Posted by Susan Doll on July 19, 2010
Movie-goers are bemoaning the lack of decent Hollywood movies in the cineplexes this summer. Not only are the studios releasing fewer films than in past years, but most of those that end up on the big screen have sacrificed good storytelling and craftsmanship for expensive gimmicks like 3-D, CGI, and Michael Bay-style hyper-editing that assaults the senses and insults intelligence. Fortunately, in Chicago, movie-lovers can rely on several venues that show independent films, classics, or other alternative fare to satisfy their cinematic urges, from the Golden Age movies at the Bank of America Theater to the Chicago Silent Film Society’s Silent Summer Festival to the indie films at Facets and the Music Box Theater.
Among my favorite indie movies so far this year is a modest drama titled Children of Invention, which played at Facets in late May. Because of the problems plaguing the distribution and marketing of independent films, many indies shown at Facets rarely exhibit outside the major urban markets and therefore suffer as DVD or home-viewing releases because renters don’t recognize their titles. Yet, the way the producers have handled the distribution and exhibition of Children of Invention has made it an exception, and perhaps a model for future indie releases.
A topical drama revolving around a Chinese-American mother and her two kids, Children of Invention seems ripped from today’s headlines in its story of the devastation wreaked on an ordinary family by the current economic crisis, which, despite the press releases from the White House, is not getting better. Elaine Cheng (Cindy Cheung) ekes out a meager existence for herself and her son, Raymond (Michael Chen), and daughter, Tina (Crystal Chiu). She attempts to sell real estate for a friend’s agency in the outer suburbs of Boston, but there are few buyers in a shattered economy. Elaine’s idea of improving her station in life is to invest in “network marketing” opportunities, which is marketing speak for pyramid schemes, selling-from-home scams, and other fly-by-night operations that prey on the naïve and desperate. In the opening sequence, Elaine barges in on a meeting of vitamin salesmen, because she invested $2000 in phony vitamins that no one will buy. But, having already taken her money, the meeting’s managers don’t care that she can’t move the product and literally toss her out into the hotel lobby—in front of Raymond.
The family’s situation turns dire when the bank forecloses on their house, and the trio secretly moves into the show unit of an empty condo building. Despite her bad experience with the vitamin scam, Elaine is swept up in another fast-money game called Gold Rep, which is actually an illegal pyramid scheme. She is smooth-talked by a Gold Rep agent who waves the $2500 “entrance fee” so that the unsuspecting Elaine can lure other Chinese immigrants and working class marks to give up $2500 to become Gold Rep salesmen. After Elaine and two other salesmen are arrested by federal agents, the story switches focus onto Raymond and Tina. The kids are left alone in the condo to fend for themselves. With no way to communicate with their mother, they don’t know what happened to her and when—or if—she will come home.
Based on the events of the plot, Children of Invention may seem like a depressing movie to watch, but it’s not, partly because the quiet tone of the film keeps extreme emotions at bay, and partly because Raymond and Tina handle their situation with such enterprise and independence. The title “Children of Invention” is a play on the cliché “necessity is the mother of invention” for it is out of necessity that the two children learn to fend for themselves. The title also relates to the boy’s long-term plan to take care of himself and his sister. Raymond and Tina take the train all the way into Boston, withdraw his savings from a bank, and then buy supplies to construct his “inventions.” Throughout the film, Raymond constantly draws and makes notes in his notebooks, which are his plans for inventing small mechanical gadgets, such as the spaghetti spinner—a spaghetti fork attached to a motor that will twirl your pasta around the utensil for you. He hopes to make dozens of his inventions and then sell them on the corner to passers-by. The kids’ independence in handling their situation in addition to Raymond’s confidence in his inventions are inspiring to watch—even uplifting. While I admired this film because of the topicality of the storyline, and its realistic treatment of a family living on the brim of financial disaster, I liked it because of the kids’ response to their situation.
Raymond’s plans don’t go the way he expected, and there is no Hollywood happy ending, but the story concludes with a warm reunion between Elaine and her children. Children of Invention received very good reviews, but a handful of critics complained about the structure of the narrative in which Elaine’s predicament unfolds in the first half, and the kids’ crisis occurs in the second. Some thought that Elaine’s problems made for an elongated set-up to the story of the kids on their own, while one reviewer felt the narrative simply shifted too abruptly in midstream. However, I thought the two-part story worked as a perfect cause-and-effect strategy, and cause-and-effect situations are the driving force behind most American filmmaking. Elaine’s troubles and her poor choices (cause) put the children into a perilous situation that has no easy resolution (effect), making the story a microcosm of the impact of the bad economy on at-risk families and their children, who must survive through their wits and their luck.
The two-part structure also makes an interesting twist on the theme of the American Dream. On the one hand, Children of Invention is a familiar tale about the struggle of immigrants for a better life in America, a type of drama that goes back to the silent era. Elaine’s obvious quest for a good life, a middle-class job as a sales manager or real estate agent, and a home in the suburbs are recognizable goals for immigrants on their quest for the American Dream. But, a ravaged economy, financial scams that prey on non-natives, and the specter of deportation (Elaine’s work visa has expired) are dark realities that can derail the Dream for immigrants. But, Raymond’s story is another interpretation of the American Dream. His enterprise at using his innate talents and skills to invent and build with his own hands is a reminder that some of America’s greatest innovations and structures came from those who fled to our country from distant lands. Children of Invention is a dual tale of the American Dream, one dark and one inspirational.
