Since Mao Zedong and the Chinese communists chased the Chang Kai Shek out of the Chinese mainland, Communist China has had a strange and complex relationship with large and small organized religions. While religion is seen as a distraction in orthodox Marxism, China nevertheless had centuries of religious history and literally millions of religious practitioners at the start of the Communist regime. Local, traditional religions were often tolerated more than large, organized ones, especially those religions (such as Catholicism) that sprung from Western culture. While there are contemporary, mainstream Christians, Buddhist, and Taoists in modern China, there has nevertheless been a history of persecution of specific religious groups and individuals. Fear of government persecution has driven some religious practices underground, and even as it touts religious freedom, China still creates obstacles that make complete freedom of religion a challenge.
THE CHRONICLES OF RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION IN CHINA—THE CHURCH OF THE ALMIGHTY GOD (Jason Jia 2017) attempts to recount the story of one of those groups, the people of the Church of the Almighty God, also called the “Eastern Lightning.” The cast and crew are refugees that have fled persecution of the CCP and are attempting to show the world their interpretation of what’s going on inside China. The film itself stylistically draws from both Christian and Chinese propaganda, using, for example, superflat animations over live action footage, smoky reenactments, and beatific narratives of martyrs and survivors. Large swaths of history are covered and the film makes strong claims. Its own narrative uses ecclesiastical language to describe its communist tortures, referring to Karl Marx as a disciple of Satan and the CCP as a horde of demons. Like many other religious films, it has a clear antagonist and its moral quandary is Manichean at best. And it seems,
And yet, it remains a crucial interpretation of how a persecuted subculture understands its own maltreatment, and as such, is a document uses media culture in interesting ways. At once a product of—and rejection of—the past twenty years in China, THE CHRONICLES OF RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION speaks to the clash between a restrictive large government, a religious uprising, and particular media traditions that both groups somewhat share.
Short films are often brought down by their terrible editing. Unfettered by a feature-length time frame, they lack the quick progression that fits with a short film’s story space. This is absolutely not true of SHOTKAM MK V-ORDINARY PEOPLE (Michael Siebert, 2017), which seems to feed off its lackadaisical editing and extension of time. The two main characters pace, bicker, even occasionally nip off a bottle in the kitchen, but their rising excitement over their soon to arrive package (the ShotKam MK V) makes for an unnerving exhibition of self-justification and cruelty. Constructed as a video interview in progress, the film captures a father-daughter duo as they wait for the arrival of an important package, the ShotKam MK-V image that they have ordered. The ShotKam, it seems, is a contraption with a dual trigger; it can take a picture and shoot bullets simultaneously. As such, it captures a photograph at the moment of impact.
The father and daughter praise the contraption and the artistry of the picture, but the viewer can see that even they don’t entirely believe in what they are talking about. The father vacillates between happy and angry, becoming increasingly furious as their package is further and further delayed. The daughter, on the other hand, appears both in awe of her father, anxious to leave him, and increasingly frustrated with his position as the paterfamilias.
In literature and cinema, there is a long tradition of equating the camera with a gun, from Virginia Woolf to the early days of King Kong to the contemporary global gangster film. And yet, there is something ambitious about throwing off the metaphor and entirely embracing the ideas of the literal voyeur-killer. The characters even feel it; being so used to equating photographic subject with a victim, they are obviously unnerved at being themselves placed before the camera. Eager to forestall his nerves, the father’s boastful art criticism and punchy violence make it difficult to stay with him. It’s the conjoined nervousness, pretentious pleasure, and extended time that make the film so unnerving. The film builds up the tension until it finally shows us the image from the ShotKam 5, and, when we finally see it, we are already complicit in its production.
It takes a sharp eye, especially in short film, to create a film from a child’s perspective and have it appeal to all audiences. In a few short minutes, however, POSSUM (Dave Whitehead, 2016) manages to view a first trip to the woods and hunt for a menacing creature through children’s eyes, focusing on the joy of the chase and the excitement of the wilds that helps adults reimagine the joys of their youth.
Somewhere in rural New Zealand, two young brothers go with the father (a nice turn by Taungaroa Emile) up the mountain on a camping trip. Nathan (the older child) is somewhat dismissive of his younger brother David, who is– to him– a bit of a whiner and a crybaby, like younger brothers always are. The first night, their dad’s friend tells the two boys about a mean possum named Scar, who’s old and ornery and a bit dangerous. When something visits their tent at night, they are fairly convinced that it is Scar, stalking and hunting them. As their dad chops wood out in the bush, Nathan and Daniel search out Scar to take him out.
