Almost Perfect is one of those films that is unfortunately titled. It can be easy to judge it just from the notion that it calls itself “almost perfect”. Of course, the title refers to the main character, Vanessa Lee, played Kelly Hu, who tries to be the perfect daughter, the perfect sister, the perfect girlfriend, and the perfect adult, but has trouble juggling too many responsibilities and ends up resigned to being almost perfect. The film juggles a lot too, and though I hesitate to say the movie is even reaching for perfection, it is far from it.
That may sound more critical than I intended, as it’s in the flaws that I found this film so charming. Perfection can sometimes turn you off, and certainly Vanessa’s perfectionism is a source of near bitchiness in her life. But in the end, Almost Perfect is a well-intentioned independent film that only falters under its own weight. It’s a film that wants to deal with modern romance while also grappling with interracial relationships, cultural expectations, the Asian-American experience (and specifically the female first generation side) and more. It’s hardly a romantic comedy, although at times it pretends to be. But it’s also hardly a serious exploration of immigrant families, as writer/director Bertha Bay-Sa Pan’s previous film, Face, was. No, this movie is more of a dramedy that feels like the Asian version of a post Sex in the City story.
Hu plays a New York hipstress who is the go-to gal for managing her exhaustive family. From running her father’s non-profit organization, to housing her dead-beat brother and lying to his clueless wife, to consoling her mother over her spousal woes, she hardly has time for a boyfriend, Dwayne Sung (played by Ivan Shaw). But when the perfect man comes along, she manages to keep him around, only to then drag him into the overly dramatic world of her family and risk running him off. And while the film never reaches the ultimate cliché of Dwayne demanding “it’s them or it’s me”, it comes close enough, and with a slew of other clichés (note the nitpicking Chinese aunts), it unfortunately never feels fresh.
What is fresh is Hu and Shaw, whose scenes are the better parts of the film. The two have excellent chemistry, and their relationship arc feels honest and sympathetic. Hu shirks her action-star persona for a desperate gal who just wants to be validated and loved, either by her family or by her man. Shaw is charming, but manages to tackle the frustrated fiancé with skill as well. The rest of the cast is unfortunately difficult to swallow; they each feel very wooden and stereotypical, yelling on cue, somber when necessary, but more just devices for the narrative rather than authentic people.
The one exception is Roger Rees, who, as veteran actor, wouldn’t be satisfied with wooden, even if it means going overboard and appearing to be in a completely different film. He hams it up as the loud-mouthed British patriarch whose sensitivity, cultural or otherwise, is so completely lacking to the point you wonder why he’s even in the picture. He chews up the scenes, bombastically silly in what could be interpreted as comic relief, if it wasn’t for the fact that his marital failings were a critical subplot that ends up confusingly sad and asinine.
I say all this despite the fact that I actually connected to the film, as weird as that may be. It’s a mess of a movie, with a tidy ending that makes no sense. But there is something familiar about it. It’s hyper-realistic, yet somehow captures a bit of that complex world of the imperfect family and the idea of bringing someone new to that world. In doing so, it helps to define how we deal with our own baggage, whether it be trying to rise above it, shut it out, or embracing it as a part of who we are. The film also has an element of beauty in its privacy, as the camera tends to float in tight spaces; it’s a style that may be necessary on the shoe-string indie budget, but it works in providing intimacy, especially with Hu and Shaw.
I find it hard to be too critical of a film that means well but suffers from an inexperienced hand. Bay-Sa Pan has a niche talent that requires more practice, but there is something real lovely here. In trying to illustrate my complex feelings for this film, I may be guilty of the same thing that I’m criticizing the film of. This is hardly a perfect review, but then again, look at the title of this article.