I suspect Jonathan Lim’s Pali Road will only deepen and richen with repeat viewings.
Not because it’s confusing or especially hard to follow in its dramatic reach, but because the performances (especially that of young Michelle Chen) and visual cues come together so perfectly at its conclusion, that it stirs one to go back and see what they might have missed. Even the closing credits display an air of mysterious wonder, laid against the film’s Hawaiian backdrop of ocean water crashing over jagged rocks in reverse motion. As the film itself summates, life cannot be rewound and lived again, but we can come to peace with its morbid and unexpected sense of humor.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Opening in fairly routine manner, Pali Road settles on Lily (Chen), a headstrong and capable doctor trying to revive a 60 year old cardiac arrest patient rushed into her emergency room. When she fails – her first human life lost in three years, comments nurse and friend Amy (Lauren Sweetster) – the conversation outside with the patient’s wife turns mystical.
Shaken by the experience, Lily tries to forget it by making amends with boyfriend Neal (Jackson Rathbone) whom she stood up the previous night. Seemingly, he’s the perfect boyfriend. i.e. he’s a teacher shown to be absolutely amiable with children, learns her favorite song on the ukulele, plans seaside dates and proposes to her through said perfect childrens’ hand-drawn Chinese fairy tale card. It’s yet another whisper of the otherworldly as we’re explained the origin of the fairy tale, in which a lowly fisherman and princess were kept apart by nefarious outside forces.
Turning down his offer of marriage, partly because she’s so focused on her job and partly because of the pressures of her mainland Chinese family, they share a volatile drive towards home when disaster strikes. Upon awakening, Lily finds herself thrust in a completely alien environment, married to fellow doctor and ex-boyfriend Mitch (Sung Kang) and playing mother to young James (Maddox Lim). Problematically, she has no memories of this new life, just the one that ended sharply on a dark road with Neil. With everyone around her convinced she’s crazy, Lily desperately attempts to reconcile both lives and understand what happened.
As Lily, Chen harbors the right amount of confusion and desperation as a woman caught between two worlds. We root for her to find the truth. We scramble with her in the dark as she visits the old boarded up house she thinks was once her home with Neil. We squirm for her to break away from the clutches of her father (great veteran Chinese actor Tzi Ma) in one of the film’s most emotionally potent scenes. And, even if one figures out just where Pali Road is headed, it’s done with such skill and calculated resonance that the finale stills packs a wallop.
There have been countless films that explore the nature of metaphysical romance. Recently, Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino has digested these ideas. My personal favorites hail from Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem. I urge anyone to explore his work and become a fan as well. When executed properly, these types of films unleash a ravishing sense of karmic destiny that true love can and will defeat all other emotions. They’re delirious with possibilities. They can also be sad and forlorn as people slip in and out of each other’s fingers despite their best efforts. Jonathan Lim’s Pali Road hints as this heady mixture of release and melancholy.
During one early scene in which Lily and a psychiatrist (Henry Cusick) blithely chat about the scientific value of the brain over the heart, she defends the heart as something she’s studied all her life, yet rarely understands. Looking back on that unsuspecting scene now, it becomes the salvo of the entire film. Fairy tale mumbo-jumbo aside, what ultimately radiates from Pali Road is that the heart can be measured and calculated even if we don’t see or hear it.
Pali Road opens in the Dallas Fort Worth area on Friday, April 29 at the AMC Grapevine Mills.