Sometimes when you see a film, from the outset you know it’s one you want to see – maybe because you like the lead actor, it’s the passion project of a director you respect or it has a message that is missing in other films. Livi Zheng‘s Brush with Danger is one of these films. Her first feature as a director that was written by her brother and co-star Ken Zheng, Brush with Danger tackles a hot-button topic in illegal immigration to the US from Asia. There are a million ways to approach a subject like this – going the character study route a la Cary Fukunaga‘s gorgeous Sin Nombre or showing the dark side of the immigrant experience like Stephen Frears‘ Dirty Pretty Things or even the battle-infused experience of Scorsese‘s The Gangs of New York, all of which were incredibly successful in telling their tales and engaging their audiences. It is unfortunate that Brush with Danger falls flat almost from the opening shot and doesn’t live up to the promise of an interesting premise.
The film opens with a cargo container being opened in a shipyard in Seattle, one filled to the brim with Asian immigrants assuming to grasp their part of the American dream. After being freed, they are immediately dispersed by the sounds of approaching sirens and thugs in the shipyard eager to rob the newly arrived visitors of what little belongings that have brought with them. Caught up in the confusion, brother and sister Ken Qiang (Ken Zheng) and Alice Qiang (Livi Zheng) are robbed of Ken’s backpack containing their only money and chase after the thief. Showing some strong martial arts moves, both Alice and Ken seem able to kick a lot of ass. When the pursuit becomes too much and the heat is coming down, they flee rather than risk being captured and deported. Alone, penniless and homeless, the Qiangs are lost.
When they go to a craft market the next day, Alice tries to sell her paintings to they can earn money to eat and start building their lives in America. Disturbingly fluent in English, Ken tries to woo buyers for the paintings. When that doesn’t work, he breaks out his martial arts moves and engages a reluctant Alice, who reprimands Ken saying that he “wouldn’t fight anymore” (a really bad piece of writing, something which unfortunately surfaces at nearly every turn in the plot and dialogue), and they put on a show. They make a few bucks, which helps, but the best part is they’ve caught the eye of a slimy art dealer Justus Sullivan (Norman Newkirk) who gives Alice an art deal, puts them up in his house and gives them anything they want. Of course, he wants something in return, but he slow plays it so as to not arouse suspicion. Apparently Asian artists are steeped in the way of forgery and that’s the only way that they can make money (according to the film) so Alice is enlisted to copy a Van Gogh for Sullivan for him to pass off as legit to an interested client. And when another Asian girl who was also a painter washes up on a beach, Detective Thompson (Nikita Breznikov) is on the case. When he meets Alice in an art store (a terribly convenient plot point) the race is on to keep her alive and not meet a similar fate the girl who washed up on the beach.
Like I said above, I was rooting for this film but it just has too many strikes against it to succeed. The bad acting in every role is a turnoff from less than 5 minutes into the film. Add in the extremely silly side plot with Ken becoming an underground fighter for Sullivan, and it veers into the bad realm real quickly. The ridiculous dialogue, most notably from diner owner Elizabeth St. Clouds (Stephanie Hilbert) who the Qiangs save from being robbed, just adds fuel to the fire. When they arrive to help her, she yells, “Oh, thank God, Asians!” Cringe-worthy. The first two acts are interminable and we wait for almost the entire film before there is any real danger to the protagonists, and there was never a doubt that they would diffuse it because they’ve been built up as fighters throughout the film – from Ken’s underground fights to Alice’s overly expository backstory references to fighting in their homeland. The ending is preposterous, but at least it’s faithful to what has happened leading up to it. The characters lacked any depth at all and the wooden acting only added to their one-dimensional nature.