They Watch: a dystopian sci-fi film of the oppressed being used to oppress others

Andre LeBlanc, “They Watch” (2016)

In the near future, a mother and her teenage son living in small-town America are under siege from an oppressive police-state bureaucracy using an ingenious surveillance system that exploits prison labour as disembodied spies and snitches. The teenage son has been secretly working to expose the corruption of the system by helping to edit and distribute copies of a samizdat-style newspaper called The Truth; this act of defiance has brought him and his mother to the attention of the authorities who use the astral bodies of prisoners to invisibly infiltrate the homes of people suspected of dissident activity and to passively report back to their controllers via technology that sees what the prisoners see and broadcast it back to the controllers. One of the two prisoners sent to spy on the boy and his mum turns out to have a connection with the boy, and this poses a moral dilemma for the prisoner. Whatever decision he takes will lead either to his own death or to the capture and certain torture and imprisonment of the teenage boy and his mother, with death in custody or capital punishment a very likely fate for either or both of them.

The film does have a slick Hollywood-style about it: it runs smoothly with quite good credible special effects; but at the same time, it does have sloppy presentation and editing. The logic of the narrative does have holes: it seems unbelievable that a hi-tech surveillance system would make such a blunder as to assign the astral body of a prisoner who once taught the teenage boy debating in high school to spying on the boy. (Though of course the databases we have that collect vast amounts of information about people for future blackmailing purposes would not be 100% infallible and there is the possibility that such databases would assign stalkers to observe people they know and care for.) Setting alight a pile of papers in a closed room seems to be asking for trouble; viewers might find themselves rooting for the secret police to bust down the doors before the kid and his mum suffocate from lack of oxygen.

The plot idea is of the sort that the 1990s television series “The X Files” might well turn its nose up at: it’s a hokey mishmash of hard science fiction and ghost thriller fantasy. The idea that has been done to death in some form or another: the state co-opting prisoners into snitching on other, perhaps innocent people for very little reward. Surely the use of astral bodies to do things that ordinary people and even AI technology can’t do seems far-fetched, especially if the astral bodies turn out to have minds of their own. Nevertheless the idea of an oppressive system using those it oppresses as slaves to enforce extreme conformity and cut off dissidence is one that will continue to disturb audiences long after they have seen this film.

Orbit: adaptation of famous Edgar Allan Poe story enquires into the fragility of identity

Nicholas Camp, Don Thiel III, “Orbit” (2019)

A clever re-telling of the classic Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, this short film explores the impact of extreme physical isolation on an individual’s psychology. The narrator / protagonist (Chris Cleveland) is an astronaut working with a much older and more experienced colleague (Jacob Witkin, in his last role before he died not long afterwards) in a spacecraft orbiting a giant exoplanet in the far reaches of space. The old fellow’s coloured glass eye infuriates the younger man for some reason and the latter plots the man’s death. Sure enough, after despatching the old fellow, the astronaut hides his body under the floor panels but the spacecraft registers the death and sends a signal out to space-station HQ. Two officers (Jasmine Kaur and David Competello) promptly fly out to the craft and interrogate the astronaut. During interrogation, the astronaut is irritated by a growing ringing in his ears, which he is convinced is the heartbeat of his victim, and though the officers seem satisfied with his explanation regarding the old man’s death, the astronaut ends up confessing to his crime and shows the horrified officers where he has buried the corpse.

Set in the style of low-budget science fiction films of the 1970s – 1990s – the various incarnations of the “Star Trek” television series and spin-off movies come to mind – the short does a capable job in portraying the obsessive monomania and growing psychosis in the astronaut (though he is always in danger of falling into a stock villainous character type and the actor would have been well advised to be rid of his beard). Quick editing and interspersing the scenes of the interrogation with shots of the murder, other violence and some small amounts of gore stoke and increase the tension. The music soundtrack is of Wagnerian orchestral excess applied in discreet and tasteful amounts to amplify the drama at crucial points in the plot while maintaining the classic Hollywood style of space-opera science fiction films.

