Welcome to Day 4. It’s the day for drama. Two devastating dramas to boost, but doing a damn fine job at that. Both address social issues: one is about the racial tensions in America in the 50s, the other concerns about sexism in a society full of misogyny or simply the lack of proper attention to sexual violation in the opposite side of the globe. “Is it just?” that question could be raised for these two films (and was addressed in one). Indeed, these films ask difficult questions but at the same time they don’t look for answers. They search more for empathy, to put us into the characters’ shoes and make judgement for ourselves. Sounds grim, perhaps, but the mastery in approach of both Dee Rees and Vivian Qu raise these moral complexity materials into compelling drama. Without further ado, enjoy the double-take on DAY 4:
Dee Rees: Rees was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in New York. Rees is a lesbian, and she described her debut Pariah as semi-autobiographical. Pariah went on to win numerous awards and also earned Dee a spot on the New York Times’ 10 Directors to Watch list in 2013.
“I was drawn to the multiple points of view – specifically the inner monologues are what I found most interesting, versus the dialogue between characters. I wanted to make this balance and give it a story of two families. It’s a dark symbiotic relationship showing how they’re both connected to each other because of trauma, because of disinheritance, feelings of economic disparity, motherhood – and also, they’re rooted to the land. They’re all stuck in the muck.”
Dee Rees has crafted a moving multi-layered story about the two families, one black (the Jackson’s), one white (the McAllen’s), that intervene many themes together, chief among them the root that tie them as a home and the racial tension, and mostly succeed in all those. Dee Rees, along with Ava DuVernay, prove as leading figures for African-American women voice (which is already rare enough. For Rees’ case, she also represents the LGBT community). Mudbound is one of the few films that I consider a very American movie, not because it can only be made in the America, but because it tells a tale in a specific period and setting of an American history. Dirt plays like a character on its own and has a significant role in the story. The cinematography successfully brings a real sense of this murky field, without being too washed-out. The story starts literally with these soils, as the McAllen family digs a hole to bury their father. As the title suggests, dirt is land. It represents the very ground, the root bounded by the debt of the land, and to a larger extend, the root of American society.
It’s one of the rare time where the narrations work in service for the themes of the story. We have narrations from 6 different perspectives, 3 from each family and they pair the the two families up as well (I’ll get to that later). These voice-overs remind a great deal to those of Terrence Malick’s movies, but here it works in conjunction with the theme. “If you asked me before, I could’ve told you that all white people are the same”, says Florence, the women figure in the black family. And it speaks very well the overall tone of Mudbound. Each character provides different voices, different shades to the story regarding how they deal with racial issues and how they regard themselves within this society, and how they regard the land they live as their home.
At first layer we have Henry and Hap, who are the breadwinners for their respective family, but find themselves in a difficult situation where they can’t provide enough for the family. Hap (Rob Morgan) gets his leg broken and is forced to rest for weeks, Harry (Jason Clarke) is scammed and then forced to take him and the family live together with the poorness of black people, where they can take a bath only once on Friday. Hap takes pride of the field he and his older generations spent their lives working at, whereas Hap sees the land as something to bring food on the table. Then we have second layer of Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Florence (unrecognizable Mary J Blige) who share a mutual feeling about being a mother, and a wife in this land, where black mothers “don’t have a luxury of only lovin’ their own children”. The plot thread where Laura miscarriages, for example, speaks well to this theme. And finally, as the deepest layer we have a friendship between Jamie (played wonderfully by Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), both are WWII vets who find themselves a stranger of the place they live, and whose equal friendship doesn’t bode well with the reception of this village.
All these themes keep building up and tangling together into a brutal and compelling climax. It might seem the movie is too busy with an ensemble cast and way too many themes, but in truth, Mudbound does this story justice with great acting all around, the excellent cinematography (by Rachel Morrison, the first woman ever nominated for an Oscar in that category) and effective editing where the movie switches back and forth several times between the gangs at home and the boys at war without losing its rhythm. If I have to give this movie some criticisms, however, it’s that Harry was simply written out at the climax; the story of a white girl whom eventually stab his cheated husband feels weak and lastly, for a character with not much narrative focus, the old man Pappy (Jonathan Banks) has an important role in that climax that I would love to see the film deals more with him. The said climax, although raw and brutal, feels strangely relevant, not only to the story, not only to that period piece but even to the world we live in now. Dee Rees brings this thoughtful adaptation into light, a story about land, a story about racism and a story about wounds. And the wounds are deeply felt.
