Delta, The (1996): Ira Sachs Gay-Themed Directing Debut

Sundance Film Fest–Set in Memphis, The Delta, Ira Sachs’ feature directorial debut, is an original but flawed gay-themed drama about the complex relationship between a white suburban adolescent and a Vietnamese immigrant.

Our Grade: C+ (**1/2 out of *****)

Strand Releasing/Photofest

This small-scale, intimate picture displays a fresh cinematic voice, but suffers from narrative problems and ultra-modest tech credits that will damage its theatrical prospects, possibly limiting its showing to the gay and regional festival circuits.

Sachs, who has made a number of interesting shorts (Vaudeville, Lady), has written and directed a personal drama that captures well its specific context, Memphis’ provincial gay life. In the first, highly impressive scene, Lincoln Bloom (Shayne Gray), a product of an affluent Jewish family is cruising in his car. It’s obvious that the 17-year old boy is in the process of coming out, not yet comfortable with his emerging gay identity.

In one of his nightly escapades, Lincoln meets and befriends Ming Nguyen (Thang Chan), a Vietnamese immigrant who calls himself John, making every effort possible to assimilate in the new but hostile surroundings. A tentative, though decidedly asymmetric relationship evolves, with awkward conversations and occasional sex between the two men. In the yarn’s centerpiece, Lincoln and John run away together down the Mississippi River on a boat that belongs to the former’s father.

Sachs juxtaposes effectively the duo’s divergent physical and social milieus: Lincoln’s Jewish suburban life and John’s struggling, inherently insecure immigrant reality. Uncertain of his orientation, Lincoln spends time with his high school buddies and even engages in courtship of Monica (Rachel Zan Huss), while at the same time letting himself being tempted by older, out-of-town men in their hotels. Both isolated and alienated, due to his dark skin and ethnic background, John socializes in cheap Vietnamese bars and pool halls.

Sachs commits a major error by deciding to center on Lincoln’s character, for John is a far more interesting, complex, and disturbing personality. A number of revelations about John’s past (including the fact that his father was a black American stationed in Vietnam) highlight his underclass existence and the kind of discrimination faced by many Third World immigrants in the U.S. And if the interactional scenes between the two youngsters are credibly written and nicely executed, a climax that ends in a senselessly violent murder (on the same boat) is overtly Freudian and excessively melodramatic, negating the low-key, authentic mood of the rest of the picture.

The ending, in which Lincoln goes back to his girlfriend and former surroundings, without showing any effects of his problematic bond with John, doesn’t ring true and creates the impression of a scripter who didn’t know how to resolve his tale.

Even so, within these structural limitations, the natural acting of Thang Chan, who is playing a somewhat mysterious, not entirely sympathetic figure, commands the viewers’ attention and also compensates for the extremely low-budget production values of the 16mm-shot film.