They have come all the way from Taipei, Taiwan to Garland, Texas. They chose “Garland” because it sounds like “God’s Land”. They follow a man named Teacher Chen, whose religious beliefs seem to be an odd mixture of Christianity, hippie-dippie New Age practices, strict vegetarianism, and conspiracy theories of the Area 51 variety. On a certain day, it has been prophesied that God would appear on Channel 18 calling the faithful back to him. God would also send a spaceship to pick up his followers, and they would then be transported to another planet. The people of Garland, Texas, are concerned that this strange group of “Chinese people” will commit mass suicide when God doesn’t show up on Channel 18, or that events will heat up to such a degree that they’d have another Waco on their hands. It doesn’t help that the group wears a uniform of white sweatshirts, white sweatpants, and white cowboy hats, making them look strange and otherworldly already. Their neighbors are worried, although they seem relatively harmless, building shrines of vegetables in their back yard, and chanting around it. If the group isn’t hurting anyone, why should their neighbors be alarmed?
Preston Miller’s film God’s Land is an emotional and haunting look at these true events. There are pitfalls everywhere with this material, and Miller avoids them all. It could have been patronizing. It is not. Miller does not take a gritty docudrama approach to the story, and this is one of the main reasons for the film’s success (not to mention its look, which I will get to in a minute). Miller, who wrote the script as well, filters the event through the experience of one family (father, mother, and young boy) who heeds the call to follow Teacher Chen. Ming-Tien Hou, the father, believes that his destiny is to be in Garland, Texas, and his wife, Xiu, is not so sure, but she has followed along to keep the family together. Ming-Tien and Xiu are played, respectively, by Shing Ka and Jodi Lin, and both of them give excellent performances. Ming-Tien has obviously had some kind of conversion experience that pre-dates the film, and is willing to give up all his worldly possessions, don a white cowboy hat, and wait for the spaceship to appear. Xiu is frustrated and frightened, angry at the changes in her husband, and devoted to keeping the family unit intact, despite the fact that the group lives a communal existence. They have a young child, Ollie (Matthew Chiu), who adjusts to his new life, not without some bumps along the way. He is only 6 or 7 years old.
When the Hou family arrive in Garland, they go immediately to Teacher Chen’s house, where many of the group live. Their own house is “not ready”, so they are put up in a motel at first. When they are allowed to move into their own house, they are dismayed to find that another couple from the group will also be living with them. Wives are expected to submit fully to the husband according to the rules of the group, and this causes friction (on both sides), and there is a terrific and jagged-edged scene when Ollie gets in trouble for getting into a fight with Teacher Chen’s young children (named, humbly, Jesus and Buddha), and the other woman in the house reaches out to reprimand Ollie, and Xiu flips out, “DON’T touch my son.” There is now a rift between Xiu and Ming-Tien. He is going somewhere in his devotion that she does not understand. It frightens her. But breaking up the family frightens her more.
There is a very touching scene when the two lie in bed, late at night, and reminisce about when Ming-Tien asked Xiu’s father for her hand in marriage. They start giggling, Xiu saying, “Remember how you told him that we had made love 3 1/2 times?” The vulnerability in Ming-Tien, always apparent, is beautiful in this scene, where we see him through her eyes, through nostalgia. We see who he was, and who she loved (and still loves). But the dynamic of the scene changes when Xiu starts talking about “where will we be in 20 years?” Who will Ollie be? Ming-Tien will have to talk to him about girls at one point, Xiu says, so Ollie makes responsible choices. Will he go to college? Will he be an artist? As she talks on and on, Ming-Tien stares up at the ceiling, suddenly still, and you can feel the depths of his beliefs and his faith being stirred. As far as he is concerned, a spaceship is going to appear the following week, and they will be taken off by God. This is not the time to make future plans.
But does Ming-Tien really believe? Or has he been swept away by the attraction of a simpler life, living with a group of like-believers, keeping it simple, paring down? The film doesn’t really make it clear, and the uncertainty of it adds to the tension. There were times when I wanted to shake Ming-Tien and say, “This is nuts. You can believe in God without all this nonsense!”
The fear of the future, the fear of uncertainty, is one of the main driving forces behind many cults. As the saying goes: “People don’t join cults. Cults find you.” Cults can powerfully tap into universal anxieties and desires in a bait-and-switch manner that is very captivating, if you are in the right place at the right time (or, the wrong place at the wrong time). The best cults do not need to go door to door, pestering people in airports. With the most effective cults, people recruit themselves. The message is so powerful, so compelling, that people willingly join. A group bands together against what they see as hostile forces of progress and change. I got the sense that that was Ming-Tien’s main driving force; he got swept up in the teachings of Teacher Chen, and at some point, he reached the point of no return. He had to throw his cowboy hat into the ring, he had to say “Yes” and follow.
He seems shocked and hurt that Xiu is having such a tough time adjusting. Their relationship has altered. It troubles him.
Miller has chosen a couple of arresting ways to tell this story: The group gives a press conference to the local news station, explaining their plans and what will happen on the day God will appear. Footage of the press conference is split up throughout the film, showing up on televisions in the background of scenes: at gyms, restaurants, office lobbies, giving a sense of the growing unease of the entire community about this group. Reporters ask anxious questions (“What will happen if God doesn’t show up on the appointed day?”) and Wayne Cheng, who plays Richard Liu, the spokesman for the group (Teacher Chen never says a word himself), answers the questions in careful English, soft, benign and smiling. “There will be no suicide,” he assures the crowd. “We are against taking life.”
