“Starring Jerry as Himself” Blends Fact and Fiction in a Tale of Scams and Family

by Brian Hioe

Photo courtesy of Visit Films

This is a No Man is an Island film review written in collaboration with Cinema Escapist as part of coverage of the 2023 Asian American International Film Festival. Keep an eye out for more!

STARRING JERRY AS HIMSELF is a masterful film, standing at the intersection of documentary and fiction.

The movie follows Taiwanese immigrant retiree Jerry Liu, who lives in Florida. Liu is divorced from his wife, but has a good relationship with her. However, Liu is somewhat distant from the three sons that he had with his wife. Though he sees one regularly, as they are busy with work or their own families.

One day, Jerry receives a message from a man claiming to be Chinese law enforcement. The man alleges that Jerry has become implicated in a money laundering case and that, to clear his name and avoid being extradited to China, he will need to follow their instructions.

Photo courtesy of Visit Films

Subsequently, Jerry is implicated in what at first seems like a scam. As a result,  Jerry loses his life savings, as the  two men claiming to be Chinese law enforcement tell him that he needs to sell his stocks and transfer funds to a bank account under their control in order to prove his innocence.

This story blends fact and fiction. For one, Jerry Liu plays himself, and was actually a victim of a Chinese fraud ring in real life. It is somewhat unclear in the film why a Taiwanese person would fall for a Chinese scam ring, but it is suggested that Liu had business dealings in China before retirement. His children also appear in the movie as themselves. The family, which works in the film industry, was later motivated to make the film about Jerry being scammed out of his life savings.

Reflecting real-world social problems, there have been an increasing number of Sinophone films about the elderly being scammed out of their savings in recent years, such as The Empty Nest and Reclaim. But such films have not always been successful in their depiction of how scam artists work, in that elderly characters are usually shown as in full command of their cognitive facilities–until they aren’t.

Photo courtesy of Visit Films

Starring Jerry as Himself stands out because it draws viewers into the inner workings of Jerry’s mental state as he becomes implicated in the scam. This is accomplished through staging Jerry’s imagination of the fraudsters as police officers in Shanghai–later on in the film, Jerry remarks that he felt like he was in a spy movie when the fraudsters asked him to carry out various tasks.

The con artists depicted in Starring Jerry as Himself also feel like figments of a cinematic epic. In contrast with all the other characters who live mundane lives in Florida, the two fake police officers have movie star-level good looks. Furthermore, as the lonely and isolated Jerry starts believing the initially sympathetic fraudsters, the fraudsters start appearing in Jerry’s everyday Florida environments, albeit in staged encounters.

This innovative staging makes Starring Jerry as Himself work especially well as a film. Moreover, the presence of the real-world Jerry, his ex-wife, and his children lends the film a great deal of emotional resonance, with real intimacy between the characters. But, to this extent, Starring Jerry as Himself also benefits from the skill of the actors playing the other characters, with Haosong Yang channeling his inner Tony Leung to play “Officer Zhang” and Nick Bailey managing a wonderful turn as a bank teller that interacts with Jerry, who Jerry comes to suspect is part of a conspiracy against him.

Photo courtesy of Visit Films

Starring Jerry as Himself can be situated alongside other Asian American films in recent years that aim to explore the perspectives of parents–the most famous of which may be Everything Everywhere All at Once. The film manages to do this so well because of its clear affection for its subject.

But, similar to the plot of Tigertail, the film suggests that  Jerry gave up his own creative ambitions to work and save for his children, and that the movie is itself the product of his later return to these ambitions. Furthermore, the film also shows how Jerry is forced to contemplate the validity of thinking about family relationships in material terms, as often occurs when Asian American parents spend their entire lives toiling on behalf of family members; few other Asian American films in this vein contain such reflections.

As such, Starring Jerry as Himself is a remarkable accomplishment, standing head and shoulders above other films that have engaged with similar topics. It is definitely worth a view.