The film’s conclusion suggests a rather different fate for the narrator than most adaptations of the Poe story have previously done and posits the paradoxical notion that physical isolation, rather than increasing or accentuating a person’s individuality and identity (to his/her fellows), instead breaks it down. (Something the CIA has known for half a century at least, from experience in torturing people by depriving them of all sensory stimulation in its notorious MK-ULTRA experiments.) The glass eye is given much greater importance in this adaptation of the Poe story than in the original story itself; it truly becomes a mirror of the blankness of the soul behind it.

Clean Cut: short whimsical sci-fi black comedy of an unlikely serial killer in the making

Andrew Hunt, “Clean Cut” (2015)

From DUST, an online channel specialising in screening science fiction films made by up-and-coming film-makers comes this very amusing and cheeky horror comedy short starring an autonomous robot vacuum cleaner. Roomba keeps the floors of its owner’s house spotlessly clean and the film also hints that the robot does double duty as a security guard. One night a burglar (Scott Jorgenson) breaks into the house but suffers a heart attack and spills his life-saving tablets all over the floor. Lying helplessly supine on the floor, he implores Roomba to save him by passing the tablets over but Roomba hoovers them up and the burglar dies. In a remarkable and breathtaking bird’s-eye point-of-view shot with the wooden floor as backdrop, Roomba zooms up and down: each time it zooms up the floor, it is carrying plastic bags, tape and an already bloodied electric saw. We hear noises of cutting from off-screen, then Roomba zooms down dragging the bag full of wrapped body parts!

From this moment on, though there is not much left of the film, we get subtle hints of Roomba’s growing self-awareness (the machine pauses to gaze at its bloodied reflection in a mirror) and the beginnings of an emotional life (it angrily flashes red when its owner verbally abuses it after all the work it has done for him). Viewers are left in no doubt that a new if rather gruesome vocation beckons for Roomba and the owner had better watch his own back.

While the plot is laughable and wouldn’t bear more than a five-minute short before it thins out, the film maintains audience interest by filming at the Roomba’s level and emphasising a minimalist approach to its story and characters with lots of close-up shots. The whimsical music adds to the general improbable theme of an ordinary, even banal household gadget, cute to look at and for toddlers to ride, having a secret life as a serial killer capable of emotions and having the motivation to choose its victims and plot its next murders. Even the smallest, most harmless-looking object, provided it has sufficient intelligence, can become a killing machine monster.

Perfectly Natural: science fiction horror film about demonic possession of the for-profit corporate kind

Victor Alonso-Berbel, “Perfectly Natural” (2018)

No aliens, monsters, paranormal events or denizens of Hell or the 25th dimension abound here but this 12-minute short is as horrifying in its own apparently innocent, everyday-life-looking way as films about people being possessed by demons. In “Perfectly Natural”, the demon of possession exists in virtual technology, summoned by the corporate owners who employ Wanda as one of their company’s many IT workers. Wanda is encouraged to use the company’s babysitting service by her boss: the fees for the babysitting service come out of her pay packet and the service, using holograms and AI, supposedly streams knowledge, cognitive awareness and skills like knowing a second language into baby Max’s mind through a microchip attached to the side of his brow. Wanda discovers this service comes with many strings attached: it continually prompts her with emails sent to her computer to enroll Max into yet more programs that will stimulate his mind and intelligence, yet if she clicks on a tab in the emails to enroll him, she is hit with demands to cough up money. Gradually the realisation dawns on Wanda and her partner Zach that their baby has been captured by the corporation which has substituted virtual versions of Wanda and Zach not only to entertain and guide Max through the various cyber-territories he must navigate but to replace the real flesh-and-blood Wanda and Zach altogether. The child has become a real-life Snow White, dead to the world, while his parents face social censure and Wanda getting the sack if they withdraw Max from the company program.

