J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Generation Madoff: Children of Invention

Prepare to be thoroughly disturbed by an indie film. Not a horror movie per se, writer-director Tze Chun takes viewers inside the world of so-called network marketing. As long as there really is a product to sell, such enterprises are creepy, but legal. If not, it is a ponzi scheme. Unfortunately, one desperate mother will fall for any good pitch, with devastating results for her young children in Tze Chun’s Children of Invention (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Elaine Cheng has sold just about everything, yet she has nothing to show for efforts except mounting debts. Still, she keeps coming back for more, lured by the vision of easy money generated by her own army of sales recruits. She spends so much time getting scammed, she often neglects her young children. As a result, Raymond has grown up awfully fast, frequently forced to care for his little sister Tina. Then one day she never returns from a meeting. Suddenly forced to fend for themselves, Raymond takes Tina into Boston to empty his modest savings account.

Frankly, as disturbing as it might sound, the sight of two young kids lost on the streets of Boston comes as relief after witnessing their mother’s cringe-inducing self-delusion. As the story of two innocent kids dealing with their abandonment, Invention clearly brings to mind comparisons with So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain. Yet the latter film never strayed from the young protagonist’s point-of-view. Invention by contrast, is as much about the mother as it is her long-suffering children.

In truth, it is hardly fair to contrast the two films, because Treeless boasts what might well be the greatest performance by a young actor on film. While Hee Yeon Kim’s work is truly special, Michael Chen and Crystal Chiu also deserve credit for their accomplished and commendably unaffected work as Raymond and Crystal. They do not simply project understandable fear, anger, and uncertainty. Viewers get a sense that they suspect not just the misguided nature of their mother’s endeavors, but their own role as enablers.

Invention garnered a great deal of acclaim on the festival circuit, most notably at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Indeed, it is an emotionally wrenching film, produced with exquisite sensitivity and featuring some remarkably assured performances from its young cast. It is also relentlessly depressing. However, it is quality filmmaking that represents a hopeful note in several respects.

Not only does Invention herald the talents of an up-and-coming filmmaker, it also represents welcomed signs of life at the Big Cinema Manhattan, the former ImaginAsian Theater, where it opens this Friday along with Dave Boyle’s White on Rice (trailer here). Light and breezy, Rice might not be the deepest film of the year, but it is a consistently likable comedic diversion (see the full review from its LA opening here). Though radically dissimilar in tone, both Invention and Rice are alumni of last year’s Asian American International Film Festival and are worth consideration this weekend, depending on your mood.

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