‘The Grief of Others’ the second film by Patrick Wang, adapted from the novel by Leah Hager Cohen.
This isn’t a typical film review in that I don’t actually go into any detail of the film’s story, or acting but I go DEEP into the ideas behind Patrick Wang’s approaches to film-making and storytelling for this film.
Here’s one of film’s the trailers to give some context:
The book the film is based on is a drama. I haven’t read the book and I hadn’t even heard of it, but have since heard/seen many positive reviews for it! The film is more than drama; the film style demands that it be more. Its a bit of an artistic puzzle, where the visual storytelling is less straight forward and spelled out for you. In contrast, the author of the book who was at the Q&A at the screening I attended, said that she may have over-explained things in the book. I imagine reading the book would be a nice companion to the film. I’m curious how different the experience of the film was for those who read the book prior to watching the film, from those who hadn’t. I wonder if it was a significant difference, since the words from the book, and how they effected the reader, will provide additional insight, or data in which to interpret the films images, shooting style, pace, etc. Things which may have gone over the heads of other viewers, or may have been interpreted one way, may evoke other things to those who read the book. It’s almost like a hidden language. As we watch the film, with the knowledge of our own experiences, certain things from the film may or may not come to mean something to us in the context in which it’s given. This, to Patrick, is very true to life. We are not always guided to the meanings of things we see, or things others do. Life experience gives context to things and each person’s will be different. The context in which certain things happen in the film will be different for those who have read the book, but honestly, regardless of whether or not someone read the book, it will be different.
His first film, ‘In the Family’ was very well received critically, but he had been criticized for his film-making style, which some thought was either the result of being an inexperienced filmmaker, with the trappings of an artistic film student, or a lazy storyteller/filmmaker.
This, his second film is filmed in relatively the same style, and if you hear Patrick speak about his film, he is very well aware of what he is and isn’t doing with his camera-work, like his criticized lack of “coverage.” He understands the conventions of filmmaking and storytelling. His film style are a result of his sensibilities. I’m not saying Patrick’s filmmaking is extremely unconventional, no, but it is an artistic choice. Some might consider his films art films. Some art films make it in the mainstream, but many do not.
I remember watching ‘In The Family’ and thinking how some of his shots reminded me of some Wong Kar-Wai films. Wong Kar-Wai films can be artistic, but are still pretty conventional. They are moody and atmospheric. The camera movements are heavily influenced by the music and both are tools in telling the story. In Wong Kar-Wai films, the ‘takes/shots’ and the music, often long and without dialogue become extensions of a scene, at first letting the viewer sit in the moment that is occurring or passing, and then amplifying the weight of its emotional beats. It’s very melancholic, and beautiful in my experience. Perhaps I’m just a romantic.
I believe that if any of that is what Patrick Wang is going for, its only a small part of it. In Patrick’s film, music is used differently, there isn’t much at all. Most of the film’s score is it’s naturalistic atmospheric sounds, which Patrick said was all very specific to the scenes and their tone.
Patrick’s shots are either framed in a fashion where you see a lot, with a single wide-angle shot, almost like watching theater, or it’s shot in a fashion where the audience only sees a part of the scene, as if in a natural setting witnessing life-like a voyeuristic participant. Both shots have little to no camera movement.
In many ways the wide shots seem like filming a staged play with different set pieces. The audience see characters walk in and out of a set piece, and see what they can see from their physical perspective, unless a theatrical device is used to let you see more than one would in the natural world.
In the shots, where information is limited, (other than making for interesting and artsy shots) if anything, these shots make the audience feel like a voyeur; you see into these people’s lives from a somewhat realistic visual point of view, which it turns out is part of the reasoning for his choices. Patrick’s films, are like exercises in what you can and cannot see, like looking in on people in life. In life, our observations of life are limited to where we are physically watching from. In some scenes, you can only see part of people faces due to the position of the camera, which represents the audience, you as a voyeuristic participant. Sometimes, the camera is behind characters, as you may be if you were actually there, and the shot doesn’t turn around and change to a close-up so that you can see the actor’s face. Many shots are also very low, almost looking up at people. Patrick said that it’s an angle he believes promotes the sense of participation in the film, like a voyeur I’ve been describing. His framing of shots are very deliberate. They make sense, if the intention is to have the viewer feel like a voyeur, a person who happens to be in the room, or is following someone from behind. As a voyeur, you only get to see as much as your position allows. Patrick’s lack of coverage allows the audience to fill in the blanks. Whether a viewer wants to or not, that’s the intention. The frame has just the amount of information that he wants.
Patrick believes the audience shouldn’t be taken for granted, that they are capable enough to interpret things for themselves, and fill in the blanks, as we all do in life. I touched on this at the beginning. When we experience life, our computer-like brain catalogs them, and we can make reference to them to interpret new experiences. Our past informs our present perception and expectations of things, as does our knowledge of film conventions, made up of films we’ve watched before, giving us the ability to understand the language and tools used in film-making and storytelling.
