Directory by: Law Chen
Distributed by: Visit Films
Written by Anna Harrison
“This is a true story,” proclaims the opening of Law Chen’s “Starring Jerry as Himself.” Then the words flicker: “based on a true story,” “adapted from,” “firsthand account of,” and on and on until we finally arrive at, “What is a true story?” “Starring Jerry as Himself” does, in fact, star Jerry as himself, but it eschews the typical cinéma vérité or direct cinema approach from most documentaries, instead letting Jerry and his family reenact what happened. (Think “The Act of Killing,” but no horrific war crimes.) It’s a unique approach to an unfortunately common story; “I’m not an actor,” proclaims a doctor (Yoni Lotan) who is definitely an actor, our confusion mirroring the story.
What happened was this: one day, Jerry Hsu, an aging Taiwanese immigrant, gets a call from the Chinese police, who inform him that someone has been using his name in a money laundering scheme and that he must go undercover at his bank in order to prove his innocence. Jerry, who avoided vacation days and pinched pennies for decades despite being a successful engineer, suddenly finds himself at the center of a global conspiracy, one reenacted with the plucky attitude you can only find in low-budget, from-the-heart movies like this: we never believe that the Chinese police station we are shown is actually a Chinese police station, but we know that Jerry does, and that’s enough.
Anyone who has the barest bit of digital literacy can guess where this will go as soon as the police talk about transferring money, but little things keep you guessing: the officer involved has Jerry send him pictures of his meals to ensure that he’s eating and talks about how much Jerry and the officer’s parents would get along. A bank teller (Nick Bailey) seems suspicious of Jerry’s activity, as if the teller was involved in a money laundering scheme, and Jerry gets struck by flights of fancy imaging the teller getting escorted away by the FBI. Not all of this reenactment is entirely engaging, but it’s made with so much heart that you never mind—one touching scene sees Jerry, lying alone in his messy apartment, thinking of his ex-wife, Kathy, as she dances gracefully with another man, and it’s a quietly beautiful, achingly sad moment, edited expertly by Chen himself and scored wonderfully by Eric Holljes. Jerry is immensely sympathetic: he’s the kind of dad who never splurges on material things or emotions, but refuses to cash a check written to him from one of his sons, not out of pride but because the check reminds Jerry that his son is a good man.
Jerry’s sons—Jesse, Joshua, and Jon—are all heavily involved both in front of and behind the camera, but to their credit, they don’t shy away from their flaws. All busy with their own lives, they have little time to visit Jerry, whose sparse apartment pales in comparison to Kathy’s lavish home, and the choice to bring the Haosong Yang’s Officer Zhang out of the police precinct and into scenes with Jerry, who is so lonely that he imagines Zhang as a friend shopping with him, eating with him, or just sitting and talking with him, is devastating. “Starring Jerry as Himself” is full of juxtapositions: love and care side by side with deep, profound sadness; humor and charm mixed with irrevocable loss. What starts as a charming story about a funny old man becomes a frankly depressing meditation on age and memory, serving as a reminder of how we so often abandon our senior citizens when they become less useful to our immediate needs.
“So-called American Dream? Not so fancy to him,” Jerry says. But damn if I didn’t want it to turn out okay, just this once.
“Starring Jerry as Himself” Trailer