First-time director Tze Chun based his screenplay on events in his own life. An immigrant son who grew up in the distant suburbs of Boston, Chun watched as his mother was often taken in by pyramid schemes and Ponzi scams. But, Chun ably captures what it’s like to be part of the working poor in this downturned economy, turning the autobiographical into the topical. Details of the daily lives of Elaine and her kids illustrate the issues and consequences of the working poor. A consequence of a hard-working single parent below the poverty line is the impact on the relationship with the children. Elaine has no money for a baby-sitter, so Tina and Raymond sit for hours in the back seat of the car waiting for her to make a sale or to show a house. They may be spending time with their mother, but the situation creates a distance between parent and children. As Elaine becomes more desperate, she is more irritable and less tuned in to her children’s needs and activities, and the chasm grows. In another scene, a mother whom Elaine barely knows drives Raymond and Tina home from school. Unable to pick them up herself, Elaine is forced to entrust virtual strangers with her children. The woman’s kids share their juice boxes and snacks, which they probably have every day on their way home from school. But, the Cheng children savor and hang onto the precious snacks for later. For children who subsist on instant noodles, juice and snacks are a luxury.
Children of Invention was shot on high-definition digital, and the result is a bit gritty, cold, and thin. But, the unglamorous look fits the lackluster suburban setting and makes the topical content seem even more immediate. Though rendered in a modest, realistic style, some of the imagery still has a symbolic significance. In the condo where the Cheng family live secretly and furtively, Elaine blacks out the windows so no light is visible from the outside, the phone is a fake placed in the condo only for show, and the family are careful not to make too much noise lest someone on the outside hear them. Their inability to openly communicate with the outside world is a metaphor for their disenfranchisement from mainstream society.
In addition to Chun’s control of the material, the characters of Raymond and Tina Cheng and the actors who portray them rank among the film’s greatest strengths. Michael Chen and Crystal Chiu give understated, natural performances that make their characters much more believable and likable than the precious, precocious children found in Hollywood movies. Actor-dancer Chen, the son of author Da Chen, was only ten when he appeared in the movie, and Chiu, a pianist who competes professionally was only eight, but their professional performances elevate the film. Chen is understated as the serious, responsible Raymond, who understands the truth of his family’s situation, including the fact that his irresponsible father deserted the family and he’s not coming back. In contrast to Raymond’s quiet stillness, Chiu brings vivacity to Tina without becoming bratty. Tina’s sparkle is expressed through her wardrobe of bright colors with matching plastic barrettes. For her trip to Boston, she selects a pink party dress to go over her t-shirt and jeans, topped with a vest. The costume paints Tina as an individual without resorting to mugging or precocious lines of dialogue no child would ever say.
The state of distribution for independent films is dismal, and this well-crafted, well-acted drama might have gotten lost in the hundreds of films produced each year. Many of the small companies who traditionally distributed specialty and independent films are now out of business, and Hollywood distributors are picking up fewer films for less and less money. It’s difficult for indie filmmakers to recoup their investments with some of the current deals. The deal offered by a distributor for Children of Invention was so bad that the filmmakers and investors behind the film decided to decline the offer. Instead they chose a path dubbed DIY, which stands for “do-it-yourself” distribution. Shortly after the premiere at Sundance in 2009, producer Mynette Louie took the film on the festival circuit. In recent years, film festivals have proliferated around the country, with most cities hosting at least one film celebration. The producers treated the festival circuit as a kind of long-term theatrical run, which generated positive reviews and good word of mouth. They also sold the DVDs of the film at each festival stop, something rarely done for well-reviewed titles. Traditional wisdom maintains that a theatrical run comes first, then the DVD release months later. But, producer Louie reasons that audiences have changed the way they view and consume their movies, and they are often eager to re-live the experience of watching a film directly after the initial viewing. By selling the DVD at festivals, the producers have already made more than the advance offered by the distributor shortly after its Sundance premiere. And, by following the festival circuit, they showed the film in large towns and small cities that would not have been included in traditional distribution. Children of Invention played the festival circuit for over a year and was given a theatrical release this past spring. Because of the DIY approach, Children of Invention has been seen by more people in more parts of the United States than if it had been sold to a distributor, and it continues to be exhibited in cinematheques and art houses around the country. In order to survive in the current marketplace, independent filmmakers and their investors should be innovative like producer Mynette Louie and chart a different course for getting their films to the public.
Children of Invention is currently available on video on demand, and a special DVD edition streets August 14, which can be preordered through most outlets. Those lucky enough to live in Boston can see the film at a couple of venues at the end of the month, and a major DVD signing is scheduled for New York City on August 14. (Click here for details.) In the fall, Children of Invention tours Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri. According to Ms. Louie, dramas are the most difficult films to get funded and distributed, which is why the best dramas are now generally found on television—another sad commentary on the state of American cinema. Despite this, she continues to support dramas that are meaningful and accessible to all audiences. I am pulling for Children of Invention, one of my favorite films of the year so far. I can’t recommend it enough.
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