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MOVING PARTS (2017) review

January 1, 2020



written by: Nicholas Emery, Emilie Upczak and Jay White
produced by: John Otterbacher and Emilie Upczak
directed by: Emilie Upczak
rated: not rated
runtime: 77 min.
U.S. release date: January 3, 6-7 2020 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)


The most memorable and impressive aspect of Emilie Upczak’s “Moving Parts” is how much is communicated and accomplished in such a short amount of time. While it is not nearly as long as most feature-length films, the uncanny economy of the storytelling makes for a refreshing and unique viewing experience. The film follows one turbulent and unpredictable journey a young Chinese woman takes as she immigrates to a different country for the same reasons so many others do. Extortion and human trafficking play unfortunate roles in the journey, which may seem inevitable or familiar, but the way in which they factor into this harrowing story feels quite real and authentic.

Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian) arrives in Trinidad and Tobago by boat with other young woman, delivered to a secluded port using a smuggler (Stephen Hadeed Jr.) who tells her brother, Wei (Jay Wong), there’s a “tax” of ten-thousand U.S. dollars owed. They promise to come up with the money, but it’s this extortion is just one of many looming uncertainties hanging over their heads in this new stage of life. Zhenzhen has joined her brother after recently caring for and burying their father back in China. It’s unclear how this southernmost Caribbean location was chosen as a place to relocate, but it gradually and subtly is revealed to be a place where many people have come for years in an effort to seek a better life. How long they originally intended on staying there is another thing entirely.




Wei has secured a position for Zhenzhen in the kitchen of a local restaurant (ironically called Happy Family Restaurant) run by a Mrs. Liu (Jacqueline Chan), a mature woman who may have be involved in another type of service industry as well. As Zhenzhen gets settled and starts working under the head chef (Godfrey Wei, wonderfully understated), she is noticed by Evelyn (Kandyse McClure), a woman who lives near the restaurant. We eventually learn why Evelyn is so observant of the new arrivals on the island, especially the young women, one would assume. She runs an art galley while contending with her brother, James (Nickolai Salcedo), who remains homeless on the street and their derelict father (Conrad Parris), who has ties to local illegal affairs. Considering their proximity, it won’t take long before Evelyn and Zhenzhen’s lives intersect, something that will prove beneficial to both women.

Desperation sets in as both Wei and Zhenzhen feel the pressure of the debt the owe her threatening smuggler, which finds both of them making decisions that seem like the only way out. Wei turns to gambling to pay off the smuggler, while Mrs. Liu introduces Zhenzhen to an alternate method of employment at a nightclub, where she’ll trade an apron for a slinky dress. Things come to a head when Wei learns how she’s been earning money, which puts Zhenzhen in an even more difficult spot as she seeks a way out of her unpleasant situation.

“Moving Parts” opens on the sea, with the camera following the boat which carries Zhenzhen to her new destination, and at the same time carries viewers into this world that we likely never knew about. We’ve heard of the hardships of starting anew in a different country, particularly surrounding immigration, and we’ve heard of sex trafficking. I’m not going to say you’ve never seen these topics covered like this before, but I will say that what Upczak does in “Moving Parts” is put a face and a heart (often forlorn and heavy, respectively) to these topics and in turn helps us remember or realize that these people exist. It’s an eye-opening gift to be a guest on Zhenzhen’s journey, to witness all the moving parts at play in her life and what part she is often forced to play in the moving parts of her life.




Under Upczak’s guidance, there are many deliberate decisions made to immerse the viewer to the environment in order to learn who these characters are. It draws us closer to the people we will follow, but also what the atmosphere is like where they are. Thanks to some astute cinematography from Nancy Schreiber, the camera offers us much more than typical establishing shots. As different vehicles carry Zhenzhen to new locations, Upczak and Schreiber, along with editors Gabriel Coss and John Gollner, we’re taken through the vibrant colorful and bustling streets as locals and new arrivals go about doing what they can to make ends meet. There is a foreboding sense of the unknown for Zhenzhen throughout (accented by a deft score from Rafael Attias), yet there’s a visual approach here that is clear and understandable, laying out who we meet, what they’re part is in this real-life drama. These decisions may seem like an obvious approach for a filmmaker, but it’s not often the case and it’s value was not lost on me here.

One captivating element of “Moving Parts” is how the story gradually shares focus with Zhenzhen and Evelyn, two woman navigating through life in different ways while also sharing similarities. Both women have brothers, and while their relationships with their sibling is different, both men have an effect on them. Zhenzhen and Wei are emotionally weighed down by their recent loss and, while they appear close at first, it becomes clear that Wei is troubled with the responsibility he feels for getting he and his sister out of the situation they are in. Similarly, Evelyn is concerned with where her estranged brother is in life and how their father shows no interest helping him. We get the idea that she’s steered clear from influences and temptations that won’t benefit her and while it pains her to see her brother living on the street, she knows she can’t help him if he doesn’t want it. However, help is exactly what Zhenzhen knows she needs, especially when a tragic incident leaves her alone, it’s Evelyn she turns to. Upzcak helps us to see these two strong and resilient woman as they gradually see each other and we benefit from that just as much as the characters do.

Much of what we see is credit to the way in which Tian and McClure portray their characters. Both actors have an absorbing screen presence, but the emotional vulnerability they convey plays a large factor in how drawn we are to them. At the same time, each character requires a certain amount of exterior cautiousness as well, since who they should or can trust is a question that often lingers. It helps that Tian and McClure have a screenplay (which Upzcak co-wrote with Nicholas Emery and Jay White) that shows rather than tells, but how they carefully balance what to show the audience as the story unfolds isn’t lost on this viewer. The other supporting roles are embodied by actors delivering strong, understated performances as well, but it’s Tian and McClure who leave a lasting impression long after viewing.

“Moving Parts” features a side of the Caribbean you probably don’t know about, one that is typically seen on screen. There are no cruise ships stopping here and no lavish resorts to drive by. To be transported to a place we haven’t been to before and will likely never visit is often one of the best gifts cinema can offer. It’s certainly what Upczak offers us here. By focusing specifically on characters and their journeys, the topics in “Moving Parts” are understood a little clearer, humanized even. None of what happens in the film feel like heavy-handed “hot-button issues”. Instead, the film offers a focused look at the lives of people who would otherwise go unnoticed.






writer/director Emilie Upczak and Chicago-based producer, John Otterbacher are scheduled to appear for audience discussions as the film opens this weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Click here for more info and tickets.


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