Shifting towards documentaries a few days into the festival, one the most moving so far has been Nanfu Wang’s One Child Nation. Fresh off its Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Wang’s charged vision is smart enough to get out of its own way and present a harrowing topic with as few frills as possible.
Realizing the possibility of population overgrowth and in-sustainability, the Chinese government instituted a national policy in 1979 mandating no more than one child per family. And since this is a culture preoccupied with the idea of patriarchy, the policy ultimately placed damning consequences on the females in its society. Not only does One Child Nation reveal the moral quagmires that existed in China at the time, but it goes on to uncover the appalling cycle of abandoned children and widespread corruption that still reverberates in households on both sides of the ocean still today.
As someone tangentially affected by the times (Wang did have a brother after the policy was loosened to allow a five-year gap between siblings), One Child Nation is exhaustive journalism, fueled first by personal curiosity and then later by anger. Documenting everything with a steady sense of purpose — from interviewing people directly involved in propagating the policy to those forced to live with its drastic and inhumane consequences — Wang’s film is a patient cry for the lost.
It’s hard not to get emotional as the film shows us widespread evidence of discarded fetuses. First discovered by a local artist as he photographed trash heaps, he soon noticed little yellow medical waste bags with arms and legs protruding. Dotting the unsanitary landscape, the policy clearly devalued human life to the point of nonchalance and gave the artist plenty of visual evidence to lead a charge of change.
Hardly a subject that needs accentuating, One Child Nation is edited and structured for maximum effect. Transitioning to something a little more promising in its latter half, when Wang meets an American couple working diligently to re-locate adopted children here in the United States with their birth families in China, the film attains some hopeful melancholy. However, it’s also then we learn of the embedded corruption behind some of the adoptive agencies and their American agreements. Like everything else, there’s always a Big Business profit lurking behind the downtrodden.
Wang attempts to find some glimmers of hope in the darkness. It’s probably not enough to erase the shameful past — which even China understands was a mistake with its newest slogan of every family needs at least two children! — but it’s small steps in the right direction.
Content to tackle far less important matters, Andrew Hevia’s Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window follows the template established years ago by veteran director Ross McElwee, who turned the documentary format into a screen-sized therapy couch. The joke was that he never intended to make the films he did. McElwee started in good faith and often morphed into an exploration of his experiences around the thing he should be experiencing.
Hevia does the same thing, with far less innovative results. Assigned to cover an art show in Hong Kong, Hevia soon learns the culture clash is overwhelming and the results of his attempted project become just as calamitous. Instead, he turns the gaze on himself and his floating reveries on life, past loves and (most humorously) his very confined living space.
As a travel documentary on the city of Hong Kong itself, Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window explores the hi-def, neon sinuosity of the city beautifully. It never goes to the places we typically see of this expansive city. Instead, Hevia finds beauty in the margins, focusing on the lacquer covered walls of a starving artist’s loft or the rain-soaked alleys only discovered by someone lost on their feet.
However, as anything more than that, the film never really settles on a mood beyond Hevia’s bemused tourist camera-smirking. When the film is about the city and the magic around every corner, it shines. When it focuses on everything else human, my mind kept returning to the landscape, hoping for something more than musings and anecdotes about previous girlfriends.
Culture clash isn’t a major obstacle in Justin Chon’s tenderly drawn portrait of Korean siblings Kasie (Tiffany Chu) and Carey (Teddy Lee) in Ms. Purple. Instead, it’s the simple force of keeping their heads above water. Giving a tremendous performance, Chu is the center of the story as a young woman stuck between the sordid details of her life as a karaoke bar hostess and her dutiful responsibility in caring for her comatose father (James King).
Kasie’s life gets even harder when her home care nurse abandons the father, forcing her to reach out to her estranged brother and solicit his help in caring for him.
Through subtle flashbacks, Chon shows us why these three people are fending for themselves. Like his previous film, Gook (2017), Ms. Purple establishes a poignant sense of brewing tension in a specific time and place. Through strong orchestral breaks that feel as if the music is literally chasing the characters, the film teeters on the verge of cliche before pulling back just in time to harness honest emotions and believable interactions.
As the winner of the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for narrative film, Ms. Purple holds a bright future for a burgeoning filmmaker whose work feels restless, raw and important.
And a few blurbs on two other films that will get more pub once they release in theaters later this year:
Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein’s Freaks does very low-fi/guerilla style science-fiction with convincing results. Look for it to be a minor indie breakout hit later this summer.
My blinding affection for the films of Olivier Assayas most likely precludes me from judging his latest film, Non-Fiction, with any measure of unbiased fervor. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year and yet another effortless example of his supreme command over the French talky, filled with subversive charm.
The 13th Dallas International Film Festival runs through today (Thursday April 18). For tickets and info, see here.