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The Half of It (2020)

The Half of It (2020) is a Netflix film that premiered in May. Yes, I am slow again, I know. As someone who is not only Asian but also cares about Asian representation on screen, I should have watched it sooner. I’m sorry, okay???? Anyway, better late than never. The Half of It doesn’t only feature an Asian female lead character, but also a queer character?? Yeah why haven’t I watched it sooner? I guess I was a little afraid that it’s a queer bait, but I didn’t want to check because I didn’t want spoilers. I finally watched it and I have to say, this film is SO CUTE! I really enjoyed it especially the first part of the film. However, I feel like the film is missing something but I couldn’t quite tell. I then read some articles online and I realised, it’s in Act 3, it’s Aster’s character. Something is missing in her and so much more about her could have been explored. Not only just her but the whole homosexual subject matter could have been explored further through her point of view (and it’s not like there’s no sexual tension between Aster and Ellie from the START of the movie). I still really like the film though. I think the cast was really strong and the characters were likeable. The plot works well even though it’s not some brand new idea, as long as it works, right? I think what’s missing is writer/director Alice Wu’s bold strokes. If she could’ve pushed the film a little further, it would have been perfect!

A few things that I wanted to talk about in this review: the depiction of Ellie Chu as “the Chinese girl”, aka the outsider in an American small town; the bond between Paul and Ellie; and teenage sexual awakening towards same-sex attraction.

The story starts with Paul, who has a crush on Aster, a pretty girl who is dating the most popular boy at school, asks Ellie to help him write a love letter to Aster. Little did he know, that the smart, nerdy Ellie, who helps write other people’s essays for a living, actually has a crush on Aster too. The film actually didn’t make a fuss about Ellie being a gay woman, everything was subtle. I like this depiction actually, I think it blends in Ellie’s Chinese culture well. Being the second generation of immigrants, with a father who speaks a little English and also sort of gives up on his life, Ellie has to be the one who bears responsibility. It’s no wonder why she loves The Remains of the Day, as she’s also oppressing her emotions, her sexuality. The film didn’t spend a lot of screen time depicting this, but it’s here and there to give you the idea. I think it’s really refreshing to see the main character (ie. Ellie) who is always in the background but actually has a cool story to tell. The subtle racism when Ellie’s classmates yelled “chunga chunga chu chu” at her and she simply ignored it, is very relatable. It’s not because it’s no big deal, it is annoying for sure, but it’s because if you make a fuss about it, people would be like “can’t you take a joke”? So, we let it slide. It’s sad but it’s true. It is not right, it is racist behaviour, but because it’s not life threatening so no one cares about it. Okay, got a little sidetracked, back to the story. I personally don’t like the Asian stereotypes that we watched too many times on screen, like how traditional a Chinese family is, how they’re always the immigrants. But I think there’s a fine line between stereotypes and authenticity. In The Half of It, I won’t say it’s a stereotypical depiction because the traditional family value, the dumpling making, the immigrant side etc., shaped who Ellie is. And that is her story, much more than “she is the Asian nerd, the Chinese girl, the family girl”. Yes, it may have appeared that way but these actually ARE the elements that attracted Aster in the first place. So philosophical, so lonely, so artistic, so knowledgeable. These are all Ellie’s character. Even though Aster did not know these characteristics are from Ellie, not Paul (or did she?), it’s not the appearance, not the identity that attract Aster. It’s the quality of the person.