Vivian Qu: was born in China. She has produced the features Night Train (2007), Knitting (2008), and Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014, which won that year’s Golden Bear Award). TRAP STREET (2013) was her directorial debut.
“There have been many news stories about young girls being assault victims, and also many stories about young children participating in some kind of crime. And so that really got me thinking, I was really concerned about what’s happening with our next generation.”
In lesser hands, Angels Wear White could have been a straight noir-crime about the investigation or a heavy crime procedure, or an overdraught message piece that stab at the corruption and holes in Chinese’s Justice, but for Vivian Qu, her lenses of focus is definite: it’s about these young girls and how they experience after that dreadful sexual assault carried out by none other than their God father, a high-ranking police official. The narrative splits evenly between the two girls: Wen (Zhou Meijun) and Mia (Wen Qi), both elevate the material through their effective and fearless acting that are wise beyond their ages, or body acting to be more specific, as gestures and long glances tell you much more about their state of minds. The former, Wen serves as the victim, but the latter only serves as witness’ point of view. They hardly have any connection to each other, except for the case and the interception of Hao (Shi Kei), the lawyer assigned to this case and arguably the only adult who has a right attitude to the whole thing. It’s through Mia’s perspective that the story becomes more ambiguous. As a witness, who looks at the screen when the event happened like all of us, she feels no empathy to what just happened. “It happened before”, she said in one scene afterward, then she uses the recording to blackmail the culprit so that she can have a money to fake her ID, and honestly, who could blame her? It’s the grey moral ground where we don’t bat an eye when seeing the bad things happening, and those bad things can become clean that makes this story intriguing in the first place.
Then we have Wen, one of the two victim and we learn that she has been unhappy with her family situation for a long time. Her mother consistently makes the home like hell with consistent blaming and beating, father who is too far away to care. The adults of the other victim girl also suggest her family to give up the accusation for a huge settlement that will help secure the future for the girls. It’s the lack of proper care, or proper attention to the well-being of these young girls, whether it’s Wen or Mia, that Angels Wear White is thorny about. In the society where hymen reconstruction clinics surface, where young girls still need to behave accordingly and where all the eyes for the sexual scandal are focused into the culprit instead of the victims, these girls’ lives feel too fragile, too insignificant the hands of misguided adults. “I like it here. The weather is nice. Even a beggar can sleep well at night”, Mia confesses in one scene about this seaside town. Apart from its searing message about this lack of proper treatment for these girls, this film hits home whenever it explores the difficult issues our girls endure, and how they deal with them.
Vivian Qu approaches this hard-hitting subject with restrained approach. The characters don’t talk much, they hardly express their feeling out loud, as if all the emotions keep bottled up inside, and only through these eyes should you know how much they are hurt. We have two equally captivating performances from our young leads here, as they capture maturely all these emotions far beyond their age. The camera, likewise, only follow these twos’ steps, and the use of long take, plus the minimal use of score (only the prelude and prologue have scores) all add to the raw and realness of the story. The statue of Marilyn Monroe in her most iconic pose served as a titular white angel. Most of the time we can’t see her full body but parts of her legs that gradually get “dirtied” by various posters and advertisements and that tempting legs that invite us to look up. These girls’ stands are like that of the statue: a mere objectivity through the eyes of this insensitive society.
In the next batch, Day 5, we’ll take a break from live-action film and instead explore other mediums, a documentary (or better phrase, a non-fiction, according to the director herself. There’s a distinction) by the legendary Agnes Varda Faces Places, about the filmmakers themselves visit villages and small towns throughout France to meet communities of people and create large portraits of them to plaster on the surroundings. And an animated feature by the excellent Irish indie animated studio Cartoon Salon with The Breadwinner, about a tale of a determined young girl disguises herself as a boy in order to provide for her family when her father is captured in Afghanistan – Taliban conflict. See you then.