Friday, May 22, 2009

1950’s Noir: Ghosts of the Heartland

For Roland Lu, home is where the corruption is. It is the only reason why the ambitious reporter has returned from the big city. Corrupt politics and unscrupulous journalism make the Middle American town of Millville a dangerous place for Lu in Allen Blumberg’s indie noir Ghosts of the Heartland (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

When a local Native American leader dies under mysterious circumstances, Lu returns to his hometown hoping to break a major story. Conditions have drastically declined since he left town in search of his Pulitzer. Frank Dugan, both the Mayor of Millville and the demagogic editor of the town newspaper, uses his positions to harass the local Chinese community and anyone else he doesn’t like. As a result, Liz the girlfriend Lu abruptly left behind, has been forced out of her job as a third grade teacher as part of Mayor’s nativist purges.

Evidently, the populist Dugan is involved with every dirty deal in town, including a decades old swindle of the Native American community. Somehow it is all connected to a missing state health department report, one of the more prosaic MacGuffins you could hope to find in a film noir. While pursuing the missing document, Lu tries to reconnect with Liz, but she is not receptive, directly questioning his motivation and integrity.

Heartland has a refreshingly jaundiced view of journalism, portraying Lu more as a self-centered opportunist than a crusading muckraker. Frankly, the film’s actual crime storyline does not make much sense, but it has some sharply executed scenes, largely thanks to Rosanna Ma (recently seen on the New York stage as an electrifying Lady MacBeth in the Pan Asian production of the Scottish Play). Fantastic as the desperate but dignified Liz, Ma is the personification of quiet eloquence. One look from her proves to be a devastating indictment of both the irresponsible Lu and the cowardly Dugan. Unfortunately, Phil Moon is nowhere near her equal, coming across stiff and ponderous as Lu.

In Heartland, Blumberg and cinematographer Antoine Vivas Denisov definitely get the noir right with their elegantly moody black-and-white visuals. Even if it is occasionally lacking in the logic department, Blumberg keeps everything moving along at a healthy clip. With its distinctive look and Rosanna Ma’s excellent performance, Heartland has more to offer than most indie thrillers. It opens today (5/22) in New York at the Quad, with Blumberg in attendance for Q&A following the 8:00 screenings tonight and tomorrow night.