Bold course corrections from a pretty mess

Screenwriter and star Chuti Tiu, as Cissy, is equally admirable in her faults and strengths.  Photo courtesy of the filmmakers & AAIFF

Screenwriter and star Chuti Tiu, as Cissy, is equally admirable in her faults and strengths. Photo courtesy of the filmmakers & AAIFF

BY SCOTT STIFFLER  |  Gently awoken by parental cooing, Cissy needs little prompting to join her mother in the singing of a favorite nursery rhyme about a blossoming youth, for whom the future holds limitless promise. The only flaw in that plan? The person being coaxed to emerge from the covers is a grown woman in her mid-20s, who’s returned to the security of her childhood bedroom as a means of temporary retreat from a career in danger and a marriage on the rocks.

Husband and wife team bring nuance to tale of personal growth

At this pace, it’s going to be a long time before she clears all of the hurdles set by her Chinese Dad and Filipino-Spanish mom — chief among them, the making of babies (a topic which has an increasingly oppressive way of factoring into conversation with relatives and friends). Every family meal Cissy and her brother are summoned to comes with a mandatory status report on success according to mom and dad. At least they have something to talk about. When dining with her chronically unemployed husband, their stilted conversation takes place as they sit on either side of a giant framed wedding photo that mocks the unfulfilled promise of that happy day.

At The Asian American International Film Festival
Written by Chuti Tiu
Directed by Oscar Torre
Runtime: 81 minutes
Sat., July 26, at 1 p.m.
At City Cinemas Village East
Second Ave. & 12th St.
Tickets: $13
$11 for students/seniors/disabled
Post-screening Q&A with the director & star

A skilled and nuanced take on the great expectations of family, religion, work, status and sexual desire, the unhappy marriage at the center of “Pretty Rosebud” is the product of director Oscar Torre and screenwriter/star Chuti Tiu — who, off screen, are husband and wife. Hopefully, they’re both in possession of vivid imaginations. Otherwise, they’ve almost certainly chosen the long hours of the movie business as a way to avoid strife at the dinner table. That’s where some of the film’s most telling moments happen, thanks to Tiu’s remarkable capacity to write in a conversational style that’s mundane on the surface, but packed with subtle clues and savvy misdirection about a particular character’s true nature. Nobody in this film is the saint or sinner we reasonably judge them to be — which eventually pays off in a manner that’s remarkably civil and emotionally genuine, given the multitude of slights and betrayals (both real and perceived) visited upon the cast.

Forced by circumstances into the position of sole breadwinner, Cissy finds herself upending other gender conventions by cheating on her husband, initiating a trial separation and defying the wishes of a candidate whose congressional campaign she’s been tasked with invigorating. “I don’t get what I need from just one person,” Cissy says while seeking council from her family priest. Ostensibly talking about adultery, she might as well be describing her strategy for finding emotional support when she adds, “I go to different people.” As much an act of rebellion as the necessary expression of a healthy libido unsatisfied by her mate or her vibrator, Cissy’s willingness to stray from the marital vow of fidelity earns our empathy, but not necessarily our sympathy.

After another dinner table session with her husband (during which they negotiate the terms of separation in a manner resembling corporate dissolution), a confrontation with her parents sheds new light on an old family squabble — revealing the depth of commitment demanded by marriage. Another scene, of mother/daughter retail therapy, is one of the film’s best. Bel Hernandez, as Lettie Lam, has great chemistry with Tiu and enough comedic chops to merit far more screen time than she’s given.

Emboldened by some new realizations, the stage is set for a symbolism-filled sprint to the ocean’s cleansing waves. It’s a clumsy metaphor, and one of the film’s rare missteps — but when Cissy emerges from the water, newly baptized with the strength to cross or burn bridges as the situation requires, she does so with admirable speed and relative ease. 

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