Tuesday, May 11, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.04: I Was a Simple Man and Who We Are

Let's mostly go with release date rather than watch date , with this getting split up because I was doing all the Sunday crosswords and making pizza, so I got to I Was a Simple Man relatively late in the evening, too late to be up for a second movie (although I'd happily be up until almost 2am the next night).

Not a whole lot to say here. Both were pretty good. And it's a day late, but I think I heard construction as I walked past the Somerville Theatre on the way back from the camera shop on Saturday, so I'm guessing there will be an at least somewhat upgraded concession stand when they re-open.

I Was a Simple Man

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Point a camera in any random direction in Hawaii, and odds are that you're going to get a great-looking movie, and though that is not entirely the direction Christopher Makoto Yogi takes with I Was a Simple Man, it is a major part of what makes the film work. Not so much the scenery, but the star, who often seems to embody his character to the point where everything more than taking him in is (entirely welcome) elaboration on a theme.

Steve Iwamoto was likely cast for the vibe he gives off; his short list of screen credits paired with his age make one wonder if maybe he's taken up a new hobby in his retirement. He plays Masao Matsuyoshi, who may have been a troublemaker once but who is dying now, an unspecified cancer advancing quickly. It's a part that requires a certain amount of quiet presence early and quiet but pained absence later, as both the pain medication and his natural tendency to look back are going to make him less responsive to whichever family member is looking after him.

There will be several - son Mark (Nelson Lee), who is spiritual; daughter Kati (Chanel Akiko HIrai), who is practical; and grandson Gavin (Kanoa Goo), who is still mostly interested in skateboarding. Unseen by any of them is Grace (Constance Wu), his wife, who died on the day Hawaii became a state. Seeing her ghost sends his mind back in time, to when they were first courting - to his parents' disappointment, as she was Chinese - to when he found himself unable to reconnect with his children without her.

That is, perhaps, the greatest tragedy of the film - that Masao effectively died with her, and though the timing of it seems meaningful, Yogi doesn't necessarily dive into the parallel, which is a bit of a shame, because there's something gripping about the central idea of how, despite having apparently never moved from the house where he and Grace lived during their short time together, he died in a different country than the one he considered home. Indeed, by choosing to live there, he arguably gave up his first homeland, as his parents would return to Japan without him. This mostly feels like convenient sign-posting, and it's the empty spaces that matter - assume the "present" is roughly Y2K, and there are 40 years left almost completely empty after Grace's death, and another 20 before without much else. Tim Chiou does a nice job of matching Iwamoto during those flashbacks - beyond resemblance, they both seem to play the same way against Constance Wu - and if Kyle Kosaki and Boonyanudh Jiyarom don't quite seem the same, it still kind of works - Masao grew with Grace, and froze without her.

It thus falls to the cast playing Masao's adult children and grandchildren to sell the effects of his inability to be a proper father, whether a son only heard on the phone from the mainland or the folks puttering around as Iwamoto is part of the scenery. It's nice work from all three, too: Nelson Lee does a nice job in showing how Mark finds himself strained as he tries to act on a connection his beliefs say should be natural, while Chanel Akiko Hirai plays the caretaker who best remembers who her father was before the tragedy (with a nice flashback featuring Alexa Bodden showing how she has strived for that connection even when he pushed her away). For Kanoa Goo's Gavin, Masao is almost an abstraction, a way for him to learn a bit more about life outside Honolulu and how life has a decay and end, which he has not yet had to face.

Yogi and cinematographer Eunsoo Cho wrap it up in a fine looking package, embracing digital brightness and sharpness to enhance the tragedy of Masao's weathered face and slumped posture. They find shadows among the bright colors and make darkness especially oppressive even before the world turns red after the eclipse prefigured in one of Grace's paintings. As the film goes on, Yogi has Masao's memories become more dreamlike, with his dog seemingly able to run into a past where, in memory, Grace tells him the future. His life, as it ends, goes from being a string of events to one thing which is linked to other lives in a way which would mystify the outside world.

The end comes, and everyone must make peace with that, even if they don't entirely forgive. Yogi could perhaps have done more with this, but he gets an awful long way on beautiful country, a lived-in face, and a uniformly impressive supporting cast.

Also at eFilmCritic

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

There's a segment early on in Who We Are when Jeffery Robinson tries to have a conversation with a man standing in front of a Confederate statue with a matching flag, and it goes about as well as it can: There's no profanity or violence, but also no visible movement. It's not exactly the film in miniature, but it does make one worry about how much two hours of even the most earnest, well- crafted talk on the subject can be.

It's a talk Robinson has likely given a lot, and the film is built around a lecture on America's history of anti-Black racism given at New York City's Town Hall theater in 2018. That presentation is somewhere between skeleton and meat, as he visits notable sites from just down the street to Selma and Tulsa, both visiting his own history, talking to those keeping the memories of these incidents alive, and occasionally talking to survivors.

This is often grim material that sometimes actively seeks to overwhelm; no matter how much one has learned before now, there's probably some particular incident or document that Robinson mentions that a viewer may not have heard of. Robinson acknowledges that it's a lot, and that even he wasn't fully aware of the full extent of it until relatively recently. There are enough items he could list, even limiting the focus strictly to anti-Black racism as the film does, that it's impressive how well Robinson and directors Emily & Sarah Kunstler pick out pieces that do not always directly follow from the previous segment but form a sort of lattice, the laws and norms which enable intersecting in ever finer ways. The group can't talk about everything, but the parts they do show make one wonder just how anything gets through at times.

That Robinson can be such a charismatic host when having to confront all this both in his own life and as the Deputy Legal Director at the National ACLU is, honestly, beyond my understanding, but I'm grateful for it. He shows a natural ability to connect with an audience that also works well in a one-on-one setting, which I imagine must help in his day job, whether gathering what one needs to build a case or present it. It is, I imagine, a tricky face to present - optimistic would feel dishonest, but the film would be unwatchable if he didn't see a way past the oft-referenced tipping point, even if he does often shift into justified anger.

The Kunstler sisters do a fair job of pulling material together (both direct and produce, while Emily also edits), although it's not necessarily the sort of dynamically-presented documentary that can pull in people who normally only watch narrative features. There's more than a few mid-interview cuts to Robinson nodding along that made one wonder what else they could do to mix a sequence up a little, and bits where Robinson will seemingly come to a place in order to be overcome by emotion, which doesn't feel less than genuine but which also doesn't have the impact of a truly spontaneous reaction. The important thing that they do is balance the field trips with the lecture well, giving a viewer time to let the emotional appeals sink in while Robinson approaches the intellect and vice versa.

This is the point where you wonder if folks like that pro-Confederate protester near the beginning will ever even see it - or, if they do, not have it just completely bounce off them because that worldview becomes a fundamental part of their identity, but I suspect that's not really the hope of the film or the lecture in draws from. The point is to make those who might be persuaded more certain, angry enough to act rather than just disagree. How effective that will be is anybody's guess, but it's well-enough put together to have a shot.

Also at eFilmCritic

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