Friday, May 03, 2013

CUFF ’13: A Grand Canal

A sailor is never particularly comfortable on land, even under the best circumstances. As a result, they are decidedly unsuited to dealing with system-rigging gangsters, or at least such was the case for one boy's father in the hybrid short film A Grand Canal (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Columbia University Film Festival, an annual showcase for Columbia MFA students’ thesis films and screenplays.

The narrator tells us his father resembled and sounded like Chinese pop singer Liu Huan.  Singing Liu’s signature tunes was one of the captain’s few pleasures that did not involve navigating the rivers and canals near their provincial port town.  Largely an absentee father, his young son still idolizes him.  Unfortunately, when the local “boss” refuses to pay an invoice, it jeopardizes his father’s small fleet.

One of the biggest surprises of Canal is the way it becomes a meditation on the healing potential of art (especially cinema). Ma frequently upends audience expectations, playing ironic games with the flashback structure.  Yet, it never feels showy or excessively hipsterish.  In fact, it is quite touching, in good measure due to a remarkable lead performance from Mei Song Shun, who delivers dignity and gravitas in spades.  He can also sing.

Although Canal is set some twenty or so years in the past, its story remains quite timely as China struggles with increasingly predatory manifestations of crony-capitalism (within an avowed socialist system, which is quite the trick).  It is quite an impressive looking production and a completely absorbing film.  Highly recommended, A Grand Canal will doubtlessly intrigue China watchers but also resonate as a paternal drama.  It screens tomorrow (5/4) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of Program C at this year’s Columbia University Film Festival.  Southern Californians should also note details on the 2013 Los Angeles edition of the fest will be announced shortly.