A skillfully written and acted gay love story about two
young men of Chinese ancestry, Ray Yeung’s “Front Cover” has a title that
evokes the differences in its main characters. Ryan (Jake Choi), a New York
fashion stylist, aims his energies toward the front covers of magazines. Ning
(James Chen), a movie star from China, also projects himself into the public
eye, but uses his image as something else—a cover for his real self.
The film begins by immersing us in Jake’s world, where
openly gay men are the rule rather than the exception. He works hard styling
models for photo shoots, and though he seems to be climbing the career ladder
adroitly, it’s clear he’s not completely established yet: one misstep and he
could go hurtling downward again.
That’s why every job is a challenge, and the assignment to
style Ning, an Asian star hoping to break into the American market, is particularly tricky. Ning’s handler tells Ryan that Ning has already fired
one stylist, and now he definitely wants one with a Chinese background. But
Ryan obviously doesn’t consider himself particularly Chinese, and when he meets
Ning for the first time in a Chinatown restaurant, the situation seems designed
to thwart rather than establish communication: the star has brought a
boisterous, obsequious entourage with him and forces endless amounts of food
The entourage creates an immediate barrier the next time the
two meet, forcing Ryan to say that he can only work with the star if they can
interact one-on-one. Ning gives way on that front, but soon has his own
objection: he doesn’t like that Ryan is so open about his “homo side.”
This is not only a clash of personalities
but of cultures as well. Ning looks askance at gay men holding hands on the
street, something evidently still less common in Beijing than in New
York. Yet Ning has reasons—ones perhaps going beyond strictly career concerns—for
adapting to this environment, at least temporarily, so he gradually
accommodates himself to Ryan and his milieu.
Yet it’s Ryan who’s in for the biggest changes. His life
seems to be consumed by obsessive work and desultory socializing. Though he’s
attractive, there’s no mention of past boyfriends or romances in his life; he
evidently contents himself with Internet hookups. A self-described “potato
queen” (an Asian gay man attracted to white men), he has a sexual identity that
obviously connects with other issues, especially his unadmitted discomfort with
his Chinese roots.
The strictly professional relationship between the two men
verges toward friendship due to complications that involve race and cultural
identity. In one highly charged scene, a bullying, Bruce Weber-like photographer
casts racial aspersions at both Asians, which unites them in indignant fury
even as it upends their most important shoot.
Then there’s the day Ning accompanies Ryan and his parents
(Elizabeth Sung and Ming Lee) on a day trip to Staten Island, an outing that
draws the two young men together in unexpected ways. Though Ryan tries to
project an “everything’s cool” demeanor, and says his parents accepted his
sexuality long ago, it’s clear that they’re trying their best to be supportive
while never being entirely comfortable with his orientation. But they’d never
seen their son with a Chinese guy, and mistaking Ning for a romantic interest,
they’re happy that he’s at least not spurning his heritage. For his part, Ning
takes bemused pleasure in play-acting the role of the new boyfriend.
The transition from distrust to wary friendship to something
more passionate in a movie like this depends a lot on the writing, and Yeung’s
is subtle and assured, tracing an emotional arc that’s believably nuanced. It
also benefits from exceptionally strong lead performances. As Ning, Chen has no
trouble summoning a star’s charisma while also suggesting his hidden side. And
Choi’s Ryan, a terrific debut, gives us a young man of real complexity who’s in
the throes of self-discovery and (apparently) first love.
While the film adheres to the conventions of romantic
melodramas in a way that guarantees the two characters will end up in each
other’s arms, its fascinations from a cultural perspective remain strong throughout.
If it can be said that every cross-cultural story like this eventually tilts
toward one culture over the other, one thing that’s notable about “Front Cover”—and
that sets it apart from Ang Lee’s nominally similar “The Wedding Banquet”—is
that, though set in New York, its perspective and espoused values are
finally more Chinese than American. If that’s surprising, it’s in keeping with
the emotional journey of a young man learning that identity is not only about