The director and writer Patrick Wang sits somewhat outside the context of other filmmaking I’ve covered this week, not just in the way he works outside the mainstream with largely unknown actors and in contexts (such as this film, set in the American South) outside large metropolitan centres. He also doesn’t explicitly address identity issues in his work (or at least not this, his debut feature). Indeed this story hardly fits into the usual way that same-sex relationships have been portrayed on screen, so you could see Wang’s work as disrupting a number of expectations we already have about what it means to fit into any of these categories. Thus I should probably apologise for even including his work in this themed week, except that I wanted a way of conveying the range of experiences and indeed some of the difficulties in even understanding “Asian-American film” (or for that matter “gay film”) as a category.
I’d not heard of Patrick Wang before picking up this DVD in the video shop, but looking at his short filmography it seems he’s received plenty of acclaim, so perhaps that’s as much on my own lapsed cinephilia of the early 21st century (before I started paying attention again when I started this blog in 2013) as it is the way that promising indie talent can so easily be sidelined by the systems of distribution, exhibition and critical discourse. Or perhaps he’s just out of step with even the arthouse end of wider film culture in making these long, thorny films (this one is almost 3 hours in length; his most recent work The Bread Factory is split into two 2-hour films, and I don’t suspect I’ll ever see them showing in a Curzon or Everyman anytime soon). Needless to say, I think this debut feature is fantastic, showing some stylistic and thematic influence from the quiet domestic dramas of Japanese filmmakers like Ozu or Naruse, or from more contemporary ‘slow cinema’ avatars.
Yet this is still a film very much located in a specific place, defined as much by the drawl of its Tennessee characters (something shared by all the characters; in speech, at least, nobody here is an outsider) as by any other element. Wang plays Joey, a man in what is clearly a committed relationship with another man (Cody), the two of whom play father to the latter’s 6-year-old boy, Chip. However, when Cody dies unexpectedly, the remainder of the film becomes about the way that Joey must navigate the traumas of the legal system as much as his somewhat estranged de facto family (same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in that state when the film was made).
There are no histrionics, though, and indeed, barring a few moments, Joey is largely subdued and grimly accepting of the forces that make his life difficult following his partner’s death. The drama within the film, then, is not railing at the unfeeling system — because plenty of those within it have compassion for Joey’s case — as in the specific way that Joey has to deal with trauma and loss, and it’s in the quieter moments, when the camera just watches him, carefully framed within his home or in bureaucratic settings, that the film is most compelling. It all leads up to a profoundly emotional climax that’s all the better for not being dwelt upon.
Director/Writer Patrick Wang; Cinematographer Frank Barrera; Starring Sebastian Banes, Patrick Wang, Trevor St. John; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.