Patrick Wang doesn’t make it easy on himself. Though the independent writer, director, and actor’s first two films have been lauded by critics, neither has exactly stormed the box office. Nonetheless, he’s now taken on a four-hour, two-part project featuring a cast of over a hundred and a couple of song and dance numbers.
Born in Texas to immigrants from Taiwan, Wang graduated with a degree in economics from MIT before writing In the Family (2011), a story of a working-class gay man in a small town in Tennessee who loses his partner to a fatal car accident and fights to secure custody of the boy they’ve raised together. As he told Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay in 2012, Wang intended to sell the screenplay, but when he realized his vision would be compromised in the hands of others, he dipped into his savings and made the film himself. In the Family was rejected by around thirty festivals before finally premiering at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, where it won an award for best narrative feature.
Wang then rented out the Quad Cinema in New York—quite a different theater in those days from the renovated repertory showcase it is now—and the gamble paid off in the form of a rave in the New York Times. “Beautifully modulated and stylistically sui generis,” wrote Paul Brunick, “In the Family is also one of the most accomplished and undersold directorial debuts this year.” A nomination for best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards followed.
But a second feature didn’t for another four years. Based on Leah Hager Cohen’s novel, The Grief of Others (2015), shot on Super 16 mm, focuses on a family in a suburb in upstate New York in the wake of the loss of a baby just fifty-seven hours after his birth. When the film premiered at SXSW, Justin Chang, writing for Variety, called it “a delicate, elliptically structured portrait of six wounded souls coping with the aftermath of tragedy.” In the Notebook, Glenn Heath Jr. admires the “dynamic editing choices that rival Nicolas Roeg’s greatest work” and observes that “the film operates outside the realm of mainstream convention, looking and sounding unlike any other modern melodrama.” For Bilge Ebiri in the NYT, “there’s a self-conscious, constructed quality to The Grief of Others, but it rarely veers into the precious or the phony.”
This year sees the gradual rollout of A Bread Factory, that two-parter enlivened by occasional outbreaks of tap-dancing. The backbone of the plot is Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and her partner Greta’s (Elisabeth Henry) struggle to retain funding for the titular arts space as the fictional small New England town of Checkford flirts with the idea of shifting its grants to a flashy performance duo. But subplots and digressions are so plentiful that Lauren Wissot, interviewing Wang for Filmmaker, asks him if he ever considered making a television series instead. He did. “I’m a big fan of Bergman’s three miniseries, Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, and Rivette’s Out 1,” says Wang. “But then the way the storylines unfolded, it very naturally split into two pieces. So maybe a little Out 1 in spirit, but more Joan the Maiden in form.”
At RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz notes that these two parts were meant to be presented “back-to-back in a theater with an intermission, but you can watch them independently and come away feeling that you’ve seen a complete work. Any way you watch it, A Bread Factory is a wildly ambitious yet self-effacing epic about a place and its people, written, directed, and acted in the spirit of Robert Altman (Nashville), Richard Linklater (Bernie), and Edward Yang (Yi Yi)—muralists who paint on wide canvases, yet still treat each character as individuals worthy of their own portraits.”
Overall, A Bread Factory is scoring Wang’s strongest reviews yet. For Jake Cole at Slant, Wang’s “particular skill as a filmmaker is his ability to approach well-worn narrative devices from fresh angles, and here he manages to defend the importance of art, attack the neoliberal devastation of cultural liberalism, and argue for the renewed public commitment to the arts from a wryly comic perspective that eschews sentimentality.” And the New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues that, with A Bread Factory, Wang “distills community and culture into a mighty cinematic force.”
Both parts are currently playing with The Grief of Others in New York and Los Angeles through Thursday. A Bread Factory then heads to other cities in the U.S.—and France!—before returning to Los Angeles on November 27 when the Acropolis Cinema presents a one-night-only screening.
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