Daniel Yoon’s Ultra-Independent East Bay

Daniel Yoon’s Ultra-Independent East Bay

©Photo by Daniel Yoon, Level 33 Entertainment 

A mid-life crisis is hard enough without losing your sanity. Jack Lee worries about his state of mind, but from time to time he also suspects the ringing in his head might signify something beyond the boundaries of our assumed world. Regardless, his depressing life is an absolute certainty. However, there might be some hope for him yet in screenwriter-director Daniel Yoon’s “East Bay,” which expands into more theaters tomorrow.

As Lee’s voiceovers explain, he has constantly revised his conception of success downward, but he still believes his life has been a failure. He is also not quite sure if his perception of reality is entirely correct. The only limited satisfaction he experiences comes from the idiosyncratic short films he creates. The film-excerpts-within-the-film are undeniably campy, but “Lieutenant Governor Sasquatch” sounds somewhat promising. In real life, a Bigfoot Lt. Governor probably represents a major trade-up in most states.

Nevertheless, Lee must rely on his dreary part-time IT job to make ends meet. He assumes Tim and Stuart are merely his workplace acquaintances and amateur hockey teammates, rather than real friends. Yet, they let Lee crash at their place, more or less indefinitely, when his girlfriend Beth dumps up him.

East Bay 1©Photo by Daniel Yoon, Level 33 Entertainment 

Lee has one fan—possibly. Conveniently, Sara happens to program a local Asian American film festival. She reliably slates his films, despite her staff’s reservations. That probably ought to tell him something, but instead, he is preoccupied with Vivanti, a spiritual advisor and self-styled medical psychic. He envisions her as the central voice in his prospective what’s-it-all-about meaning-of-life documentary. However, the New Age spirituality coach might not be as together as she presents. That would be disillusioning, but Lee is used to disappointments.

Periodically, Yoon questions the film’s reality, hinting at a big hidden cosmic truth. Yet, for the most part, “East Bay” is the most grounded and everyday-looking science fiction film ever. Instead of obsessing over the Matrix, or whatever it might be, Yoon focuses on Lee’s here-and-now. It is not exactly a carpe diem film, but it encourages viewers to just do the best that they can, under their given circumstances.

There is no denying “East Bay” is an unusually talky and neurotic film. It is also the most nebbish hockey movie, probably ever. As you would expect, Yoon devotes considerable time to Lee spectacularly dysfunctional relationships with women. However, what really resonates is the way Lee, Tim, and Stuart start to recognize the value of their friendships.

East Bay 4©Photo by Daniel Yoon, Level 33 Entertainment 

Constance Wu is a pretty big star for such a modest indie, but she portrays Sara with delicate sensitivity and arresting vulnerability. Kavi Ramachandran Ladnier (who recurred on “NCIS: Los Angeles” as reserve agent Shyla Dahr) gives a flamboyantly wild performance as Vivanti, which almost feels zeitgeisty, in a Tom Wolfe way.

Yoon is often painfully reserved and understated as Lee, but he keenly expresses the struggling filmmaker’s accumulated guilt and sadness, stemming from his perceived failures. He also has shockingly great buddy chemistry with Edmund Sim and Destry Miller as Lee’s fellow slackers.

Filmmaking might be a collaborative process, but Yoon earns a disproportionate share of the credit for “East Bay’s” success, given the number of production hats he wore. In addition to writing directing, and starring, Yoon is listed as both a producer and executive producer, as well as the editor and production designer.

Arguably, his screenwriting stands out the most. He brings a lot of depth to these characters, while avoiding cliches. For instance, Lee’s difficult relationship with his Korean immigrant parents is deeply compassionate and unexpectedly forgiving. Viewers should not think of it as science fiction to any great degree, but they should be prepared for the weird moments challenging our assumptions of ostensive reality. Regardless, this is a quiet, off-kilter film, but it has a lot of heart and integrity. Cineastes who appreciate indies that are truly independent should consider “East Bay,” when it expands into more markets tomorrow (5/10).

East Bay 2©Photo by Daniel Yoon, Level 33 Entertainment 

Grade: A-

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