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

    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.

    I suggested we go to this one as a family, giving it as my before-viewing opinion that either it was going to be well done, in which case it could be very cute and fun indeed, or else not, in which case it was likely to be very stupid. In the end only Kai and I went.

    As for whether my prediction was accurate…let’s just say I tried several drafts of this review.

    First Draft

    No. Just…no. [end of entire post]

    Second Draft

    My parents always said, if you can’t say anything good about something, don’t say anything at all. So, um, the little girl was very cute. [end of entire post]

    Third Draft

    Hey, Mom, Pop…do you guys remember The Return of the Black Stallion? Well, Kai and I had a great father-son bonding experience today. I’ll tell you all about it in a private e-mail so as not to hurt anybody’s feelings. [end of entire post]

    Fourth Draft, and we’ll just go with this one

    Okay, I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings unnecessarily, and this movie was such a hot mess I don’t think any good would come out of my giving specific criticisms about all the many, many things that turned it into one of the great Unintentional Comedy experiences of my entire movie-going career; so let’s just say that it was so bad that Kai and I spent at least a half-hour on the way home laughing ourselves silly by reminding each other of one after another of the myriad ways in which it was awful. Seriously, Kai’s first two comments once we were out of the theater were:

    “Yeah, that movie was so cringe.” (This apparently counts as English if one is fourteen years old in 2018.) He pauses, then adds, in the tone of someone desperately seeking the silver lining, “Well, at least now I know how not to make a movie.”

    I really don’t want to forget all the side-splitting ways in which this movie was bad; so I will make a separate post listing all the things Kai and I laughed at on the way home. But I really don’t want to just blast away mercilessly at well-meaning people who have done me no harm; so I will keep that post private, as a pure journal entry for my future reference. I’ll give you just one delicious example, one of the many things that makes me suspect that not a single person even remotely connected with this movie has ever been more than fifty miles from Los Angeles.

    At one point, the plot calls for the dad and kids to go see Grandma up in the Yukon Territory — this is, you must understand, during the last week of December. They are then going to borrow her car to drive to the North Pole. (This could have been made to work in a movie that knew the difference between “whimsical” and “stupid,” but this was not that movie.) As they walk out to the car to fire it up and head out, Grandma remembers that the driver’s-side back door window is missing, and that the hole is covered merely by having a piece of cloth duct-taped over it. She explains — unnecessarily — that it has been a long time since she drove it.

    Well, this doesn’t stop Dad and Kids at all. They hop into this car — which, I repeat, in the Yukon Territory between Christmas Day and New Year’s, has a piece of cloth taped where the back window is supposed to be, and proceed to drive for hours through the night. Then the car breaks down. Dad gets out, fiddles under the hood, fixes the car in a couple of minutes, gets back in…and announces, “Man, it sure is cold out there.” The emphasis is mine; the scriptwriter, if he ever reads this, will no doubt be scratching his head and wondering why I saw fit to emphasize that bit.

    But at least that broken window winds up playing a critical role in the plot, right? I mean, this ludicrous nonsense at least winds up serving some purpose, right? Um…no. Dad announces that his fix is only temporary and that they will have to find a mechanic at the next town. And then he says, “And while he’s at it, we might as well have him fix that window, too.” And that’s the last we hear of the missing window.

    “So, wait” — I hear you cry — “what was the point of the missing window, again?” Um…beats the heck out of me. That’s the best I got for you.

    I will say that I am sure that the movie was better than it would have been had Kai and I written, directed, produced, acted in, and edited it. But if I don’t stop writing right now I’m going to giggle myself silly all over again. I applaud the willingness of everyone involved to take a shot at making their dreams come true, and they did better than I could have done. And I congratulate the young man who played the surly teenaged son (Chase Pollock, maybe?) for having won the festival’s award for Best Rising Young Male Star. (“Wait a minute” — I hear you cry — “what was there about his performance that would make the festival jury give him an award for his acting?” Um…beats the heck out of me. That’s the best I got for you.)

    And with that, I’m just going to stop.

    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)

    Later Worldfest 2018 posts:

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

    Worldfest low-budget review: A Pretty Little Fishing Village (China, Gold 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.

    This was the second Helen-and-Kenny Date Night movie. It was also the movie in which we had the most personal interest, as our friend Dr. Feng was a major financial backer of the movie, which tells the essentially true story of how the Shandong village in which Dr. Feng grew up transformed itself into a tourist mecca.

    Let’s begin with the script, which was first-class. Without committing the sin of spoiling, I can’t be very specific about why I say it was first-class, other than that at several places fairly far into the movie the dialogue casually lets drop information that causes you to seriously revise your understanding of the characters and their interrelationships. The two principle characters…ai-ya, here’s that annoying problem again…

    Okay, this has been a chronic problem for me in doing these reviews of the Chinese movies from this week. The information in the Worldfest program often does not identify the character names and never tells you which actor is playing which role. Furthermore, Chinese names are rarely gender-specific, which means when you are looking at a cast list you don’t know which names are actors’ and which are actresses’. And finally, even after seven years of hearing Chinese names I still have a terrible time remembering them, especially since at least half the time when Chinese people are talking to each other they don’t use names at all, preferring to use family relationships instead: when Helen is speaking Chinese, I am never “Kenny” but always “Xiansheng” or “Laogong,” both of which mean “husband.” I have no idea what one of Helen’s uncle’s name is, because for the past seven years I have never once called him anything but “Sangubaba,” which is to say, “husband of my wife’s father’s third-eldest sister.” When I tried to remember the name of Fan Meisuo’s love interest in Teacher in the Deep Mountains, the only dialogue that had stuck in my mind was her younger sister’s — in which she always called her “Jie,” which is to say, “Big Sister.” That was unhelpful.

