Monday, November 7, 2011

Blog #15: A Detour into God’s Land, a film by Preston Miller

I’m not a critic by any stretch of the imagination, but after viewing Preston Miller’s film, ‘God’s Land,’ at the Quad Cinema, where it has just finished a short run, I knew I had to write about it.

A year ago when I was undergoing chemotherapy, I needed to find someone to relieve the tension that had developed in my neck. My student/intern, Olive Hui, suggested her friend, Shing Ka, who is both an actor and a massage therapist. During our sessions, we had long talks - about Shing’s family in China - both his parents were doctors - and his experience with the healing arts, which he balances with his acting career. Shing is outwardly a very calm man, but I could sense excitement when he described a film he had just finished shooting – more than the perfunctory enthusiasm actors are trained to exhibit so their own performances will be viewed.

I try to keep an open mind, but when he said that the film was based on the beliefs of God Saves the Earth Flying Saucers Foundation and took place in Garland, Texas, I imagined something along the lines of Saved – or if I was lucky, a Monty Python imitation. But then Shing said it wasn’t exactly a comedy - and gave me a rough cut to take home.

Viewing it on my little TV set – with interruptions from phone calls, trips to the kitchen for snacks and picking up stuff my cat kept knocking over - I found myself intrigued by the likable, well-acted characters and respectful treatment of its spiritual theme, along with some tastefully comedic elements. My general impression was favorable but somewhat hazy, and I was not overly delighted when I received an invitation to the opening and felt obliged attend.

Certainly, I was in no way prepared for the stunning impression I received from seeing the final cut of God’s Land in an actual movie theatre! As I’ve said I’m no critic, but I do read the NY Times reviews religiously every day, and I feel that the criticism of God’s Land– which I had read the very morning of the day I saw it in the theatre – missed the point. Here is the sentence which concludes the review, “… Mr. Miller is far too leisurely — and takes far too much time — with a story largely blind to the sometimes fatal cost of fanaticism.”

I beg to disagree. In my opinion, the story doesn’t avoid the problem of fanaticism; instead, it provides much food for the thought that this particular cult may not be fanatical – although they propose ‘unreasonable’ ideas and wear funny hats. Many of the ‘apparently normal’ people in this film, under Miller’s prodding, exhibit extreme behavior – like a father and son from India, whose deep fear of the cult provide a touchingly ludicrous moment.  They, along with the Garland, TX police, believe that the group may be suicidal – although the spokesman for the group, in a wonderfully modulated performance by Wayne Chang – gives sensible assurances that they are not. There is a refreshing balance and lack of stereotyping to this film. It reveals strong personal attitudes about being black, white, male, female, elderly and youthful – including a sly, amusing portrayal of an Asian child by Matthew Chou. Miller uses an interesting device – yes, it adds to the length of the film, which by the way isn’t overly long, and I wasn’t bored for a second – that lends depth and illuminates the fundamental purpose: the main characters, at various times, peer into the camera for a long moment. They seem to be regarding us, wondering, perhaps, who we are and where we stand in relation to them and what they are experiencing.  I can’t recall a film in which I’ve felt an interaction like this. It invites us to contemplate, rather than judge, deepening our reaction to the film’s message about the possibilities and limitations of spiritual belief.

Speaking of ‘inviting,’ I felt, as a viewer, that the protagonists were asking me to join with them, not only in their criticisms of each other, but in understanding how difficult it is for them to disagree with the people they love – and there is an abundance of genuine love without a smidgen of sentimentality, in this film. And here I come to why I feel that a discussion of this sort belongs in a blog about acting. It is seldom that I have an opportunity to see a film where actors are directed this well – especially when working under such difficult, low-budget circumstances. Families act like families, and in close relationships alternate between gentle probing and bursts of anger, but when push comes to shove the agony of shame and loss is sharp and definite. The principle relationship between the husband, Hou Ming-Tien, who believes in the cult, and his doubting wife, Hou Xiu, is given a steely performance that turns suddenly heartbreaking by the expert Shing Ka, with his movie star good looks, and the poignant, Jodi Lin, who illuminates each moment of her character’s vacillations. Outstanding also, is Jackson Ning, giving a very un-fanatical and credible performance as Teacher Chen, the leader of the cult.  He is caring, while seeming to float above it all and is supported by a well-written characterization and an extraordinary defining moment – which, by the way, gives a terrific jolt to those of us who are following the rapid extinction of species. The aforementioned Wayne Chang maintains a cheerful naiveté without a whiff of caricature, and Gloria Diaz, who plays the not-entirely-skeptical teacher of English, Maria Ruiz, gives a performance, which is both warm and consistently astute.

There are times when this film reminds me of Vera Farmiga’s ‘Higher Ground,’ in which nuanced attitudes toward relationships are challenged by spiritual matters. There is one bedroom scene between Ming-Tien and Xiu, which brings to mind the complications of a similar scene in Charles Burnett’s heart-wrenching ‘Killer of Sheep.’

Unfortunately, ‘God’s Land’ has left the Quad - but do watch it when it comes out on Netflix. Just turn off your phone and give your cat a tranquilizer - this film demands your full attention!

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