J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

HiFF ’16: The Remnant

There will be no singing in the rain in this musical. The children have inherited the world, but it is a drought-parched post-apocalyptic wasteland. To survive, children work as slaves in provincial Chinese sweatshops, so it is not very different from today’s reality. However, one young woman will raise her voice against oppression and she might start inspiring others in Karmia Chan Olutade’s strange movie musical The Remnant (sample tune here), which screens during this year’s Harlem International Film Festival.

Adults either perished in the doomsday or locked themselves away in bunkers, leaving a lost generation of youngsters to fend for themselves. Tired of the crushing struggle to survive, Rumi and her brother Ty voluntarily admit themselves into an orphanage, only to learn it is an exploitative factory that reprocesses precious waste water. They must subsist on two handfuls of water each day and endure the abuse of their sell-out overseers. Despite the bleak prospects outside, Rumi is not inclined to put up with such servitude. On the other hand, Tokyo is a true millennial, who will not countenance talk of freedom, preferring the questionable safety of the meager but regular water drops provided by the factory.

So with a set-up like that, who feels like dancing? The Remnant has to be the most unlikely big screen musical of this or most any other year. Frankly, the symbolically charged staging might work better in a conventional theater setting. In terms of tone and visual aesthetics, think of it as three parts Brecht and one part Norman Jewison’s adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Although Olutade is certainly not shy about making her points, they still have tremendous resonance. We are talking about big themes here, like the power of faith and sacrifice and the temptation to opt for degradation and servitude rather than freedom and dignity. There are also clear parallels between the children of the water-reprocessing factory and the well-publicized cases of child labor in China today (Foxconn and the like). Sadly, there is no shortage of contemporary slavery in our pre-apocalyptic world.

The real problem with The Remnant is the one-note nature of the score. Like so many rock opera-y musicals, every number sounds more or less the same. Look, there is a reason why the classic book musicals still endure. Masters like Cole Porter knew how to mix up a program with flag-wavers, comic numbers, romantic ballads, and show-stoppers.

It is a shame all the tunes blend together musically, because these kids are just loaded with talent. Even though the mushy score isn’t particularly helpful, Kayla Cao gives a knockout, heart-breaking performance as Rumi. She also develops genuinely touching sibling chemistry with Tenzin Low’s enormously charismatic Ty that should pretty much wear down even the most resistant viewers. The entire ensemble is quite remarkable, with Sylvia “Niumao” Niu, Julian Chien, Julie Lee, Rendolm Qian, Asuka Kosugi, and Annika Tanner excelling in their solo spots. Just imagine what they could do with more distinctive tunes.

Despite the sameness of its sound, there is something disconcertingly compelling about the film’s vibe. We definitely care about these kids and quickly buy into their deliberately exaggerated world. In any event, if you ever wanted to see Solarbabies set to music, this is probably the closest you’ll ever get. Recommended on balance for its young talent, The Remnant screens this Saturday (9/17) at MIST, as part of the 2016 Harlem International Film Festival.

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