    So, the two main characters in this movie are the town’s retired elder statesman who comes up with the idea of turning the village into a tourist destination, and his daughter whose name I think was something like Haiying. Of the elder statesman’s name I have no memory at all. This is purely because 我是美国的傻瓜, I am an American moron. — No, wait, after posting this, while re-reading it, I have just suddenly gotten the sick feeling that Haiying is actually the name of the Elder Statesman. [utters very non-Baptist words] So I will have to refer to them as Elder Statesman and Haiying Daughter, who I am guessing are played by Zhang Shutian and Xu Ge respectively.

    The script requires Zhang to make us like and respect Elder Statesman at first, but to come to realize during the course of the film that he has initially unsuspected flaws to be overcome. With Daughter, Xu has to produce the opposite effect: my reaction to her behavior early in the film was, “Good Lord, I can totally understand why her husband has headed off to the other side of the world and never come back — this girl is really cute, but God help anybody who has to live with her.” That opinion too, like our opinion of Elder Statesman, has to be modified, but in Daughter’s case it becomes more positive. Don’t get me wrong, I personally still would pass unhesitatingly on any invitation to get romantically involved with her, no matter how cute she is, as I personally do not find occasional fights to be spicifying enlivenments of marital monotony. But the point is that she does become ever more likeable as you get to know her ever better, and you do get to the point where you can at least see why Daughter’s Love Interest could be happy with her even if persons of a less supernaturally saintly degree of patience would not be, which is all that is necessary to make the ending a happy one. Put it this way: to begin with Xu successfully makes Daughter’s first impression on us be “Crazy Bitch;” but by the end of the movie Xu has convinced us that, actually, Daughter is merely Italian.

    Fortunately, both Zhang and Xu are up to their respective tasks. The still-handsome Zhang, with his most-interesting-man-in-the-world grey-flecked beard and his natural gravitas, was born to play dignified older men; and Xu is both as cute as you could ask a leading-lady village girl to be and also…well, if she isn’t a hot-tempered short-fused little firecracker in real life, then she has spent plenty of time around temper-tantrum-throwing ladies and has taken copious notes, both on how they blow up at a moment’s notice and how they are sincerely repentant once they have calmed back down. Either that or she grew up in Italy.

    The supporting actors are up to their tasks, as well. I don’t expect any Academy Awards to be coming their way anytime soon, but the script doesn’t demand acting genius. It does require that the comic relief characters be funny, and they are, in a slightly over-the-top slapstick way that works perfectly well for the movie. Since Elder Statesman’s idea is to turn half the family homes in the village into bed-and-breakfasts; and since other than Elder Statesman himself the villagers have no more idea of how to run bed-and-breakfasts than they have of how to fly dirigibles; and since Elder Statesman’s idea of training is to advertise for customers on the internet, send them to a villager’s house when they show up, and say, “Good luck”…well, the early efforts to establish the village as a tourist haven are amusingly catastrophic, and the catastrophes are played for laughs in a way that successfully got me laughing. (It will be a long time before I forget Daughter’s double-sided-windmill method of throwing what she believes to be punches in a brawl over which family stole which other family’s customers, or the sight of Daughter’s BFF dancing around the dining room table in an ad-hoc and amateurish, but endearingly sincere, attempt to provide entertainment suitable for an American couple’s fortieth wedding anniversary.)

    Daughter’s Love Interest is not meant as a comic character, and that’s a good thing since the only time I remember him trying to be funny (in the opening gossiping-ladies scene that introduces him to us), he, um, isn’t. Fortunately, after that, the script doesn’t ask him to try to be funny again. Now, the actor doesn’t really have the personal magnetism he needs for the first half of the movie, but since what his character offers Daughter is primarily gentleness and calmness and compassion and an unusually high capacity for absorbing unkind treatment from occasionally hot-tempered people (such as, you know, both Daughter and her father), the lack of leading-man personal magnetism is not as crippling as it would be in most romantic comedies. And this compassion and gentleness and imperturbability the actor does project effectively; so while during the first half of the movie we aren’t sure what Daughter sees in him, we do figure it out eventually. It would have worked better if he could have come off in the first half as a bad boy but a sexy one, and then to have been revealed to have been the good boy in disguise that we knew all along he would turn out to be (since this is, after all, a romcom). But it still works well enough as it is.

    Meanwhile the village itself is a character, and an effective one; I heard at least one audience member asking after the show where the village was and how hard it would be to visit such a beautiful place. The directing is very good, and attention has been paid to details, thank heaven. The actors, for example, came to the village early and stayed there for a couple of months before shooting began in order to get the local accent right — and that accent is distinctive; even my shǎguā American self could tell they were not pronouncing their words in conformity with the rules of pinyin. And for once we had lovely, accurate, idiomatically expressive English subtitles. I complimented the director on the subtitles after the show…and it turns out the translator is an American who has lived in China for a long time and is now fluent in Mandarin as well as being a native English speaker, which explains it. I wish he had used a phrase like “country vacation” rather than the non-English “farm stay,” especially since at no time in the movie does anybody stay at, or even lay eyes on, a farm. And I was deeply confused at one point when one character said to the other — according to the subtitles, at least — “You are an ungrateful son!” leading me to ask Helen later in some confusion, “Wait, was that guy really the Elder Statesman’s son?” Helen, who wasn’t reading the subtitles, didn’t remember the Elder Statesman’s having said anything like that; so maybe that was an error in subtitling as well, or maybe the Elder Statesman just knew the guy’s father and assumed the right to speak on said father’s behalf. But other than that, so far as I could tell, the subtitles were perfect.

