Local filmmaker Joe Chang’s first feature, Neutral, is—consciously or not—a work very much in the mold of Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty (1974). That’s to say that the film strings together a series of vignettes that are connected by the characters from one “episode” happening to cross the paths with those from the previous “episode.” In other words, as one scene concludes, the film picks up in the next via a character who just happens to pass by. The connections between vignettes are otherwise often tenuous, and have more to do with the overall mood of the film than with the specifics of the action. It’s an ambitious approach to filmmaking, but one that more often than not Chang manages to pull off.
It should be immediately noted, however, that it’s a risky approach since audiences—with the possible exception of fans of David Lynch—have a tendency to balk at movies that lack a traditional narrative. Nonetheless, there’s a beguiling quality to Chang’s film that overcomes this concern, and also overrides the fledgling filmmaker’s occasional clunkiness.
What makes the film—which, by the way, is actually shot on film (by Greg Hudgins) for a refreshing change in our video age—work is the fact that Chang’s loopy narrative manages to catch something of the quirky quality of the place of its origin: Asheville. Chang mingles the mundane with the casually surreal and occasional flights of pure fantasy (when’s the last time anyone came up and offered to sell you dialogue?) in such a deadpan and offhand manner that you get the feeling you’re in a place where anything might happen—and probably will. Again, this captures something of the spirit of Asheville. And this is something that no film I can think of has done in anything approaching the degree of Neutral.
Here we have an Asheville film that not only uses the unique locations afforded by the city (not to mention about half the people who’ve worked at the Fine Arts Theatre in the last 10 years), but the sense of the place. For that alone, Chang deserves high praise. Moreover, some of his surreal touches—a weird dialogue between a mother and child as they watch an artist paint a picture on a city street—are particularly effective, because they’re only barely surreal in the Land of the Sky. You may never have encountered this—just as you may never have encountered a party table festooned with helium balloons (and magically dangling tinfoil stars) on top of a parking garage—but because of the location (which is the real star of the film) you realize you wouldn’t be all that surprised if you did. That is the magic that touches Chang’s film.
No, this is not a perfect work—far from it, in fact. The movie has its share of problems, not the least of which is the fact that Chang’s directing style is at best utilitarian. He has a tendency to let shots run on endlessly, sometimes damaging a striking composition simply by letting it wear out its welcome. There were times in the film when I would have paid a substantial sum for a little shot breakdown. I’m sure that this was a conscious artistic decision. I just don’t think it was a good one. That said, Chang certainly knows how to move a camera and he does a good job of getting the best out of a cast of nonactors. The results aren’t going to be to everyone’s taste. In fact some people are apt to find the film’s meandering structure off-putting. Nonetheless, it’s a very worthy attempt, and it’s a film not quite like anything else on the local production scene.