Sunday, July 10, 2016

Local Shorts at the Egyptian: The Red House

It must be hard to explain to a young actress she will be playing a six-year-old sold into a brothel. Doing so in real life is almost unthinkable. That is the position Fangfang finds herself in. For the first time, she will act as a “Mama” to a new arrival in screenwriter-director Jiaqi Lin’s The Red House (trailer here), which screens as part of the Egyptian Theatre’s annual presentation of short films from Los Angeles-based filmmakers.

1915 was a tough year for China. An ill-fated attempt to restore a dynastic monarchy led to short-term chaos. Of course, that hardly affected Amei’s hardscrabble rural parents. Still little more than serfs, they only knew how hard it was putting food on the table. For one hundred Taels of silver, they sell Amei to The Red House, knowing full well the life they are consigning her to. Her mother is clearly distraught, but it will take two hundred Taels to buy her back.

Fangfang understands just how hard it is to earn that kind of money. The twenty-five-year-old is on the verge of doing it herself when, much to her surprise, she is put in charge of Amei’s training. Despite the tough persona she projects, Amei’s innocence and the similarity of their circumstance entering the brothel moves Fangfang considerably more than she expects.

We might have a general idea where Red House is headed, but it is still incredibly poignant, partly due to the implications for the characters and partly thanks to the power of its two leads. Former Masterchef contestant (seriously, its true) Felix Fang hits the perfect notes as the tough but compassionate Fangfang. She is not just another prostitute with a heart of gold. When she explains to Amei what it takes to survive in their world, it is a lesson for the audience too. Similarly, distressingly young Makayla Gatmaitan is absolutely heartrending as Amei. Even though Red House is only approximately twenty minutes, they still forge some wonderfully nuanced chemistry together.

Red House is also quite an elegant period production, thanks to Laura Cristina Ortiz’s lush costuming and the richly detailed work of production designer Michael Paul Clausen and his team. Lin helms with tremendous sensitivity, but it is still hard to watch those foot-binding sequences. Frankly, Red House could easily play on a bill with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, acting as a corrective to its more idealized vision of “Flower House” life. Highly recommended, The Red House screens as part of this year’s Local Shorts program (which also includes the absolutely insane Chickening) on July 14th, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, CA.