2015 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
There is a New World Somewhere (2015) is the assured first feature from writer and director Li Lu. The film was recently a surprise hit at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Award, Best First Feature.
At the Q&A following the World Premiere screening at the Downtown Independent, Lu admitted that it was ambitious to embark on a road movie for a first feature, kind of crazy, even.
The story begins in the by now overly familiar New York hipster milieu. Sylvia (Agnes Bruckner) is an aspiring artist working in a gallery where the owner just doesn’t “get” her. What begins as an angst ridden twenty-something urban melodrama abruptly shifts gears when Sylvia’s boss tells her it’s time to move on. Quicker than you can say Girls!, Sylvia is back in her hometown of Austin, Texas for the wedding of her best friend (Ashley Bell). At a pre-wedding party, she meets Esteban (Maurice Compte). He’s a bad boy anomaly, not everything he claims. As we discover, neither is she so it’s a perfect match. And they’re both looking for escape. After his quick romantic pitch, she takes off with him in his 1970s Gran Torino, a runaway bridesmaid.
As Monte Hellman discovered with his Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), there’s a certain magic when you put your characters in a fast car and set them free in the heartland of America. In some ways, the U.S. has changed immeasurably in forty plus years but in others, it hasn’t changed much, at all. Esteban and Sylvia conceivably stop at some of the same gas stations and diners as Hellman’s racers. New World‘s cinematography is by Igor Kropotov who captures the American landscape with a European sensibility.
I was also reminded of Five Easy Pieces (1970), directed by Bob Rafelson, part of which follows a mismatched couple on the road. In that one, Bobby (Jack Nicholson) is a former piano prodigy who’s disillusioned and running away from himself. In New World, Sylvia has some of the same conflicts but still believes that maybe her art can save her.
Bruckner and Compte have a captivating, off kilter chemistry. Lu keeps the audience unsettled but ultimately engaged. The promised “new world” is familiar terrain, after all, but seen with fresh eyes. It’s a place I’d gladly travel to again.