Knowing When To Step Back
Turning away from a good thing can be hard to do. The seductive nature of good fortune can be difficult to back away from, especially once we’ve had a taste of it. But over-imbibing can have its drawbacks, sometimes more dire than anticipated, leading to all kinds of unpleasant consequences. Such is the case for a lucky streak run amok in the raucous new Chinese-American comedy, “Lucky Grandma” (web site, trailer).
For Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin), a longtime resident of New York’s Chinatown, life hasn’t been easy. She and her husband spent many years toiling to make ends meet, an experience that hardened the feisty, chain-smoking matron to the often-unfair ways of the world. But even that background hasn’t fully prepared her for her present circumstances. Now that she’s in what are supposed to be her golden years, a time to finally kick back and relax, she’s doing it alone, her spouse having recently died. Her son, Howard (Eddie Yu), would like her to move in with him and his family in suburbia, but she sees that as nothing more than just a new set of limitations not unlike what she has experienced throughout much of her life.
To see what the stars have to say, Grandma Wong decides to visit Lei Lei (Wai Ching Ho), a fortune teller. Much to her surprise, Grandma learns that a streak of unbelievable good luck awaits her in the near future. Lei Lei says that everything points to endless abundance and boundless good fortune, even if adverse forces try to impinge upon her. So, armed with that advice, Grandma decides to throw caution to the wind and see what happens. She withdraws all the funds from her bank account, hops on a charter bus and heads for a Connecticut casino. And, just as Lei Lei predicted, Grandma can do no wrong when it comes to her wagering, amassing a small fortune. Alas, things fall apart when she places a bad bet – and loses everything.
On her way back to New York, Grandma sulks over her losses, a condition made more irritating by the man sitting in the seat next to her, who keeps slumping over on top of her. She soon discovers, however, that he isn’t sleeping; he’s dead, having apparently expired from a heart attack. And, not long thereafter, when the bus makes a sudden stop, a duffel bag from the overhead rack drops down and lands in her lap – literally. It turns out to be the dead man’s bag, and it’s filled with cash, even more than she lost on her ill-fated bet. So, with her luck apparently still holding, upon arrival back in New York, she quietly slips off the bus, taking the bag with her.
What Grandma doesn’t realize, however, is that the dead man sitting next to her was Mr. Lin (He Jun Miao), bookkeeper for the Zhangliong street gang, a criminal organization currently at war with the rival Red Dragon gang. She learns of this when she comes home from a Chinatown shopping spree and finds her apartment ransacked by two Red Dragon members, Little Handsome (Michel Tow) and Pock-Mark (Woody Fu). They question her about the money, suspecting she’s got it well hidden someplace. But Grandma plays dumb, drawing on her street smarts to bluff her way out of the situation (not an especially difficult task given the dimwitted nature of her uninvited guests). Still, despite her seemingly convincing cover story, the henchmen leave her with a stern warning before they depart, a threat that causes Grandma to realize she needs professional protection.
In short order, Grandma seeks out the services of a bodyguard from a local protection racket. After some dickering about the price and the personnel with Lao Shei (Zilong Zee), the head of the outfit, she settles on hiring Big Pong (Corey Ha), a somewhat daft, seemingly gentle giant who nevertheless knows how to throw around his muscle when circumstances warrant. The unlikely duo quickly grows close, with Grandma offering her cohort sage advice on par with the protection he affords her. However, during their time together, she learns of his affiliation with Zhangliong. Through the grapevine, she also learns about the gang’s leader, Sister Fong (Yan Xi), a cunning, ruthless criminal who’s not afraid of cutting deals – or throats – to get her way. And, with Grandma secretly holding the Zhangliong money she took from Mr. Lin, she now faces the prospect of two sets of criminal elements pursuing her, including one linked to her personal bodyguard. At this point, she has to ask herself, how much longer will her luck hold out?
