SLAMDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! Law Chen’s Starring Jerry As Himself unsurprisingly stars Jerry Hsu as himself. Who Jerry is can be summed up as a loving father, a dutiful engineer, a proud immigrant, and the co-writer of this documentary. What begins as an affectionate glimpse at the Hsu family with the compilation of grainy home videos takes on a more experimental approach where non-fiction and fiction blur together.
Jerry Hsu doesn’t need much to live comfortably. He has worked and saved for years but decides to live in a poky apartment. The money he put aside over the years is for his three sons: Joshua is the youngest, Jesse is the eldest, and Jonathan is the middle child. Hsu cares deeply for his sons and is more than willing to help them out without expecting anything in return.
Then, one day, Hsu’s quiet life is upturned by a phone call informing him that he is being investigated by the Chinese authorities in connection with a ruthless criminal. Hsu rejects the claims and thinks someone in China is impersonating him. He is assigned a case officer of sorts, who advises him to complete specific tasks to assist them in their investigation. Unbeknownst to his family, Hsu is embroiled in espionage, or is what we see a fantasy of his? Reality and fiction coalesce to craft a modestly suspenseful and surprisingly heartfelt documentary with genre-shifting tendencies.
“…Hsu’s quiet life is upturned by a phone call informing him that he is being investigated by the Chinese authorities…”
When being a spy and doing spy-related endeavors through what may be re-enactments or make-believe scenarios, Hsu follows orders without a second thought. Through minatory dialogue and Hsu’s wobbly confidence, the interactions between Hsu and a bank teller are laced with menace. This is either because the bank teller poses an actual threat or because Hsu is being manipulated to think they are. Starring Jerry As Himself wisely leaves this open for interpretation.
Chen employs several cinematic flourishes that instill more vigor and style into the espionage proceedings. There is one seamless transition where Hsu walks into his apartment and is transported to a dimly lit room with the Chinese officers. There are frenetic montages of Hsu sneakily talking on the phone, trembling camerawork set to a discordant score, and gauzy lighting that eludes reality. Chen knows how to enhance what may be a somewhat false reality with technical flair, sustaining tension and intrigue.
In what originally seems like a meta exercise in distorting the lines between reality and fiction in documentary filmmaking, the film’s true intentions are more down-to-earth. Chen presents an earnest and affecting representation of family, sickness, perseverance, and the American Dream. Once the final act divulges the purpose of everything we’ve watched, the more I’ve come to understand Jerry Hsu, the undismayed and endearing subject who never gives up, even when people have taken advantage of him.
Whatever happens from this point forward, Hsu can find solace in the fact that his family will always be there for him and vice versa. Starring Jerry As Himself is an audacious piece of documentary filmmaking that is tremendously vital, kinetic, and deeply personal.
Starring Jerry As Himself screened at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival Tag.
"…tremendously vital, kinetic, and deeply personal."