The Criterion Collection's latest issue of a modern classic is Ang Lee's uncategorizable masterpiece The Ice Storm.
It took 25 years in the business, but Jackie Chan and Jet Li finally give their fans what they want: a fight together. So why is the main character a 16 year-old white boy?
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First comes confusion, then comes curiosity and questions that director Richard Wong and co. would rather not answer. Option 3 takes us into a man's chaotic head after a traumatic breakup.
"Brave" was the first adjective that came to mind, when asked what I thought of his new film, Option 3. "It makes me wonder about your psyche."
"People should be scared of me," director Richard Wong replied.
Best known for his debut feature Colma: The Musical, Wong and frequent collaborator H.P. Mendoza received nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards and Gotham Awards for their quippy comedy about three friends growing up in a small, deserted Bay Area town. Regarding his second feature, Wong wants to make something clear from the beginning: "This is not Colma."
While Colma: The Musical was more based on Mendoza's personal story, Option 3 is inspired by Wong's life. Rather than expressing himself through linear storytelling, Wong challenges the idea of film and art by presenting Option 3 as an "expression of feelings." While a Variety review interprets the result as "my-girlfriend-left-me-cuz-I'm-a-jerk-and-now-I'm-sad emotions," Wong might prefer to leave things up to interpretation.
Always envisioned as a multi-genre film with a somber musical number smack dab in the middle, the making of Option 3 operated on the philosophy: why not? While there was a distinct organization (sections of the film are bookended by Emily Dickinson quotes) and a planned script (co-written by Mendoza), Wong encouraged collabroation on set with his cast and crew, and he allowed the process of discovery to let the film evolve accordingly. Having just worked closely with director Wayne Wang on Princess of Nebraska, which employed a similar style of instinctual filmmaking, Wong often came up with ideas on the spot.
"It was all heart and little head," Wong says. Discovering a spinning carousel on location was just one example of fortunate happenstance crossed with artistic intuition. Combined with ominous organ music, this shot ended up being one of the most striking images in the film.
"It was a fun process," says lead actor Preston Conner, who plays Ken. "The structure was loose and off-the-cuff."
"It felt like film school again," says Wong, of its experimental nature. "Except now we have the experience and we know what we're doing."
Technically, the journey of Option 3 did begin when Wong and Mendoza were in film school together. Wong had made a short film of the same name, with a similar concept: a guy's girlfriend goes missing, and the kidnapper gives him two options in order to get her back. He makes his own option.
The student-film version was more of an action movie, influenced by works that film students at the time were all obsessed with, such as Hard Boiled, The Usual Suspects, and Reservoir Dogs. Option 3 (the feature), on the other hand, bounces from action to thriller to horror to martial arts to musical, mixing in elements of parody, absurdity, and New Wave cinema.
After a 70s cop drama-inspired intro, the film starts with a long take of our protagonist sprinting at full speed (for an impressively long time) through the streets of San Francisco at night. Soon, we find out why he's in such a hurry. After bailing on an awkward relationship-talk with his girlfriend Jessica (played by Theresa Navarro) -- where she ambiguously asks "Have you thought about what I said?" -- an unidentified man (voiced by Mendoza) calls to tell him that Jessica is gone. For the rest of the film, the mocking voice over the cell phone keeps sending Ken on various missions, daring him to save her. Even though it seems like Ken is never getting anywhere, he keeps speeding around town out of panic, looking for various-colored keys. The desperate need to find Jessica takes him through eerie corridors, on a bike chase, to a muay thai fighting match in a football field, all cumulating to a showdown on a beach with a man named Bison.
"Why are you doing this?" is line that is echoed in the film.
"I didn't know what was real," explains Wong, describing the insanity of the difficult time he's capturing on film. "I was so wrapped up in own head, thinking about irrational gestures, always doing the wrong thing."
One of the reasons Wong cast Conner as the lead was because the two of them were in similar head spaces at the time. Wong and Conner had met working in the crew together on Arrested Development. They shared their private stories, realized they had gone through similar experiences, and bonded over their misery.
"There's a fine line between a stalker and a romantic," says Conner. "As a male going through a breakup, there's the idea of 'I'm going to win her back by doing this.' There are things that you think about, but you talk yourself out of."
To set the tone for Option 3, Mendoza recreated some of the music from the original short film and composed a score that was darker and more introspective for the feature. He penned the title song "Elysium," which was used for the film's lone musical number. In the scene, Ken walks slowly through a darkly-lit hallway, playing the acoustic guitar and singing the cryptic line "Emily, I'm in your wake." Partway through, he is joined by a group of solemn violinists. The studio version of "Elysium" ("the British-Invasion version of the song," Mendoza jokes) repeats again over the credits.
Wong also credits Mendoza for coming up with the Emily Dickinson motif of the film. A longtime fan of the poet, Mendoza managed to sneak an Emily Dickinson reference into Colma: The Musical. "I always liked the idea of unfinished poems in her house," he says. "And the idea that she was driven crazy from loneliness."
This time, Mendoza was able to turn Dickinson into a full-fledged theme; one could argue that the qualities of an Emily Dickinson poem match the abstractness of Wong's film -- unconventional form and general depressiveness hinting at deeper wells of insight. Even as Ken chases answers, fights mysterious men, reminisces about the past, and unlocks things within his head, the audience may still wonder what it all means.
Wong has his own answers, but they're his, he insists. He invites the viewers to come up with conclusions of their own.
Option 3 will be playing at the Los Angeles Pacific Film Festival on Monday, May 5th. To watch the trailer, click here. HP Mendoza is currently working on his directorial debut, Fruitfly, a musical about a Filipino fag hag in San Francisco. It stars Colma's LA Renigen and Option 3's Theresa Navarro.
Date Posted: 4/18/2008