    All in all, of the five Chinese movies I saw at Worldfest, four of which I really liked, this was the one I enjoyed the most. Perhaps someday Dr. Feng and I will both be in China at the same time; if so, I would be delighted to meet him for a few days in his pretty little fishing village. If not, I certainly hope to watch A Pretty Little Fishing Village again, and am curious to see what other movies Zhang Shutian and Xu Ge have appeared in. This film goes straight into my library once there is a DVD available.

    UPDATE: I am informed, by Dr. Feng’s niece Maggie, that Haiying is Daughter’s name, after all; the reason I was confused is that most people call her father “Lao Hai,” which is essentially an affectionate way to address an older person…something like “Uncle Hai.” I’m not going to go back and rewrite the post now, though.

    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)

    Later Worldfest 2018 posts:

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

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

    Worldfest low-budget review: Teacher in the Deep Mountains (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.

    This was the first of the two Date Night movies that Helen and I went to on our own. As is generally the case with Chinese movies, my opinion of it was higher than Helen’s; but this time not by very much. (She never thinks the Chinese actors are good enough; this is largely because any Chinese thespian who shows less proficiency than Sandra Bullock or Daniel Day-Lewis fails to make Helen’s grade.)

    This movie is about the story, the story, and then the story some more, with some spectacular landscape thrown in for good measure. And since the story is a true one…the film is able to overcome the underwhelming performance of lead actor Wang Wei. I enjoyed it immensely and would add it to my DVD library in a heartbeat.

    The problem is, I’m not sure how well suited the story is for an American audience. I mean, I certainly would recommend it whole-heartedly to American viewers; only, they will miss most of the tension in the movie and will think that Fan Meisuo, the title character, is a rather more unambiguously admirable character than he actually is within the Chinese context. Partly this is because Wang’s emotional dynamic range is so limited that he communicates little if any actual conflict of conscience over the choice between the half-starving children he comes to love and his filial duty to his father, especially in light of the sacrifices that everyone in his family has made in order for him to get his college degree. But mostly it is simply a cultural difference. The United States, being a country whose core mores were drawn from Christianity and being a country where famine has, except for the Great Depression, been practically unknown, is a country where the duty to be a Good Samaritan is deeply ingrained and where part of being an adult is assumed to be having the maturity and responsibility to stand apart from your parents and make your own decisions. It is practically impossible for an American to understand what filial piety means to the Chinese; on the flip side, I have lost count of the Chinese people who have come to America and then expressed astonishment on the casual way in which Americans inconvenience themselves at the drop of a hat to help perfect strangers. (In fact I had yet another of those conversations just this Sunday, on the Worldfest bus coming back from an excursion to the Houston Yacht Club; I’ll tell that story in another post as it introduces novelist Annie Wang and actress Lindsey Hintz, and this post is supposed to belong to Teacher in the Deep Mountains.)

    Let me try to help out my American Gentle Readers by explaining something that Americans are likely to find horribly macabre, but which represents a straightforward dilemma that Chinese have faced frequently in their long history, which they have resolved by means of a peculiarly Chinese logic that is entirely dominated by the paramount importance of filial piety. (Chinese readers…look, I’m an American and I know there’s lots I misunderstand; if I screw up too badly you can always blast me in the comments and I will do my best to correct the text. Really, though, you have to understand that this is one of the ways in which Chinese and American culture are miles apart, and thus one of the hardest things for Americans to understand about China.) China’s great eastern coastal plain is, in ordinary years, extraordinarily fertile and productive, and as a result China has always supported an immense population. The problem is that a couple of times every century or so, some natural disaster strikes — say, the Yellow River changes course catastrophically — and entire harvests are wiped out nationwide.

    And then literally millions of Chinese starve to death — and many of those who have survived such famines, have historically done so by resorting to cannibalism. Most American schoolchildren used to learn about the Donner Party, precisely because it’s pretty much the only time in American history that a group of Americans got so desperate that the ones who survived, survived by eating the ones who didn’t. But in Chinese history, it’s as if every century or so you got several hundred million Donner Parties all at once.

    This has happened often enough that one particular ethical debate was settled long ago: if the only way to survive is to eat your parents’ corpses, does filial piety require you to eat them, or to starve to death instead? And the answer, I am given to understand, was settled by observing that if you starve to death along with your parents, then the family does not survive. So the generally accepted conclusion was that, since your highest duty to your parents is to ensure that your parents always have descendants, filial piety requires you to eat their corpses and survive long enough to raise your parents’ grandchildren.

    If you’re an American, then right now I’m pretty sure you have an expression on your face that it has rarely worn before — something between shock and disbelief and just pure, simple, “What the HELL…????” But this is what I’m trying to tell you: (1) famine and starvation have, even in recent memory, been real and present threats to the Chinese people (look up the starvation statistics for the Great Leap Forward sometime), and (2) the Chinese sense of the duty that a son — especially an only son, the only hope for the perpetuation of the family name — has toward his parents is something the gut-level power of which Americans are just not really equipped to comprehend.

