LA TIMES: A cross-cultural mystery in 'Man From Reno'

A world premiere and entrant in the narrative competition at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival, "Man From Reno" is a detective mystery of cross-cultural cross-purposes. The fifth feature directed by 32-year-old filmmaker Dave Boyle sees him confidently stepping forward from character studies to more sure-footed storytelling.

“It feels like doing my first feature all over again in a lot of ways, unlearning what I learned before and learning new things,” Boyle said in an interview before the start of the festival. “This is my first movie that has a plot.”

Written by Boyle, Joel Clark and Michael Lerman, the film follows a Japanese crime novelist named Aki (Ayako Fujitani), who finds herself embroiled in a real-life mystery while in San Francisco. Following a trail of missing persons and exotic smuggling, she crosses paths with a mysterious, handsome stranger (Japanese star Kazuki Kitamura) and a crafty small-town sheriff (veteran character actor Pepe Serna) as seemingly disconnected people and events intersect in unexpected ways.

Working with cinematographer Richard Wong, Boyle shot the film in San Francisco as well as the towns of Hollister and San Juan Bautista. (Scenes from the classic “Vertigo” were shot in San Juan Bautista as well.)

After his earlier films, in particular “Surrogate Valentine” and “Daylight Savings,” both starring musician Goh Nakamura, Boyle realized he wanted to make something more in line with the kind of movies he himself most liked watching, such as David Fincher’s “Zodiac” or Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer.” The final straw was when someone came up to him after a festival Q&A and said how his movies were “cute.”

“I love and am proud of all my films," Boyle said, but to find his own voice he needed to make something "that feels like a movie instead of something that feels like a slice of life.”

Originally from Tucson, Boyle is based in Los Angeles. Though he has directed a series of Asian American-themed films -- “Man From Reno” is perhaps more accurately a story of Asians in America -- the filmmaker himself is not of Asian heritage. 

“There’s never been any kind of design to it,” Boyle said, noting that one film sort of naturally led into the next. “I’ve had projects that aren’t related to Japan or Asian Americans at all, and I just haven’t been able to get the financing for them. Which is paradoxical because I know a lot of people who have the exact opposite experience.”

“Man From Reno” continues the cross-cultural explorations from Boyle’s earlier films, mixing a strong sense of character and place with a newfound feel for plotting, structure and building senses of suspense, excitement and surprise.

“The way I described it to financiers was a traditional American detective story with Japanese characters,” said Boyle. “It’s very American in its sensibility, but at the same time it has multiple languages and people from all over the place in it. I’d describe it as, what if Alan J. Pakula directed a Nancy Drew movie."