"What was the name of that recent black and white movie about the guy in the late '40s who liked derelict trains and Yosemite more than he liked R.E.M. or his sister?" - from the chatterbox

This feature film by director/writer Christopher Münch portrays a young third-generation Asian-American's seemingly foolhardy efforts to save a failing railroad near Yosemite after World War II. Appearing at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, and winning the cinematography award, this is Münch's second feature film (the first being The Hours and Times, a historical fiction covering a conjectural seduction of John Lennon by The Beatles' producer Brian Epstein).

Five years ago, as a starving college student, I had the opportunity to see this film at no cost other than the 85 minute time investment required; I can unbiasedly recollect for you that the colors of the brisk and leaping days depicted therein are: shades of gray. Rob Sweeney, the cinematographer, may as well have been Ansel Adams, black and white photographer of the American West; the long, peaceful railroad and scenery tracking shots are used to excellent effect in portraying the natural beauty of Yosemite and the Merced River, but also in developing a sense of what the main character's interests are.

"Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it." - Matthew 13:46, appearing in the film's titles

John Lee (Peter Alexander) is the son of a wealthy Chinese businessman. His father very much wants him to inherit the family business. John, of course, doesn't care about the family business, which his father has worked hard to create -- he only seems to care for the railroads which his grandfather's generation worked hard to create. Early in the film, John learns that the Yosemite Valley Railroad - a small operation with less than 100 miles of track, very little freight traffic, and almost no passenger traffic - is in danger of being shut down.

John secures financial backing from Pinchot, an old rail tychoon (John Diehl, who has also performed the ghost of designer Harley Earl in recent GM commercials) who gives him a year to turn around the destitute railroad. The railroad's only two other employees are the engine conductor Robinson (Henry Gibson, also the head nazi in The Blues Brothers) who mentors John, and a quirky traffic manager named Skeeter (Michael Stipe, of R.E.M. fame).

While all this is going on, John has a series of uncomfortable conversations with his sister Wendy (Diana Larkin) about her growing away from him; their relationship always seems to be vaguely incestuous, but Münch doesn't develop on or explain this tension with any degree of specificity. While John isn't talking to his sister, he's doing day-to-day management of the railroad, dealing detachedly with faraway legal issues, and occasionally flirting with his neighbor (Alexandra Bokyun Chun) or with Skeeter, who occasionally gives him deadpan-funny and yet perfectly serious advice such as "Don't worry about that derailed train, there's more important things you have to worry about."

It becomes clear John isn't sure what to do with his personal life. Later in the film, a Native American park ranger named Nancy (Jeri Arredondo) begins hanging around him, and although as a viewer you at first hope that he will coherently focus his romantic attention on her, it becomes obvious that he really is not ready to transfer his attention from the railroad.

"What does any of it mean?" - Arnold Rimmer

To me, this film is an excellent example of character development through imagery. Münch focuses this film so much on visually describing what sort of a person John is that the plot stays in the back seat where he wants it. More recently, when I first watched Tarkovsky's Solaris, the scenes on Earth reminded me very strongly of this film. Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day has the same powerful visual feel and slow deliberate pacing. The one drawback I perceive with this film is that the plot is so subdued by the presentation that it doesn't really feel as though anything significant happens. In fact, I couldn't ruin the ending for you if I wanted to; it was so immemorable for me to the point that I can no longer recall what happens.

In summary, I enjoyed this film from an aesthetic standpoint for its serene presentation, as long as I accepted that I was expecting nothing more from the plot than a single character's introspective journey down his own tracks.

Sources:
sundance.org
imdb.com
my puny brain

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