Kwan Finds Tradition and Trasfiguration in Chinatown
No major city is without a Chinatown, each with its own cast of colorful characters, their shops stocked with traditional oriental goods, all hocked through old school methods where nearly everything is negotiable. But as times change and the original immigrant populations die out and are replaced by youth uninterested in their parents’ time-honored means of living, many of these communities are in a state of rapid transformation. Nearly a decade after Julia Kwan’s debut, Eve and the Fire Horse, took home the Special Jury Prize from Sundance, the director has taken to the streets of her hometown’s own Chinatown in Vancouver. As it turns out, the situation there is no different, its lingering shops hang in the balance as elders reach their 80s and 90s, young entrepreneurs reinvent recently closed up storefronts, big business outsiders reap the benefits of cheap real estate and others seek to turn the community into a literal museum as if Chinatown were already dead and gone. Taking her film’s title, Everything Will Be, from a massive neon sign that glows incently, almost threatening the long vested traditional community, “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT”, Kwan questions back – for who?
Artfully constructed around observational conversations with a rotating cast of locals that include an ancient curbside newspaper saleswoman, a neighborhood security guard who seems to know everyone in town, an Italian shopkeeper whose worked in the same shop for 70 years, a tattoo covered artist whose rented a storefront he’s opened to the public for a single year, an art mogul who intends to monumentalize every bit of the community he can acquire and several other wonderful characters that pop in and reappear throughout the film. Between the old timers’ nostalgic necessity for abiding routine and the hip young intruders who hold a deep respect for the culture yet understand its need to flex with the future to survive, Kwan continuously finds visual rhymes to riff on and thematically juxtapose.
Patrick McLaughlin’s stunningly composed cinematography complements the bittersweet, yet ultimately melancholic sentiment his director has evoked in their subjects. The elderly shopkeepers’ daily routines, the same ones they’ve moved through for decades, are documented with subtly repetitious plotting that looks more fiction than non, yet the authenticity of their habitual customs shimmer with personality, but when asked what will happen to the single remaining Italian business in the area after the aged owner has passed, he responds bluntly with an evident undertone of disappointment about his offspring’s disinterest, “I won’t have to make the decision of what to do. Let the other one worry. It’s only dollars.”
Unlike the rich art dealer whose nostalgia for the bustling Chinatown streets of the 70s and 80s sees him trying to embalm the buildings rather than reverentially repurpose them, Kwan’s film poetically weaves about the neighborhood with an embedded, wholly respectful eye. Her film is, at its heart, about the importance of community and the human interactions inherent in this culturally based neighborhood. She’s clearly developed relationships with each of these people and shown them the respect they deserve. In turn, they’ve opened up, given her the truths within their wistful, hopeful, nostalgic and ultimately tragic version of Vancouver’s modern Chinatown. Everything Will Be, beautiful as it is in its portraiture of transition, offers no solution to this perplexing riddle of time’s necessity to move forward, leaving everything else to adapt to its erratic ebb and flow. And what’s worse, it seems there soon won’t be a shop where one might find an ancient herbal concoction capable of curing change.
Reviewed on April 25th at the 2014 Hot Docs Film Festival – Canadian Spectrum Program – 86 mins.