One of the things that cults are masterful at is putting a wedge in between family members. If there is anything that must happen with any proper cult, there must be that divide, and it must happen so gradually that the cult members barely notice it. Mothers and fathers at Jonestown willingly held their babies mouths open to be fed eyedroppers of poisoned Kool-Aid. There were months and years of emotional preparation that led them to that terrible moment, and even then, many people fought back, the primal protective urge of Family strong and automatic. Jim Jones was no dummy. There was a reason he had armed guards surrounding the compound on that day. He knew that despite all of his work at making the group devote themselves only to HIM, that it would take some doing to get parents to kill their babies. Regardless, babies died at Jonestown. Many parents, swept away by the terror of the wrath that was going to be unleashed upon them by outside forces, saw it as their only way out. This is clearly unforgivable, on a moral level, but cults operate in this murky ground. The Garland Texas cult was far more benign than Jonestown, and while you do not get the sense, in Miller’s film, that Teacher Chen was malevolent, and that he wanted to divide families, there is something about communal living that makes personal desires and relationships seem “selfish” (when, in fact, they are the most divine things about us. They are what we should cherish, they are what we will “take with us” when we leave – nothing else). Ming-Tien and Xiu, who obviously have an intimate relationship (watch how they hug in the scene when Ming-Tien gets out of the shower, it is a hug filled with tenderness and history), get caught up in the dynamic. Xiu bucks against the demands of the group. She should be allowed to parent her own child, to argue with her husband if she feels that she needs to argue with him.
The other device Miller uses is long lingering closeups throughout, of various characters we meet in the film. The person stares at the camera head-on, and the gaze is held for some time, longer than you would expect, silence stretching around each moment. Each close-up ends with a slow fade. They act like chapter-markers, a signifier that a new section is beginning. They are haunting, the dead-on stare of not only Ming-Tien and Xiu and Ollie, but of Teacher Chen, and of the local ESL teacher who comes to the group to give English lessons, and other characters who move in and out of the group’s periphery. These closeups are repetitive and confrontational.
Miller often lets scenes play out in one take, a risky choice for many reasons (actors need to learn the lines of the whole scene, in one chunk, and there is no margin for error – If one person is “off” in the scene, while the other person is “on”, you have to do the entire take again). Here, it pays off in spades. His camera doesn’t move much, and when it does, it means something. There is a very formal structure here, in terms of film-making, a specificity and yet a subtlety that, at times, approaches poetry. We often see the Hou family in long-shot, walking through a mall in their white get-ups, or traveling through a toy store, the camera swooping along at the ends of the aisles, catching them in fragments as they walk along. It gives a distance to how we view them: we cannot help but see them as the residents of Garland must see them, and yet by this point we have gotten to know them. We like all of them. We are invested in what happens to them. Miller’s use of the camera, and his framing of the shots, help us invest. This is good camerawork. It must have taken much advance planning, and since this is a low-budget film, a lot of it was shot on the fly. You would never know. Each shot is perfectly put together.
There’s one terrific scene, with a ton of dialogue, that takes place with one perfectly constructed shot, and it’s a great example of how effective Miller’s approach as a filmmaker is. Ming-Tien and Xiu have fought. Xiu has moved out of the communal house, with Ollie, and has gone to a motel. Ming-Tien is tortured by this rupture. Ming-Tien wanders the lonely streets of Garland (beautifully filmed), and finds himself drawn to a church. He goes inside. A giant cross glows above the altar. A couple of people sit in the pews, but other than that the church is empty. Ming-Tien, in his white sweatpant outfit, certainly stands out, but he sits in a pew, staring up at the cross. A man (also Taiwanese) sits down in the pew behind him and asks if there is anything he can do to help.
The man is a preacher. The two talk about faith and marriage and what happens when you “receive the call” and your wife does not receive the same call? It is an incredibly open conversation. The two never look directly at one another. In the foreground, on the right hand side of the screen, we see Ming-Tien in his white garb, and leaning over the pew on the left hand side of the screen, is the preacher, in a dark suit. For the entirety of the scene, Ming-Tien is looking forward at the altar, and the preacher is looking at Ming-Tien. There is a ton of dialogue here. It would have been much easier to film it in smaller chunks, going close-up to close-up, but the scene would have lost so much with that approach. The silence echoes around them, with some ambient sound, and their conversation unfolds in real-time, thoughtful and intense. Both actors do an incredible job. It is my favorite scene in the film. I watched it a couple of times, rewinding it immediately during my first viewing to see it again. Part of its power, or – most of its power – lies in the framing of the two actors, and the fact that the camera rests on them, non-judgmentally, patiently, letting the conversation unfold, in all its messiness and uncertainty.
It is easy to make fun of people who dress up in cowboy suits, speak English with a Taiwanese accent, and chant endlessly around a shrine of vegetables. The fact that none of this seems ridiculous is tribute to Miller’s grace with his material, as well as his entire cast who bring their significant collective gifts to the film.
God’s Land is a moving piece of work, disturbing at times, very funny at times, but always rooted in what really matters to all of us: our personal connections to one another. What will we take with us on that great spaceship that comes to take us away? That we loved our family members well, that we tried to do right by them, that we made the tough choices necessary to keep it all together.
God’s Land was made with real heart and true grit (I had been following along with the production diary throughout), and the result is a coherent, emotional, and poetic film.
Check out Peter Nellhaus’ review.