For years, Dave Boyle, a white Mormon from Arizona and former missionary, has been the most unlikely voice in the Asian-American filmmaking community. With the arrival of Man From Reno, which finds Boyle graduating from sweet and shambling microbudget indies to a frigid neo-noir that’s told with a master’s touch (and looks like a million bucks), he’s become one of its most essential voices, as well.
A rare delight that’s laced with melancholy and a suffocating sense of menace from its first scene straight through its shocking finale, Man From Reno is made special by the collisions between its characters. It begins one black and foggy night as Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna), the sheriff of a small northern California town, crashes into an already bloodied Japanese pedestrian. The victim vanishes from the hospital the next morning. Meanwhile, across town, a popular detective novelist named Aki (Ayako Fujitani) has ditched the book tour for her latest Inspector Takable installment and flies to San Francisco in an effort to hide from her public. A curiously timid woman for someone so accomplished, Aki lies low in a vintage hotel straight out of Vertigo when a suave stranger (Kazuki Kitamura) from her home country joins her for a nightcap in the lobby bar. They have drinks, have sex and then he disappears. By the time someone tries to murder Aki in her room, you don’t have to be Johnny Gossamer to figure out that the two missing Japanese men are somehow related and that what appears to be two cases is ultimately one.
Although each of Boyle’s four previous features have revolved around Asian-American characters, none of them have so explicitly, or so cleverly, engaged with the duality of the immigrant experience. Aki inevitably finds herself embroiled in a mystery like those solved by the fictional gumshoe that made her famous, but her inability to crack it, compounded by the dislocation of being in an adopted country, makes her feel like a fraud. (Fujitani may be Steven Seagal’s daughter, but she displays more range and raw charisma in a single role than her dad has in his entire career.) Sheriff Del Moral, on the other hand, is a real salt-of-the-earth type, a second-generation immigrant with a south-of-the-border heritage who’s already laid down such solid roots that he seems to sprout directly from the soil. His family history smartly frames Aki’s journey as a quest for a new home where she’s unafraid to be herself.
As their crossed paths knot into a twisty bilingual story that eventually involves rare turtles, heads of lettuce and a paraplegic British man, the search becomes less about pinpointing an individual than getting a grip on someone whose identity keeps slipping through their fingers. In a country where coming to a sense of belonging is half the battle, Aki and Del Moral will only find their suspect if they learn to think of him not as a killer but rather as someone who’s doing whatever it takes to live here.
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