REVIEW: God’s Land [2010]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Release Date: 2010 (USA)
Studio: Vindaloo Philm-Wallah
Director(s): Preston Miller
Writer(s): Preston Miller

“Is it a sin then to abandon your wife for God?”

I have to believe the God Saves the Earth Flying Saucer Foundation did not plan on their paradise being Lockport, NY. However, when the Taiwanese cult saw March 31, 1998 come and go, the figure of God nowhere to be seen on channel 18 as promised by their leader, Teacher Chen (Jackson Ning), the next move on their pilgrimage towards salvation was the Great Lakes. Before that, however, they called Garland, TX home, a city chosen through a spiritual conversation with the heavens as the landing place for the spaceship to take them all home. It is the time spent here that writer/director Preston Miller uses as basis for his fictional retelling called God’s Land.

Rather than shoot a documentary about the event, Miller decided to focus on a family of three who have come to America in order to follow the word of Teacher Chen. By portraying a detailed account of what it meant to be inside the foundation, he is able to explore the three extremes of those involved. Media reports from the time fail to humanize the subject, instead blowing it out of proportion, riling up the public with rumors of mass suicide, and turning to exploitation and harassment when compassion and understanding would have sufficed. So, through the Hou family, Miller can give an inside account of a believer, nonbeliever, and innocent, trapped by faith along an unknown journey whose outcome could either lead towards forgiveness and disbandment, death due to the false prophet leading them astray, or perhaps into heaven, the word of God true and we skeptics the ones left in the cold.

Both Ming-Tien (Shing Ka) and Xiu (Jodi Lin) graduated medical school in Taipei City, living comfortably with their son Ollie (Matthew Chiu) in love and without worries. But one day Ming-Tien heard the calling of Teacher Chen and decided to sell his possessions, donate the money to his new religion, and follow it to America in order to bide time until God came to take the form of the Chen and lead them onward into the 18th dimension. Xiu doesn’t know what to think, brought up in a culture that saw her subservient to her husband, following his lead and doing what she could to keep the transition smooth despite its hardships. Her family tried their best to dissuade her, but she couldn’t break-up her marriage, deciding to go along for the ride even though she doesn’t believe. Knowing in her heart that Ming-Tien would never hurt her or Ollie, she is willing to wait it out and try her best to talk sense into her spouse in order to move on after.

Shot very deliberately, the pace of this 165-minute opus can be a chore. Broken up into small chapters—each one beginning with a static frame of its central character from the neck up, starring into the camera expressionless, an empty vessel to be filled with its ideal form of beliefs—the story moves along through the Hou family’s travels. After arriving in Texas, the trio meets Chen and his mouthpiece Richard Liu (Wayne Chang), find another couple will be living with them inside their new home, carry on through crises of faith, and eventually settle in to see what happens. There are television interviews inter-cut with the narrative depicting Chang’s explanations of the foundation, answering questions when he can, expounding on the frivolous nature of it all as Chen stands silent with a wide grin, and pausing at the mysterious airplanes flying overhead every two minutes—an impossibility that must explain the existence of God.

These TV segments—based on actual transcripts—are first shown as though we are present, later like we’re watching at home, and finally in the background of places populated by other characters such as Xiu’s cousin, her mother, or the group’s American assimilation expert Maria (Gloria Diaz). Our world of individuals have all gathered to watch something none understand, fearing for the safety of loved ones and strangers alike, glued to the screen rather than out on the pavement to actively assist in discovering its truth. Miller’s use of such a tactic adds a wonderful bit of commentary on the role of media in spreading lies and rumor to incite fear, as well as the general public’s desire to lap it all up, living lives vicariously through what’s seen on TV rather than actively engaging in something for themselves. It’s a move that enhances his message, although I do question some choices, especially how the people watching often drown out Chang’s voice.

But that is inherent in a micro-budget film costing an astounding fifteen thousand dollars. When you are using hidden cameras and microphones in a guerrilla style production process, live sound is hard to rein in for optimal mixing. I do, however, like the idea that the people watching can either obsess about what’s on or completely ignore it to paint model airplanes or sit for dinner—the real point to the sequences. These outsiders juxtapose with the foundation’s destruction of the individual, everyone becoming a member of the collective. Each person must work together towards their endgame, questioning the validity of what they’re doing is impossible—Chang can’t even answer queries about what they’ll do if God doesn’t appear, the prospect of such abandonment unfathomable. They will continue to meditate and chant “Zhe-Wu-Dao”, remain clothed in bright white jumpsuits and cowboy hats because they believe it helps them fit in, and stay steeped in the ways of eternal love.

The love makes a man like Ming-Tien understand his wife’s trepidation, seeking outside counsel from a minister—played by the actor’s real-life twin brother Lee Ka in an inspired artistic decision, mirroring the fact their God will take the form of their leader, the spiritual world one and the same with the physical one—about his faith. He hopes she will join him, but knows there is a chance she won’t. And no matter how much he loves her, his belief makes it impossible to have a choice. Ming-Tien must follow Teacher Chen; that is the only way, it is why he exists. We can see the conflict etched on Ka’s brow in a very capable performance for an actor without much experience. He and Lin are superb in the film, she portraying her impossible situation to perfection, the love of her son begging her to leave, the love of her husband making her stay. Ning is great too as the affable prophet in a one-note role of naïve submission and Chang fantastic in the push and pull of regurgitating what he’s told, original ideas no longer possible.

God’s Land is an intriguing tale of real life events that will captivate in its surreal look at a religious cult who literally believe in aliens, showing the many sides of those ensnared. The film, though, is long and could probably have a good thirty minutes or so excised, improving the pacing, removing redundancies, and possibly making it better overall. Even so, the end result holds moments of worthwhile reflection on humanity’s need to love. Interspersed with the talk of God and faith come resonate scenes of husband and wife or father and son, reminiscing about the past and looking towards the future. No matter how misguided Chen’s followers may be, they do it for the immortal salvation of those they hold dearest. Miller tells their tale with compassion, giving them their due when the world wrote them off as the ‘Cowboy Suicide Club’ over a decade ago. It may not be the easiest film to watch with its long, silent takes, but I’d be remiss to say it wasn’t worth the look.

[1] WAYNE CHANG as RICHARD LIU and JACKSON NING as TEACHER CHEN in GOD’s LAND written & directed by PRESTON MILLER. Production still is a screen grab from the film – Cinematographers Arsenio Assin, Sheldon Smith – Property of Vindaloo Philm-Wallah.
[2] LEE KA as the pastor and SHING KA as HOU in GOD’s LAND written & directed by PRESTON MILLER. Production still is a screen grab from the film – Cinematographers Arsenio Assin, Sheldon Smith – Property of Vindaloo Philm-Wallah.
[3] JODI LIN as XIU, SHING KA as HOU and MATHEW CHIU as OLLIE in GOD’s LAND written & directed by PRESTON MILLER. Production still is a screen grab from the film – Cinematographers Arsenio Assin, Sheldon Smith – Property of Vindaloo Philm-Wallah.

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