Narrative gimmicks don’t always draw me in, but when I’m in the middle of watching a bunch of unremarkable festival films and something as original as Hank and Asha comes along, I’m easily seduced. That makes it sound undeserving, though, which isn’t the truth. The film is dominated by an unconventional structure that should in theory quickly become tedious for the viewer and a burden on the story, yet it carries on with great charm and a romantic spirit that’s rarely found at the movies today.
It begins with a video message from Asha (Mahira Kakkar), an Indian studying film in Prague, sent to Hank (Andrew Pastides), a New York-based filmmaker whose documentary just screened at a festival she attended. He couldn’t make it, so Asha has decided to reach out for a one-on-one Q&A (presumably via email though we never get the specifics on what platform or network they use to send messages). He replies with a video of his own, and soon they’re digital-age pen pals, sharing everything from personal confessions to whimsical virtual tours of their respective cities in montage form.
The style and plot, therefore, is always limited to these two characters, who take turns speaking directly to the camera, corresponding in an old-fashioned manner through modern technology. It’s like a found-footage love story, and thanks to the ongoing trend of films and TV series employing such a documentary aesthetic, we’re accustomed to this first-person, fourth-wall-breaking technique and have no trouble getting used to it here. Otherwise, it’s not much different from two-person conversational films like My Dinner With Andre and Before Sunrise. It’s just that here the exchange is extended over the course of many weeks.
However, that duration also doesn’t exactly allow for discourse as heavy as in the films I mention, and generally Hank and Asha never gets more explicitly philosophical than some simple debate over arranged marriage after she admits to him that she’s engaged through that traditional custom. But while the conceit of a betrothed Indian woman falling for a white man she can’t be with is an obvious one, there’s an underlying irony considering for the most part Hank and Asha are strangers, in spite of how close and candid they might seem in their always-indirect communications.
Their computer-based relationship never once evolves to the Skyping stage, and that maintains some of the excitement for them even if to us it still may feel like we’re watching the shot-reverse-shot continuation of a single conversation. Fortunately, the locations behind the talking heads are ever-changing, and Kakkar and Pastides are strong enough performers to make us believe time is passing and that their feelings for each other are maturing. Because the characters are filmmakers, they also manage to keep their messages believably well-shot and edited, if only for the benefit of the voyeuristic audience watching the movie.
Hank and Asha is the debut of the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Julia Morrison and James E. Duff, both professors at the very Prague Film School attended by their character. As is always to be expected with romantic pictures written by couples, the dialogue and choices made by both male and female leads is convincing and plausible. It helps that Kakkar and Pastides appear so comfortable, too, presumably having been given the freedom to play the roles loose and casually. I started to think they were real people and couldn’t wait for them to meet to either fulfill my cynical anticipation for devastating awkwardness or to warm my heart with an impractical yet acceptable fantasy situation. Obviously I won’t spoil the direction the film goes in at the end, but it does come through naturally and is consistent with the overall story.
Although the film came to me like an oasis, on it’s own it’s not necessarily technically nor narratively brilliant. I don’t want to imply that it’s the greatest thing to happen to romantic cinema since the invention of the meet-cute. But it is different, and that’s always a plus for me. And yet at the same time it follows a tradition of long-distance correspondence romances that are always hard to reject, such as the films of 84 Charing Cross Road and The Lake House. It’s elevated, however, in the way that it properly adapts the concepts of the epistolary novel to cinema so that we’re not constantly watching someone handwriting or typing a letter while hearing the words in voice-over.
So far we’ve seen teases of the epistolary film in movies featuring video diaries and chat, such as Easy A and the Paranormal Activity films. But I don’t think we’ve seen anything this consistent. I’m surprised it took so long, and I’m pleasantly surprised it ended up this enjoyable. Hank and Asha is a cute, clever and compelling little film that both satisfies and reinvents the indie rom-com for a new generation used to developing relationships through digital and virtual means.
The Upside: A fresh structure with convincing and likable leads results in one of the most inventive romantic pictures in a long time.
The Downside: There are definitely limitations to the style cinematically, and I personally wanted a different ending.
On the Side: It’s not at all shocking to learn that Morrison and Duff mostly work in documentary, with her background in producing episodes of PBS’s American Experience and he having made a doc that aired as part of PBS’s POV series.