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‘Yellow’ Looks at Generation, Cultural Gap Within Families

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As ambitious and rewarding as it is, Chris Chan Lee’s “Yellow” has a significance beyond itself: It’s the first major Korean American film to get a feature release.

It’s also a classic coming-of-age story, set during one long night just before eight high school friends are to graduate. You’re tempted to describe the picture as “Korean American Graffiti,” but along with its humor it has an underlying disturbing seriousness.

The film’s central figure is Sin Lee (Michael Daeho Chung), a clean-cut young man who is awaiting word on several university scholarship applications and facing a summer of working in his father’s central Los Angeles grocery store. It’s the last Friday evening before his graduation, and Sin would naturally like to join his friends in a night of fun. But his father Woon Lee (Soon-Tek Oh, in one of the finest performances of a distinguished career), a martinet verging on the hysterical, insists he must work, closing the store later on and then joining a traditional Friday evening family gathering with his grandmother.

A man hassles Sin on the price of an antacid and tells him he’ll be spending his life behind the counter, just like his father. Already a bundle of pent-up rage on account of his father’s treatment, Sin is shaken by the possibility that the customer’s angry words could come true and is ready to explode when three youths come in just as he is closing up.

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We jump ahead and a distraught Sin, who has skipped the family dinner, tells his friends that the youths held him up and robbed the till of about $1,500. When Sin feels there is just no way that he can face his fiercesome father with the truth, “Yellow’s” plot kicks in, sending Sin’s pals off on a series of adventures, some scary, some comical, in order to raise enough money to replace the missing cash. “Yellow,” which tends to ramble some, is revved up by its knockout indie rock/hip-hop score.

Lee has found a way to mine an array of issues in an entertaining and increasingly urgent and suspenseful manner. In effect, Lee has discovered a highly effective method to explore the generation gap between the students and their immigrant parents with their traditional conservative values that so often clash with their children’s Americanized attitudes and priorities.

In a mostly affecting scene with Sin’s girlfriend Teri (Mia Suh), we learn that his father’s extreme severity grows out of his experience as a veteran of the Korean forces in Vietnam, where he saw children orphaned, naked and starving and became determined that he must never let up in providing for his family.

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While the entire thrust of “Yellow"--whose title takes on a double meaning, referring to cowardice as well as to race--has to do with Sin taking responsibility for himself, Lee also sends a warning that parents can be so strict that they can destroy the children they ostensibly want only to make strong. As events unfold, an intimidated, straight-arrow kid like Sin is more vulnerable to making major mistakes that could affect his life than his more cynical and worldly pal Alex (Burt Bulos).

Lee is a splendid writer and has a way with actors as well. He has created a complex character in Teri, who has problems respecting Sin. A standout among Sin’s friends is the exceedingly bright and independent Grace (Angie Suh), who is in a constant state of rebelling against her mother’s wishes that she be “more charming and ladylike.”

Through the specificity of this Korean American experience you can easily feel a sense of universality in Sin’s predicament. As a filmmaker Lee is at a point where he’s stronger at dialogue than pacing. But there’s no doubt “Yellow” marks the debut of a most promising talent who combines youthful zest and energy with a mature perspective that allows him to extend compassion to both sides of the generation gap.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has some violence, strong language.

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‘Yellow’

Michael Daeho Chung: Sin Lee

Burt Bulos: Alex

Soon-Tek Oh: Woon Lee

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Mia Suh: Teri

Angie Suh: Grace

A Phaedra Cinema release of a Legend Filmworks presentation of a Public Works Films production. Writer-director Chris Chan Lee. Producers Lee, David Yang and Rita Yoon. Executive producers Taka Arai, Theodore Kim. Cinematographer Theodore Cohen. Music Jon Oh. Production designer Jeanne Yang. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741, and the University 6, Campus Drive across from UC Irvine in Irvine, (949) 854-8811 and (714) 777-FILM (#084).

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