California Roll is an artless bit of merchandise in the guise of a straight-to-video documentary. Directed by L.A. media promoter Stanley Lim, California Roll is marketed as "an inside look at the West Coast Asian American party scene." After recently seeing Party, Steven Hahn and Francis Hsueh's mildly successful 2006 documentary about New York City's insular Asian-American party scene, I was intrigued to see how California Roll measured up. Regrettably, California Roll offers none of Party's insight. It is merely a mishmash of marketing for DJs, party promoters and models, with special attention given to the most affable of the self-promoters, DJ Hideo.
If Party were stripped of all but its most banal interviews and then spiced up by E!-worthy club footage, you'd have the first third of California Roll. Scenes of attractive go-go dancers are intercut with puff pieces with the promoters and dancers. Everybody's selling something, and Lim's pushing their product. Here's the toughest exchange in the documentary:
Lim: "How much are drinks here at the house?"
Promoter: "Drinks are actually pretty cheap. Bottle service is actually one of the lowest out of all the clubs in Hollywood so a lot of people buy tables here. They're inexpensive for them. Also the drinks, they're about, I would say, three-quarters of the price of the usual Hollywood clubs."
In other words, the promoter says 'don't ask' and Lim agrees. If that's the hardball question, the typical exchange with a promoter or dancer inevitably ends with a pitch to visit a website or buy a calendar.
DJ Hideo emerges early as the principal documentary subject. An affable guy, reminiscent of the laid-back West Coast turntablists from Doug Prey's excellent 2001 documentary, Scratch, Hideo is the only thing, other than eye candy go-go dancers, this documentary has going for it. He DJs for clubs and parties around L.A., and programs music for the popular radio station, 100.3 FM. Hideo is clearly pitching himself, but he's a good product so he gets a pass. He would make an interesting short subject in a film like Scratch, however Hideo's not enough to carry this film even with its abbreviated 50-minute runtime.
When Hideo is offered an opportunity to DJ in Japan, Lim sends him along with a camera to record his trip. Let me repeat that. Lim sends a camera, not a camera crew, but a camera, along with Hideo to Japan, where he dutifully records some club scenes, along with shots of his hotel room, shopping, train travel, and eating. Hideo's footage makes up the middle third of the film.
Back in the States, the documentary winds down with discursions on Chicago auto show models (women not cars), old school West Coast turntablism, Hideo's radio programming position, and more club footage.
As an aside, it's worth noting that, as of the writing of this review, Amazon and IMDb have Stanley Lim's California Roll confused with Lary Ring's Yakuza Connection, and IMDb has mis-attributed Ravi Babu as the director of Party instead of Steven Hahn and Francis Hsueh.
Shot on digital video, the 1.33:1 image is serviceable but not stellar.
The audio, presented in 2.0 stereo, was captured using a built-in camera mic. Naturally, given that much of the footage was recorded in dance clubs and amidst other loud background noise, some dialogue is difficult to understand, but I trust we're not missing much.
A full-length director's commentary is included, but frankly I can't imagine anyone listening to it by choice. What little I heard only confirmed my initial opinions of Lim as a limitless self-promoter. Other extras include an extended outtake from one of the L.A. parties, two unrelated hip-hop music videos, filmmakers' biographies, a stills gallery and trailers.
California Roll is a 50-minute commercial for its subjects, a payday for its director, and a bore for its audience. If you're interested in the Asian-American party scene see Party, if turntablism see Scratch, if sexy women see porn. Skip it.