No Foreigners delivers less than it appears to offer

Hong Kong Exile and fu-GEN Theatre are presenting No Foreigners at The Cultch.

There is a whole lot of blank space in No Foreigners.

No Foreigners is extremely stylish. Unfortunately, that style is rarely theatrical.

No Foreigners is a kind of fairytale, digitally told. In it, a young Chinese-Canadian man finds out that he can inherit his grandfather’s wealth, but only if he can tell the executor of his grandfather’s will what the password is. To determine that password, he has to become “authentically” Chinese.

To connect with his roots, this Canadian-born guy immerses himself in the culture of a mall in Richmond. The mall is fantastical and informed by the tropes of Chinese culture, including pop culture, so, not only must he master several Chinese dialects, he must also become adept at all sorts of martial arts, and visit a secret basement room filled with luna moths that are reincarnations of the dead.

To create scenes, performers April Leung and Derek Chan shoot live video of miniature figurines that have articulated joints. In the audience, we can see Leung and Chan as they place, shoot, and voice these models. We can also see five small screens: it’s kind of like being in the control room of a television studio. And, on the back wall of the performance space, there’s one large screen on which the scenes play out—often complete with subtitles that provide English translations for some interactions and subtext for others.

Yes, it’s conceptually fancy. For the most part, it’s also as static as ice. Once posed, the figures don’t move. Sometimes, as we cut between shots, a new pose will appear, and there is a martial arts sequence that takes fuller advantage of this intercutting but, overall, there is precious little action or physicality.

At one point, Chan sings karaoke—in person, not just voicing a model. There he is: life-sized, made of flesh, and playing with us. What a relief it is, how unexpectedly warm and engaging it is in that one sequence to interact with a live performer.

The generally alienating form of No Foreigners does not support compelling content. Although the text sets up a classic story structure—the hero must overcome obstacles to get to the gold—it loses that focus almost immediately and gets lost in tangents. There’s a scene, for instance, between a married couple who run an electronics store in the mall. The scene itself is clever—the husband has figured out a goofy scam to lure more customers onto the premises—but the conversation does sweet nothing to advance the protagonist’s story. (Yes, I’m a white guy. No, No Foreigners does not speak directly to my experience. Yes, I checked in with a friend of colour in the audience. She expressed similar frustrations.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that No Foreigners isn’t sophisticated in many ways, because it is. The text, which was written by David Yee, acknowledges, for instance, that the hero is longing for a cultural identity that he can never fully inhabit. And there’s a stroke of real beauty in Milton Lim and Remy Siu’s projection design, a leitmotif of coloured squares that focus the imagery, by appearing behind characters’ heads, for instance.

But No Foreigners gets trapped in its technology and its ideas. Unlike Empire of the Son, which also uses miniatures and live video to tell its story, No Foreigners loses track of its heart.

NO FOREIGNERS Created by Hong Kong Exile and fu-GEN Theatre. Project lead Milton Lim. Produced in association with Theatre Conspiracy. At the Vancity Culture Lab on Thursday, February 8. Continues until February 17.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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