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November 12, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - God's Land

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Preston Miller -2010
Vindaloo Philm-Wallah

The basic facts would seem ripe for condescending treatment of the people involved here. And some of the confusing and contradictory statements made by the group leader, Teacher Chen, in God's Land will no doubt raise eyebrows. And while the film does have its comic moments, it is a tribute to Preston Miller that he essentially respects all of his characters, no matter how wrong headed they may seem.

Even before it is brought up in conversation, the events in Waco with David Koresh are not too far from anyone's thoughts. The Hou family comes from Taipei to Garland, Texas to join Chen's group. Chen predicts that God will make his presence known on a certain cable television station, and that his followers will be leaving Earth for another dimension on a special space craft. Part of the drama is the waiting for what is suggested to be an apocalyptic event. But there is also the concern about what if Chen is wrong. Tension arises within the Hou family regarding the father, Ming-Tien, who believes that he has been called to be with Chen, his wife, Xiu, who expresses skepticism about the enterprise, and young son, Ollie, who is trying to find a place where he belongs. Throughout the film, those observing Chen's group from the outside seek reassurance that there are no plans for group suicide.

Chen's group does look odd, with their uniforms of white sweatshirts, white pants and white cowboy hats. They are certainly strangers in a strange land. Some of the shots of Dallas make the city appear as alien as Antonioni's Rome in L'Eclisse or Godard's Paris in Alphaville.

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It should also be noted that Miller has created the film almost totally with carefully composed shots, the camera moving perhaps a couple of times. A recurring visual motif is of extreme close-ups, the faces of the actors filling the frame, looking straight into the camera. At a time when too many filmmakers feel the need to move the camera, or explain everything with expository dialogue, Miller allows the camera to stay still, letting the camera roll while Jodi Lin, as the wife Xiu, looks in the mirror of her former home before leaving.

It is also this ability to just observe the action within the frame that creates two of the funniest moments within God's Land. First, the Hou family is sent to stay in a somewhat shabby motel. As soon as they enter, the young son, Ollie, takes to the bed, treating it as a trampoline, jumping merrily up and down, while the parents consider their current living situation. Also, quite funny, is a scene when Xiu's cousin, Maggie, comes home to find a news report about Chen's group on television. She calls for her off-screen husband to find a tape to record the news, rummaging for blank tapes, and getting into panic mode, popping in and out of the camera frame as the television broadcast continues. In Maggie's living room are a couple of pillows with American flag patterns. While in the scene at home, Maggie speaks Chinese, in a later scene when she meets Xiu, she speaks English with a decided Texan accent.

Chen's expression of faith, which incorporates elements of New Age and other religions, goes as far as having two of his children named Jesus and Buddha. Forming what might be considered a traditional counterpoint is the soundtrack, with songs by country singers Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams and Frankie Laine.

Prospective, and even some active filmmakers might want to take a look at the production diary by Preston Miller and producer Jeremiah Kipp. In spite of all the possible obstacles, this is both a good, and good looking, film.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Also thanks to the ever erudite Sheila O'Malley for alerting me to the links.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 12, 2010 06:24 AM


I'm envious you got to see it already. Can't wait!

Posted by: sheila at November 14, 2010 11:16 AM