Friday, August 03, 2018

Kew Gardens ’18: Moving Parts

You have heard the news stories: immigrants exploited, passports confiscated by employers, families forced to live apart. Yes, welcome to Trump’s . . . Trinidad and Tobago. The truth is the Caribbean nation is one of the leading transit hubs and destination points for trafficked people. Zhenzhen voluntarily came to work, but her smugglers’ extra “taxes” put her at the mercy of the criminally-connected Mrs. Liu in Emilie Upczak’s Moving Parts (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.

Arguably, Zhenzhen was a bit naïve, but she only wanted to work. It is also rather natural she would want to be with her brother Wei after the death of their father. However, as soon as the boat lands, the traffickers demand more money. Wei had arranged kitchen work for Zhenzhen at Mrs. Liu’s restaurant (someone actually points out “Mr. Liu,” if there is one, has never been seen), but she quickly recruits the young woman for an upscale nightclub-brothel, capitalizing on their thuggish pressure.

Somehow, Zhenzhen manages to attract the attention of Evelyn, the even more naïve and in-denial daughter of a local wheeler-dealer. The gallerist tries her best to ignore his corruption, even though it corroded her homeless brother’s soul, like a form of cancer. Nevertheless, Evelyn might be able to help Zhenzhen, if she can slip away from Mrs. Liu’s operation long enough.

Moving Parts is a well-intentioned film, but it covers a lot of familiar terrain. Still, it is rather eye-opening to see how porous the boundaries are between legit (but exploitative) menial labor and outright sexual servitude. On the other hand, the subplots involving Evelyne and her family are dull and largely cliched. Maybe, you could call her a “Trinidadian Savior,” instead of the SJW-loathed “white savior.” Regardless, screen time not featuring Zhenzhen and Wei is mostly misspent.

Valerie Tian is terrific as Zhenzhen. It is a brutally honest and painfully vulnerable portrayal that does not whitewash or sanctify her. Her character makes plenty of mistakes, but she matures quickly, which gives her an interesting developmental arc to realize. Jay Wong is similarly compelling as the guilt-wracked Wei, who arguably shifts in the opposite direction. Jacqueline Chan is chillingly villainous as Mrs. Liu, but Godfrey Wei is the film’s secret ingredient, adding grace and grit as the restaurant’s head chef.

For the most part, we know exactly where Moving Parts is headed and it breaks little new ground getting there. Still, seeing this story unfold against a Caribbean backdrop gives viewers a fuller sense of the extent of human trafficking crimes. If nothing else, the film should convince patrons it is time for some sort of global treaty prohibiting passport confiscation (without legal due process). There are also some very nice performances, especially from Tian and Wei. Respectfully recommended, Moving Parts screens this Monday (8/6), as part of the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.