God’s Land, Preston Miller’s alternately languorous and engaging film about a Texas-based Taiwanese cult awaiting the end of days, walks a fine line between satire and earnestness, but the project owes its modest success to the writer-director’s decision to make far more regular use of the latter tone. It’s easy enough to poke fun at a group of transplanted Taipeians who inform the befuddled and fascinated residents of the Dallas metro, via an endlessly reiterated series of television interview snippets, that they expect to be transplanted to the 18th dimension by a spaceship on a specified date. Add in the cult members’ penchant for wearing matching white jumpsuits and white cowboy hats and the whole ridiculous enterprise is ripe for a sort of easy condescension. But while Miller has his share of fun reveling in the absurdity of the group’s belief system and behaviors, he’s far more interested in both the fraught interaction of alien cultures and the emotional toll the need to believe can exact on individuals and families.
Organized into a series of sequences prefaced by a fixed-take close-up of an individual to be featured in the ensuing scenes, God’s Land assumes a multi-character approach, highlighting different members of the cult and residents of the town of Garland, Texas where the group has set up camp to await the apocalypse. But these attempts to deepen the picture of a community and its temporary residents often strike the wrong note, largely because the characters (a clerk at a local Target-style superstore, a language instructor hired by the cult) come off as flat caricature, partly the result of less-than-stellar acting.
The film is far more successful when it either focuses on the central family or suggests via visual means the odd correspondences between cult and town. In the former instance, that means an earnestly detailed struggle for faith involving (mostly) true believer and patriarch Hou Ming-Tien (Shing Ka), his dutiful, but skeptical wife, Xiu (Jodi Lin), who first gave up a medical career for marriage and now uproots herself in deference to her husband, and their preteen son, Ollie (Matthew Chiu), trying to understand the situation he finds himself in and to enjoy his childhood in more conventional terms. These familial and religious tensions are powerfully expressed in a pair of late scenes in which Miller moves his camera in for close-ups as his central characters express their fears and desires. In the earlier of the two, Xiu imagines a normal, post-cult future for her son only to be refuted by her husband, while in the second, the camera wedged uncomfortably close to his face, Ming-Tien asserts to his son his desperate need for belief in extraterrestrial utopia.
Similarly effective, if slightly blunted from overuse, is Miller’s continued employment of a conspicuously alienated aesthetic which palpably evokes both an irreconcilable difference and a strange connection between the cult members and the all-American landscape of Texas. Visually, the film consists of a series of ironic juxtapositions, positing the white-suited Taiwanese as an alien presence amid the main streets, box stores, and barbecue joints of Rick Perry’s bailiwick. And yet, as much as Miller’s imagery suggests alienation (scenes of the cult members meditating in front of a sign for an old-school Texas eatery, wide-angle tracking shots past the aisles of a superstore that make strange the familiar locale and mirror the disorientation of the Taiwanese), his carefully articulated mise-en-scène also suggests unexpected connections between the two worlds. Making misguided gestures to fit in, the cult adopts the wearing of cowboy hats and Miller obliges by shooting the would-be cowpokes walking down the street in slow motion as if to a gunfight, a sort of ironic commentary on classic American iconography.
But ultimately there are only so many times you can frame the same type of shot and expect to get the identical semi-ironic charge. Similarly, the endless interview segments with the cult which serve as a sort of running chorus as they play on various televisions, often in the film’s background as supporting characters go about their business in the foreground, yield diminishing returns. At a certain point, there’s little more to be gained from hearing the cult spokesman offer up details of his group’s nutty prophecies. Luckily, the film realizes that its heart lies with the Hou family, and in a final, poignant segment, Miller intercuts a final news conference with the cult with scenes detailing the fates of the central family’s members, definitively tying together the various strands of his film, as the cult moves from object of satire to determinate force of individual and familial lives. That its role is destructive is never doubted, but the movie’s understanding of how the group taps into people’s deep need to believe ensures that the film remains not only fair-minded, but sensitive to the tortured emotions of its conflicted central characters.