Worldfest low-budget review: Home of Mephibosheth (China, Platinum Remi winner)

Note: our friends Chen Zhongshi and Li “Esther” Guang, producer and director of the Remi-prize-winning documentary Home of Mephibosheth, have asked Helen and me to stand in for them at the Worldfest International Film Festival here in Houston. Helen has suggested that I make notes on the movies I watch, for Zhongshi and Esther’s benefit; so here we go.

Now, here at the end, we come to the movie that is the whole reason I even knew Worldfest existed: 黎光的《觅非播舍之家》, Lí Guáng’s Home of Mephibosheth.

I will give you my honest opinion of this film, but it is a hopelessly non-objective one; and perhaps the best way to begin is to tell you how Helen and I came to be involved – how, in fact, I came to be wandering around Worldfest with my Thousand-Dollar Prize-Winning Director’s VIP badge in the first place.

Helen, as all our friends and all my usual Gentle Readers know, is, among many other things, a very talented author and podcaster (in Mandarin). Lí Guáng, who goes by “Esther Li” among English-speakers, had heard Helen’s podcasts, and knew something both of Helen’s talent and of Helen’s standards of quality; and so many months ago she contacted Helen and asked if Helen would be willing to provide narration for a documentary she was doing on the life and work of Wáng Xīnwěi and Steve Schroeder, who for over a decade had been operating an official orphanage devoted to the care of extremely special-needs children, most of whom had been abandoned by their parents as small children or even infants. We had not met Steve and Xīnwěi personally, but Xīnwěi and Helen had heard of each other and had corresponded. One of our sadder moments of 2015, in fact, had come when Helen had gotten an e-mail from Steve and Xīnwěi’s oldest daughter, informing us that Xīnwěi had lost her battle with cancer.

Helen was honored by Esther’s request and said she would be happy to help. I think she regretted it a few times before the last take was in the can, as Esther was extremely demanding and there were many, many takes. But eventually it was done. Meanwhile, on our next one-month sojourn in China, Helen and I contacted a friend in Shandong Province (there are no provinces in China where Helen does not have friends thanks to her podcasting and to the volunteer work she does with Chinese cancer patients), and our friend picked us up at the train station in Jǐnán and then drove us far out into the Shandong countryside to the Home of Mephibosheth itself.

We spent the day there, getting to know Steve and the kids. We found Steve to be quite an unusual character (no surprise there considering how unusual his life choices have been), and liked and admired him very much indeed. But mostly we spent time with the children. When you visit the Home of Mephibosheth, they are liable to put you straight to work. If you’re there at mealtime you’re gonna help feed kids, for example. I’m not sure what Helen did for most of the afternoon as we got separated. Myself, I spent half an hour with a little girl who was bedridden and unable to talk, but she had a little ball about the size of a softball, and I discovered that she loved playing catch, and that’s how most of the half-hour was spent. A little later, I actually happened to be the closest adult on hand when one of the teenagers suffered through an epileptic seizure, and since one of my adopted daughters used to have grand mal seizures on a regular basis, I happened to know what to do; so I instinctively leaped across to him and grabbed him and held onto him through the seizure so that he wouldn’t hurt himself on the floor. (Before I learned how to that for my daughter, we had a nose get broken on the edge of the dining-room table.) These are very special-needs children.

But one thing more than anything made a tremendous impression: these children were quite astonishingly happy. The Home of Mephibosheth is a place of joy. That, more than anything else, is what I found myself thinking as we drove away.

We came back to Houston and settled back into daily life. Then one night Helen told me Esther had sent a link so that we could actually watch the documentary – neither of us had seen any of the footage or indeed knew anything other than the narration script.

Well. We watched it, and I was blown away. It was much higher quality than I expected it to be – deeply moving, deeply evocative of the atmosphere of the place, and if I may say so the narrator did an outstanding job. In fact, before we were halfway through the first viewing I was already thinking, “How can we make it possible for other people to see this movie?” There were just a couple of problems – and the biggest one was something I could fix: the English subtitles were not very good, because nobody on the production team was a native speaker of English. So I told Helen to ask if Esther would like me to revise the English subtitles, and also fix the places where people had been speaking English and the documentary team had misunderstood what had been said. Esther wrote back with a very enthusiastic acceptance, saying that she would be very grateful for the help as she was about to submit the film to an international film festival (I now know, of course, that she meant Worldfest), and she attached a complete copy of the script. So I took a couple of days and re-translated all the parts of the script that had been spoken in English. I also listened to the whole movie again line by line to re-transcribe everything that had been said in English. Then, where I had had to correct the English transcription, Helen retranslated the Chinese subtitles that had been based on the original English mishearings. We did this in a huge hurry, getting it all done in about a day, because the submission deadline was looming. And that’s how I, of all people, wound up involved for a couple of days in the making of a movie, of all things. Life is a very rum thing sometimes.

And as you have all heard if you have been reading this blog, the film proceeded to win a Platinum Remi award (and just how impressive an achievement that is, I explain in detail here).

