Thursday, November 3, 2011

Patrick Wang's lengthy-but-lovely IN THE FAMILY probes prejudice and its handling with a soft-but-firm touch

For two weeks now, New York City's Quad Cinema has presented unusual narrative films with interesting things in common, not least among these their outsize length of nearly three hours. Last week's Preston Miller movie God's Land explored faith, via a Taiwanese mini-sect who comes to Texas to await God's arrival in a spaceship. This week actor/
writer/director Patrick Wang offers up IN THE FAMILY, an intimate portrait of a gay family -- father, father and son (who is not, by the way, adopted) -- how it came into being and what happens when it is suddenly fractured.

Both films avoid cliché by tackling their subject in a more roundabout manner than expected, taking the time to "live" in their protagonists' shoes and souls. This demands something extra of viewers, time-wise and otherwise, but because both filmmakers are so adept at creating their charac-ters and the world they live in, our following along is easy and surprisingly pleasurable. Mr. Wang (shown at right), Asian-American and a native, I am told, of Texas, puts his graceful/gracious presence to excellent use as an actor, and his "southern" accent seems both unusual and oddly comforting (it may strike you in the same way as did, a decade or two back, first hearing black and middle-eastern characters in British films speaking with thick Brit accents).

As writer and director, Mr Wang also exhibits what TrustMovies (and please forgive his stooping to cliché) sees as an Asian trait -- a kind of quiet, calm resistance to confrontation -- in telling his story. What begins as a charming gay family tale (above) soon turns into a gay horror story about who and what constitute "family" when tragedy strikes. Because our lead actor is a double "other" -- both gay and Asian -- this has the effect of further distancing him in the eyes of many of the characters. Yet the two characteristics work with each other to make this character (Joey Williams) quite special.

Wang, whose movie may make you think of the lengthy, ensemble films of the late Edward Yang, is particularly good at distancing effects that prevent his film from becoming soap opera: Hearing a conversation through a doorway via another character, for instance, helps counter the sentimentality that a scene like this would usually entail. Likewise, watch for a phone call handled in manner just a little different from anything you've probably seen.

As a filmmaker, Wang uses a stationery camera at times (but is not afraid to move it when required), plus an exacting and appropriate use of flashbacks (extracting a shirt from the closet sparks immediate memory). In addition to the excellent performance he gives, he draws fine ones from the rest of his cast, which includes some New York theater actors such as Park Overall (center, right, two photos above) and the wonderful Brian Murray (above). Trevor St. John (below, right) as dad Cody, provides the requisite charm and sex appeal. We get to know this character mostly via flashback, and Wang's handling of this is also exemplary.

As is the performance the filmmaker gets from his child actor, Sebastian Banes (below) -- which is funny, charming, always real.

The film's final section is devoted mostly to a single scene set at a legal deposition (below), prior to which the Murray character, playing Joey's lawyer, has told him, "When the person sitting across the table is no longer an adversary, a lot more is possible." The demonstration of this brings to the fore all of Wang's skill. The scene is quiet, filled with verbiage -- including a nasty piece of innuendo by the "real" family's lawyer -- and minute behavior, and it is utterly riveting. No one raises a voice but the viewer's emotions are made very nearly palpable.

(Interestingly enough, another movie opens at the Quad this week, the recently-reviewed Cherkess, in which talking quietly, rationally helps work out a situation that seems beyond help. Are we about to see a renaissance of rationality replacing blood-and-guts vengeance in films? One doubts it; still a smattering of hope survives.)  After winning the Best Narrative Feature award, as well as the Emerging Filmmaker Award for its director at the recent San Diego Asian Film Festival, In the Family, 169 minutes, opens Friday, November 4 at the Quad Cinema. No formal Q&As are scheduled, but the director will be in the lobby after all opening weekend shows (Friday through Sunday) to meet and speak with audience members.

2 comments:

TheNoGoodnick said...

I agree that Patrick Wang's IN THE FAMILY is lengthy-but-lovely but it had to be that long. Patrick Wang wanted to create something new when he started working on this film. He utilizes every scene in a way, whether that way is to set a tone for the next scene or to create tension. Patrick Wang's In The Family may have been as you put it lengthy but in my eyes the length of movies like Titanic never bothered anyone and I don't see why the length of this film should matter either. Because this film has heart. www.imdb.com/title/tt1845804/

James van Maanen, said...

Well, NoGoodnick, thanks for the comment. And I agree with you whole-heartedly about Wang's movie. But Titanic?! Hardly. That movie, as successful as it was, bothered plenty of us. It was long-unto-death and twice as boring. Right after the ship sank, half the audiences here in Jackson Heights (I saw it at our local theater the week it opened) got up and left -- thus missing all that "heart" at the end of the movie. I guess maybe "heart" wasn't really what they were looking for. In the Family does have heart (and a lot less cliches than the Cameron film), and that is one of the reasons why its length fills the bill so well.