    And that brings us to the central conflict of this movie: Fan Meisuo is the only son of the Fan family, and all of his family, including his five older sisters, have made great sacrifices so that he can get a college education and carry on the Fan family name with honor. And both money and prestige come from getting a good job in the city…but Meisuo’s mentor assigns him to a one-room rural schoolhouse far back in the mountains, where there is so little money that the students are literally robbing food from temples in order to survive. Too ashamed to admit to his father that he has not been posted to the city, Meisuo extracts a promise from his mentor that he will only have to stay in the mountain school for a year, and then lies to his father. But once he realizes that the children are literally starving to death, his compassion overwhelms him, and not only does he spend all his own salary on his students, but he also makes frequent trips on foot back to his home town to beg copious quantities of food and even small livestock from his mother and elder sisters.

    What the American must realize is that in the Chinese context, there is a major ethical dilemma here, and it is not at all obvious that Meisuo is doing the right thing. Especially back thirty years ago, when this story takes place, it is quite possible that many Chinese would consider Meisuo to be betraying his family and literally stealing from his father. Americans think that Meisuo is obviously a purely admirable individual, apart from the bit about the lying, and that if his father would really be upset by what Meisuo is doing then that means his father is a jerk. But to leap casually to that conclusion is to miss literally the whole crux of the dramatic problem — two moral imperatives are very much in conflict and it is arguably very non-Chinese — certainly very non-Confucian — for Meisuo to make the choice he makes.

    Wang Wei, who plays Meisuo, is very good at playing the intelligent, but shy and bumbling (around young women, at least) young man. He has a cute little baby face that works very well for the part. But this is a terribly cruel dilemma that his character finds himself in…and yet almost no believable distress comes through in Wang’s performance. He is outacted not only by his leading lady Han Jiunuo, but arguably even by the thirteen-year old who plays the match-making younger sister of Han’s character (sadly, I do not remember the names of either of the two sister characters). At one point I felt downright sorry for Han: in one scene that should have been quite memorable, her character and Wang’s have a huge fight over something he has done that she considers outrageous and inexcusable (and I agree with her 100%). And poor Han is doing her best to stage a fight — but it’s the acting equivalent of punching a feather pillow, or of trying to get an echo by yelling into the vacuum of outer space — there’s just nothing coming back for her to play off against.

    Frankly, I thought Han’s character was just what the film needed to relieve the tension of Meisuo’s increasingly dire dilemma, and also to inject the energy that Wang’s performance lacked. She is hot-tempered and stubborn, but also brimming over with personality; and the interplay between her and her sister is consistently excellent. (I laughed frequently in this movie, and most of the time either Han’s character or her sister was involved.) She finds herself in a somewhat similar situation to Meisuo’s parents and sisters: his compassion for his students is admirable, and is duly admired; but his treatment of his family — and of the girl who is in love with him — leaves quite a bit to be desired. For self-sacrifice is admirable; but it is not only from himself that Meisuo demands, almost to the point of extortion, sacrifice for his students’ sake.

    It is no spoiler to say that Meisuo never leaves the mountain school; if you couldn’t figure that out within the first twenty minutes then you must have gone to sleep within the first five. The real-life Meisuo stayed there at least thirty years, and built a school of such excellence that parents from all over the district wound up sending their children to board there. A few years ago he was invited to Beijing to be honored as one of the top ten teachers in China; so in the end he did indeed manage to bring both prosperity and high honor to his family. What the movie shows, however, is that if instead of being one of Meisuo’s students you were a grown-up member of his family (including, ultimately, his wife), then the only way you could stay in a functional relationship with him was to admire his compassion and self-sacrifice so much, that you could bring yourself to reorder your own ethical principles and forgive his deficiencies. And the film makes it clear that Meisuo’s compassion was so truly selfless, and so truly extraordinary, and so deeply moving, that in the end those who loved him, indeed could not help but come to share his vision. His compassion was powerful enough to be transformatively contagious; and thus in the end he changed not only his own and his students’ lives, but his family members’ as well.

    And this Wang gets absolutely right: you absolutely can see the overwhelming, life-altering compassion he feels for these children, and you can see that compassion blossoming into all-consuming love right before your eyes. Even if you were Confucian enough to be deeply shocked by Meisuo’s outrages against filial duty, I think you would in the end be moved enough by that compassion and self-sacrifice to understand how his family came to acquiesce, without bitterness, in the abandonment of their dream of a glittering career for Meisuo in the big city. If Wang had failed to communicate that compassion and that emotional revolution, then the movie too would have failed. But he does not fail, and the movie succeeds.

    And I think it succeeds in a big way. Had the story not been as powerful, and had Wang not been able to communicate Meisuo’s love for his students, and had Han and her “sister” not brought the energy and comedy to lighten the tension, this movie could easily have failed. But the story is a truly remarkable story, and Meisuo’s compassion and love for the students pours out from the screen in an ever-deepening stream of power, and the two girls bring the sparkle, and in the end the movie is, I think, a triumph. If you get a chance to see it, I absolutely think you should seize the opportunity.

    Note: if you look for Teacher in the Deep Mountains on the web you won’t have much luck. This film more than any other is in dire need of my newly-available services as a cleaner-up of bad translations: not only does the title get translated into English as Teachers in Deep Mountains, but in the blurb that appeared in the Worldfest program under the picture of Wang and Han, Fan Meisuo is consistently referred to as “she” — so that I went into the movie thinking that the girl in the picture, rather than the guy, was the title character. This, as you can imagine, left me a bit confused at first.

    But while the subtitles are frequently clumsy, they are at least legible (this cannot be said of all the English subtitles seen at Worldfest), and you can always figure out what’s going on; so in the end they are at most a minor annoyance in what is a very enjoyable movie.

