Anyone tasked with writing about the work of filmmaker Patrick Wang will inevitably feel a degree of panic once putting pen to paper. Similar feelings might befall first-time viewers of his films; the singular confluence of genres, tones and formal rigour found in Wang’s work can initially be jarring.
Each work is so effortlessly dense, experimental, inventive and emotional that it’s almost impossible to do them justice with mere words alone, or a single viewing. This isn’t even my first attempt to do just that and I’m feeling nervous. Still, if Wang’s films have taught me anything, it’s that the fear and anxiety we feel about any major life challenge – be it creative pursuit, transition, or tragedy – is a process worth embracing.
Not surprisingly, Wang’s films exert such a profound impact precisely because of the various ways in which they depict our instinct to resist change, both individually and collectively. His 2011 film In the Family is an especially moving example of such a complicated, thorny situation.
At the time of its release, the film became something of an indie sensation after receiving a rave review from Roger Ebert. But there wouldn’t have been an Ebert review if not for the stalwart work by online critics like Rob Humanick of Slant Magazine, and the support of events like San Diego Asian Film Festival, both of which provided the film a platform to gain a wider audience.
Thankfully that’s exactly what happened, which considering the film’s length (3 hours) and director’s lack of name recognition makes it even more of a modern miracle. Looking back though, I’m hard-pressed to think of a more important American debut film in the last decade. In the Family revolves around Joey Williams (Patrick Wang), a successful contractor who lives with his partner Cody Hines (Trevor St John) in the American South. Together, they have raised Cody’s biological son Chip (Sebastian Brodziak) for the last six years in a home of relative happiness and fulfilment.
This all changes when Cody is tragically killed in a car accident. In the weeks that follow, Joey suffers a double tragedy of sorts when Cody’s sister claims guardianship over Chip, revealing the various inadequacies of a legal system that doesn’t understand or protect non-traditional families. Using long takes with static camera set-ups, Wang stages one stunning dialogue scene after the next, giving his actors space to bring the full weight of this human conflict to bear.
Sometimes memories of the past interrupt these moments, flashbacks that seem to be living alongside the action instead of separately. In the Family culminates in a nearly 40-minute deposition scene that remains one of Wang’s finest achievements, and perfectly symbolises the hope he sees in humanity, and our ability to transcend the fear that can easily ravage a family (or community) if unchecked.
2015’s The Grief of Others, which Wang adapted for the screen from Leah Hager Cohen’s novel of the same name,