Here! Films,
Regent Releasing,

Yen Tan

Alessandro Calza,
Yen Tan

Adam Neal Smith,
Alessandro Calza,
Ethel Lung, Chuck Blaum, John S. Boles, Margaret Lake, Tiffany Vollmer

Rated R, 87 minutes

A Beautiful Friendship
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, April 2010

The camera sits just outside of the door to a bedroom. In one long and unbroken shot, a young man stares at the unmade bed, fondles a cowboy hat and, finally, picks up a guitar that leans against the wall and tentatively strums a few chords. His name is Jeff and he has just lost his best friend, Mark. This early scene, typical of the film's lovely low-key approach, is executed with the simplicity of a Haiku. The man's grief is beautifully conveyed without resorting to pull-at-the-heartstrings music or histrionic displays of emotion.

Ciao (2008) is a superb new film about friendship, loss, closure and new beginnings. Jeff, a 30-something gay man played by Adam Neal Smith, is mourning his friend's passing. He has been checking Mark's e-mails and writing people back as needed to relay the bad news. He finds an e-mail from an Italian man named Andrea (Alessandro Calza). Andrea has written to tell Mark that he is arriving from Italy in a few days to attend a friend's wedding and that he is looking forward to finally meeting in person. Jeff writes back to Andrea to break the news, and is moved by this stranger's devastated response. Upon discovering a lengthy online correspondence between the two men, Jeff learns how close they'd become. He invites Andrea to follow through with his original plans and come stay with him.

Jeff doesn't see Mark meeting guys online but he senses that he had a connection with this Italian guy. From reading a few of their e-mails, it's apparent that they weren't planning to meet just so that they could hook up. Mark has told Andrea things that he never shared with him and some of the messages are out of character and very emotional. Jeff's half sister, Lauren (Ethel Lung), remarks that people are often more impulsive when they write, and share things that they wouldn't normally discuss with family and loved ones. Jeff is beginning to realize that Mark's relationship with his pen pal has somehow reached a level almost on par with the one that he shared for years. Andrea arrives and the two men bond over their shared friendship with the deceased.

Andrea is a smolderingly attractive man with a groomed stubble beard and a killer smile. Both men are easy on the eyes; they turn a glance or two in the other's direction as they wait for Andrea's luggage but they seem more interested in talking about Mark than in checking each other out. They click immediately and obviously enjoy each other's company but their absent friend dominates their thoughts. Conversations will turn into confessionals. They also talk about themselves, and where they're from. There's smalltalk and a few language games too; Jeff lives in Dallas, Texas and he teaches Andrea how to say "y'all." But, never for a moment, do you think this is going to slide into Tom Hanks Meg Ryan hell. This is NOT You've Got Mail or its ilk. And that's a good thing.
Ciao is a wonderful example of what can happen when a filmmaker works outside the box. The story's seed grew from an e-mail correspondence between director Yen Tan and star Alessandro Calza. Ciao was originally conceived as a fluffy, romantic comedy until the director and co-writer decided to jettison all of the usual cliched cinematic conventions and make a more honest and realistic film. It has the depth, and the feel, of one of Bergman's chamber movies while retaining a sense of humor. Ciao doesn't follow any formulas. Expect the unexpected. For example: Mark wanted to teach both of them to line dance - and they both hate country & western music. Will they fall in love as they clumsily learn how to hoedown? No; although they do watch a group of men line dance in Mark's favorite bar without participating themselves. In another scene they find a 1980s arcade video game that belonged to Mark and start to play it like two teenagers. Both look at one of Mark's paintings and agree that their friend wasn't very good at it, and that they both lied to him and encouraged him.
Shared grief can often be the basis of a new relationship. Each is able to tell the other something new, or that they needed to hear, about their friend and this helps them to heal. One gets the impression that both men wanted more than just friendship with Mark, and they can only contemplate what could have been. Andrea is surprised that Jeff and Mark weren't lovers or life partners (they shared one drunken night together) and Jeff explains that he wasn't Mark's type. When asked what was his type, Jeff says, "Oh, someone more exotic looking, preferably a foreigner. Maybe an Italian."
There was so much that I liked about this film. For starters, I'm grateful that this didn't turn into a paint-by-numbers love story; there are so many of those already out there. Did I want these guys to fall for each other? I suppose I wanted them to at least have sex once. I already knew that they would because of the picture on the DVD cover. These guys are attracted to each other but they form a much deeper bond and that makes the film more interesting. Even so, when they finally do get intimate, Tan's minimalist approach delivers one of the most moving and nurturing scenes of two men coming together ever filmed.
The photography and the offbeat pacing bear mentioning. Conventional techniques like alternating over-the-shoulder shots are utilized in many of the dialogue scenes but director Tan also likes to capture moments (like the love scene) in one unbroken shot. This approach might scream "art film" to some, but his methods are proper. His 2002 film, Happy Birthday, was also a small masterpiece of minimalism and Tan clearly understands the concept of "less is more." He likes corridor shots and scenes filmed through doorways for painterly compositions that exploit negative space. Blackouts punctuate the narrative. The piano music, often consisting of only a couple notes, is almost unnoticeable and many scenes also play out in silence. The closest thing to an "action sequence" happens when the two men find Mark's scooter.
As Humphrey Bogart says at the end of Casablanca, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Such things are possible when two people meet online but the film is quick to address how this is not always the case. Andrea met another of his pen pals once, only to discover that the man was bi-polar and had stopped taking his meds. This information is one of the ways that their dialogue keeps from getting maudlin.
No scene is wasted in this film. Jeff is showering the first time that we see him and he feels a bump under one of his arms. We sense later, when Jeff visits his doctor and finds out it's benign, that Mark's death has brought on thoughts of his own mortality. Many awkward moments are captured with great skill; such as Jeff's dinner with Mark's parents which is filmed in one long shot wherein no one says anything. Queer films are more racially inclusive than they used to be but it's still a pleasure to see touches like Jeff's half sister being Chinese (like the director).

Both of the leads deliver splendid, understated performances and the film is directed with skill. Their dialogue has the ring of truth and seems almost spontaneous. Perhaps the writers, Tan and Calza, drew on their own e-mail correspondance to help craft the script. As Andrea points out, "ciao" means both hello and good-bye - making the film's title resonate on more than just one level. For those who like an easy soundbite, Ciao is 84 Charring Cross Road meets My Dinner With Andre. For someone like me, who has seen his share of bland to bad queer films, this one is a breath of fresh air. Ciao is the best new queer film I've seen in some time.


More on Yen Tan:
Happy Birthday
Ethel Young also appears in
Happy Birthday