    Prior 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)

    Later Worldfest 2018 posts:

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

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

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

    Additional Worldfest low-budget reviews for the future if I can find a way to see them, having not been able to catch them during the festival proper: My Bride (China, Platinum Remi winner), In My Mind (UK, Gold Remi winner), Pastoral Song of the Spring (China, Gold Remi winner, and/or Rose Colored Shades (USA, Remi winner but I don’t know which “metal”). All of these are movies I hope to find a way to view at a later date, either streamed or in theatres; if I ever do see any or all of them then I will post an exceptionally tardy Worldfest post.

    Worldfest low-budget review: Grass Ring (China, Gold Remi winner, with Ma Liang, winner of Best Supporting Actor in Festival)

    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.

    Grass Ring was our Family Expedition movie for the festival: Helen, her parents, Kai, Sally and I all went to this one. I think I liked it more than anybody else did, but all the family reviews were generally positive.

    Helen’s first barometer for any Chinese movie seems to be how it stacks up technically against Hollywood. I, on the other hand, am much more interested in the story we are told and the characters we meet. This is one of the biggest reasons I rarely go see Hollywood movies anymore: Hollywood is technically flawless, but its storytellers seem to have no stories left to tell that both they and I agree are worth telling.

    Grass Ring‘s story was one that I found fascinating, and as a special bonus it kept me guessing right up until the end, which very, very few movies these days do. It is a romantic drama, not a romantic comedy; fortunately it was written by somebody who understands at a deep level what real love is. It is a triangle: two men, who love the same woman; one woman, who could love the second except that she has already given her heart to the first.

    I have to be careful not to commit the sin of spoiling here. But all of the following different kinds of love, and different types of failure to love, are explored in this film, and all by somebody who knows a whole lot more about love than did the author of the largely-unwatchable-by-me pastiche Love Actually:

  • A shallow man’s infatuation with a beautiful girl.
  • A girl’s undying passion for a lost love.
  • The self-hatred of a man who fails his family in every way and takes the coward’s way out.
  • The love mixed with anguished guilt of a good woman who, finding herself in a terrible situation, makes an even more terrible mistake that creates years of tragic consequences for herself and her daughter, and her desperate attempts to undo the harm she has done.
  • The love of an adopted father for the orphans he takes under his wing.
  • The love with which the orphans love him back.
  • The innocent first love of a young man and young woman who make a commitment to love and refuse to go back on that commitment even at tremendous personal cost.
  • The love, so utterly infused with duty as to be hardly distinguishable therefrom, of Chinese children to Chinese parents.
  • The self-sacrificing love of a young man for a young girl whom he is convinced is better off without him.
  • The love of a young woman for a young man whose heart, as she all too bitterly knows, is wholly given to another.
  • The self-sacrificing love of a young man for a young woman, when the young man is actually the same man who started out at the top of this list with a shallow infatuation with a beautiful girl, but who has to come to terms with what love truly means and has to choose whether or not he will pay that price.
  • It is a actually a profoundly thought-provoking story, especially because even at the end, I found myself trying to decide whether I thought the characters had made the right choices. I concluded that they had, but I am not sure that Helen agrees with me.

    One of the more interesting things about the movie, to me, is that the central character (“Zhi,” played by Hu Meng), is remarkably, though not at first noticeably, passive. She is the center of all the other characters’ actions and choices, but she herself makes very few choices, and where she does choose, her choices are frustrated by fate and come to nothing. She is a woman of great loyalty; but Hu makes an interesting choice in how she portrays that loyalty: her Zhi is as imprisoned by her past as she is loyal to it — she is deeply emotionally bound to the well-deserving Jiang (played by director/producer/lead actor Hong Yiping), but she portays the character’s loyalty as being almost as much indecision as loyalty. She chooses loyalty to Jiang, but the longer the movie goes on the longer you wonder whether she is capable of any other choice — and if so…well, can that still meaningfully be called a choice? In the end, the choice that will define her life — the choice between the old love and the new love — is made entirely on her behalf in collaboration by the two men, each of whom is willing to forfeit his own happiness to ensure hers, and neither of whom even allows her to know the choice is possible before the choice is made.

    So while Helen thought Hu was an unimpressive actress, I felt that it was more that she had an unusual role and made some unusual, but I think reasonable, choices in that role.

    It is not made clear either by the script or by Hong’s performance as Zhi’s first love Jiang why it is that he comes to feel so strongly, once Zhi’s mother reenters her life, that he must remove himself from Zhi’s life at whatever cost. Perhaps that was meant as deliberate ambiguity. I myself found it a weakness in the film, but could not tell whether it was a flaw in the script or in Hong’s acting. As for Ma Liang, who played Zhi’s wealthy and initially shallow second love, I thought he fully deserved the Best Supporting Actor in Festival prize that the Worldfest jury awarded him — except that it seemed to me that he was actually the male lead and Hong the supporting actor.

    It isn’t a light-hearted film by any means, but if you are in the mood for a thought-provoking story that has a pretty solid grasp on the nature of love and loyalty and the dilemmas that can arise when there is more than one person in one life who deserves one’s loyalty and love, then Grass Ring is well worth your time. I would certainly watch it again myself.

    Prior 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)

    Later Worldfest 2018 posts:

    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?)

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

    Worldfest 2018 low-budget review: Hidden Summer (Houston/China, Silver 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.

