PFF Springfest: The Farewell, Funke, Knock Down The House, Luce
The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang)
An increasing amount of film and television seem to be based on podcasts and radio programs, an interesting new frontier of storytelling. If they have the capacity to reach the emotional heights of The Farewell, this is a promising development.
Based on an episode of This American Life, director Lulu Wang takes her own family's story and adapts it for the big screen. Starring Awkwafina as Billi, a young Chinese American woman living in New York, along with Tzi Ma as Billi's father, and first timer Zhao Shuzhen as Billi's grandmother- The Farewell immediately familiarizes us with this particular family's dynamics. Billi was born in China but at a young age, her parents moved the family to the United States. As much as the family is unique, they are not- theirs is the story of so many Chinese families who have had to straddle migration, multiple nationalities and languages. When the grandmother, Nai Nai (which is just mandarin Chinese for "grandmother"), is diagnosed with cancer and given three months to live, this information is kept from her, as is customary and common in China. The idea is that they should not know that they are dying, so they can spend their last few months living in peace and harmony. Being an American (where such a thing would be illegal), Billi does not handle this news particularly well. But she decides to go along with her family's plan- to set up a fake wedding for her cousin, so there can be one last party in China where everyone gets to say goodbye.
The Farewell grapples with tradition, family dynamics, and the fault lines of difference between east and west in a graceful way. Awkwafina shows how effortlessly she can lead a film, while it is probably not too early to start considering Zhao Shuzhen for Best Supporting Actress. There are also multiple farewells taking place in the film- chief among them being a farewell to the China of old, the one where Billi spent her youth. Their old neighborhood has been torn down, along with so many others, to make space for the new buildings and high rises that mark China's never-ending attempts to keep pace with the west.
All is done with plenty of humor and heart. It is simply a beautiful film. Acquired by A24 and set to be released this summer, The Farewell is going to be a breath of fresh air in the middle of summer blockbuster season.
The Farewell is in theaters July 12th.
Funke (dir. Gab Taraboulsy)
Evan Funke loves pasta, and he believes that making it by hand is the way to do it. That is all you know going into the documentary Funke, if you read the synopsis. It is also all you know coming out of it. Throughout this documentary about the titular Los Angeles based celebrity chef, many interesting threads are brought to light but promptly breezed past, in favor of a blander film that is still sure to be seen and enjoyed by many at home.
The proliferation of streaming services has created a certain style when it comes to documentaries about food- Funke certainly takes more than a few cues from Chef's Table. Watching the film in a theater is an act of some cognitive dissonance- it felt like it was meant to be enjoyed on a couch, with a glass of wine in one hand while the other hand is petting a dog.
One thing is for sure though- Funke makes some damn good looking pasta. He has decided to set himself apart from other chefs by making it all from scratch, without using machines that would make the process far more efficient and save money. As a viewer, it is impossible to watch this and not want to make a pilgrimage to his new restaurant, Felix, the opening of which is the basis for this film. It seems equally impossible to want to go near Funke himself, at least while he is in his element as chief pasta wizard. Several scenes of him yelling verbal abuse at his staff when they make mistakes were uncomfortably disconcerting. The film itself seems to portray this behavior as just part of the industry- which I am sure many would agree with. However, in the era of #metoo and a culture-wide analysis of what type of behavior is acceptable from those we look up to, it feels pushed aside. Repeatedly, the film glides past the fact that he seems not only like a businessman who has lost his friends and family millions of dollars, but that he is just not the kind of person you would want to spend much time with- unless you enjoy propping up someone's need to be the best in a certain area. His critics do appear, in what feels mostly like lip service. Other tidbits, like that fact that he was in the Marine corps at one point- are paid no mind aside from him mentioning it briefly. Did he acquire a lot of his mentality there? We don't really get the chance to find out. At the end of the day, I am just tired of the mythologizing of narcissism masquerading as genius.
Once again, if you are looking for some food porn, this will certainly do the trick. Unfortunately, the rest of it amounts to what feels like a pamphlet, or a puff piece for Funke and his new restaurant.
Knock Down The House (dir. Rachel Lears)
The 2018 election saw an unprecedented wave of women and minorities running for office for the first time, often facing long term incumbents in their own Democratic party. Knock Down The House, the history-as-its-being-made documentary, follows four of them- including one Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, following her long before she reached the type of stature she has now.
Much like the 2016 film Weiner took a fly on the wall approach to a political campaign that soon went into free fall, this one follows four women on the upswing at a unique crossroads. Aside from AOC, Knock Down The House follows Amy Vilela of Las Vegas, Cori Bush of St. Louis, and Paula Jean Swearingen of West Virginia. Each have strong visions and reasons for running, and each hopes to unseat a male competitor, often someone who has held the seat for several terms. Since 2016, the Democratic party has had something of a civil war between the progressive and moderate factions- some believing the way forward to winning is to mobilize a grassroots campaign and resist taking corporate PAC money. Many others believe that playing by the rules and seeking compromise with the right wing is the way. The film explores much of the way that lobbying money and the constant cycle of election campaigning have essentially neutered the democrats in office, more or less guaranteeing that they let corporations run wild all over their districts while they fend off angry constituents. It is telling that this film only mentions Trump by name a few times, as it is really not about right versus left- but as AOC says, "up vs. down."
It is hard not to watch this and feel angry at the establishment left for being so spineless. It is also hard not to feel some catharsis and relief. You get in touch with each of these women and their powerful stories, and the intersections and shared values they have, and for once feel some hope for the country's future. Knock Down The House is a salve for the angry and the hopeless on the right side of history, who may still have to lose a lot more before we see the sun shine again.
Knock Down The House will be released on Netflix on May 1st.
Luce (dir. Julius Onah)
America is a myth as much as it is a real place. A democracy where everyone is free and those who have historically had less freedom just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is not who you are but what you do. All that good stuff right? The kind of thing we celebrate on Independence Day when all the fireworks go off. Luce is a dramatic thriller that takes these ideas and completely explodes them- and in doing so will stick with me for quite a while.
Luce follows the title character (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a young Eritrean adoptee with two white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, together again after Funny Games) who was literally pulled out of a war zone at a young age- all in hopes of a better life in a wealthy Northern Virginia suburb. After years spent in therapy, it seems that Luce has left his demons behind and become a model student. He is set to be valedictorian, going on college tours, and his friends are already calling him Nelson Mandela and Obama. But one of his teachers, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer, in a career best role) has some doubts about Luce when he writes a controversy stoking paper and she finds something suspicious in his locker. The fallout turns Luce's family upside down as they try to make sense of what is what, and just what kind of person their son is.
There are strong shades of Lynne Ramsey's We Need To Talk About Kevin, as the sense of dread is palpable from the very beginning. Michael Haneke also seems to be an influence, beyond the nice nod of casting Roth and Watts. The highly ambiguous moral psychodrama of Cache is all over this, implicating the audience and their biases and stereotypes. You also can't help but wonder if Luce's History Of Violence is really behind him, or if it is still there as the Elephant in the room. Luce is one of the best films of the year so far, one that we will be talking about a lot when it comes out.
Luceis expected in theaters August 2nd.