Monday, February 07, 2011

ReelAbilities ’11: My Spectacular Theater

Film distribution is a tricky proposition in China. Strict regulations govern what constitutes a “film festival,” while some of the country’s most celebrated filmmakers are only screened through bootlegs. One dodgy hawker of pirate DVDs gains a fresh appreciation of the power of cinema in Lu Yang’s My Spectacular Theater, which screens during the 2011 ReelAbilities in New York.

On the run from the coppers (mysteriously interested in protecting intellectual property), Chen Yu stumbles into old Gao’s theater. He even takes out the video, but the patrons do not seem to notice. They are either blind or severely vision-impaired movie lovers, who partake of Gao’s live description assistance. Recruited as Gao’s apprentice, Chen Yu does not see the specialized theater as a long term prospect. He needs something more corporate to satisfy his uptown girlfriend. Yet slowly but surely, he becomes involved with the lives of their patrons, especially, the cute Xiao Ow, a young student feigning blindness to attract his attention.

Given its sociologically relevant subject matter, Spectacular certainly represents independent Chinese cinema. Particularly daring is the historical context of Gao’s backstory. Though Lu understandably refrains from graphic details, it is clear the old man honed his descriptive skills for his wife following an incident during what is obviously the Cultural Revolution (though those exact words are never uttered).

While the third act partakes of a misguided narrative indulgence, the film itself has plenty of heart. Liu Yuan Yuan is a genuine standout as Liu May, a luminously beautiful cinema patron. Her tentative relationship with a recently blinded photographer is quite honest and moving. In the romantic lead, Zhou Yiwei is more-or-less adequate as Chen Yu, but Yizha brings real spirit and verve to the film as his admirer, Xiao Ow. Perfectly understated and dignified, Jin Shijie holds it all together as old Gao, handling his ease into senility with grace and conviction.

Clearly, Spectacular fits the bill for ReelAbilities in several respects. While one wonders how accommodating Chinese society really is for its vision-impaired citizens, Lu and co-writer Chen Shu clearly do not exempt the go-go new China from criticism. Indeed, Gao’s theater is presented as an oasis of empathy and acceptance. A very strong feature directorial debut, Spectacular is highly recommended when it screens again tomorrow (2/8) at the Chatham Square Library, as the 2011 ReelAbilities concludes at points throughout the City.