    I didn’t know much about Hidden Summer (夏日魔影) when I went into the theatre for its world premiere, other than there was a really big opening ceremony with lots and lots of people and photographers — and also that it was sold out, for people without nice handy VIP badges such as the one I was most undeservedly carrying around this week thanks to young Miss 陈赞 Chén Zàn, and had had to be given two extra theatres for screeing, one whole theatre being set aside just for the VIP-badged. Having beaten the rush, I ensconced myself happily in the best non-reserved seat in the VIP room. Two minutes later, madness ensued as the hordes descended upon us. Four very well-dressed Chinese ladies about my age took their seats on my left. Then the producer came in and filled up the rest of the row to my right with her entourage, leaving empty for herself the seat right next to me.

    Fortunately the lady on my left was able to explain: the film had been written and produced by my right-hand seatmate Xiao Bai Tarr, a local Houston lady who is much beloved and respected in the Houston Chinese community; it was set in, and had been shot entirely in, Houston; and the cast consisted, with only a single exception, of amateur local actors drawn from the Houston Chinese community. And this was a full-length feature film, as the first shot out of the box for everybody — even the director was a dewey-cheeked youngster fresh out of college. So China of Houston, as it were, had come out in force to support the show.

    It rapidly became obvious that even with an entire theatre set aside for the VIP’s, there wasn’t enough room. I knew the thing was showing again the next day, and I figured I was the person to whom being there for the premiere mattered the least; so I beckoned to one lady who was apparently nice and unquestionably disconsolate, gave her my seat, and went home.

    The next night I got just as good a seat, but without the madness. There were still enough people there to fill half the seats or so, and Ms. Tarr was back as well; furthermore she stayed after the movie to answer questions and so there is more background that I will give you…but just as I didn’t get the background until I had seen the movie, you, O Gentle Reader, don’t get the background until I have reviewed it.

    It was really quite good — downright astonishingly good considering that it was practically all amateur actors and that the “professionals” involved were working on their first film. It absolutely earned its Silver Remi and I would not have thought it a travesty had it taken a Gold. From time to time you could see the actors acting, as it were; but most of them were convincing enough at least for long stretches that you could stop seeing the actor and instead see the character, and the teenaged daughter, at least, sold me on her character from start to finish. If you had told me there was only one member of the Screen Actors Guild in the cast and asked me to guess which one it was, I would, after some thought, have guessed correctly (Lawrence Bucher as “David”); but if you had asked me to wager money on it I would have declined the risk. The directing was really good — the opening sequence established the Houston atmosphere really quite effectively indeed. The set design, especially in the massage parlor (more on that later), was not in the least amateur; the incidental music was effective and well-chosen except for frequent too-long stretches where its complete absence was felt not as dramatic silence, but as a simple absence of requisite incidental music.

    And that brings me to the script, which presents an unexpected and quite significant problem for me by making it very difficult indeed for me to review the film objectively. I responded very positively to the script, except for a single gaping flaw (which, given the quality of the rest of the script, surprised me very much, but which was fully explained in the post-screening Q&A). But, while I do think the script was a very good script, I know that a lot of my response came from the fact that it hit a topic on which I already happened to feel strongly.

    The main character, “Wendy” (徐莉 Xu Li), is a Chinese woman whose daughter Elaine (曽欣怡 Chloe Zeng) has been living with friends in America while attending high school. After her husband leaves her for another woman, Wendy comes to America on a tourist visa for a visit of some duration, but almost as soon as she lands, her husband back in China stops sending either Wendy or Elaine any money. Lonely, hurt, and rapidly going broke, Wendy wants to find another man and has to find some money — but she has no work permit. Thus she finds herself working in a respectable massage shop in Chinatown — only to be set up by a corrupt policeman for a bogus charge of prostitution. Will she be able to fight the charges? Will she be able to expose the corrupt cop for what he truly is? Will she be able to go back to China and leave behind a country that, however welcoming it may be to other immigrants, has meant nothing but unhappiness to her?

    It seems to me that the script and acting and directing all manage to achieve their fundamental goal: they make us care about Wendy and about how it will all turn out. But I can’t really trust my judgment on this one, and here is where my personal experience comes in.

    As soon as the movie was over, I made a beeline for the producer/scriptwriter to ask a question to which I was sure I already knew the answer: “You know Chinese women who work in the massage industry, don’t you?” The reason I was sure Ms. Tarr knows women in that industry, is that I myself know women in that industry, and everything about Ms. Tarr’s plot rang true.

    As a result of falling off a house back in the early 1990’s, I have chronic back pain that has been more or less incessant for close to three decades, and one of my discoveries from my first visit to China was that regular Chinese-style massage makes a huge difference to my pain levels. So I came back to Houston all excited about Chinese massage, headed for Chinatown, and went into the first Chinese massage shop I saw…

    Oh.

    Turns out that “Asian massage,” in Houston, is rather more often than not a euphemism for at least a moderate degree of prostitution. I suppose most people in Houston would be like, “Uh, DUH,” but I was pretty naïve, I guess. I got cured fast, though.

    Well, I eventually found a Chinese masseuse who actually did massage. She had been a fully qualified cupping / hot stone / acupuncture / massage therapy medical practicioner in China, where it is karaoke bars, not massage parlors, that the unwary and naïve wander into and come out with very surprised looks on their faces. For a year she kept me walking more or less pain-free. And then she just quit — because she was so tired of having most of her male customers ask her for sexual services. She opened a grocery store instead and packed away the massage table and the hot stones.

