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With: Debbie Lum
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Debbie Lum
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: English
Running Time: 82
Date: 15/03/2013

Seeking Asian Female (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

China Dolls

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

San Francisco filmmaker Debbie Lum directs this documentary about so-called "yellow fever," or white men who are exclusively attracted to Asian women. (If you live in the Bay Area, you've seen this phenomenon.) But, though her movie starts out with a series of talking heads, men who admittedly have this affliction, she never returns to them and instead focuses on Steven, a 60 year-old parking lot attendant at the San Francisco Airport.

Twice divorced, Steven developed "yellow fever" after seeing his son happily married to an Asian woman. Steven becomes obsessed with finding an Asian bride, starting with printed catalogs and hand-written letters and finally turning to the Internet. He has some success, goes on a few dates, and saves boxes full of letters, photos, and printed emails. Finally, he meets Sandy, a 30 year-old from a remote tea farm. Leaving the farm, Sandy went straight to work, skipped college, and subsequently never married, which makes her an "old maid" by Chinese standards.

Though the subject of "yellow fever" could be explored in greater depth, Lum comes to focus her film completely on Steven and Sandy, and several fascinating things happen. Steven and Sandy quickly realize that they each have actual, flawed human beings to deal with, that they don't speak each other's language, and that they can't understand each other. Sometimes they're patient and willing to give the benefit of a doubt, but other times they get frustrated, jealous, and petty.

Not surprisingly, since Lum is on hand, the new couple often asks her to translate their conversations, discussions, and arguments. As a human being, Lum agrees, but as a filmmaker, she resists. Lum also narrates from time to time, bringing her own story as an Asian female into it. She was born and raised in America and didn't speak Chinese until she visited the country and began taking language lessons in college. She also confesses that she has a white husband, which is why Steven trusted her in the first place.

This tension between personal filmmaking and documentary filmmaking is what keeps Seeking Asian Female alive throughout; it's the best kind of documentary. What's more, since Lum begins to care personally about what happens to Steven and Sandy, we share her affection. Steven, with his clownish looks and his almost permanent, huge smile, might have been an easy target for ridicule, but Lum humanizes him, showing him with the same emotional and romantic problems that all of us eventually face.

Surely, those that care about rules will criticize Seeking Asian Female for going off topic and for becoming too personal and not objective enough. But since no documentary is objective, I embrace the ones that explore the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity, and I praise Lum for putting herself on the line. I think this movie is filled with bravery and heart, and I hope to see more from Lum soon.

Meanwhile, Seeking Asian Female is playing CAAMFEST 2013: Fri, March 15, 7pm; Wed, March 20, 6:30pm; Sat, March 23, 5pm; and Sat, March 23, 7pm. Viewers can also purchase a DVD and find more information at

Full disclosure: my friend, the author Matthew Iribarne, is a friend of Debbie Lum's, and his name appears in the "special thanks" section of this film. He recommended this film to me, but I have never met Debbie other than to exchange an email with her to obtain a DVD screener.

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