The film proceeds in a straightforward way at a steady pace through the plot, the cast of three actors playing Wanda, her boss and Zach capably in the short time they have, which makes the film’s climax (when Wanda and Zach discover they have lost Max to the corporation) all the more despairing. They can rescue him physically but the program warns them he might suffer neurological damage if they pull him out too early – well, of course the program would say that, playing on the fear and guilt the parents will suffer if at some later time Max ends up being behind the other kids at school work.

The presentation is excellent with great cinematography and editing. The plot is a bit rough around the edges: the nature of Wanda’s work is not too clear and we have no idea how she came to be employed by the corporation. Why Wanda’s boss manages to raise her own children without subjecting them to the babysitting service is not explained: one would have thought such a service would be compulsory for all employees. Because the film has been made as a short, there is no explanation for the corporate agenda behind the babysitting service – a full-length film would be needed to show and tell, as well as detail how Wanda and Zach discover what their roles in the corporation are, what the corporation has in mind in using Max as a guinea pig, and how the parents manage (or not) to wrest Max and his mind away from permanent enslavement.

The Land Beyond the Sunset: a very moving and thoughtful film on achieving happiness and peace

Harold M Shaw, “The Land Beyond the Sunset” (1912)

Made in 1912 – the same year in which the Titanic set sail for its fateful meeting with the Iceberg – this short, seemingly simple live-action film is still a very moving and thoughtful drama. Young Joe is a poor newsboy who lives in a city slum neighbourhood with his alcoholic and abusive grandmother. One day he gets the opportunity to join a picnic for underprivileged children organised by middle-class women working for a charity, the Fresh Air Fund. The picnic organisers take Joe and other poor children to the countryside near the sea where they play and make friends, and eat nutritious picnic food. One of the organisers then proceeds to tell the children a fairy-tale about a boy being harassed by a witch. Some fairies rescue the boy and put him in a boat. The boy and the fairies then sail away to a fantasy place known only as the Land Beyond the Sunset. Thrilled and inspired by the story, Joe contrives to stay behind when the adults take the children back to the city and their slum communities; he goes wandering along the beach and spies an empty boat resting on the shore. An idea comes into his head at this point and he makes a choice that will undoubtedly affect the rest of his life forever …

For its age, the film still looks astonishingly clear, with none of the blur and the markings one might expect on old films. Title cards are few but viewers can follow the narrative easily: the story is straightforward but also relies on viewers’ imaginations to piece together the different scenes into the intended narrative. The end scenes are breathtaking and instill awed feelings at the natural world; however much humans may dominate and control Nature, the scale of Nature itself, especially of the seas and oceans, is still far beyond human understanding and domination. The boy can be seen to be partaking of the bounty of Nature by seizing an opportunity and opening himself up to all possibilities; yet the scenes can be interpreted differently and more negatively, by suggesting that the boy is deluded and does not realise he is going into an early death. After all, in some countries’ mythologies, the land beyond where the sun sets is often the land of the dead.

The very open-ended vagueness of the film’s climax and ending may astound and horrify viewers, but it also plays a large part in the film’s thoughtful and melancholy character. A boy from a dreary, unfulfilling and oppressive background is given a choice between two very different worlds and the decision he makes is momentous. How brave or foolhardy would we be, if we too came from a background of poverty and abuse, and we also were faced with the same choice? The heart-breaking story is told without sentiment, and this ensures the film’s continuing attraction for viewers more than 100 years later.

The film was originally made to promote the Fresh Air Fund, a charity founded to help underprivileged city children and improve their health by taking them on short breaks to the country so they could breathe fresh air and enjoy sunshine. The charity may have long gone but the film survives and has taken a life of its own.

The Grayzone meets Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro: meeting a determined, passionate yet humble leader

Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal, “The Grayzone meets Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro” (The Grayzone Project, August 2019)

Filmed by fellow Grayzone journalist colleague Ben Norton, Max Blumenthal’s interview with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose Bolivarian socialist government has been a target of regime change by the United States ever since he succeeded Hugo Chavez as Venezuela’s leader in 2013, is a highly revealing conversation about the South American country’s determination in forging ahead with a new revolutionary society and the extent of American and Western criminality in trying to destroy that society and its leaders. The interview took place outdoors in a lovely garden setting in Caracas with both journalist and leader in a relaxed mode and Maduro in his ubiquitous tracksuit jacket.

