Buy | Rent (Updated version is for purchase only right now)
There's a new, updated version of Shopping for Fangs (SFF) coming out next week, with DVD commentary. That's partially prompts a review that should have appeared about 11 years ago...
I first saw Shopping for Fangs when it was part of the "Class of '97" quartet which debuted at the SFIAAFF in 1997. It was the debut feature for both Quentin Lee (Ethan Mao, The People I've Slept With) and Justin Lin (Fast and Furious, Finishing the Game).
It was also, of the four Class of '97 films, the most deliberately off-beat, with the two main characters dealing with lycanthropy and amnesia (respectively), interspersed with Mexican stand-offs, bible study jokes, touch football, Ranch 99 shopping malls and some good wigs. It also stars a young John Cho in his first major role, playing a lovelorn 20-something who spends a lot of quality time in a Taiwanese cafe. (You'll also spot Lela Lee, aka "Angry Little Girl" playing the sister of Radmar Jao's character, Phil).
If I have one, outstanding impression of SFF, it's how it takes one of the most common of Asian American film themes - identity - and cleverly riffs on it but without ever coming back to hang-wringing about race/ethnicity. Indeed, there's very little "sociological content" in SFF which, especially in 1997, was fairly striking (Sunsets was another example of this). Especially given Justin Lin's later films, in particular Better Luck Tomorrow, you could already see the ways in which he and Quentin really set out to make a very different kind of AA narrative, one that deliberately stepped around the traditions of the past. Parents don't exist. With one key exception, family/immigrant history doesn't exist. Instead, as convoluted as the dual plots were (and I don't mean that in a critical way; the storylines were meant to be deliberately outrageous) SFF was intensely character driven.
By way of summation, there's basically three parallel storylines: Phil, who thinks he might be turning into a werewolf; Katherine, who is having amnesiac blackouts and is married to an emotionally crippled a--hole; Clarance, who is getting over a broken heart and has befriended the enigmatic, Brigette Lin-inspired Trinh. There are bits of interweaving that happens, some small, and the major one is with Trinh, who ends up crossing into Katherine's life when she discovers her purse and phone. (The film is very post-Pulp Fiction though still linear).
All three plots are driven by journeys of discovery but each is fraught with danger. Phil wants to be more assertive (and masculine) but he fears that as a possible lycanthrope, he may be unleashing too much of his inner desire. Katherine is trying to figure out what's happening during her blackouts and why she's being contacted by Trinh.. Clarence wants to quit moping and open his heart again but he's worried about being hurt again.
In trying to think of how to properly this film formally, the two thoughts that keep coming to mind are that, 1) it's laudably ambitious but 2) the sum is less than its parts. The latter is hardly something unique in cinema - one could say that most films that aren't perfect are less than the sum of their parts, but in my mind, SFF just has a lot of parts going on that don't quite gel in the way they aspire to. Having just caught the last half of the film at the ID Film Festival this past weekend, what really resonated was that this was a good, smart script in terms of all it was trying to do but where it ends up more listless is in the execution.
To be sure, some parts are done great (Phil's interest in a co-worker who turns out to be a Bible thumper is deliciously, painfully funny), some of it so-so (much as I'm a fan of John Cho, as Clarence, there just isn't much to invest in), some of it rather flat (Katherine's storyline is woefully underdeveloped, especially her marital relationship). You get where the film wants to take you, especially once you get to the end and its big twist, but the ride's choppy along the way.
I used to screen this film semi-regularly for my students at Cal and they tended to have mixed reactions to it; it was an interesting way to get them to start talking about contemporary AA cinema but I don't think it went over as well as, say, Eat a Bowl of Tea and these days, I'd probably be inclined to show them Better Luck Tomorrow instead. That said, I still think the film is incredibly important for helping mark a particular moment in AA film where you start to see hints of the future already on their way.
BTW, Quentin and Justin both talk about the film for Justin's special "Class of 1997" revisit post on youoffendmeyouoffendmyfamily.com.