The Red House
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 17th March 2013
New Zealand filmmaker and choreographer Alyx Duncan has produced a magnificent first feature which has all the hallmarks of a personal story lovingly crafted by someone with a real flair for the visual.
Taking the interesting (and potentially risky) decision to direct her non-acting parents in the lead roles, she introduces us to a couple whose love transcends language barriers and embraces cultural differences. It is impressively affecting in its purity and simplicity.
Jia and Lee live in a red house in the bush on an island. Eschewing recognisable New Zealand landmarks and scenes with quirky characters in the local dairy, the focus is on the couple’s daily interactions. It is a tribute to the director and her cinematographers that every scene is exquisitely shot, and that even in moments when little happens, it is completely enthralling (the de-cobwebbing of a window frame turns into a mini nature documentary).
When Jia returns to China to look after her ailing parents, Lee is left to sort out their house and its twenty years of shared history. Meanwhie, Jia faces her homeland for the first time in decades, negotiating the changes and similarities. Through the director’s restraint and perfectly-pitched instinct – nothing is unduly spelt out in this peaceful film, we simply watch and learn – we consider notions of identity, home and connection.
If initially you’re wondering “is this drama or documentary?” since the film’s style merges both, ultimately it’s so enveloping that you don’t care. However, as it turns out, the casting is inspired. The film is not so much about what happens as to whom. When the “action” is therefore Jia taking out the rubbish and scrubbing a tiled floor, what a blessing then that we can’t take our eyes off this effortlessly understated woman. It is Lee’s devotion to Jia that infuses the story, but it is Jia whom I could watch for hours.