The two discuss how Maduro’s legitimacy as President was affirmed by 120 countries which also condemned US economic, trade and financial sanctions against Venezuela at the ministerial summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in mid-2019. Issues of climate change, efforts to achieve peace and avoid or prevent war, control of natural resources, and concerns over conventional, biological and chemical weapons of war were also aired. Several countries that sent representatives to the summit themselves are also subject to US sanctions, which led Blumenthal and Maduro to discuss the ways in which Venezuela is resisting the sanctions and building relationships with other sanctioned nations to resist US hybrid warfare. Maduro ticks off the ways in which Venezuela is being pressured by the US: expropriating Citgo, a US-based petrochemical corporation in which Venezuela holds a majority shareholder stake through the state energy company PDVSA; freezing over US$1.4 billion of Venezuela’s gold reserves together with the British government; and preventing Venezuela from obtaining essential foods, medicines and other much-needed goods. He expounds on current government programs aiming at supplying and distributing subsidised food products to families and communities.

Blumenthal and Maduro also discuss the US drone assassination attempt on Maduro in August 2018; Maduro links this assassination attempt to Venezuela’s politics and practice of democracy, and claims to have evidence of the identities of the people who ordered the attack on his life. He admits there is corruption within his government and that a number of senior government officials have either been charged and jailed for corruption or have fled the country for safe havens in the US and Europe. Maduro then talks about the political opposition in Venezuela and how it is controlled by Washington DC.

What viewers are likely to come away with from the interview is an impression of Maduro as a passionate and determined fighter who deeply believes in the ideals of Bolivarian socialism and whose faith in the revolution begun by his predecessor Hugo Chavez in 1999 is firm and unshakeable. He emphasises that everything that Venezuela has striven for and achieved over the past 20 years was attained through sheer hard work, often in the face of global hostility and aggression, and through the practice of open democracy. The man’s humility – Maduro refers to himself as a humble bus driver – is in stark contrast with the cynicism and vicious behaviour of Western leaders towards their publics and beyond their nations’ borders. The interview ends on a high note of hope that the truth about Venezuela and US aggression towards the country will prevail among the American public.

Hail Satan? – fun film about a Satanic movement with a serious message about social justice and religious hypocrisy and oppression

Penny Lane, “Hail Satan?” (2019)

Funny and serious at the same time, tight and well made with plenty of information on the history of religious freedom and how it has been abused by evangelical Christians and government working together (and also plenty of popular culture references), this documentary explores the agenda and development of an organisation claiming to be “religious” and to worship Satan but is actually trying to enforce religious freedom and plurality, promote social justice and highlight in a public way through staging amusing stunts the hypocrisy of government, Protestant Christianity and their allies in paying lip service to political freedoms and the separation of religion and the state. Viewers should not worry that the film shows any strange or perverted rituals as there is very little in it that can be called Satanic; what perversion or cult-like behaviour that exists in the film actually arises in the reactions of conservative evangelical Christians to the satirical stunts of self-proclaimed Satanists, and in the film’s rundown of past public scares focused on supposed Satanic ritual abuse of children which actually led to innocent people being tried, found guilty of non-existent crimes and imprisoned.

Inspired by the example of Anton Szandor LaVey who founded the Church of Satan in the late 1960s as an expression of individualism and free will, The Satanic Temple (hereafter referred to as TST) was founded by Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, though only Lucine Greaves actually appears in the film. TST first came to public attention in 2013 with its support for a bill signed into law in Florida by Governor Rick Scott allowing students to lead prayer in school; because the law does not specify which religion the students must belong to, it logically allows Satan-worshipping students the freedom to lead prayer in school. Other activities TST chapters across the United States have engaged in include rubbish collection on beaches and highways; performing a Pink Mass over the grave of the mother of the founder of Westboro Baptist Church who planned to picket the funerals of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing; setting up an after-school program called After School Satan to ensure religious freedom and diversiy are respected, and all religions get the same rights and privileges in establishing after-school clubs; and, most memorably, setting up statues of Baphomet alongside public installations of statues of the Ten Commandments outside state capitol buildings in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

