re questioning my propensity for culinary metaphors, trust me: there’s a connection. Food figures prominently in In a New York Minute. One major character is a food critic; another hosts a food show; a third works in the Phở restaurant featured there. But ultimately, each of these three is connected by their individual struggles to find love and identity as second-generation Chinese and Chinese-American women.
Amy (Amy Chang) is a 40-year-old food critic whose trauma from a past breakup has made food repulsive to her, to the point of a full-on eating disorder. The mere presence of food is enough to send her to the toilet—a gag played for laughs but that engenders some empathy. Co-worker Peter’s romantic overtures all involve the giving of food, and you can imagine how that comes out. (Sorry.) On the workfront, Robert (Mark Delabarre) assigns her to act in a video segment spotlighting a Phở restaurant—and casts awkward Peter as her boyfriend. Amy’s mother (Cheng Pei Pei) is thrilled at the prospect of romance, no matter how unlikely.
Meanwhile Angel (Yi Liu) suffers her loveless marriage to an American businessman (Erick Lochtefeld), keeping herself occupied with a new acting gig—as host of that same food show—and with her passionate extramarital affair with young Chinese writer David (Ludi Lin). One role leads to another, including a central role in a drama as a forlorn lover contemplating suicide. But the actress’s romantic passions are at risk, too, when she finds herself pregnant and her lover noncommittal.
The last of the triptych’s stories features a younger woman, Nina (Celia Au), daughter of the Phở restaurant’s proprietors, moonlighting as an escort at a local Chinese gentlemen’s karaoke club. A “paper daughter” whose immigration to the U.S. binds her to her debt, Nina hopes her escort work will ultimately provide her the freedom she covets. Her boyfriend, entrepreneur Ian (Roger Yeh), might be her ticket out of the restaurant’s debts and drudgeries, but he seems more interested in commerce than romance.
Ultimately—and tenuously—the three stories are connected by slim threads woven through each of the three narratives. Amy lives next to David. She and Angel find themselves working on the same food episode project, shot at the restaurant where Nina works. The stories climax when Angel’s pregnancy test impacts all three women, albeit in wildly different ways.
Based on a Chinese story by Yi Nan, In A New York Minute employs a predominantly Chinese-American cast and female production crew to convey its multigenerational stories of diaspora, assimilation, and romance. First-time director-writer Ximan Li’s talent and commitment are obvious, making hers a name to watch in the future. Her reworking of the raw story material suggests a confidence with her cast and content alike.
The film’s three protagonists are all characterized as multidimensional characters deserving of understanding and empathy. Of them, Yi Liu as Angel resonates the most and feels the most organic. Angel’s husband is clearly inattentive to her emotional needs, but the lover she sparks with offers little promise of long-term fulfillment. That she is shown practicing her craft of acting gives her character multiple opportunities to show her quickly-developing skill in front of the camera. Amy Chang’s food-editor suffers the weight of her mother’s expectations and Celia Au’s troubled escort the economic struggle of the new immigrant.
For as richly drawn the film’s three female leads are, the secondary characters—the males in particular—are far less so. Peter is little more than a menu of annoying habits and blank stares. Angel’s husband is a one-dimensional prick, her boyfriend a callow narcissist. None of them is the film’s focus, I’ll grant, each being little more than a minor antagonist, but none registers as an actual human being so much as mere devices in the script’s increasingly labyrinthine plot.
As it reaches its climax, that plot, with its final sequence dedicated primarily to tying together presumedly separate threads into a single conclusion, feels a little forced. At this point, the script, co-written by Li and Yilei Zhou, resembles the result of an academic exercise: how does one conclude these three disparate plots? The conclusion isn’t so much unsatisfactory as it is more mechanical than organic, with at least one conflict resolved with information that hadn’t been intimated anywhere along the way.
Mego Lin’s handsome cinematography, much of it shot on location in New York City, offers a degree of realism the script does not. Exteriors in particular feel like the source of drama that is authentic. The plot may not proceed, as the saying goes, “in a New York minute”—one that goes by much faster than sixty seconds on the clock—but the camerawork offers a detailed, naturalistic look at the city these and other Chinese-American women inhabit.
How does one recover from a traumatic breakup? Satisfy the weighty expectations of one’s parents? Escape from a loveless marriage? Pursue a career without emotional support? Satisfy severe financial obligations without prostituting oneself (however you might define that)? A deep-rooted, culturally conservative patriarchy oppresses all three of these women, if in different ways. For them, love that blossoms also withers even if it doesn’t necessarily happen, so to speak “in a New York minute.”