Two elements of this film make it incredibly charming: its child actors and its embrace of the fantastic. Duane Evans Jr. and Te Ahitaewa Hakaraia-Hosking make for two excellent brothers, they bicker and play with each other like pros, and their search for Scar evokes memories of childhood trips of the past. Moreover, we get Scar point of view shots, puppet-like shadows of elk, and most importantly, a charming Scar animatronic that is made of a child’s imagination. And of course, the New Zealand woods are beautiful and slightly dangerous, threading that line between awe and fear that usually creates children’s worlds. Between the vast, sweeping landscape that makes New Zealand both massively gorgeous and strangely familiar and the sweet brotherly affective of two young boys, POSSUM earns its place a charming coming of age moment that never becomes saccharine or cliché.
To its credit, Pranay Noel’s FOXHOLE CONVERSATIONS (2017) smartly avoids the meaning of its title until the last few minutes of the film. As such, it’s a smart illustration of the silence between brothers, the ways that we ignore what happens after war, and the problems of the pathetic divorcee genre that has been common over the past 20 years.
The majority of the film concerns Lauchlin, a middle-aged, divorced dad who doesn’t get to see his daughter much and is wasting away in a middle management cubicle. Lauchlin is sadder because it seems he could be doing much better. He’s smart, he’s interested in the world, and he’s writing himself a screenplay. His colleague even tells him that he should leave his boring corporate, pencil-pushing job because he wants to “do something” and probably could.
After his ex-wife refuses to let him come into his daughter’s birthday party, he and his brother Colin(who is unemployed and has recently come to live with him) get colossally wasted and pass the night on the couch, talking about their past, dreams, and failures. It’s the turn at the end–the one that makes the viewer rethink the entire film–that saves the movie’s narration. It’s neither a twist nor a plot point. Instead, it’s about what we never talk about. As a family, as a society, and as a culture.
While the acting is a bit hit or miss at times, the two main characters nonetheless manage to establish a kind of bro-ish charm. They let gross humor and childish sexual innuendos speak for them. It seems that they are having a good time, but their good time is also a fatal flaw. Brothers joke around, it seems, but can never say what’s going on. But we don’t want to see either because Hollywood film has trained us that the sidekick is never the main character. Except, possibly, he is to the sidekick himself.
Sunday Dolph Christopher’s RIPPLE EFFECT (2017) is an engaging moment of self-processing for the filmmaker, in which he confronts the challenges of immigration and integration in a Europe that is becoming tragically hostile to refugees. Christopher, a refugee himself from Nigeria, talks to recent Syrian refugees who have settled in Sweden, a country that is ostensibly one of the most sympathetic toward ever-growing Syrian diaspora.
Christopher interviews men and women who have mixed feelings toward their new home. There’s Theo, a gorgeous young man who runs a hair salon and believes fervently in the powers of integration. The story of the woman who married a Swede and feels very at home, the woman who runs. However, Mohanad, a family man who lives with his wife and two children, has actively struggled to learn Swedish, find a job, and lease a reasonable apartment. Moreover, FFF is frustrated with the quality of employment—he wants to use his training instead of working in a menial position. And all of the refugees, whether or not they like Sweden, are affected by powerful survivor’s guilt and homesickness. It’s almost impossible to be happy, they note, when your family, neighbors, and countrymen are being subjected to violence on a daily basis.
RIPPLE EFFECT is at its most sophisticated when it honestly confronts the challenges that the refugees face. The film poignantly focuses on the constant snow and seemingly unceasing chilly weather in Sweden, a climate that can augment the refugees’ homesickness. It shows their unhappiness, the challenges of meeting their neighbors, and their confrontations with Sweden’s local cultures. All of them hope for better lives and want to challenge themselves to be the best workers, friends, and citizens they can be, but they are also always confronted with the real struggle of an upended life. The film doesn’t downplay the struggles or suggest that a welcoming country can cure all ills. It does, however, point to the ways that cultural integration can benefit both refugees and native citizens.
Charles Joseph Ouda’s film WAITING ROOM (2016) explores that cliché of asking: “how far would you go to get what you want?” There is, however, another, more interesting read to the film. It’s not, it seems, that the protagonist has to “go far” out of desperation. It seems, instead, seems to acknowledge that, perhaps, people who claim to act out of fear, desire, or any other extreme emotion are maybe not exactly desperate. Maybe “too far” is actually their comfort zone.