In amongst all this activity, Greaves struggles with running an organisation and movement that has grown very quickly, perhaps too fast for one or two persons to handle, and inevitably there are disagreements and conflicts over how TST followers should challenge hypocrisy, discrimination and injustice wherever they find it, with some people believing working within systems can change them, and others believing systems should be challenged and confronted, with the result that one early member, Jex Blackmore, ends up being excommunicated for supposedly threatening violence against President Trump. While TST imposes no more than seven tenets of belief on its followers (all of which are presented in the film), the interpretation of these proves to vary quite wildly among TST members.

Director Lane keeps the pace going briskly with smooth segues from one scenario to another, and adding snippets of an eclectic selection of horror movies, old newsreels, cartoons and rock music videos where appropriate into her narrative to illustrate a point or mock a particular point of view. One particular theme that stands out is how so much of Americans take for granted about their culture or the place of Christianity in US culture turns out to have been influenced by or even originated by Hollywood; another is that the US was founded as a secular nation and society by the so-called Founding Fathers (signatories of the US Declaration of Independence), a fact denied by evangelical Christianity.

There is not much in-depth examination of TST’s structure – indeed, the organisation comes across as spontaneous and organic, not at all hierarchical, in its network – and most of the in-fighting and conflicts of TST were left out of the film. Neither is there any information on the history of Satanism in Western society, how it originally arose and what the motivations behind it were. The organisation is presented as a fun bunch of witty and creative social activist trolls parodying and satirising the pomposity, stupidity – and often the plain viciousness and criminality – of mainstream Christian denominations. Criticisms of TST’s activities from other Satanic organisations or even from TST members themselves are non-existent. (Significantly the film’s director herself joined TST after editing the film.)

Beneath the entertainment, the stunts and TST members’ sometimes outrageous appearances – Lane makes a point of interviewing several TST members who come from all walks of life – there is a very serious message about how some mainstream forms of Christianity have suppressed freedom of religion and equality in worship, and have extended their malign beliefs and influences into everyday life to deny people control over their lives and bodies, and how people who put themselves on the front-line to fight oppression do so with very little money and support from others against insurmountable odds – yet achieve victories with courage, creativity and chutzpah.

Global hi-tech as the handmaiden of the military and intelligence agencies in “The Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Big Tech Doesn’t Want You to Know”

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 359: The Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Big Tech Doesn’t Want You to Know)” (July 2019)

Dense with information, presented chronologically and in a way most people will find easy to follow, this documentary tells the history of how Silicon Valley came to be the metonym for the digital technological industry complex and how its transformation from a centre of horticulture in California into the global centre of digital technologies was cultivated by American intelligence agencies and their backers with the intent to capture every single bit of information about human behaviour and actions, even in real time, all the better to predict and thus control people’s thinking and actions, and ultimately to direct society into particular paths that would serve the interests of a small transnational elite. “The Secrets …” puts forward a credible narrative that the capture and control of information about people and their thoughts and behaviours have always been the main goal of the development of the hi-tech industry and the companies associated with it – companies such as Oracle Corporation, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft and Apple – right from the time the Stanford Research Institute was established in 1946 by Stanford University trustees to promote innovation and economic development in northern California. Ubiquitous technologies such as the Internet are revealed to have had their origins in Pentagon or intelligence agency research to discover technologies that could be used to control and command targeted populations or to wage war against them.

The early history of Silicon Valley’s development, starting with electrical Frederick Terman (the son of educational psychologist Lewis Terman who popularised IQ testing) returning to Stanford University as dean of its School of Engineering and turning the department into a centre of excellence, is easy enough to follow. From the outset, the university and the industrial park that grew up around it and spread outwards depended heavily on military spending and connections with the US Department of Defense, popularly known as “the Pentagon”. As Terman himself fades from the scene, and the Pentagon and US intel agencies invest more monies into research in other areas of information control and surveillance technologies, the narrative becomes more complex, its direction more arbitrary, as the voice-over narration skips from the origins of Oracle Corporation and Sun Microsystems to the foundations of search engines like Google and social media platforms like Facebook, and how they are all ultimately linked to one another and to US government departments and agencies. Viewers may find they’ll need to watch the documentary a few times to digest everything but the general theme behind it is clear.