Given the life she’s led, Grandma is ready for a break, eager to be cut some slack. For all she’s done, she justifiably feels like she’s owed something, that it’s time for a little good luck (or, in her case, a lot of good luck). And, as the fulfillment of Lei Lei’s prediction demonstrates, Grandma indeed gets her wish. Even though her streak of good fortune runs counter to what she has typically experienced over the years, on some level she definitively staked an intent for that to change, making it perfectly clear that she wanted something different for herself now, the evidence of which is apparent in her newfound overflowing abundance.
So how did this all come about, especially since it’s so unlike Grandma’s track record? From the presence of a Buddhist altar in her living room, it’s obvious Grandma is quite a person of faith, trusting the divine spirit to aid and protect her, to help make her wishes and dreams come true. And that collaboration is at the core of her good fortune. By confidently staking her intent and firmly believing in its materialization with the aid of her celestial partner – God, Buddha, the Universe or whatever one wants to call it – Grandma now finds herself rolling in dough.
Evidence of what’s about to unfold is present through all of the divining tools Lei Lei uses, and the message is so clear that she can’t help but interpret it any other way. And, once Grandma is informed of the message, she confidently embraces it, immediately taking steps to bring it into being by cashing in her life savings and heading for the casino. What’s more, her wish materializes so solidly that, even when she thinks she’s lost everything, her luck continues. That’s quite a confirmation of her faith.
Of course, in our exhilaration over the fulfillment of our intents, we mustn’t lose perspective, either. When the Universe provides us with what we’re looking for, we must be careful not to push it too far, for that can lead to all kinds of unintended side effects. For instance, when Grandma had amassed a huge fortune at the casino, she should have considered walking away once it materialized. By holding out for more, perhaps even getting a bit greedy, Grandma gave her divine collaborator another (and unwarranted) good shove, risking everything and losing it all. Likewise, when she made up for that loss with the windfall that fell squarely in her lap, she also opened herself up to all of the consequences she subsequently experienced. And on and on it went for the duration of her story. Indeed, the Universe naturally leans in our direction, so there’s no need to push it to get our way.
This, in turn, illustrates the inherent responsibility associated with this process. Since the intents we seek to be fulfilled originate with us, we have an innate accountability for what happens, both in their initial manifestation and their subsequent consequences. All the trouble that results from Grandma swiping Mr. Lin’s bag, for instance, stems from her, for she’s the one who set the process in motion. It’s unclear what might have happened if she had just stepped forward and returned the cash, but, as gang leader Sister Fong acknowledges in a seemingly chance encounter with Grandma, she’s not above cutting deals when they suit her needs. Of course, consorting with criminals may not be the wisest course, either, but an equitable agreement reached to avoid further trouble might have been preferable to all of the other fallout that occurred.
Still, even when things go terribly awry, they often have a way of working themselves out for the best. Again, this rests with honoring our intents, having faith that they’ll materialize as hoped for, trusting our divine collaborator to see to the fulfillment of our wishes and knowing when to apply the brakes. Under such circumstances, we’re likely to find ourselves sitting exactly where we want to be. Indeed, maybe there’s hope for Grandma yet.
Despite a slight tendency to meander late in the second half, this smartly written, consistently hilarious comedy comes up a winner on many fronts. This send-up of cheesy Chinese crime dramas, mixed with touches of understated wit and campy humor, makes for a warm, funny and touching tale, with an excellent, award-worthy lead performance by Tsai Chin and a fine supporting cast. Director Sasie Sealy’s feature film debut is easily one of the most humorously entertaining offerings to come along in quite some time. See it on first-run online streaming.
We’re all aware of what can happen when we experience too much of a good thing. The process of reaching that point may have its moments of unbridled pleasure, but the resulting aftereffects may be more than we want to handle. So, when “last call” comes up – no matter what the context – we’d be wise to abide by it, for it can save us considerable discontent afterward. And that’s a pretty safe bet.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
The Process of Starting Over
Life sure seems unfair at times. We may think we’ve got it made when, all of a sudden, everything evaporates before our very eyes. We might be shattered (and rightfully so), unsure of where to turn next. However, such a turning point could be one of the best things to ever befall us, a scenario explored in the new French domestic drama, “Alice” (web site, trailer).
From all appearances, Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier) leads a stable, contented, reasonably happy life. The young Parisian wife and mother keeps a busy schedule tending to the needs of her husband, François (Martin Swabey), and their young son, Jules (Jules Milo Levy Mackerras), as well as helping out others, such as her friend, Carole (Juliette Tresanini), but things overall seem generally pleasant.
However, that all disappears one morning when she attempts to use her credit cards and to obtain funds from an ATM: All of her transactions are turned down. Alice frantically calls François to see if he knows anything about this, but she keeps getting his voicemail, leaving messages that are never returned. And, when she checks with her financial institutions, she learns that her husband has withdrawn large amounts of cash and failed to make payments on their debts for months. With no money in hand, the threat of eviction looming and no response from François, the young mother with a high-maintenance toddler in tow is clearly up against it – and no idea how to move forward.
To make matters worse, all of the resources Alice thought she could count on for help turn a blind eye. In a painful phone call to her mother (Marine Blake), Alice explains her situation, but mom shows little sympathy, even taking François’s side, suggesting that her daughter isn’t working hard enough at her marriage – and probably not doing enough to keep her husband “satisfied.” Whether or not accurate, that last sentiment proves rather uncanny, especially when Alice discovers that most of the missing funds have been paid out to a company called Elegant Escorts. François, it seems, has been engaging the services of expensive prostitutes for months, so much so that it has depleted the couple’s financial resources.
When Alice contacts the escort service, the company’s owners, Véra (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and Jessica (Marie Coulonjou), offer little information over the phone, but they invite their caller to attend their offices for their next group audition. Desperate for answers, Alice accepts the invitation to find out whatever she can. But, much to her surprise, in the wake of her appearance at the audition, the beautiful young mother learns that the owners would like to bring her on board as one of their girls. Alice doesn’t initially know how to react, but, when she learns of the kind of money she can make – more than enough to bail her out of her financial woes and to adequately support herself and Jules – and considering the hurt François caused her, Alice figures, “Why not?”
Given that she’s new at this sort of thing, Alice starts off somewhat comically and clumsily, but, thanks to an understanding first client (Philippe de Monts), she manages to work her way through it and get paid. And, with tips from Lisa (Chlöé Boreham), one of her escort peers who has become quite proficient at her craft, Alice hones her skills as well, quickly amassing a bundle that helps her pay off her debts. She even seems to enjoy what she’s doing, relishing the liberation that this new line of work has provided her.
But, just when things start going well for the first time in a while, she’s hit with another bombshell – François returns, admitting his guilt and looking to reconcile. He begs Alice to forgive him for the foolishness of his ways, that he desperately misses her and Jules. However, having now had a taste of freedom and realizing that she no longer needs her husband in her life, she resists nearly all of his attempts at conciliation. Admittedly, she’s willing to avail herself of his assistance when she needs a babysitter to take care of Jules when she needs to go out on a call, sincerely believing that he owes her. But, unfortunately, that sends the wrong message, giving François false hope for the future – and opening the door to nasty prospects that threaten to undo all the progress Alice has made, not to mention wiping away all of her newfound happiness.
When Alice initially uncovers what’s unfolding in her life, she’s understandably devastated. In a matter of hours, everything she had come to believe about her daily existence was wiped away, leaving her not knowing what to think. To be sure, such an unanticipated downfall is nothing to be minimized. However, at the same time, it also represents a tremendous opportunity, to start with a clean slate and begin anew. And the promise and potential behind that all rests with Alice herself; given that the beliefs she held constituted the basis for her old existence, it stands to reason that whatever new beliefs she chooses to embrace will do the same for the new one she manifests for herself.
With a virtually limitless palette of options available to her, Alice can choose virtually anything she wants for a fresh start. Considering what she recently experienced, it may not be easy to view her circumstances in this light. However, if she (or anyone, for that matter) can see such an opportunity for what it is, unburdened by the weight of emotional baggage, the world truly could be her oyster (though, given her zeal and proficiency for her new line of work, oysters probably aren’t necessary).
Nevertheless, just because Alice is embarking on her new life, that doesn’t mean she can take a cavalier approach. This is particularly true where it comes to matters of responsibility. After all, given that everything we undertake comes from us, it also means that we bear the responsibility for whatever we materialize, including whatever fallout, side effects and consequences result. We can clearly see what comes from that, for example, in François’s case: The intents underlying the fulfillment of his sexual needs indeed brought him the carnal pleasure he sought, but it carried an enormous price. And, in the wake of his loss, he was left broke and without the wife he loved more than he ever realized.
Alice has responsibility issues to cope with in light of her new choices, too. Most notably there’s the caretaking of her son; after all, dragging one’s child along on an out call doesn’t leave the best impression, so alternate accommodations must be put into place to attend to everyone’s needs. And then there are the inherent risks of her profession itself, conditions that could expose her to all sorts of difficulties from legal, health and reputational standpoints. Of course, all of these concerns can be addressed by incorporating suitable intents up front, those that cover whatever needs to be tackled, minimized or avoided. Preparing for these kinds of contingencies at the outset is in itself a responsible act, one that can stave off unwanted consequences.
Alice’s decision to become an escort may not be everyone’s choice, especially in light of some of the concerns noted above. However, considering what she was up against, she had to take drastic measures to escape her circumstances. This required her to break through limitations, to seek solutions that brought her what she needed, no matter how unconventional they might seem to others – or how they even might have seemed to her at one time. Alice’s novel approach thus suitably fulfilled her material needs. It also probably didn’t hurt that it provided her with a certain degree of self-satisfaction in being able to turn the tables on François by giving him a taste of his own medicine.
What’s even more remarkable, though, are the unforeseen benefits that come out of Alice’s decision. For instance, after spending some time in her new line of work, she discovers feelings of liberation and personal fulfillment, qualities that weren’t present (at least to the same degree) during her days as a wife and mother. At the same time, she also discovers an unexpected capacity to give joy to those in need of it, such as some of her clients (David Coburn, Robert Burns), some of whom are even able to return the favor when the need arises. But, most importantly, Alice’s new life provides her with a newfound sense of personal empowerment. And, with an awareness of a quality like that, there’s no telling what she (or any of us) might be able to create with it.
This innovatively empowering, warm and sometimes-funny tale hits most of the right notes, albeit a tad predictably at times. The premise of this domestic drama may seem a bit far-fetched for some (even though it is very French), but its inventive narrative is certainly thought-provoking in its own way. With a fine lead performance by Emilie Piponnier, atmospheric cinematography and an excellent original score, director Josephine Mackerras’s feature film debut serves up an entertaining and evocatively offbeat source of inspiration. “Alice” is currently available for first-run online streaming.
The sourness of the lemons life sometimes hands us can leave more than just a bad taste in our mouths. However, sugar is easy to find to transform those acrid juices into something delicious. We just need to keep our eyes open and know where to look. Alice Ferrand certainly knows how, and we could learn a lot by following her example so that, when the time comes, we’ll know just what to do to drink up and enjoy.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Traversing the Obscure Fringes of Reality
Feeling unsettled is one of the worst frames of mind in which we can find ourselves. We know something is genuinely disturbing us, but we can’t pinpoint exactly what. We might become restless or ornery and not even be able to say why. And, try as we might to determine the cause of this malaise, we’re often still left without an answer – that is, until we look deeper and beyond what we think is the cause, probing territory we hadn’t planned on (and may not want to do). Such is the case for a quietly troubled widower in the mystifying new drama, “A White, White Day” (“Hvítur, hvítur dagur”) (web site, trailer).
For those living in the small towns along Iceland’s seacoast, there are times when the fog descends to the ground, creating a murky, ethereal world bathed in white. Under such conditions, the environment takes on a decidedly surreal quality, one in which we may be puzzled by what surrounds us, leaving us unsure of where the reality we believe we know ends and an entirely new and different one begins. In fact, as the film’s opening graphic, attributed to an unknown source, observes, “On such days when everything is white, and there is no longer any difference between the earth and sky, then the dead can talk to us, who are still living.”
Such is the seemingly everyday experience of Indimunder (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), a policeman on leave from his duties. He’s attempting to sort out his feelings about the recent death of his wife (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdôttir), who was killed in a car accident on a coastal highway. He’s noticeably unsettled but not entirely sure why. He participates in regular therapy sessions with a counselor (þor Hrafnsson Tulinius), but they don’t seem to help much, partly because the therapist’s questions don’t get to the heart of the matter, but mostly because Indimunder has walled himself off from the world.
Indimunder’s inscrutable moods and tight-lipped demeanor offer few clues about his current mindset, frustrating those who care about him and are trying to offer help. In fact, his coping mechanisms seem to consist mostly of doing home renovation work, playing soccer, and visiting the police station to see fellow officers Bjössi (Sigurður Sigurjônsson) and Hrafn (Arnmundur Ernst Björnsson), engaging in minimalist conversations that consist of little more than small talk. It’s hard to see how any of this gives him any comfort, let alone joy; in fact, about the only thing that seems to lift his spirits is spending time with his young granddaughter, Salka (Ída Mekkin Hylnsdôttir).
Little changes in Indimunder’s life until the evening of a family gathering, when relatives give him a recently discovered box of his deceased wife’s belongings. When he later peruses the contents of the box, he finds items that trouble him, many of which suggest that his wife had been having an affair with Olgeir (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), one of his soccer colleagues. The evidence initially appears somewhat circumstantial, but, when he finds something more conclusive, Indimunder begins a quiet slowburn. He starts melting down, engaging in progressively more troubling and obsessive behavior, particularly in his therapy sessions, in visits with his police colleagues and even in the time he spends with Salka. Others seriously begin to worry that he’s losing it, especially when he finally confronts Olgeir.
Ironically, however, as matters play out and things appear to spin out of control, the blockages that have kept Indimunder from healing at last begin to clear. It’s a painful process, to be sure, yet it gives him the tools he needs to discover why he’s withdrawn and has been unable to overcome his loss – issues that have more to do with him than with the circumstances involving his wife. But, then, such miraculous revelations become possible on a white, white day in coastal Iceland.
For much of the film, Indimunder comes across like an enigma, both to others in the story, as well as those in the audience. Something is obviously troubling him from the outset, and the emergence of his suspicions about his late wife’s affair provides some clues. However, given the growing nature of his erratic and irrational behavior – some of which is punctuated by fits of uncharacteristic emotional outbursts – there’s clearly more going on in his mind, much of which even he doesn’t seem to grasp or understand. True, he’s genuinely sad about his wife’s death, not to mention the apparent betrayal that didn’t surface until after her passing. But the degree of his irrationality and emotionalism suggests there’s more to it than that. Sadly, though, none of his actions and reactions get him any closer to a resolution of his grief or a satisfactory explanation for his profound unsettledness.
As Indimunder slowly comes to realize, the answers to his questions lie within him, but he must be willing and committed to peer inward to find them. In particular, he must examine the beliefs that drive his outlooks on what has transpired and why. But this also calls upon him to look at the role he played in their origination and establishment, for the resulting circumstances originated with his thoughts, beliefs and intents. But, since Indimunder apparently doesn’t know how to go about this, he’s perpetually frustrated. And this frustration leads to the irrational behavior and emotional outbursts that result – and continually grow in intensity. If he ever hopes to get past the current state of affairs, he’ll have to figure out how to access, assess and understand what’s going on with him.