These ideas I think are great. The question how effective is it. And for those who care; how effective is it as entertainment? I don’t think it’s good or bad, it’s just an artistic choice. Does it entertain me? Depends on what I’m expecting or looking to experience I suppose. I don’t think that it’s conventionally/commercially entertaining. Another question is, does it help tell a story better? That really depends too. “Better.” Maybe not in the conventional sense, not compared to the typical mainstream film for the masses who are used to being spoon few information and emotions, BUT it does tell the story Patrick wants to tell, and how he wants to tell it, and that’s ok. It’s doesn’t have to be for everyone, and that’s GREAT!
There are many tools in film to tell a story, and to determine focus for the audience. Theater has its own tools, some of which are similar.
Films like ‘Goodbye Dragon Inn’ by Tsai Ming-Liang, for example don’t follow conventional ideas of how a film should be made or how story should be told. Like Wang’s first film, ‘In the Family’, many scenes in ‘Goodbye Dragon Inn’ are shot with just one camera in a wide shot, almost like the stage of a theatre, where you see the set, and actors come in and out of it. There are no turnaround takes, coverage of each character, etc.
Modern mainstream filmgoers are used to a certain way of receiving information in film. Many films guide and manipulate the audience’s expectations, and emotions. It may be more difficult for common modern-day moviegoers to watch films like Wang’s or the others I’ve mentioned, because they’re used to be forced fed information, not needing really to put much work in watching the film; just lazy participants, who may have a preference for being showed/told everything more. In conventional films, the audience is encouraged to be engrossed in the characters on screen, be the characters, versus being a viewing participant of the film.
Films like Wang’s are like theatre in many ways. In conventional films, the focus of the audience is led differently; the audience is lead through the story with close-ups, zooming in on a character speaking. In theatre, focus is determined differently; maybe with lighting, or color, etc, and the audience interprets what they see based on whats being focused on, OR if focus is undetermined, what they choose to focus on.
Something new, in ‘The Grief of Others,’ that I don’t recall Patrick using in his first film, is an impressionistic/abstract approach. If you didn’t think this was an art film at first, the impressionist approach erases any doubts. The first time it’s used, it feels like maybe you watching a David Lynch film. It’s a little trippy, but this technique can work, especially when it’s presented early on, and consistently throughout the film. If you’re used to watching more impressionistic films like David Lynch films, maybe you’ll get something different from someone who may not, especially if you don’t see it coming, which was the case with this film, because it hadn’t been established. It’s a little jarring. You don’t expect such abstract uses of film-making in this film, even with the artistic framing of his shots because while the framing of his shots may seem unconventional, the audience still sees something they are very familiar with in reality. If it’s a straight-up family drama, you don’t expect to see the supernatural.
In some scenes, this approach is used to represent memories of a character, and in other cases, intent of the impressions are less clear. What something means is kinda left up to the viewer. This is where what I spoke earlier about life experiences and context really comes into play. Sometimes, a viewer will understand something, because of the associations made from their own life experiences, and from watching other films. This could be a fun idea. In some cases I know what I thought I got from something, but it’s not clear upon the first viewing, especially because it happens so fast; by the time I’ve tried to make sense out of it, I’d already moved on, and it is never brought to light again that I’m aware of, so it seems less relevant to the overall story.
I’m assuming he’s using this artistic approach to address things that aren’t being said. Perhaps since it’s adapted from a novel, a lot of information that is normally read doesn’t translate well for a film of reasonable length.
Some may enjoy his filming style, some may not, but I do believe a lot of it hangs in its execution, as does everything else I’ve discussed. Does his intention with wide shots and low angles come across and do you like it? Does he succeed in showing vs. telling; allowing an image to speak volumes for itself regarding the impressionist/abstract stuff? I thought in some instances, the execution worked against it, when it wasn’t a smooth transition, it took me out of the film a bit. In some cases, it could’ve been attributed to a lack of resources necessary to pull it off, then again anything could be intentional, maybe I’m just not sure what it’s supposed to say.
Having only seen it once, it’s not clear if his choices in ALL cases have metaphoric or impressionistic meaning or relevance to the story, or if just some do, while others do coincidentally. I DO know that they are not all just an artistic choice, void of meaning or relevance, just because it’s a style he used for two films. It’s probably a combination or all of the above. It’s clear much is intentional, and perhaps coincidentally artistic. One could read into anything. I wonder, if he used this style more selectively, would what his choices say about the film, the story, the scene, or character be clearer, have more meaning and more of an impact?
At the end of the day, it’s two things. It’s storytelling, and it’s art. Regarding storytelling, it comes down to how engaging and effective one finds the storytelling method. This again is dependent on a viewer’s expectations, tastes in how life is portrayed in this medium, and their ability to connect to it, informed by personal life experience and previous films they’ve watched. Opinions will vary. Viewers are smart yes I agree, but many are also lazy if it takes too much work to appreciate. But, it’s also art, and it’s his art, so to that end, nothing I say really matters. I mean what do I really know about anything. Do people read anything I write? If you ARE reading this, wow, I applaud you and thank you for your patience. I apologize for my long-winded reiterations and stream of consciousness method of writing.
I really enjoy and appreciate Patrick’s ideas in film-making, and I think he’s a passionate, intelligent, talented artist. I’m proud of him, inspired by him, and have mad respect for him. I look forward to (a.) seeing him grow as a filmmaker, (b.) him having the resources necessary to execute his vision successfully and (c.) seeing where those ideas lead.
There are various interviews on YouTube with Patrick about his film. Here’s one, enjoy!