On the other hand, the bond between Paul and Ellie is really adorable. Although my main concern was Ellie and Aster, and I hope Aster will find out it’s been Ellie all along and she may or may not have accepted her, the beautiful friendship between Paul and Ellie caught my attention. Their friendship began with Ellie helping Paul chasing his dream girl, but through the process, they learn more about each other. Although Ellie doesn’t seem to care about other people’s lives, she cares about Paul. When she learns about his taco sausage dream, she listens, then writes to food critics secretly to help Paul to get noticed. And Paul, he is more and more interested in Ellie as a person. It may have been a cliché that Paul realises he likes Ellie, not Aster. After all, Paul barely knows Aster, it’s only the impression, the appearance of Aster that he likes. It makes sense even though it seems like a romcom trope. I personally don’t hate it and I think it works really well. It also serves the dramatic purpose: Paul realises Ellie actually likes Aster. I mean he should have known while Ellie described how Paul should’ve felt about Aster. Ellie was so in love with Aster when she talked about her, it was obvious (maybe a little too obvious in my opinion, but it’s still okay). The homophobic side of Paul may seem out of nowhere, and it probably is as it wasn’t established at all, but I think it’s okay. The story was set in a small town, they all go to church so it makes sense that Paul said homosexuality is a sin, that Ellie will go to hell (it was pretty strong though, yes). I think Paul was using the homophobic side to hide his anger and sadness that, the person he cares not only didn’t likes him back, but also lied to him (or wasn’t being honest). I am glad that in the end, Paul comes round and they become friends again. He even re-enacted the cheesy train chasing scene when Ellie leaves town for college. I really like the friendship and I guess this is the main theme of the story. After all, Ellie said “this is not a love story” in the beginning of the film. However, it IS a love story. Yes, the friendship side is all very beautiful but love has always been the theme of the film. Their friendship was built on the romantic interest for Aster for god’s sake! And the quotations of love were basically flooding throughout the film. Exploring the romantic side doesn’t take away from the beautiful friendship, it now feels slightly incomplete (I mean the loose ends were still tied) because the romantic side is not explored enough. This brings me to talk about Aster.

Aster shouldn’t be merely a love interest in the film. I wish I could see more of her own development. To be honest, the sexual tension between Aster and Ellie was right there from the start, when Aster helped Ellie picking up her books. The audience already know that Ellie fancies Aster, but Aster is showing interest too. She knows who Ellie is, she’s been paying attention to Ellie too, subconsciously or not, she notices Ellie. This is also shown in other scenes, such as in the ladies room, Aster is smiling at Ellie while Ellie is too nervous and doesn't know what to do, so she keeps washing her hands (good demonstration of how to deal with coronavirus right there!). I think the biggest moment between the two, is the hot spring scene. First of all, Aster is at Paul’s to find Paul, isn't she? But then she sees Ellie, after clarifying that they aren't dating, instead of finding Paul, Aster takes the chance and asks if she can tag along with Ellie. So, basically Aster ditches Paul and hangs out with another girl for the day. Are you sure there’s nothing going on, Aster? Before Aster asking Ellie to hang out, Ellie commented on Aster’s painting for Paul. Aster probably realised something, and she probably always have known (she kind of said so herself at the end of the film). I think it’d be so interesting to know more about what Aster actually thinks. We as the audience have always known that Ellie fancies girls, how about Aster? What does she think? Especially when she obviously has so much in common with Ellie, she fell for the person who wrote her the letters and texts, and that is not Paul. We know Ellie is oppressing her feelings, what does Aster feel about it? I feel like although Aster seems like she says yes to everything especially when it comes to Trig (aka the boyfriend), she must have had her own thoughts too. Back to the hot spring scene, jeez, there is SO MUCH sexual tension between the two. I almost thought something was going to happen there. They connect so much, for the first time, in person, not being pen pals. It would make sense that if Aster is confused about her feelings towards Ellie, because, teenagers, homosexuality, of course, all very confusing. But we didn’t see this side of Aster, unfortunately.

To be honest, most parts of the film are very well written, it’s just the final act feels a little abrupt. It still ties all the lose ends, but feels too little. Yes, Aster implies that she suspected it was Ellie all along, and very subtly she says “the thought has crossed her mind”, meaning she didn’t reject the idea of her and Ellie being together. But then Ellie and Aster will go separate ways as they graduated from high school. Realistically speaking, chances are they will both move on from each other. Ellie probably will find more like-minded mates in collage, possibly a girlfriend. As for Aster, something similar. Of course, that’s only being realistic. If you’re being a romantic of course you’d want them to keep in touch and eventually be together. After all, it was SO CLEAR that Aster is Ellie’s other half. They clicked, they shared interest, they enjoyed each other’s company. It’s still a good ending, just it could have been better. For example, what would have been cute is that Aster finally confronts Ellie, pushes Ellie in a corner and sees what will happen. Maybe this time Paul will be Ellie’s support of finding love? As Paul realises that it’s Ellie’s personality that Aster likes all along. I don’t know, just a thought. But Aster’s character and the romance side are definitely not explored enough.

I still like the film. It’s really cute, you feel for the characters, and it’s good Asian representation (with their cool story, not just for the sake of diversity). Just…just the final touch! Like in the film, was that the boldest stroke you can paint? Perhaps Alice Wu could have painted it bolder.

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