Set in Manhattan's Chinatown, almost entirely rotoscoped and narrated by a giant koi, David Kaplan's modern-day spin on the tale of Cinderella has a certain weird charm, but it's too seamy for children and too simplistic played for adults.
Naïve, 17-year-old Ye Xian (An Nguyen) comes to New York to work in a beauty parlor owned by Mrs. Su (Tsai Chin), her ailing father's cousin; Ye Xian's wages will pay for medical treatment and support her father, who's too sick to work. But Mrs. Su doesn't run a salon: Her business is a massage parlor where customers expect happy endings. Ye Xian refuses, so Mrs. Su puts her to work shopping, cooking and cleaning for the household, which includes Mrs. Su's younger brother, Vinnie (Lee Wong), and live-in girls Katty (Corrine Hong Wu) and Lucy (Constance Wu). Though Katty treats Ye Xian decently, she's belittled and humiliated by Mrs. Su, sexually harassed by Vinnie and mistreated by Lucy, who never misses an opportunity to get her into trouble. The only bright spot in Ye Xian's life is the goldfish she was given by a mysterious blind hag who may have been Auntie Yaga (Randall Duk Kim), a fairy tale witch said to run the cruelest sweatshop in Chinatown. Naturally, Lucy and Mrs. Su conspire to kill the fish and serve it up as soup, plunging the stoic Ye Xian into despair. This being a Cinderella story, Ye Xian will meet her prince -- accordion player Johnny Pan (Ken Leung), who lives in the neighborhood with his wise grandmother (Sally Leung Bayer) – at a ball, but not until she gets an assist from her fairy godmother, who turns out to be none other than the fearsome Auntie Yaga.
The watercolor-like animation gives the film a dreamy beauty, imparting shimmering beauty to Chinatown's crowded, dirty streets and a nightmarish cast to Auntie Yaga's sinister lair. But it also flattens the actor's performances, and they're already burdened with the challenge of giving life to characters who are written like, well, cartoons: shrieking dragon lady Mrs. Su, witchy Auntie Yaga (who apparently emigrated from her Russian folk tale roots in search of American economic opportunity), Lucy the evil bitch and put-upon virgin Ye Xian, who proves herself worthy of the blandly kind and honorable Johnny by enduring endless humiliation with saintly forbearance. That kind of broadness plays fine in Disney movies, but feels deeply when applied to the world of undocumented sex workers, urban poverty and economic exploitation that looks a lot like 21st-century slavery. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh