Based on the poetry of Gerald Stern, Lucky Life reflects on issues of remembrance, life, and death with a heartfelt lyricism bordering on affectation. Though on the surface a significant departure from his stunning Munyurangabo, Lee Isaac Chung’s sophomore effort is in many respects a kindred spirit to that Rwanda-set drama, sharing with it similar aesthetic assuredness (and specific flourishes) as well as an interest in human responses to present and past calamity.
Scored to harmonies attuned to his characters’ fluctuating internal and external conditions, his tale both follows Mark (Daniel O’Keefe), Karen (Megan McKenna), and Alex (Richard Harvell) as they reunite at their annually visited beach house to enjoy one last summer together with dying Jason (Kenyon Adams), as well as charts the years-later efforts of Mark and Karen to have a baby. These two threads are positioned chronologically but relate to each other in more intertwined ways, as the impending arrival of the couple’s newborn dredges up memories of their final summer with Jason. Via these flashbacks, the initially clear-cut narrative divide between destruction and creation are muddied, as director Chung—working from a script that frequently has Mark read Stern’s prose to Karen in bed, or recite it in voiceover—blends his story’s two time frames to form a sensorial rumination on life’s transience.
Lucky Life’s tale is rather wafer-thin, deliberately under-plotted so the director has room to fully explore his chosen themes through expressive stylization. The film is an experiment in poetically melding form and content, and it acquires weight via the accumulation of its many snatched pieces of dialogue and glimpsed snapshots of misery and joy, from a foot warmed between another’s thighs to a hand gently stroking a sleeping lover’s hand. There’s little overt action throughout, with meaning and drama, largely of an interior sort, coming through the buildup of casual events and conversations that repeatedly touch upon notions of ruin.
Be it Alex’s impromptu discussion of dysentery (a “disease of progress”) or Mark’s remark that he’d like to own a beach residence and wouldn’t quite mind if it were blown away by a hurricane, Chung captures a sense of death’s specter creeping into the foursome’s visit. Despite their best defenses against dwelling on Jason’s terminal cancer, emotional and psychological truths slip out, leaving aching marks as they do so. Though the director’s preference for having his actors strike underlined poses of confusion and misery can be wearisome, his cinematography’s balance between stark, empathetic close-ups and detached master shots poignantly evokes his characters’ alienation and grief.
While the film’s elliptical approach is often excessively self-conscious, Chung’s beautiful compositions—typified by pans and zooms from behind people’s heads, a la the Dardennes, and Hou Hsiao-hsien-influenced images framed by alternately constricting, liberating, and transitional doorways and windows—imbue the proceedings with affecting grace. As epitomized by a single take in which the camera glides back and forth between Mark and Karen as they bicker while building a crib, Lucky Life’s drama is entangled with its at-the-forefront style.
Still, despite this focus on the material’s inherent construction, Chung manages to sneak in moments of piercing humanity, his cast’s guilelessness doing much to counteract the action’s occasional pretentiousness. Just as the sight of Jason and his comrades gazing at the ocean’s horizon speaks to their attempts to reckon with the vast unknowns they’ll soon confront (death, the future), numerous scenes of humdrum incidents (a grocery store strip, frolicking in the surf, a living room sing-along) contribute to an undercurrent of striving to cling to the past. Such efforts are, of course, fundamentally futile, but Chung’s film nonetheless unassumingly locates hope amid the tragedy of life’s forward evolution, with a third-act poem crystallizing his nuanced portrait of memory as both a source of continuing pain and—when distinguished by clarity of detail—the most vital means of preserving the impermanent.
Lucky Life will play on April 23, 26, 28, and 30 as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.