In 1998, members of a Taiwanese religious cult traveled to Garland, Texas, to await the appearance of God on television and transportation to other dimensions by spacecraft. Preston Miller’s “God’s Land” mines the transcripts of the group’s actual press conferences for the context (and often the dialogue) of this fictional story about a true believer, his unbelieving wife and their 8-year-old son. Miller deftly navigates his pic’s unusual tonal mix, balancing absurdity, melodrama, comedy of manners and an unblinking ethnographic stare. But the film’s nearly three-hour length may consign it to cult status after its Oct. 28 Gotham bow.
As in Miller’s well-received (if obscure) debut film, “Jones,” about a Southerner adrift in New York, humor arises from the juxtaposition of characters and surroundings. Sporting white cowboy hats to blend in with the natives, but also white sweatsuits that make them stick out like sore thumbs, the followers of Teacher Chen (Jackson Ning) wander the malls and supermarkets of the small Texas town like visitors from another planet.
Apparently nothing much happens in Garland, to judge from the amount of TV coverage dedicated to the cult and the lurid mass-suicide scenarios that run like wildfire through its citizenry. Counterpointing daily routines in the homes of various townsfolk, television sets feature Teacher Chen’s soft-voiced, bespectacled spokesperson (Wayne Chang) expounding on oddball prophecies or extolling the sentient virtues of soda pop.
The experience of being a sect member is largely seen through the eyes of Xiu (Jodi Lin), a doctor from a rich family who doesn’t share the utopian beliefs of her husband, Hou (Shing Ka). Chafing at always having to wear white or share a house with another couple, Xiu is torn between her need to stand by her man and her fear of where he will lead her and son Ollie (Matthew Chiu). Like good Sirkian melodrama, her dilemma presents a strange confluence of deep emotion and superficiality.
Miller’s attitude toward his characters is ambiguously multilayered. Though Xiu appears shallow and Hou naively deluded, they genuinely love each other and struggle mightily with their conflicting beliefs. And even if their leader’s peculiarly Taiwan-centric visions of the Rapture and apocalyptic tribulation seem like a crackpot’s passing fancies, the spiritual enclave operates like a vegan hippie commune, with Teacher Chen its beaming, benevolent Buddha.
Miller maintains a fascinating equilibrium between abstraction and narrative, with long, motionless takes of characters simply staring at the camera at regular intervals and eccentric rhythmic breaks; press conferences routinely stop mid-sentence as Teacher Chen and his disciples gaze heavenward to track the flight of a passing airplane.
“God’s Land” reportedly cost a mere $15,000 to make, and its low budget, overall completely belied by strong lensing and aptly awkward thesping, manifests itself in poor soundtrack quality and the fact that, though the script implies multitudes, only a dozen or so apostles are ever seen.