Monday, September 29, 2008

August Evening

"August Evening" is writer, director, editor Chris Eska's second film. It is set in Texas and entirely in Spanish, although the director himself does not speak the language. His first film was 2003's "Doki-Doki," set in suburban Tokyo, spoken in Japanese. Both scripts were written in English then translated by the lead actors, and if the warm, beautiful and poignant "August" is any indication, Eska's unorthodox style is working very well.

"August" is the story of Jaime, an aging undocumented farm worker and his widowed daughter-in-law Lupe. The film plays like a series of vignettes strung together by a score that is not quite natural, not quite electronic, and maintains such a nice tone throughout that you forgive its meandering. The film is by no means perfect. Some of the dialogue is a bit overwrought, and Eska seems unsure when to end his film (apparently an entire hour was cut to bring it down to 2 hours). Every once in a while someone will state a theme or life lesson outright, but this can be forgiven since there is so little dialogue to actually worry about. As the predominantly silent, tonal first half moves into the more talkative, lively, and often hilarious second half, I found myself not wanting it to end.

I couldn't really find any photos, but you can watch the trailer here. Ignore the titles; they come off as ridiculous and sentimental, which the film is not.

The film, most of the time, rests on two primary strengths: beautifully framed hand-held shots, and a number of wonderful performances in the ensemble cast, lead by first-time actor Pedro Castaneda. The fact that Castaneda was nominated for a Spirit Award, and went up against the likes of Oscar winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman for this performance, is even more impressive when you consider that the film makes a point of avoiding any major emotional outburst. Any death, funeral, political statement, or big Event is replaced with smaller, more personal moments: the building of the coffin, the last laughter, the heat of the day and humor of jalapenos. Castaneda's face is always telling us something new, and something small, and it is wonderful to watch.

"August" is a movie about being in between. Jaime's economic situation forces him to constantly move from house to house of each of his sons and daughters, which provides a loose structure for the film. This gives Eska -- and the audience -- just enough to focus a story on and let interactions, misunderstandings and family drama to happen naturally. Whatever can be considered a story is definitely secondary to the location and tone, and it conjures up some very
flattering comparisons; David Gordon Green's "George Washington," or fellow UCLA alumnus Charles Burnett's "My Brother's Wedding."

I don't mean to attribute flaunting praise to the film. It was a very pleasant watch because I was awake with a wonderful audience who hemmed and hawed at every shared glance, every keen joke, and was silenced by every minor tragedy. They helped set a great environment to watch the film. If you are sleepy, or alone, it may not be as fun. Chon Noriega, professor and director of Chicano Studies at UCLA, gave Eksa quite the compliment: "It was like Ozu met El Norte." This cross-culture, classical-modern praise seems appropriate, and now that I think about it, I did feel the same way after I finished Ozu's "Good Morning." Like I had found a place, visited it, and left it, only to remember it fondly.

August Evening is playing at the Laemmle Sunset 5.

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