If there is any city on Earth that can offer more film festivals of all shapes and sizes for the movie lover than New York City can I would love to see it. And yes, I may be a tad biased because I’m from New York myself, but bear in mind, when you live in a city where film simply happens, all over, in the subways through the lens of the casual iPhone user with a penchant for short little scenes of the quotidian or self-referential; when you can walk into any neighborhood and spot a film crew rehearsing a scene; when you have not one or two but close to two dozen art-house theaters offering some of the biggest film events in the world, you begin to realize just how intensely, New York breathes cinema, all over, and how omnipresent cinema as a perpetually evolving story complete with characters, is.
For reasons of geography and commute issues that I won’t go into here, BAM Cinemafest had been one of the few film festivals that I had yet to experience. For some reason, the ghost of having to commute to Brooklyn, even when BAM Rose Theater is a couple of stops away from downtown even on local trains, refused to go away. I’d received an invitation to come see Diana Peralta’s debut (and World Premiere) film De lo mio, and upon checking the roster, I decided to on a lark try a couple more, one of them being The Farewell, which is playing now in theaters and made its NYC Premiere June 12th as the Opening Night selection, the other being Michael Tyburski’s The Sound of Silence, which will receive its US release September 20th before heading to streaming platforms.
A little over a year ago, had anyone asked me who Awkwafina was, I wouldn’t have been able to give a reply. Not until her breakout supporting turn in Ocean’s 8 alongside marquee names like Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett and her equally hilarious role in Crazy Rich Asians, plus her standout bonkers presentation at the Oscars earlier this year, did I take notice. And suddenly, there she is, a comedic force of nature that in her third movie, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, is giving a performance so lived in, so natural, so sad and full of angst that doesn’t draw attention to itself and she still manages to make you crack a chuckle even when the facade that makes the story’s foundation is threatening at every turn to implode at the seams, that it’s almost a wonder that she hasn’t been in movies more. In The Farewell, she plays Billi, a Chinese-American New Yorker who on hearing her grandmother, affectionately called Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is dying of cancer, drops everything to return to her native China to be with her during her last days. Billi’s parents, and by extension, the entire family, decide not to tell Nai Nai of her condition, and stage a false wedding between a cousin and his Japanese girlfriend as a reason to all converge together. It s a ruse that pays off as Nai Nai becomes fully involved in the preparation for this spectacular event. Meanwhile, Billi, neglected and moping around the corners, witnesses everything with a growing sense of unreality. Torn between the need to reveal this news to Nai Nai and her own sense of keeping with the family’s decision, she’s a tangle of tension just waiting to explode at the seams, and it in fact presents itself in some awkward family confrontations, most notably with her mother Jian (Diana Lin).
Despite the premise, The Farewell never descends into maudlin, and more often than not deviates from the premise of Nai Nai’s impending death to focus on cultural clashes. One that is played for laughs happens at the expense of the cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han) getting married to his Japanese girlfriend. Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Another, a bit more true to the unspoken truths that exist in most families with relatives overseas, is the reality of Billi’s parents who left the Chinese mainland for a better life in the US. Billi’s mother is especially outspoken at times about her disdain for the country she left behind and a wonderful, tense scene develops when parents start comparing one country against the other. Most notably, the clash of cultures comes to full focus between Billie herself and Jian. Billi wants to comes back to China, a thing Jian is firmly opposed to. What kind of opportunities could China give Billi? Billi, on the other hand, feels that she has lost a part of herself, that having moved to the US stole this portion of her heritage that she is trying to figure out, and watch the performance of Awkwafina as she delves into these themes: it’s a revelation to see her carry this awful weight of displacement on her perpetually hunched shoulders.
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is simply a beautiful love letter to her own China, a fragment of her own self, her past, and potentially, her future, seen through the eyes of a family coming to terms with the death of its matriarch. An assured hand makes it never venture close to manipulation but simply, let the story unfold itself at a natural pace, and reach its marvelous conclusion. I hope that it gets the expansion it most decidedly deserves as it’s only been playing at the Angelika since July 12.
Mostly Indies rating: B+
“The Sound of Silence”
This is an odd bird of a movie, and of course it would star Peter Sarsgaard, an actor that can pop up in mainstream feature films like Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, but stand out in minor indies like Michael Almreyda’s Experimenter, a role that is not too far removed from the one he plays in Michael Tyburski’s debut feature film The Sound of Silence. Here, Sarsgaard is the introspective, almost withdrawn Peter Lucian, a man whose career in music didn’t pan out, but left him scarred and eking a life as a professional sound tuner. The profession is as vague as heck, because it involves Lucian staying for hours on end in a client’s apartment, listening attentively for even the tiniest of vibrations, in order to find the source of discomfort for the tenant (or apartment owner) and fix it through tuning via either replacing a discordant appliance with another one that has more pleasing sounds, or simply removing the source altogether. For New Yorkers living in a city that never sleeps, Lucian has become the go-to commodity if a little eccentric — a 21St Century shaman for sound and sound comfort if you will, and his profession indeed has a link to the actual science of sound and sonic vibrations. He also hopes to publish a discovery he’s made about how the City is a network of these sonic tones and how each tone affects a neighborhood, and its inhabitants, a certain way.
