Two Reviews of “Way Down In Chinatown”

in preparation for “WMM Fest“, our miniature film festival which we’re running this June as part of the larger Hollywood Fringe Festival, we asked some of our writers to check out Eric Michael Kochmer’s “Way Down In Chinatown“, the one feature film we’re screening in WMMFest (it will be showing at midnight on June 15th and 29th at the Theatre Asylum BTW). we figured we’d let the writers decide amongst themselves which would write the review, but Sapna Gandhi and John Sandel had opinions which were so vastly and emotionally opposed, we decided to post them both.

enjoy!

 

WAY DOWN IN CHINATOWN a review by Sapna Gandhi

A throwback to the German Expressionist, French New Wave avant gardists, Eric Michael Kochmer’s Way Down In Chinatown, is a refreshing swirl of black and white melodrama with a splash of horror. Using Hollywood as a backdrop and the apocalypse as a catalyst for the unraveling of the protagonists, Kochmer paints a classic picture of the age-old struggle between good and evil. His protagonists are morally compromised, doomed from an evolutionary standpoint, and a product and function of the jaded landscape they surround themselves by. Hollywood is just a microcosm of this tainted world we live in, and the apocalypse is a collective consciousness bubbling over with fury over mankind’s disgusting ways.

poster-7Jessica (Stephanie Sanditz) and Victor (Justin Dray) Mitchum desperately attempt to hold onto their sense of self, as well as the illusion they have created of their marriage, akin to any suburban, middle-class American couple keeping up with the Joneses. They seem rooted, in love, and are the picture of success, however each is lured by the enigmatic Annie Lorraine (Ashli Haynes), who, as it turns out, is a “worm” from the end of the world. The imagery is rife with religious overtones, and like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, the landscape transforms into something decrepit and nefarious.

Navigating through this nebulous world is not without consequence for either of the Mitchums. They come across a plethora of classic Brechtian characters (most notably Ken and Bob, played by Kochmer himself, and Maria Olsen) and Kochmer employs Fellini-esque, dream sequences to keep the audience on its toes. Prescient vixens both warn and lure the Mitchums into the underworld: The boozy, damsel-in-distress, Vera (played by the original Wednesday Adams of The Adams’ Family, Lisa Loring) and a carnal, ominous, doppelganger, Mara (Tara Samuel). The juxtaposition of light and dark play off of each other, as the foreboding Lindie (Nancy Wolfe) is balanced out by Leonard (Whit Spurgeon) who insists on “making Martinis at the end of the world.”

Way Down In Chinatown makes movements like Dadaism relevant again. Kochmer pays homage to the great filmmakers of bygone eras and his film pays tribute to fading art forms (Commedia Dell’ Arte anyone?). Following the likes of David Lynch, Kochmer strays off the beaten path by bucking trends and creating a rich, vivid portrait of society at the end of its wits, and literally at the end of the world.

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WAY DOWN IN CHINATOWN a review by John Sandel

This first feature-length movie from writer-director Eric Kochmer runs about 1 hr 22 mins. It’s in black and white, except for a brief color sequence about halfway through.

Those are the good parts.

As text, WDiC is a classic beginner’s portmanteau—an odd assemblage of haphazard clowning without any overt plot or clear theme. Technical quality is acceptable, which means less than it used to, since the machinery of filmmaking has become so cheap. But the only thing that makes this a movie is that it’s not done in stills.

The scenario in WDiC is a hash of cliches, borrowed main from aburdist theater, David Lynch movies and drunken college parties. The action revolves nominally around a pair of playwrights who hold auditions for a show which is never described or, apparently, performed (it’s hard to tell). Their rehearsal room and house are disrupted by a stream of nonsense scenes in which they are frightened and surrounded by figures in black, writhing dancers and hectoring men.

The conflict appears to come from the appearance of a man and a woman, in bowler hats and white greasepaint, who frighten the playwrights for unknown reasons. There’s no tension, hence no climax. The dialogue is delievered in a cartoon style which may have seemed, on the set, to be grandiose and startling; the delivery in the finished film is dull. (The filmmakers seem to have fallen victim to Eliot’s objective fallacy: in wanting to depict disorientation and nightmare, they are instead themselves confusing and annoying.) This shapeless mass of action trundles to a closing nightclub scene where the players sing a folksong surrounded by actors pretending to be stoned.

None of this comes close to making any dramatic sense. What wisps of plot are promised by the first few minutes are soon abandoned in a welter of received stylistic tropes and cabaret-style overplaying. The acting, delivered mainly at a junior-college level of believability, does more to obscure than to clarify the characters’ desires. Since we’re not given anything to know about these people, we’re left to our own devices; it’s like the filmmakers left the building but forgot to turn off the camera.

poster-pic-1About a third of the way through, the audio is subsumed by an annoying electronic whine and we’re given flashing lights and out-of-focus B-roll of nighttime city streets. The noise returned about two-thirds of the way through. At that point, I turned the sound down and watched the images go by. There are some nice black tones in the early parts. The colors in the middle are pretty, if only as a relief to the unremitting and irrelevant black-&-white videography.

As a first effort, WDiC should be commended. Its pretty clear that the imagination behind the film loves the idea of seediness without having had any experience of being poor; idolizes the milieu of the drug-addled and stuporous withough having any interest in the human consequences of depravity; spent too many nights in college watching silent films without absorbing any of their considerable craft; and has so little connection to its audience that it mistakes slapdash improvisation for inspired performance.

I absolutely love the fact that Kochmer & Co. felt they had to make this mess. They seem to have a lot of energy and have accomplished what so few beginners do: they finished a feature length movie. Now that have they have WDiC out of their system, they can take a scriptwriting class, watch some movies which make sense—movies which show people with problems we can at least identify, if not identify with—and maybe turn something out which lets the rest of us join in the fun.