In a sense, Indimunder needs to clear the fog that’s clouding his view, conditions that are metaphorically present in the surrounding environment. There’s a considerable amount of camouflage – both literally and figuratively – obscuring his perceptions, preventing him from seeing things clearly. However, in a setting like this, one also has greater opportunities for perusing the intangible and otherworldly, the stuff of which things like thoughts, beliefs and intents are made of. Such conditions thus make it possible to interact with that which we might not otherwise have contact in the bright light of a clear day. It’s as if the statement in the film’s opening graphic comes to life, facilitating the manifestation of events, realizations and insights that might not otherwise occur. And, in such a scenario as this, it’s possible that someone like Indimunder could start to identify the answers he’s looking for. The onetime lost lamb suddenly becomes a seeker, one who’s able to discover truths that have previously eluded him.
Once armed with such knowledge, anyone who takes this step must realize how imperative it is to search for our authentic selves, because it’s within them that our most significant answers reside. A thorough understanding of the nature of one’s authentic self can be tremendously revealing, especially when it comes to recognizing and appreciating why our existence unfolds as it does. Without such clarity of thought, it’s easy to contend that our reality is something that emerges at random, out of our control, with consequences that appear as a result of people, forces and things outside of ourselves. However, if we believe in our own powers of manifestation, we also come to see how such excuses are rationalizations for being unwilling to accept our role in this process and the inherent responsibility that accompanies it. Indeed, we might not like what we see, which means we must be painfully forced into accepting that there’s something about ourselves we don’t like as well. However, without such acceptance, circumstances will likely remain as they are – unfulfilling, unalterable and unyieldingly intractable – until we’re willing to do otherwise. That can be a high price to pay for foolhardy stubbornness and unrelenting denial.
Fortunately, breaking through such blockages carries tremendous benefits. It can relieve the persistent pressure we may have been feeling, allowing us to rid ourselves of what no longer serves us, as well as the unpalatable fallout, dissatisfaction, disappointment and unfulfilling emotions accompanying such flotsam. We can rewrite our outlooks to take forms that are more fruitful, providing us with access to opportunities that may have been blocked off from us or that we had been fundamentally unable to fathom. It can transform past hurts into successful healings, as well as enable us to see ourselves – including our authentic selves – in an entirely new light. And there’s no telling what that might help make possible. But, in Indimunder’s case, there’s a good chance that he could be on the verge of finding out.
This gorgeously filmed, well-acted Icelandic tale of loss, romance and betrayal presents its story in subtle but novel ways, with ample symbolic references that cleverly reinforce the thrust of the narrative. Director Hylnur Palmason, handily a rising star, inventively tells his tale in intriguing ways, such as effectively letting his cinematography do the talking in place of words, a technique from which other filmmakers could learn a lot. Admittedly, the picture meanders somewhat in the middle, taking a little longer than needed to pin down what it’s trying to say. A little tidying up, slightly quickened pacing and greater emphasis on its core underlying message would have worked wonders to make a good film an even better one.
“A White, White Day” has not gone unrecognized in cinema circles. At the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, the film was named the winner of the Louis Roederer Foundation Rising Star Award, as well as a nominee for the Critics’ Week Grand Prize. It has also picked up a number of honors and nominations at other film festivals. In addition to its screenings on the festival circuit, the film is now available for first-run online streaming.
The prospect of surveying the uncharted territory of our consciousness may intimidate many of us. But, just as exploratory surgery is sometimes necessary to uncover hidden illnesses, the same is true for exposing the inner troubles that remain out of sight and keep us in a distressed state. The longer we put off the process, the more painful it can become over time, often resulting in more anguish than what would come from just taking the plunge to uncover the source of the discomfort. What we find may surprise or even shock us, but what we frequently get from such a discovery is much-needed relief, the kind that allows us to leave the past behind and move forward into a promising new future. Getting the fog to lift may take some effort, but the change that comes from it is all too clear.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.