“Big Dreams Little Tokyo” is a sweet-natured, big-hearted comedy following a young entrepreneur’s efforts to become the Donald Trump of dialect instructors. Director David Boyle isn’t after crassness. Well, yeah – there’s a vile belch or two. But this filmmaker’s universe is more “Napoleon Dynamite” than “Norbit,” less the cynical wit of “Borat,” than the life-affirming lift of “Working Girl.” You could almost take grandma, the kids, and the neighborhood chaplain.
Boyd Wilson (played by director Boyle) is the film’s central presence, a buttoned-down, wannabe businessman complete with sport-jacket, precision-gelled hair, and bespectacled peepers. Proficient at speaking Japanese, Boyd authors “The Power of Words,” an instructional book designed to teach English as a second language. Roaming through Little Tokyo in some nameless American city, Boyd hawks his wares through libraries, business sky-rises, and restaurants. He’s convinced that his tome will hit big in the Japanese community, and make a fortune along the way.
But like a fisherman tossing the wrong fly pattern to selective trout, Boyd lures few buyers. Prospective Asian customers recoil at his presence. “There’s no shame in working for someone else,” suggests his well-heeled father, before slipping the latest of many checks into the mail for this impoverished author- son.
“Big Dreams Little Tokyo” also presents Boyd’s roommate Jerome (Jayson Watabe), a Japanese American with aspirations towards professional Sumo wrestling. Jerome’s athletic ambitions are thwarted, however, when a Sumo academy rejects him for not being “fat enough.”
Ultimately, “Big Dreams Little Tokyo” succeeds as a comic commentary on America’s awkward, uncomfortable position as the ultimate cultural melting pot. In this sense, it’s a bit like “Babel” lite – trading that film’s sad pathos for shrewd chuckles. Boyd thinks he has an insider’s track to Japanese hip-ness, but he’s actually a clueless poser. Meanwhile, Jerome’s grip on the expectations of Asian culture traps him like a school of net-snared sushi squid, depriving him from a wider sea of options.
Shot on digital video over 19 days, “Big Dreams Little Tokyo” boasts imaginative cinematography and editing. Check out Boyle’s snail’s-eye view of a towering sumo, shot from the floor-hugging level of a straining bathroom scale. Take in the director’s garish spreads of sushi – edible rainbows of rice, fish eggs, and seaweed strewn across crowded plates. “The sushi often went rotten,” admits Boyle of the festering piles of over-taxed onscreen cuisine.
Flamboyant and whimsical, the film’s colorful onscreen eye-candy tastes like Pedro Almodovar or early Tim Burton. In fact, when a garish bicycle built for two enters the early frames of “Big Dreams Little Tokyo,” one expects Pee Wee Herman to appear. In Boyle’s surreal world of colliding cultures, Japanese restaurants boast all-Latino staffs, and would-be sumo gods have heart attacks during Olympic bouts of noodle slurping.
When “Big Dreams Little Tokyo” recently screened at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum as part of the AFI “20/20” Festival, Boyle struck a low-key pose behind an ever-present laptop computer. A frizzy mane and casual jogger’s jacket replaced the slicked-back hair and dapper attire from his film persona. Although the director hails from Salt Lake City, he could have just as easily been a Northwest journalist, or a student from University of Washington taking in a film between classes.
In contrast to the craggy, wild-eyed tough guy looks of Quentin Tarantino and Joe Carnahan (“Narc”), Boyle’s smooth face and wide eyes suggest a sensitive demeanor. It’s a bit startling, then, when the filmmaker begins to talk. His low voice and deliberate enunciation are strong and commanding. What follows are Boyle’s take on the virtues of shooting versus editing, whether “Napoleon Dynamite” influenced the film, and how his background as a missionary in Australia became inspirational fodder for “Big Dreams Little Tokyo.”
I felt a bit of a Wes Anderson (“Royal Tenenbaums”) influence in “Big Dreams Little Tokyo.” Is this accurate?
I like his movies, his sense of humor, and his outlook on things. But in terms of influences on me, one of the biggest is Almodovar. Also Truffaut. There are a lot of movies that have influenced me over the years.
The editing of your film is striking. There are in-your-face close-ups of facial expressions. There’s also a unique scene of a nurse pushing a gurney, which emphasizes her feet. Was it an exhausting process to cut and assemble this film?
The editing took a while (laughter). My favorite part of the filmmaking process is the actual shooting. I had a really good editing team (Duane Andersen and Scott Hurst), who made a lot of great choices.
The different camera angles kept your film very exciting.
Every story calls for a different style. I anticipate that my next movie might be shot in a totally different style. This was my first film.
The hero of “Big Dreams Little Tokyo” has an intrusive father who always inquires into his career. Is any of this autobiographical?
No, it’s not (laughs). My parents have been really cool, and very supportive of my career choice. Actually, at one point I decided to do something other than filmmaking, and they persuaded me to go back to my original plan of filmmaker. I was very lucky in that way. My dad is not like the dad in the movie.
Is it true that you learned Japanese from surfers, while you were a missionary in Australia?
Yeah. There’s a pretty big population of Japanese people in Sydney. Especially students and people who have a working holiday VISA, where they can go to Australia for a year and pretty much do whatever they want. They can work or go to school. So it’s a population that’s constantly in flux. I spoke Japanese all day, every day, for three years. It was an interesting experience that made for a lot of funny stories.
Any that you would like reveal?
Yeah. Boyd, the main character in the movie, is based on a Japanese fellow I met in Australia. He wanted to be an American-style businessman. He always wore a three piece suit, and carried a briefcase, no matter what. He was about eighteen years old. He always introduced himself as a businessman. I always thought he was an interesting and funny guy, so I just reversed him, and came up with the character in the film. I think that Boyd has kind of a skewed idea of what Japanese culture is, and what culture in general is. I wanted to show that he was operating under shallow and incomplete ideas of what Japanese culture is. I also wanted to show that individual personality is stronger than any cultural stereotype or paradigm. That’s what I wanted to show with Japanese business characters in the movie.
I heard that you wanted to avoid casting an actor in the role of Boyd who would make him too sympathetic.
Yeah. Boyd is definitely a grotesque caricature of a Japanese businessman, although he happens to be a white guy. I wanted to make sure I got that across.
Was the work of (“Napoleon Dynamite” director) Jared Hess any kind of an influence on your film?
No. I mean, he and I come from a similar background, which might account for some of the similarities in humor. I saw his film and enjoyed it. But this had already been in the works when that came out.