When actor-writer-director-producer Patrick Wang's In the Family started making quiet waves in late 2011, many of those who wrote about the film compared its long, still takes to work by Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Tsai Ming-liang. There may have been a little of something akin to racism at play here (Wang's parents were born in Taiwan, so naturally Wang must have been influenced by the Taiwanese New Wave, despite having been born and raised in Texas). Mostly, though, the comparison is just the inevitable result of the film festival–born notion of a "slow cinema" aesthetic that has become the only way anyone knows how to talk about long shots and stationary cameras.
In interviews, though, Wang revealed that he wasn't all that familiar with the work of those to whom he was being compared. Instead, he said, his cinematic heroes were all "people of the theatre [. . . ] Tony Richardson, John Cassavetes, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman.” Indeed, bearing in mind Wang's theatre background is the key to understanding his aesthetic. Many associate words like "stagy" and "theatrical" with playing to the balcony, with broad acting and stilted dialogue. There is none of that kind of thing in this film, which is grounded in an understated, observational realism that has drawn both praise and criticism. Instead, In the Family is theatrical in that locations are often treated as static frames. The movement of actors through space shifts the composition of each shot over time, new pictures being created as the relationships and power dynamics between characters evolve. This is a movie by someone suspicious of close-ups and fast cuts, someone who believes actors do their best work when they have room to move and time to breathe.
This kind of approach has its limitations, of course, and it may be that Wang's roots in theatre occasionally lead him astray. Paul Brunick, in an otherwise rave review in the New York Times notes that the director "betrays his theatrical background with a slightly plodding tendency to begin and end scenes with arrivals or departures." I'll also admit that I am not as enamored of Wang's accent work as others seem to be. In general, though, it is the adapted conventions of theatrical realism that make In the Family so remarkably assured and affecting for a first feature. Exposition is doled out sparingly, over time, with some crucial information being witheld until an extraordinary set-piece of a monologue late in the film. Characters are neither judged nor explained, but are instead allowed to reveal themselves over the course of the film. As one audience member described it after a screening, “Some movies make you think, this one lets you think.”
Some, no doubt, will find this all quite boring. They will want more fireworks, more melodrama, a clearer moral to the story, and a faster pace. Certainly the film has its detractors. Even as he jokes about some of the negative responses from audiences and critics, though, Wang seems to feel validated by the warm reception he's received from others. "Audiences can be patient, you just gotta give them the reason to be and give them the opportunity to be."
[This was written as a contribution to a Facebook page called 52 Movies in 52 Weeks, the goal of which is to see and, time allowing, write about 52 films you haven't seen before. I have cross-posted this entry on that page.]