    So I had to find another respectable masseuse. After a couple of months, I got one, whom I have relied on ever since. Sally (for that is her English name) is very good at her job and not once has she ever attempted to, shall we say, upsell the services. And after I had been her customer for a little while, something happened that I thought was very funny — only, her reaction when I started laughing made it clear that she didn’t think it was funny at all, and later, as she came to trust me and told me a little bit more about how some policemen often treat Chinese masseuses even when they are not prostitutes, I came to realize…no, no, it’s not funny. I told some of that story here and won’t repeat it. One thing I left out, though, is that on at least one occasion a “customer” asked up front for “full service,” and when Sally said, “I don’t do that,” he pulled out a badge and said, “Either you **** me or else I’ll arrest you and say you agreed to.” Fortunately Sally stood her ground and he left — but then Sally speaks pretty good English and is fully licensed and green-carded. In a city where the majority of Chinese masseuses speak little or no English — and many of them actually are prostitutes — what percentage of the time do you think that tactic fails? And when it succeeds, how often do you think the cop even has enough of a shred of decency to at least pay the fee?

    I am a libertarian by temperament and nothing enrages me more than when people with government authority abuse that authority, especially when they prey on the truly vulnerable. So as soon as I realized where the plot of Hidden Summer was heading, I was all in…but I suspect I would have been all in even if the script was complete crap, because it hit one of my big red buttons.

    So I have very little idea of whether or not to recommend this film to you. I cared about the characters and was emotionally involved in their fate, but I don’t know whether you would be. It won a Silver Remi; so I think it’s probably worth your gambling a couple of hours of your time. Still I have to say that’s more the festival jury’s recommendation than it is mine.

    Before I go, let me explain the one huge gap in the plot. Wendy and her lawyer and her private detective come up with a strategy to try to defend her innocence and take down the dirty cop. We cut to three cops in an extraordinarily badly acted scene, of quite different quality than the rest of the film. And then we instantly cut to “Four months later,” as Wendy says, “Now that…” and tells the audience the outcome of the case. And my reaction was, “Hey, wait — I wanted to see that part!”

    But Ms. Tarr explained, after the movie, that the original script had an extra fifteen minutes of Wendy Versus Dirty Cop, showing exactly what I was wanting to see — but since part of it took place in a Thai massage parlor that actually was a brothel, and the “masseuses” in said massage parlor were dressed for the part, the Chinese distribution company who had bought the rights to the film, said, “Hey, that’s pornography!” And they made her take it out.

    “Couldn’t you have an American cut that leaves it in and a Chinese cut that takes it out?” I asked.

    “No, they wouldn’t let me,” was the answer.

    And that, I would bet good money, is why Hidden Summer won a Silver, rather than a Gold, Remi award.

    A final human-interest note: Ms. Tarr financed this movie herself, by selling her small business (she owned a successful restaurant in Katy) and investing all the proceeds in the movie. I asked her why, and this, as best as I can remember, was her answer:

    “Well, I had spent three years writing that script, and I couldn’t stand not to see it become a movie, and this was the only way I could do it.”

    I hope she makes all her investment back. In my opinion she deserves it.

    Prior 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)

    Later Worldfest 2018 posts:

    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?)

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

    Worldfest low-budget review: Fiddlin’ (USA)

    I was looking forward to this one, and it did not at all disappoint.

    This is a movie I want my kids to see; I would have pushed them to go to it with me much harder, had I realized in advance how much of the focus would be on the teenaged musicians who compete for the youth-level blue ribbons.

    Let’s start with the obvious: the musicians are ridiculously good. Eleven-year-old Presley Barker does not quite play his guitar the way Yuja Wang played piano at eleven — but then unlike Wang, Barker didn’t even get started on his instrument until he was eight. And I’ll tell you something: I will never in my life be as good at anything as young Barker already is on that flat-top guitar. Or to take another featured artist, if you want a handmade guitar from entirely self-taught craftsman Wayne Henderson, that waiting list is several years long, and the bill will be upwards of $20,000 — and if you ask him to play it for you after it’s finished, you’ll get a private audience with a man who has played Carnegie Hall. People come from literally all over the world to try to get a blue ribbon at Galax (pronounced GAY-lacks); if you aren’t world-class then your place is in the audience, not on the stage.

    “Ah, well,” saith the Gentle Reader, “I guess it would be worth seeing if I liked bluegrass; but I don’t.” Fair point; and thus the rest of this low-budget review will try to explain why many people who don’t like bluegrass should watch this film anyway, and also to explain why certain other people ought not bother.

    Although the film focuses on the musicians, and on master luthier Wayne Henderson, this music runs so deep within the community that you find out — quite organically — quite a bit about the economic and social history of the place as well. It is easy, for example, to see how the people who live here could believe that nobody in Washington except Donald Trump cares about them; when a desperately furious Bill Clinton ranted helplessly at his wife’s campaign team about their failure to understand the white working class, it was these people that he was talking about. But while it may be easy to see, it is not a point the movie actually makes; the movie scrupulously avoids overt politics and instead simply lets the musicians tell their stories…which happen to include how all the manufacturing jobs have drained inexorably away from these mountains, leaving the economy to reinvent itself around tourism but also leaving a residue of wistful nostalgia about how, if you needed money (quoting from memory here), “you could always go get a job in the furniture factory. It was awfully hard work. But if you wanted a job you could get one. But now…”

    You also learn a lot about how family works in the part of the rural white working class that is not pathologically nonfunctional — that is, the redneck culture, as distinct from the white trash culture (it is clear that whatever other merits or flaws are to be found in Thomas Sowell’s “black rednecks” thesis, he is utterly unaware of this elementary distinction, which leads me to have grave doubts that in other respects the man has done his homework). The kids in this movie come largely from intact households, and they are comfortable around their grandparents’ generation and see them as role models and mentors. They feel a strong sense of tradition and music is part of a family heritage for them.

