Children of Invention: A Stunning Debut
In his first feature film, director Tze Chun weaves a powerful, understated tale about a small Chinese family’s struggles to survive and prosper in suburban Boston. With a keen photographic eye, a provocative script, and a gentle directorial touch, Children of Invention flows effortlessly from hilarious to heartbreaking, and packs a subtle political message about the American Dream that will linger long after its 86 minutes have flown by.
On the surface, Children is a rather straightforward story, traversing some terrain familiar to the immigrant narrative film. Although significantly structurally different, I personally saw many connections to the 1982 film Chan is Missing, which traces the disappearance of a Chinese immigrant by studying those left behind in his wake. Unlike Chan, this film ruminates on the structure of family life, when an estranged father living overseas refuses to honor his legal and moral obligations to his family, leaving mother Elaine to care, and provide for, her two children.
The film begins as Elaine realizes she is going to lose her house, and without a full time job, the family is catapulted into financial turmoil, and a the struggle to secure a home persists throughout; with fears of deportation clearly limiting the prospects she can pursue, and no clear path to solvency, Elaine places trust in a marketing opportunity that promises some measure of stability. Lured in by professional appearances and a corrupt smile, Elaine’s hard work collapses as her greatest fears are brought dangerously close to home.
Set adrift in a world which promises security, in many ways, yet offers something far more menacing, Elaine’s children must come to grips with the hostile environment to which they are nearly abandoned. Turning to their innate creativity and survival instincts, when food and hope become scarce, Michael and Crystal (the titular Children) hatch a plan whose earnest naiveté would make even the most hardened cinephile among us tear up. While Elaine’s narrative is quite distinct from her children’s, their shared resolve to manage any way they can ties them together in an incredibly powerful way, and teaches us about the bonds of family, hope, and ingenuity, that cannot be crushed by even the most conniving evils.
While the film clearly uses a Neo-Realist-inspired technique to explore the disconnection between the promise, and the reality, of the American Dream – with its focus on houses, cars, money, and how these physical objects relate to security and wellbeing of the humans that possess them – my favorite moments of the film are found in two metaphorical, fantastical dream sequences. Injected in just the right places, these moments of fanciful delight provide a counterpoint of hope in what might otherwise be an overwhelmingly depressing script, and suggest that even in the darkest of times, it is our minds – perhaps even our souls – that keep us afloat, more than any thing we could ever buy or own (spaghetti spinners included).
The director organized an extensive online, social-media-driven publicity campaign, mainly centered around a substantial Facebook following, which gathered momentum gradually as the film moved from the post-production stage to the final theatrical release, which came in a few waves across a few major cities, including a very impressive selection of film festival screenings and awards along the way.
In a Q&A session at film’s LA theatrical release, at the Downtown Independent theatre, the director discussed briefly the somewhat counter-intuitive marketing strategy the producers employed, by which they bootstrapped a series of theatrical runs in major cities spurred by DVD sales and word-of-mouth donations after financing options tendered at Sundance proved underwhelming. Given the feasibility of producing DVDs on a meagre budget (compared to VHS, or even the ’90′s digital video production costs) I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this model (releasing DVDs before major theatrical releases, somewhat paradoxically) became the norm for ambitious independent filmmakers.
Not surprisingly, a film which in many ways struggles with the notion of creating something from nothing, mediated significantly by access to technology and resources, the making and marketing of Children reflects the anxiety of forging new paths from within (and without) the already-established systems of power, be they real estate, familial, or financial in nature. For a first time director we will undoubtedly see more from soon, Tze Chun might, himself, be a child of invention.