A Love Story in a New Light

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2003

"CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES" is a love story told in the visual shorthand of high-class perfume commercials. But it's not vapid in the least. It's a smartly made, hedonistic spectacle of alluring, nubile characters, sun-warmed narcissism and breathtaking color that approaches the exoticism of Vietnamese filmmaker Anh Hung Tran (who made "The Scent of Green Papaya" and "Cyclo").

Michael (Michael Idemoto) is a Japanese American car mechanic working (or posing in half-shadows, one could argue) in Los Angeles. He owns two adjoined apartments, one of which he lives in, the other of which he rents to Lori (Eugenia Yuan), a Chinese American with whom he's clearly in love. Or in obsession. Or in something. Put it this way: She renders him into silence or thoughtfulness just by showing up. And it's clear his feelings go haywire when he hears her making love to her boyfriend, Justin (Matt Westmore), a muscle-bound, modelish professional.

Although Lori is Justin's lover -- and seems to have no complaints in that department -- she would much rather be spending time with Michael. There's something intangible and urgent between them. But Michael, a taciturn, tortured soul, is muted about his feelings. He's not in touch with himself. These two -- Michael and Lori -- are closer to each other than anyone else, and yet they're also further apart.

This uncomfortable situation gets a rough goosing when Darcy (Jacqueline Kim), a mysterious visitor to L.A., meets and becomes attracted to Michael. Thanks to his unresolved feelings for Lori, Michael's not ready for Darcy.

"The truth is," retorts Darcy, "men don't really want to be with me at all, they only think they do."

She proposes they have a physical fling, a "shortcut" to get to know each other.

" 'A shortcut' implies we know where we're going," observes Michael, who gracefully rejects her offer.

Darcy's not the kind to walk away, however. A forceful personality, she practically bullies Michael to introduce her to Lori and Justin. All of a sudden, thanks to Darcy, the four of them seem to be spending a lot of time together. Darcy seems to be taking special pleasure in Michael and Lori's discomfort over this. Justin is oblivious to everything, except Darcy's physical attributes. Something's got to give.

Not unlike "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Dangerous Liaisons," the film amounts to an inner chess game (or Go game) among lovers or would-be lovers. It's governed by the impulsive urges of the heart and all the attendant feelings, confessions, lies and deceptions. There are no major, external actions, other than sensually filmed (or overheard) bursts of lovemaking. And the battles are, essentially, verbal. But everything has an almost epic quality, thanks to writer-director Eric Byler, cinematographer Robert Humphreys and editor Kenn Kashima (who shared the editing with Byler), who render these characters in gorgeous light and shadow, as well as flashy, elliptical images.

Byler has created a waking dream in which you live gloriously in the moment, your superego safely gagged and bound in the faraway reaches of your consciousness. Sure, "Charlotte Sometimes," which was nominated at the 2003 Independent Film Project Independent Spirit Awards for Best Feature and Kim's supporting performance, may ultimately be about itself. But with those wonderful images, hues, sensations and faces, who's complaining?

CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES (R, 85 minutes) -- Contains sex scenes, nudity and some obscenity. At the Avalon Theatre.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company