Lucky Life–Poetry in Motion

I’ve been waiting for a chance to share this movie for two years.

In Lucky Life, the new film by Lee Isaac Chung, three friends—a writer named Mark, his wife Karen, and their friend Alex—drive to join their friend Jason at a North Carolina beach house. They’ve been friends for years, but this vacation is unusual.

Jason has an aggressive form of cancer, and he probably won’t be with them much longer. They share conversations, walks on the beach, memories.

Okay, let’s face it. That’s not the most compelling premise for a film. To most moviegoers, it’s likely to sound boring. Mundane. Probably depressing.

But look, and listen, closely.

The movie, which has yet to find a distributor, won raves at festivals. I was “lucky” enough to see it, thanks to the filmmaker’s generosity, and its beauty made its inaccessibility all the more frustrating.

Now, at last, it’s available to American audiences, free of charge, on Who knows how long it will be there? Act fast. Those who do can count themselves…well, lucky.

Lucky Life was a poem before it was a movie. Thus it makes perfect sense that the film works more like poetry than prose. And there is life, suspense, terror, mystery, and majesty burning in every scene.

Consider the first ten minutes—the travelers’ road trip to the beach house.

Mark tells Karen that if he drives, their trip will take ten hours. But if their friend Alex drives, the trip will take only eight. Mark wants a faster trip. He wants Alex to drive.

So what, right? Just a boring, practical conversation.

But, as he proved in his astonishing debut, Munyurangabo (which I praised in a previous Good Letters post), Lee Isaac Chung is a filmmaker who knows that every image, every line, is an opportunity to tell the truth about multiple things. In this seemingly incidental, inconsequential scene, he’s playfully revealing the hearts of his characters.

Mark’s drive would take ten hours, so he’s a slower sort of traveler. He’s a writer, after all—observant, thoughtful, full of questions.

So why does he want Alex to drive? Maybe he’s anxious. Maybe he doesn’t want to think too much about what’s ahead, about what they’ll soon be losing. Maybe he’s scared.

Alex, by contrast, would move faster. Perhaps he’s not interested in taking in the scenery. He’s a practical fellow. He probably focuses on the goal, the plan, the destination.

Am I reading too much into this? Maybe. But keep watching.

Along the way, the travelers pass a sign for Route 22. Look closely. On the sign it says, “Slow down!”

At the wheel, Alex says he’s “sure” that the doctors are right about Jason’s pending failure.

Later, Mark, Karen, and Alex pull over beside the road for a break. Karen, the most thoughtful of the three, wanders off into long grasses in pursuit of something she saw. She’s not in any hurry. She’s exploring, comfortable with unknown territory, seemingly lost in thought. Alex and Mark stick closer to the car, trying to be patient.

As they return to the car, they discuss the aggressiveness of Jason’s tumor. But don’t just listen to them. Look at the composition: These aren’t close-ups of the characters. We’re looking at them from a distance, so that they seem to be as small and frail as the grasses which sway across our view.

Isn’t it interesting that, as the picture suggests this commonality, the characters are talking about the fragility of Jason’s life?

“Last week, he told me that he thinks he’s going to be healed by God,” says Mark. He sounds worried, uncertain.

“Really?” asks Karen. She sounds interested, not scornful.

Alex replies in a pragmatic tone: “Well, if that’s what he needs to believe to feel better, then that’s fine. He’s got some hard months ahead.” Dismissing the possibility of God’s voice, he reduces Jason’s claim to useful but ultimately wishful thinking. For Alex, it seems that faith in God is a useful crutch, but a crutch all the same—a pleasing lie we tell ourselves.

Then the travelers must cross the floating bridge. And again, nothing is incidental. Chung patiently savors the light as we’re drawn across the water on a slender strand. The images suggests risk, vulnerability. They also suggest that crossing from one world to another is a scary business.

And yet, these are not ponderous, heavy-handed images. They remain delicate, particular, grounded in the characters’ experiences.

The travelers nervously joke about what would happen if they veered into the water. Karen is not wearing a seatbelt. She’s the one who is “unbound.” And, she jokes, if there’s an accident, she’ll be the one who is free enough to save them.

Again, everything these characters say means more than one thing. Every moment reveals character, personality, perspective.

Soon, we’ll share precious time with Jason. Played with tenderness and heart by the striking Kenyon Adams, Jason is an inspiring character blessed with a persuasive smile. He makes it easy to understand why his friends dread losing him. He’ll sit beside Mark on the beach in the dark, the pale edge of the surging tide crossing the screen and running through their conversation. Watch: Two characters are leaning against the edge of the great beyond, savoring what they’ve shared, thinking about thresholds.

That is how Lucky Life works. And I’m leaving out my favorite parts.

The film opens with lines from the poem by Gerald Stern:

Lucky life isn’t one long string of horrors
and there are moments of peace, and pleasure, as I lie in between the blows.

A great deal depends on how we interpret the word “lie.” Are we fooling ourselves if we hold on to hope and faith between and during life’s hardships? Are we just telling ourselves such things so we’ll feel better? Or can we “lie down” in the green pastures, our souls restored in the assurance of God’s grace?

As the movie asks us to pay attention—not only to the crises, but to every word, image, and ray of light—it is reawakening us to the peace, the pleasures, the particulars that we miss if we don’t “Slow Down!” It asks us to open the ears of our ears, the eyes of our eyes.

Perhaps the word “lucky” will seem insufficient in the end. I prefer “blessed.”

Used by permission of Image.  For more on Christianity and the Arts see this outstanding journal.

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