This piece was originally published on CarnalNation. The movie is now available on DVD.
“I love sex,” she says. “And some people thought it was a bad thing. But I’ve learned that a slut is just a woman with the morals of a man.”
Sudden, screeching rewind back in time, slightly less than nine months. The free-spirited adventurer in question, Angela (Karin Anna Cheung), has just learned that one of her adventures has resulted in an embryo. She considers getting an abortion — her gay best friend, Gabriel (Wilson Cruz) practically demands it — but her conservative sister Juliet (Lynn Chen) pressures/ fearmongers/ persuades her that her life would be better if she settled down to a normal, stable family life. “Settle down,” she exhorts. “Grow up, and be happy for once.” Somehow neglecting to notice that Angela is already pretty darned happy. And definitely neglecting to notice that Angela is making her own conscious decisions about her own life… pretty much the textbook definition of being grown up.
So Angela decides to keep the baby… and embarks on a comical search to figure out which of her many adventuring partners is the father. It’s a challenge: Angela’s partners are sufficient enough in number that she keeps track of them through what she calls “baseball cards,” Polaroids with personal stats scrawled on the back. But she narrows the possibilities down to the five men she didn’t use birth control with — and goes through an assortment of wacky hijinks to collect their DNA for paternity tests. Her heart is pulling her in one direction — toward Jefferson (Archie Kao), the sweetheart labeled on her baseball card as “Mystery Man” — but she’s bound and determined that she’s going to have a normal married life, which means the man she marries should bloody well be the man she happened to conceive with. Regardless of whether she actually, you know, likes him, and wants to spend the rest of her life with him.
Yes, I know. It’s another “shmashortion” movie, in which a woman who under any other circumstances would be off to Planned Parenthood in a nanosecond for an abortion mysteriously decides to keep the baby… because if she didn’t, it’d be a fifteen minute movie. It’s an annoying pattern. Noted. Annoyed. Let’s move on.
Because “The People I’ve Slept With” is, in fact, a movie worth moving on to. It’s an odd duck: a mutant offspring of a smart, quirky, genuinely funny character study/ comedy of errors, and a sloppy, under-written jumble of cliches and careless implausibility. But the good stuff is sufficiently good — and sufficiently uncommon — to make it well worth a look.
Especially for anyone interested in movie depictions of unconventional sex.
For starters, it’s delightful to see a woman in a movie have casual sex, with a wide assortment of partners of both genders, in a wide assortment of styles and variations… and be pretty much fine with it. And it’s a striking reminder of how rare this is. (Samantha in the increasingly revolting “Sex and the City” franchise is pretty much all we’ve got. Loki help us all.)
It’s true that much of the movie involves Angela’s freakout about her free-form life, and her cockamamie, half-assed pursuit of the American Dream, Heteronormative Style. But throughout the course of her cockamamie freakout, it’s made eminently clear that… well, that it’s a cockamamie freakout. The source of the humor isn’t that she’s struggling to find her way to the Right and True Path while being comically sidetracked into her old habits. The source of the humor is that she’s struggling to find her way to a path that’s laughably wrong for her. And in the end — and no, it’s not a spoiler, they give it away in the first five minutes — her salvation comes, not by accepting conventionality, but by embracing unconventionality. Especially in how she arranges her new family.
And there are oodles of lovely, funny, wonderfully refreshing sexual touches generously sprinkled throughout the movie. I love that the slutty, quirky, free-spirited Angela is her father’s favorite, and her normal, buttoned-down sister Juliet is the one he worries about and feels alienated from. It shatters so many stereotypes: about Asian families in particular, and about all families in general. I love how casually multicultural the movie is, and how sex not only with lots of different partners but with partners of lots of different races is treated as No Big Deal. I love how casually Angela’s bisexuality is revealed: her female partners are introduced in the litany of baseball cards right alongside the male ones, and while they’re less frequent than the guys, they’re shuffled into the pack as equals, and treated with the same cheerful, breezy affection.
And I love, love, love that Gabriel, Angela’s Gay Best Friend, has not just a life of his own, but a sex life of his own. The Gay Best Friend is quickly becoming one of the most annoying movie tropes in town: yes, yes, positive gay visibility in media, it’s all very nice indeed, but when gay people are constantly relegated to the sidelines of the real story, there solely to provide support and wisdom and a shoulder to cry on for the people who really count, and kept carefully neutered to keep them likeable and safe, it starts to wear a bit thin. But not here. In “The People I’ve Slept With,” the Gay Best Friend gets to have a storyline of his own. And he gets to have sex. And love. And romantic complications. He’s not the main character — this is Angela’s story, not Gabriel’s — but he clearly has a rich, complicated, fully sexual life of his own. A life that folds into Angela’s as an equal, instead of being subsumed by it as a sidekick.
All of which made me desperately wish this were a better movie. It comes so close. So many of the characters are rich and unpredictable and human… and yet so many others are one-note caricatures. So much of the emotion is nuanced and authentic… and yet so much of it is mawkish and hackneyed. So much of the story is natural and believable… and yet so very, very much of it is labored and fake, with plot twists that strain credibility, taking place not because that’s what the characters would do, not because any living human being would ever do anything remotely like that, but because the story has to move on to the next bit. I hate how Nice-But-Boring-Guy turns into a hysterical stalker overnight when he thinks he’s going to be a father… and I truly hate how his stalking is played for laughs. I hate how a major breakup near the end (I won’t tell you whose) is impossibly utopian, perfectly happy for all concerned, with no emotional complications or consequences, breezily dismissed so the train can keep pressing along to Happy Ending Land without further delay. I hate the sister who doesn’t care that her brother’s dead. And I hate, hate, hate that the entire plot hinges on Angela’s half-assed use of birth control. I know, I know — it’s like the “shmashortion” thing, there wouldn’t be a movie without the dumb plot device — but given how happy and self-aware she is in general about her sluthood, it just rings false.
And the whole movie is like that. The false notes are woven into the true ones, bouncing back and forth between thoughtfully funny character exploration and dumb screwball hijinks, so fast it makes your neck hurt trying to keep track. And it’s so unnecessary. The good movie is truly good — smart and quirky, inventive and funny, with a fresh approach to sexuality and a casually gutsy willingness to question tons of assumptions about it. It’s actually way more entertaining than the dumb, fake hijinks. I wish the filmmakers had either done another rewrite to work the dumb bits out of there… or trusted that the good movie didn’t need them.
The People I’ve Slept With. Starring Karin Anna Cheung, Wilson Cruz, Archie Kao, James Shigeta, Lynn Chen, Rane Jameson, Tim Chiou, and Stacie Rippy. Written by Koji Steven Sakai. Directed by Quentin Lee. Produced by Steven Sakai, Stanley Yung, and Quentin Lee. People Pictures/ 408 Films Production. Unrated.