At any rate, you can see why I warned you at the beginning that I have no hope of being perfectly objective about this film. But I will do the best I can.

Now, how good is this film, really?

It isn’t perfect; but there is so much about it that is really, really good. It only has one major problem, really: the pace is too slow. Or you can say it’s too long; comes to the same thing. My own first reaction was that it was too leisurely for the American attention span and that American audiences would have some trouble staying engaged. It turns out, however, that I don’t think it’s entirely an American-audience problem: one thing Helen and I have been doing the past couple of months is putting on some private showings in our home with focus groups, and the Chinese viewers have had the same complaint. It is profoundly moving, but it is too long.

Now, Li has already reduced over 600 hours of film down to less than two; but somehow she probably needs to find another fifteen minutes or so to get rid of. The problem is…what does she cut? Our Chinese focus group wanted her to get rid of one scene where a delegation from the local schools and government come to visit the school; but one of my favorite points in the movie – a moment that perfectly encapsulates what is so special about this place – comes precisely at the end of that scene.

Very well; somehow she needs to take about fifteen minutes out of it somewhere, though I can’t tell her where. And with that we have pretty much disposed of everything negative there is to say about the film.

That leaves everything else, which is not just good, but very good. Naturally I think very highly of the narrator…but you may discount that as you choose. Here, in no particular order, are observations about what sets this film apart.

  • The fundamental story of what Steve and Xīnwěi have done over the years for these children, and the conditions under which they have done it, is nothing short of astonishing.
  • But the story of their romance is also quite a story, which I am being careful not to spoil.
  • The film takes the time to let us really get to know several of the children, and a couple of the volunteers, in some detail. These are the most deeply moving vignettes, the true heart of the film – for every one of their stories is heartbreaking in a different way, and yet every one of those children is now, as the viewer can see for himself, in a place of joy. I defy anyone to keep his eyes dry when Mingming smiles.
  • Li really catches, in some indefinable way, the pace and feel of life on this remotely peaceful hillside. (It took us longer to go the last five miles than it did the previous fifty because it took at least three phone calls to get un-lost after we got close.) The periodic pauses from action and plot to show, just for a few seconds, goats leaping to the top of a rock wall, or flowers blooming in a springtime breeze – it would be a mistake to cut these in order to save a few seconds. The Home of Mephibosheth really is its own little world, and the film manages to communicate that atmosphere.
  • If you are not a Christian, this film is an excellent introduction to how real Christians see the world and our responsibilities within it. I say “real Christians” because there are a great many people in the world who call themselves Christians but whose worldview is indistinguishable from the wider culture’s. Xīnwěi’s explanation of how she and Steve struggle so hard to respond in a godly manner when the bureaucracy is behaving outrageously and destructively, is one of the best gateways into seeing how genuine Christians apply the principle of turning the other cheek in real life. Or, again, listening to Xīnwěi talk, in obvious sincerity, about how she has learned to have compassion for the parents who abandon these children because she is convinced that if she were in their situation, and did not have her faith to fall back on, she would do exactly the same thing…this is the embodiment of how Christ Himself dealt with sinners (except for the self-righteous sinners who were sure of their own moral superiority to others). I am not at all saying that only Christians are capable of compassion, nor that this film intends to turn you into a Christian. What I am saying is that Steve and Xīnwěi’s compassion is a very specifically Christian brand of compassion, and you can learn more about Christianity from watching this film than you are likely to learn from a half-dozen books of theology.
  • If you are a Christian, especially an American one…put it this way. I am due in a couple of weeks to teach a forty-five minute session on the passage in I Peter that deals with how Christians should interact with non-Christian governments; and I am going to build the entire lesson around cuts from this film. This is high-functionality Christianity under high-stress conditions.
  • But really, it all comes back to the children: their stories, and their joy. The difference Steve and Xīnwěi have made in the lives of these children is simply beyond measure or explanation. But what Home of Mephibosheth proves is that it is, at least, not wholly beyond depiction.

    Earlier Worldfest 2018 posts:

    I mislead some nice Chinese girls

    Worldfest low-budget review: Blaze (USA)

    Worldfest low-budget review: Nine to Nirvana (China, Best Foreign Film co-winner and I will tell you in advance that this means the jury and I are very far from being on the same page about what makes a movie good or bad)

    Congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光…

    General observation on the Chinese movies at Worldfest

    Worldfest low-budget review: Ayla, the Daughter of War (Turkey, screened but not eligible for an award)

    Again, congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光… Platinum Remi!

    Worldfest low-budget review: Fiddlin’ (USA, Grand Remi winner I think)

    Worldfest low-budget review: Hidden Summer (Houston/China, Silver Remi winner)

    Worldfest low-budget review: Grass Ring (China, Gold Remi winner, featuring Ma Liang, winner of the festival’s Best Supporting Actor award)

    Worldfest low-budget review: Teacher in the Deep Mountains (China, Platinum Remi winner I think)

    Worldfest low-budget review: A Pretty Little Fishing Village (China, Gold Remi winner)

    Worldfest low-budget review: Santa Stole Our Dog (USA…where else?)

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