Once viewers are aware of this secret history behind the development of Silicon Valley and the Internet, they will realise that many apparent anomalies about aspects of information technology and cyberspace start to make sense: the laxity in security in many databases, especially databases of banks and other financial institutions that people depend on to make money transactions, can be explained if such laxity enables spook agencies and others to spy on money transfers and track them. If databases are prone to hacking, that is because they are intended to be so.

The conclusion to this episode of “The Corbett Report” may be despairing – it does not recommend specific actions viewers might take to protest and stop US government intrusion into their lives, nor does it suggest cyber-based alternatives to the Internet and related technologies that cannot be corrupted and undermined by the military and surveillance organisations and their masters – but at the same time, the knowledge that Big Tech is a willing hand-maiden to Western governments can serve as one weapon out of many that we the people can use against those who would try to control us.

“Leaked Court Docs Upending Brazil!” – a brief look at news of leaked documents concerning a popular Brazilian politician

Lee Camp “Leaked Court Docs Upending Brazil!” (Redacted Tonight, June 2019)

Along with his weekly “Redacted Tonight” news / current affairs program, comedian / journalist Lee Camp occasionally uploads short rants … I mean, short talk pieces in a “Viewers’ Questions” series to the Redacted Tonight channel on Youtube.com. In this particular recent short piece, half of which is given over to answering viewer questions on other topics, he talks briefly about the current political upheaval and crisis in Brazil created by the publication of a huge trove of leaked documents and emails concerning the imprisonment of popular socialist-lite politician Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2016. The documents were leaked to the online US-based news publisher The Intercept, specifically to Glenn Greenwald who lives in Rio de Janeiro.

The leaked papers demonstrate that the prosecution of Lula da Silva, running for Brazil’s Presidency in 2018, had been politically motivated with the aim of removing him from the Presidential campaign so that Jair Bolsonaro, representing extreme fascist political forces in the country, could win the election. The judge (Sergio Fernando Moro) who presided over Lula’s trial and the Operation Car Wash corruption investigations, of which Lula’s trial was part, was shown to have (illegally) worked with the prosecutors in their investigations that led to Lula’s conviction and imprisonment. As of the time of Camp’s piece, there were still documents being released that may reveal more about Moro’s biased and illegal interference in the proceedings designed to prevent Lula da Silva from contesting the Presidency.

The time allocated to this “Viewers’ Questions” episode doesn’t permit a detailed look at the recent political situation in Brazil and how that developed over time, starting with Lula da Silva’s previous tenure as President (2003 – 2010) and Dilma Rousseff’s subsequent Presidency which ended in 2016 with her impeachment, and what those two leaders managed to achieve for Brazil, that would have given viewers some background on why those leaders are hated so much by Brazilian fascists and their supporters in the middle and upper classes. Lula da Silva and Rousseff carried out programs of cautious social reforms and change that benefited the poor in a way that tried to accommodate the interests of the middle and upper classes, build political consensus and emphasise inclusiveness. However these layers of Brazil’s society turned against even this gradual policy of social reform and change, and through personalities like Sergio Moro used a wide-ranging criminal investigation of corruption in the country’s state petroleum company Petrobras (Operation Car Wash) to target and ensnare Lula da Silva and Rousseff.

The role of the United States government in assisting the fascists to target Lula and Rousseff might be relevant, in that the US ambassador (Liliana Ayalde) to Brazil at the time of Rousseff’s impeachment had previously been US ambassador to Paraguay at the time that country’s president was impeached in circumstances similar to those prevailing during Rousseff’s impeachment.

