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LFF Review: Luce / The House of Us

Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts in Julius Onah's Luce
Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts in Luce

Who we are, who we should be and who we're expected to be take on radically different guises in Julius Onah's politically ambitious - too ambitious - dramatic thriller Luce. Here is that rare thing, a movie that doesn't promise too much but delivers too much, piling complexity upon complexity until it becomes unfortunately apparent that it has neither the time nor the ability to adequately resolve all of its knotty, ugly, unflinchingly honest and provocative questions about the nature of contemporary black identity in the U.S. Onah and J. C. Lee, whose play they've co-adapted, make commendable efforts to wrap up key concerns without offering reductive solutions, leaving Luce appropriately open-ended, the issues it raises left to percolate in the minds of intelligent, receptive viewers, but too many of those issues are left underdeveloped in a movie that could easily have taken its running time over again several times to complete the task. Yet, while the movie reaches a satisfying conclusion, it openly holds no answers to the myriad questions that drive its plot ever forward down surprising, unfamiliar paths; thus, it bristles with the relentlessly building intricacy of its politically elaborate plot, only to dissolve into a puddle of wasted potential when it abandons complexity for simplicity, or fails to pursue a particular path.

The gateway to Luce's moral maze is, of all people, Frantz Fanon, the 20th Century revolutionary philosopher who participated in the Algerian War of Independence as a member of the FLN. In a most unexpected development for this staunch bibliophobe, I've actually read Fanon, and this is where my qualms kicked off with this movie. A specific reading of Fanon's political views is central to instigating the action that ensues, and to my mind it's a regrettable misreading, yet the movie never addresses this detail, nor seeks to critique the content of the misreading. Several times throughout, Onah and Lee delve down a rabbit hole of philosophical inquiry to the neglect of another, exposing a crucial deficiency in their reflexive analytical capacity. When they delve, they delve deep reap grand rewards, but missed opportunities abound. In Luce's favour, such misconstructions actually form the main body of its narrative and subtextual content, leading to the uncovering of legitimate truth via sometimes non-legitimate means. Rather than the straightforward but difficult mysteries that lie at its heart, it's what occurs while sifting through the causes behind and ramifications of those mysteries that fuels the movie, also offering its accomplished cast a fabulous array of prime dramatic material. Luce, much like life itself, never actually gets to where it appears to be going, but it's the going that's good, in the end.

Kim Na Yeon, Kim Si Ah and Joo Ye Rim in Yoon Ga Eun's The House of Us
Kim Na Yeon, Kim Si Ah and Joo Ye Rim in The House of Us

It's no wonder kids find us adults so baffling so much of the time. After all, even us curmudgeonly critics once were children, accepting the world for what it was, rather than bemoaning it for what it wasn't. If, given the right stimuli, we're most of us all too ready to revert back to a childhood which then seemed to stretch ahead endlessly and now seems to have passed far too quickly, it's strange how many filmmakers get depictions of childhood as wrong as they do. They pander, they condescend, they wonder what life must be like from all the way down there, rather than actually adjusting their perspective to see that life down there really isn't all that different from life up here. Different priorities, different responsibilities, but the same sun shines down through the same atmosphere into the same world no matter what your height, no matter what your age. In her first feature, 2016's The World of Us, Yoon Ga Eun presented that same world from the perspective of her young protagonist; its simple verisimilitude and piercing compassion were confirmation of a bona fide humanist auteur par excellence arriving on the scene. Now, she returns with The House of Us - similiar in title, similar in tone, similar in theme, and similar in quality. It's an utter delight!

Young Hana, on the cusp of adolescence, discovers a haven of youthful innocence in a couple of younger girls living nearby during her summer holidays; her home life is in turmoil, and Hana's attempts at building bridges between her quarrelling family members are largely ignored. Her new friends, sisters Yoo Mi and Yoo Jin, are only 9 and 7, respectively, and present an easier challenge for Hana to manage - her older family members need a sensible mind to guide them through their troubles, but Hana's natural authority over Yoo Mi and Yoo Jin in her advanced age acts as a neat trial for the inevitably more complex one to come in reconciling her elder family members. Through fine, stable handling of simple, trustworthy dramaturgical technique, Yoon constructs a scenario that feels freshly hewn from the very fabric of reality and puts it to an ideal purpose. She's exploring the life of an average child here, as before in The World of Us, and effectively setting out her explorations as a standard for depictions of childhood on screen. It's that radical, despite its apparently conservative style and accessible tone - rarely if ever before has any filmmaker achieved something as successful in its unpretentious earnestness on such a topic.

Indeed, in a mere two movies to date, I can state as conclusively as anyone could that Yoon Ga Eun is one of cinema's all-time great directors of actors. The House of Us' three leading ladies deliver performances of such unforced, spontaneous sincerity that it almost breaks through the movie's soft, glossy, professional aesthetic and suggests fly-on-the-wall documentary at times; all three, however, are also perfectly capable of every emotional fluctuation demanded by the narrative, whose progression is aided immeasurably by their collective contribution. As it slips through minor, always credible modulations, their impact is magnified due to the impact evidenced on the faces of these extraordinary young performers. Yoon's style is free of affectation, indulging only in delicate little expressions such as smartly developing costume choices for her leads; she builds everything around her cast, draws focus to their characters and their story and allows it to resonate to its fullest extent. See, kids? We do remember what it's like to be young! We just need Yoon Ga Eun to remind us!

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