In Acts of Imagination, director Carolyn Combs and screenwriter Michael Springate have teamed up to produce a film that invigorates, infuriates and fascinates. Its many layers—like the proverbial onion—are sometimes blurred by some too on-the-nose dialogue (“I spend more than I have for freedom—someone has to do it.”) and political preachiness (“At least three million, perhaps eight million [Ukrainians] died, but the outside world didn’t care.”). Yet it has a visual and structural strength that overcomes the polemic lines and draws us into a sibling relationship that eventually descends into a fine if murky madness, asking more questions than can possibly be answered.
The “acts” are wondrously separated by the peeling away of the morning orange and the cutting of vegetables for the evening repast. Steven Deneault brings those moments to the screen with the same love and thoughtful pacing of the Vancouver setting that may leave some viewers squirming then heading for an exit while others revel in languid moments that surround the newcomers as they settle into their New World and try to purge the old. The effective score (Randy Raine-Reusch and Ari Snyder) is at one with the tone, yet the strongest music is more felt than heard in a dance sequence that, quite literally, throws the characters together.
As Katya, Stephanie Hayes largely succeeds in her portrayal of a woman whose parents disappeared unnaturally from her life. Her peasant-like demeanour—aided and abetted by fish-net stockings and red-leather boots—confirms her lack of assimilation into Canadian society. Magnificent is the early-on reflection of her saddest-woman-in-the-world countenance that brings home character with more weight and conviction than forty pages of dialogue. More of this approach would quickly lift this production into great rather than merely good.
In this world where virtually no one is from “here,” it seems entirely appropriate that Katya’s sudden love interest should be a fatherly Pakistani sometime-writer, Aashir. Julian Samuel’s wooden delivery is easily forgiven by a visage that mirrors lust, love and languish at will. Sadly, Katya’s remorse at having slept with him (“You fucked me—what more do you want?(”) serves more to soil them both instead of digging a little deeper into the roots of her outrage of having sex with someone, to quote another cliché, “old enough to be her father.” Imagine a “boudoir” mirror-shot achieving that post-act reflection.
In an echo of Michael Pitt in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, Billy Marchenski brings a compelling laissez faire tone to his part as Katya’s younger brother Jaroslaw. “Jerry,” as, incongruously he’s referred to by his Korean lover, Seuchong (smartly rendered by Maki Nagisa) drowns his personal and financial sorrows with unending shots of vodka. In the near The Gift of the Magi sequence where both brother and sister have—simultaneously and independently—solved their immediate cash-flow problems, Jaroslaw celebrates his “victory” with drink then manages to lose his grip and staggers in his parents’ horrific footsteps.
Not a film for escapists, the sound of birds, lingering shots of all manner of foliage and the sweet innocence of playing on swings lift the family secrets conceit far beyond the west coast to serve as a catalyst for any family unit that has known the depths of unfathomable despair.
Here’s to the next Combs/Springate installment, perhaps with more show than tell. JWR