The rest of the episode is given over to Redacted Tonight viewers’ questions about topics from previous episodes including the possibility of Australian journalist Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States to answer to trumped-up espionage charges that could put him away in prison for up to 170 years! This topic in itself deserves its own episode, given that that extradition seems a certainty once Assange serves his current 1-year jail sentence in Britain for previously skipping bail.

While this “Viewers’ Questions” episode is informative on a superficial level at least, I do wish the entire episode had been longer to give its main topic a little more depth and to do justice to some of the other viewer’s questions raised.

Chan is Missing: a missing-person mystery dives into exploring a community and the immigrant experience

Wayne Wang, “Chan is Missing” (1982)

Would-be taxicab owner / driver Jo (Wood Moy) needs to purchase a licence enabling him to drive a taxi so he contacts a friend, Chan Hong, to pass on $4,000 to take to the relevant licensing authority. However Chan and the money disappear so together with his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi), Jo travels around the Chinese community in San Francisco looking for and inquiring about Chan. What most viewers might imagine should be fairly straightforward turns into a veritable odyssey for Jo and Steve as each person they speak to about Chan has a very different opinion about the elusive man as to his personality and motivations, and a very complex and contradictory portrait of Chan develops. During the two men’s search for Chan, viewers learn a great deal about the nature of the Chinese-American community and the political tensions within it, the dilemma of the immigrant experience in a strange land, and the stereotypes and filters through which most Americans view Chinese-American people and their culture. As one character reminds Jo, Chinese people have lived in the United States since the mid-19th century yet however much they try to integrate into American society and be accepted, if most Americans do not accept them, then that is because America does not want to accept them.

Shot in black-and-white, this cheap and cheerful film partakes quite liberally from the classic film noir genre – in particular, the uncle-and-nephew sleuthing tag-team and Jo’s voice-over narration recall the Charlie Chan films of the 1930s – 50s in which the Chinese-Hawaiian detective occasionally ropes in his eldest son to help solve crimes. Jo and Steve visit a fair few eccentric characters in their quest, including a restaurant cook wearing a “Samurai Night Fever” T-shirt who is tired of cooking sweet-and-sour pork several times a day every day; Chan’s wife and wise-cracking daughter; Chan’s migration sponsor; people at a Filipino seniors’ community centre; an unseen Chinese immigrant apartment dweller who can’t stand other Chinese people; and George the English-language teacher who discusses local Chinese-American politics with Jo. A sub-plot revolving around whether Chan was involved in a flag-waving dispute over whether the Taiwanese flag or the flag of the People’s Republic of China should be used during a Chinese New Year parade, and which resulted in a fight and a man’s death develops and adds comic frisson to the film: later in the film, Jo discovers a gun and is frightened that Chan may have killed the man. At critical points in the film when a character talks about Chan to Jo, loud music blares out which blurs the conversation and adds to the mystery of Chan and his motivations.

The search for an elusive character who may not actually exist leads into an exploration of the diversity, individuality and eccentricity of a community that has long been viewed through filters and stereotypes encouraged by the news media and Hollywood culture. Jo and Steve’s quest ultimately becomes a quest for identity and connection with the culture and country of their ancestors, a country neither of them has visited. A number of film noir elements are brought in for comic effect in the film’s second half: long shadows in Chan Hong’s hotel room (enhanced by the monochromatic film); suspenseful, almost shrill and hysterical music; shots of Chinatown itself from behind the wheel of a car; and even a gangster moll in the form of Chan Hong’s girlfriend. The sequence in which Jo fears he is being followed by another car is an affectionate send-up of the Charlie Chan films which partly inspired this film.

Wood Moy as the ageing world-weary taxicab driver carries the whole film capably on his shoulders but Hayashi is just as effective as his impatient nephew and the cast generally acquit themselves well in a film where it looks as if improvisation in the story-line is the major feature and the narrative meanders at will depending on whom director Wayne Wang was able to rope into participating in the film.

It seems that absence does make the heart fonder, for a transplanted Chinese culture that is slowly disappearing as its generations age and pass on.