In the story, a young woman has a wonderful husband and a seemingly fulfilled life. She does, however, want a baby quite badly, and appears to be having some challenges becoming pregnant. However, her seemingly perfect life falls apart when she finds out that her husband has been having an affair with another woman. The protagonist appears to have a talent for making lemons into lemonade, however, and sets about to get everything she wants in another way.
The conversations between the wife and the husband’s mistress are probably the most interesting part of the film. Ita Korenzechar is quite good as a woman that sheds unnecessary emotion to achieve what she wants. She also has a cruel streak that makes her simply delightful as a character. In describing the nurse’s affair as fleeting and ultimately forgettable, she twists the knife. The nurse is an unwed mother without a happy dad in the picture. The casting of the wife’s antagonist is also apt. Ana Ribeiro is a wonderful reverse image of Korenzechar. They are two beautiful brunettes, but one is ruthless and the other naïve. WAITING ROOM films the two women in a series of very tight shots, augmenting the claustrophobia and fatalism of the final events. And, while it does seem unnecessarily convenient that the mistress works is a nurse in the fertility doctor’s office, it does help to contrast her sweet persona to the wife’s sour one. The larger problem here is the hen-pecked husband, who could perhaps be less of a sad sack stereotype. But, like many films, this piece is made by its women. In a world in which female fertility is still imagined as a woman’s highest honor, these two actresses convey the agony and the ecstasy that surrounds pregnancy and birth in our current moment.
In the short film ROTTEN LOVE (2017) by Xandar Turian, a sadomasochistic scene gone wrong becomes the catalyst for violence, despair, and death. Feeling stressed from work, the man, Leo (Xandar Turian) comes home to his girlfriend Kat (Sarah Gierchsky), and they seem to reconcile through a rough bout of sex. However, what appears have been romantic before—a love affair with BDSM overtones—turns violent when the man can’t seem to tell the difference between reality and dream. Off his medication, he kills his girlfriend over and over again, but even her murder can’t stop her from reappearing in his line of sight.
The film has some success with its chiaroscuro lighting and empty rooms, which help to give a kind of goth-noir sensibility. The lighting appropriately sets up the inner turmoil and anguish that the man faces, as well as his internal instability. The camera tightly follows Leo as he travels from room to room, making the large, empty home appear looming and claustrophobic. However, even though it sets up a creepy noir mise-en-scene that turns romance into horror, the film has some issues with other aspects of its production. It’s uneven audio production and odd choices of editing transitions make it appear a bit like an early student film (a rookie director move when he thinks that more is better). Moreover, the acting has some challenges. A film like this–because it is sparse and thin, about an internal decline mirrored by an external one—is made by its acting. Unfortunately, neither lead can quite get where they need to be in their performances.
WHAT IF (Linda Gasser, 2017), ironically, is about the eradication of questions and the overabundance of answers. In Gasser’s film, romance is now arranged through big data. There are no chance meetings, funny first date stories, or wild, unpredictable romances. In this (semi) utopia, a young man named Achille feels that he needs spontaneity and chance in his romance. His mother is frustrated with his refusal to be set up with his match the “traditional” way, he insists on falling in love, or, more specifically, meeting through a romantic encounter. His attempts to capture that spontaneity go awry, however, when he steals a woman’s purse, kidnaps her, and locks her in his basement apartment. While he eventually lets her go, its ambiguous as to whether or not she eventually succumbs to Stockholm syndrome.
The film’s pastel tones and tinny music—the sets resemble nothing so much as the original Star Trek’s other planets with gorgeous alien hipsters and oddly blocky furniture—are eerily disturbing, but not as disturbing as the young man who insists on love through violence. In a world in which the old tropes of the rom-com are beginning to fall flat, the chase that appeared wildly romantic generations earlier now seems much more like stalking. Achille sees his insistence and dedication to this woman he just met as wildly romantic—she, on the other hand, is disturbed and even terrified.
The film’s biggest issue, however, lies in its ambiguity. While its gestures toward the importance of random chance are very interesting, it seems to be unsure if it sympathizes with Achille or not. While the film ostensibly has a happy ending, in truth, it may make the viewer long for a future time in which all romantic feelings are catalyzed through big data. At least then, perhaps people can avoid those felonies that seem to arise out of a meet-cute scenario.