GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Wellspring Media, 2001
Starring R.T. Lee, Greyson Dane, Jonathan Roessler, Desi del Valle and Sebastien Guy
Unrated, 86 minutes.
on a Theme
This isn't the first time I've made this statement, and it probably won't be the last, but you don't need a lot of expensive computer generated effects to make a compelling movie. Big budget studio faire might rule the multiplex but it is the more adventurous independents that are keeping the art of cinema alive. Godard re-invented cinema in the late 1950s with a hand-held camera, "jump-cut" edits and in-your-face politics. Today's fringe filmmakers are repeating history with digital cameras and edgy subjects that would be flatly rejected by Hollywood as being uncommercial.
While the film I am going to discuss is hardly as important as Godard's Breathless or Truffaut's The 400 Blows, it is nevertheless a great antidote to mindless big-budget tripe, with built-in merchandising, like The Scorpion King. The film is called Drift, and it is the second feature to be directed by Hong-King born Quentin Lee.
Drift recounts the story of a broken relationship and its three possible aftermaths. Ryan (R.T. Lee) is an aspiring screenwriter in his early 20s who lives in L.A. on an expired visa. He has been living with Joel (Greyson Dane), a web designer at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, for almost three years. Ryan loves his partner but feels that Joel doesn't really understand him, his passions or his work, and longs for someone he can connect with "on a more visceral level."
At a party, he meets Leo, (Jonathan Roessler), a 20 year old writer who shares all of his interests. They each love horror movies and are so obsessed with serial killers that they find the idea of abuse culminating in murder to be "romantic." (No wonder Joel doesn't understand Ryan.) Both love the word "visceral" and use it repeatedly. Suddenly oblivious to his partner, Ryan decides to break off their relationship and pursue this young man, convinced that he is his "soulmate."
It is here that Drift enters rarely charted waters when three possible scenarios are enacted for the audience. Ryan wakes up with Joel on the morning of their third anniversary and quietly packs a suitcase and sneaks out of their apartment. He calls Leo and the two fall in love as if they inhabited a Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy but scripted by David Lynch. We fade to black and Ryan is seen waking up on the morning of his third anniversary again. A few of the previous scenes are repeated but with subtle differences. He courts Leo but realizes that he still loves Joel and returns to him. The same shot of Ryan waking up next to Joel is repeated again. but this time Leo is uninterested in Ryan and makes a pass at Joel instead.
Drift is an interesting "what if" tale that should be required viewing for any couple, gay or straight, that is questioning their relationship. It's easy to become obsessed with somebody else, but the reality is often a far cry from the fantasy.
What is often saddest about any break-up is that usually there once was great passion between the two partners. Some of Drift's most beautiful moments are the memories of Ryan and Joel together that flash through Ryan's mind when, following their breakup, he first makes love to Leo. Neither had condoms when they first consummated their love yet Joel rapturously tells Ryan to do it anyway because he "trusts him." Encapsulating the love Joel felt for Ryan, this scene was both real and honest. Throughout this second scenario, you want to yell at Ryan: "Go back to Joel, you jerk!" because the flashbacks nail the desire and commitment they once shared. Ryan's obsession with finding a "soulmate" is heartfelt but is ultimately seen for how shallow it really is.
The unconventional dialogue during Ryan and Leo's courtship scenes sets Drift apart from any other film that I have ever seen. Instead of the usual schmaltzy text that accompanies love scenes, Ryan and Leo discuss how romantic it would be to be killed by a psychopath. The more lurid their conversations get, the more turned on they are by each other. It's like watching an Ingmar Bergman film on acid, minus the subtitles. Of course this wouldn't work in the context of most films but it was a welcome change from, for example, the ludicrous romantic exchanges in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones This "alternative" romantic dialogue also helps to illustrate the superficiality of their connection to each other. These two men, in the throes of desire, need a reality check.
Drift seems to be completely devoid of cliches and formulas. How refreshing it was to see the lead character, Ryan, played by an Asian instead of the usual white men who populate the silver screen. With the exception of his expired visa, his nationality is completely taken for granted. Rather than focus on the politics of an inter-racial marriage, (like most films would when an ethnic character is cast), Drift presents their relationship as just what it is, good times and bad. Also playing against expectations, Ryan's s alleged "soulmate" is hardly a great beauty. In fact, ALL of the leads have faces far removed from the young buffed clones of most gay films, and this adds to its realism.
To its credit, Drift never becomes melodramatic and there are no music cues hitting you over the head to tell you how to feel at any given moment. This is a film rife with conflicting emotions without any easy answers. Each side of the issues are presented without bias or prejudice. The basic idea for director Quentin Lee's script was based on his own personal experience and this is probably why so many moments ring so painfully true. Though most of the screentime is devoted to Ryan, the audience never loses sight of Joel's tragedy. The breakup scene between Ryan and Joel is a heartbreaker, and sympathy for the jilted man never wavers.
Drift is very unique, but it isn't without its flaws. It is nicely filmed with prolific close-ups that help emphasize the enfolding human drama. But it also suffers from some really uneven acting. R.T. Lee is terrific as Ryan and delivers a believable and nuanced performance. Jonathan Roessler, however, is often stiff as Leo. Perhaps this was the director's choice as his lack of warmth sometimes seems appropriate, in light of the character's immaturity. But, considering that he is the catalyst of the emotional explosions that follow, he seems a rather lightweight screen presence. Greyson Dane, as Joel, looks very much like a twenty-something Vincent D'onofrio and has a very comical face which on occasion makes him hard to take seriously. Despite these quibbles, Drift remains a serious, mature and thoughtful exploration of relationships and the forces of nature that sometimes tear them apart. As a cautionary tale, it reminds us that the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence.
AN UN-RELATED NOTE
Regular readers of this column may remember a few rants from the past when I chatised Blockbuster Video for their hypocritical policies regarding unrated and NC-17 films. Things seem to be different now, and I understand that there has been a change in management at Blockbuster. My best friend rented Psycho Beach Party there even though it was unrated. It was, however, designated "Youth Restricted." Surprised by this, I checked out the nearest Blockbuster and found that a good portion of the recent gay films were available for rent. They even have Queer as Folk and Oz! While I still think that Blockbuster has too much power in the industry, at least they've lightened up a bit about carrying gay-themed films. If they stock the unrated cut of L.I.E., I'll back off on bashing Blockbuster forever... unless of course they revert back to their old ways. In the meanwhile there's always the Film Ratings Board to kick around.