In the midst of this, he encounters a new client, Ellen (Rashida Jones). What starts as another protracted, awkward dance of tuner meets skeptical client slowly starts to go out of its frame and into an outer layer of comfort. Ellen is an outsider herself, having moved only recently to New York City. His attentive nature towards resolving her issue — which turns to be coming from an appliance that he promptly and politely replaces — morphs into one that has the faintest glimpses of something romantic, but not quite physical. You see, his replacement doesn’t work on her, but she, nevertheless, becomes drawn to him, his demeanor, his quiet intensity bordering on the neurotic. This is an odd love story in which the characters have little chemistry to hold them, but they themselves can’t but escape each other, and Tyburski keeps them often together for several stretches until the cracks in what constitutes both Lucian’s passion (or obsession) for sound (and his discoveries), and Ellen’s attempts at drawing the person hiding inside Lucian start to come between them. This is a clever little story that never quite warms up on the audience and in fact, it is filmed in a tapestry of grays and browns, perhaps indicating the dullness that both characters (but mainly Lucian’s) is trapped into. If anything, the film is defined by sound, and the lack of it. Tyburski’s New York is almost pregnant with hums and drones and this makes for quite a view; however, the true story of a man trapped inside his own obsessions is the root of The Sound of Silence, and with Sarsgaard’s affected portrayal, one can only hope that by the end, he’s managed to escape his own shell and join the living world.
Mostly Indies: B+
“De lo Mio”
Diana Peralta’s De lo Mio, which roughly translates to “My Own” or in this case, “My Blood” is a gem of a movie that one could say forms a perfect parenthetical bookend to the opener, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. Here we’re also introduced to the topic of alienation from your heritage in the story of two sisters, Carolina (Darlene Demorizi), and Rita (Sasha Merci), who have arrived to Santiago, Dominican Republic, to alongside their half-brother Dante (Hector Anibal, a dead ringer for a younger Denzel Washington and with the role with most depth), decide what of the belongings and family memories they will keep and which ones they will dispose. The property in question is a large, sprawling mansion covered in lush vegetation that has been sold to developers, and is worth nothing — only the land is. When the sisters try to raise an argument as to why does the place need to be bulldozed, Dante pretty much lays down the law and informs them that unless they can come up with the equivalent of 400,000 dollars, the destruction of the place will be inevitable because in Dominican Republic the land is the only thing that has value. What’s on it, can be replaced, anytime. The sisters would rather conserve the house due to sentimental reasons, and in a way, the house in which they grew up in becomes a silent fourth character that silently asks the viewer, what happens when the last living connection to the homeland and your own cultural identity is set to be destroyed?
Diana Peralta hasn’t any easy answers, and De Lo Mio doesn’t try to answer them in its short running time. As a matter of fact, much like The Farewell, the question of identity doesn’t present any kind of satisfying answer: all Carolina and Rita do is accept the situation for what it is, and while cleaning up the mess of items that paint a ghostly picture of a family that does not exist anymore in the traditional sense, do a little playacting and quietly skirt around issues involving Dante that Dante himself would rather not discuss. It’s clear that there is some unresolved tension between the siblings and their geographical separation is more than just a fissure in their relationship. Growing up in the US, I could relate to this: having a half-sibling myself who was largely raised in the Dominican Republic, there was a clear and distinct hierarchy in how we were raised. It seems that Carolina and Rita got the better shot at life and it shows in the somewhat entitled way they act. Dante, on the other hand, it seems wasn’t the father’s favorite, and suffered for it. While remaining behind, he has handled the family’s affairs and is really the only one who knows the ins and outs of a country and its laws, a thing neither Carolina and Rita do.
De Lo Mio packs a lot of character observation in a short running time; I almost wished that it had lingered on a bit more, perhaps centered just a tad more into the three siblings, leave a more satisfying resolution to their situation. However, and being a story firmly entrenched in realism, De Lo Mio doesn’t delve too deep in its hurts and scars and leaves that for its climax, which arrives in the most casual and natural of forms. The threesome’s acting is superb — you truly believe these could be brothers and sisters caught in a situation without a definite sense of closure, and Diana Peralta unifies their relation in almost every scene they are in, which is almost the entire film,. A standout sequence is one that also manages to insert the color of the Dominican people front and center. While it technically is a movie trope to have a musical scene, here it absolutely makes sense. For people to whom merengue is life, the usage of the classic “Compadre Pedro Juan” and how the siblings react by moving to the music is as natural as the country’s greenery.
There is not a shred of romanticism in De Lo Mio. Peralta let’s her story settle, breathe, and take its natural course without any force nor manipulation. She exposes the secrets and sadness of a house with an expiration date and a haunting legacy. Whatever the sisters take — we never do see the entire house cleaned up — will be of a symbolic nature. These are heavy themes for a director’s first feature film. I loved it, it resonated, and is the latest and strongest entry of films made in the Dominican Republic that have emerged from the indie scene.
Mostly Indies rating: A