    In a related story, Fiddlin’ has nothing whatsoever to say about the opoid epidemic. The reason is obvious, of course. Kids from broken families who have no intact family traditions to lean on, for whom home is not a safe space, where major adult influences are substance abusers of one sort or another and who themselves flee into substance abuse at an early age…those kids aren’t competing for blue ribbons in festivals.

    In other words, what Fiddlin’ is documenting is a particular American subculture that is economically disadvantaged, but that in many respects is far healthier than is American society in general. This is what redneck culture looks like when it is highly functional: deep family roots, a sterling work ethic, instinctive friendliness and neighborliness, high craftsmanship, and a capacity for joy in simple things. This is the cream of the poor white working class, in its element. It is not a representative sample of what the white working class is; but it is a very vivid and — in the opinion of this Oklahoma mountain boy who grew up wearing bib overalls and singing shape-noted music in brush arbor revivals — a very accurate depiction of what the white working class at its best can be, and quite often is.

    But beyond celebrating what is good and healthy and admirable in this particular culture, it is also celebrating the specific expression of that culture that is the Galax Old Fiddlers Convention. And what comes through most clearly in the film — at least to me (your mileage may vary) — is that the Old Fiddlers Convention functions at least as much as a massive family reunion, as it functions as a musical convention. The relationships among the non-blood-related musicians who return year after year to the convention, and who wander happily around the grounds from campsite to campsite finding old friends and joining in on impromptu jam sessions, look suspiciously like the family relationships that so shape the musicians’ daily lives. This high-functioning culture is a culture of highly-functional families, and family is what it knows how to do; and accordingly the convention-goers corporately behave as a kind of huge extended family. Watching middle-aged Henderson and pre-teen Barker interact, is straightforwardly like watching a grandfather and grandson who happen not to be related by blood. But you don’t get the feeling that they are two lonely people each of whom fills a hole in the others’ life — you get the feeling that Henderson just behaves with Barker the way he behaves with his own grandchildren, and that Barker behaves with Hendersen the way he behaves with his own grandfather. They already know how to do this kind of relationship — at least, that’s the impression the movie gives.

    There is another aspect of the culture that Fiddlin’ plays up, whether intentionally or not: this is a culture that encases intense competitiveness within a deeper context of generosity, humility and gratitude. These people want really badly to win, and they devote countless hours of practice and artistic perfectionism to their pursuit of those blue ribbons. But they are very good losers when the other guy wins, and they instinctively praise and admire each other rather than themselves. No doubt this has to do with the fact that they deal with each other largely as members of a family. But I think it is hard to miss the fact that there is a whole lot of joy and friendship and camaraderie and indeed love in this movie, and also the fact that although these are very intense competitors there is no trash-talking whatsoever — and the wiser ones among us are likely to at least suspect that these two facts are not entirely unrelated.

    Now, the film’s appeal is limited in the current climate, I fear, by the fact that the Social Justice Warrior third of the country will be instinctively repelled precisely by the fact that what is being celebrated here is the white redneck (and largely, though the film avoids explicit reference to the fact, “fundamentalist” Christian) culture — a culture, that is, that the Social Justice Warrior culture hates and despises as racist, homophobic, anti-science, fundamentalist, and (the currently fashionable term of abuse du jour) white supremacist. I doubt this movie will do anything but strengthen the SJW conviction that their stereotypes are accurate. It is hard to miss the fact that there are no meth addicts or broken families in this movie; but it is also hard to miss the fact that this movie is lily-white except for a single black musician (at least I only remember seeing one black guy — it didn’t occur to me to do a Black Person Census while the movie was actually playing), and also that it is straightforwardly cisnormative except for a single lesbian teenager. And, if you’re the kind of person whose antennae are focused on race and gender issues, then the one black guy and the one lesbian girl make things worse rather than better, because they come off as tokens — they appear briefly and are allowed to talk about Their Issue, but unlike pretty much all the other musicians who get screen time, we don’t (at least if my memory serves) get to see them actually play their instruments. The short-haired little lesbian teenager in particular only has two scenes, and her two-minute discussion about her challenges as a lesbian in the bluegrass world comes out of nowhere and then never goes anywhere else. Hers is a story that could be very well worth the telling — I would be interested in hearing it, myself, because being a lesbian in the world of bluegrass certainly does seem to me to be quite a challenge — but either it should have gotten more than two minutes or else it should have been saved for a film that had more than two minutes to give it.

    The effect, it seems to me, is rather as if the documentary were saying, “Look, there are black people and lesbians in bluegrass, too,” but coming off pretty much exactly like someone who says, “Hey, some of my best friends are Jewish.”

    The truth is that old-style and bluegrass are predominantly, at this point — however much the Black community may have contributed to old-style’s genesis — the domain of the white working class, and more specifically the domain of the white traditionally-family-oriented working class. This documentary wasn’t produced in order to attack whatever might be bad in that culture, and it certainly wasn’t produced in order to tut-tut at whatever the cultural Left might consider problematic. It was produced in order to celebrate what the filmmakers see as good in that culture. A viewer who is wholeheartedly in the camp of those who agree that this culture is — to coin a phrase — deplorable, is a viewer who ought to pick a different movie to view.

    The rest of you should see it if you get the chance.

    Prior 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!

    Later Worldfest 2018 posts

    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?)

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