Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
“Lucky life isn’t one long string of horrors,
And there are moments of peace and pleasure as I lie in between the blows.”
Lee Isaac Chung’s little-known 2010 indie film, Lucky Life (his follow-up to the critically acclaimed Muyurangabo), opens with these lines of Gerald Stern‘s poetry: they form the sentiment around which the film’s story unfolds. Recently made available on Hulu Plus, Lucky Life deserves far more attention than it has received. Lucky Life deals with suffering, friendship, marriage, memory, death, and faith — communicated in an image-driven, poetic style. More specifically, it’s a story about a group of four close friends taking their annual trip to the beach together, and the indelible impression left on each of their lives by the trip’s circumstances.
Mark (Daniel O’Keefe), Karen (Megan McKenna), Jason (Kenyon Adams), and Alex (Richard Harvell) go to the Outer Banks every year to spend some time at a cozy beachfront house. It’s the kind of yearly summer trip among friends that produces lasting memories. Yet we learn early on that married couple Mark and Karen have a particular reason to remember their most recent trip, reason enough that lost trip photos bothers Mark; there’s something about that trip to the North Carolina coast that he doesn’t want to forget. His wife quickly reassures him, though: “Maybe it’s better — this way it won’t affect how you remember.”
We’re invited to glimpse at what they cannot bear to forget, but it’s not what you might think. Jason has terminal cancer and his life expectancy is a matter of months. Unsure of how to approach him on the vacation, the other three arrive feeling hesitant. Yet, while Jason feels the burden of his cancerous plight, he longs for normalcy with his friends: for meals, swimming, and late-night conversations that don’t assume the end of his earthly life has a note of ultimate finality. But what kind of memories from the trip can help cultivate and shape the friends’ imaginations in such a way that life is approached from a hopeful posture?
I know certain images from their trip will remain with me. I won’t forget the four friends recounting stories at night under an umbrella at an outdoor restaurant by the beach. The lingering overview camera shot captures the scene’s setting and tone in precisely the way you would want to remember a moment of joyful conversation with friends at a unique place. It’s the kind of moment when you’re consciously aware of the fact that you want to take in everything: the crash of the waves, the wind ruffling the umbrella, the dint of light just bright enough to illuminate loved ones’ faces. The scene’s depiction of friendship and place evokes a sense of gratitude elicited by boisterous laughter and keenly-felt camaraderie.
But it’s not just the images of authentic friendship that make this indie uniquely compelling, it’s also the scenes from a marriage. We catch glimpses of a probing, yet knowing kiss; the process and potential frustration of assembling a baby’s crib; physical embraces that are just on the verge of sexual union (and given an added intimacy by an understated visual approach); the comfort and pain from sharing in the devastation of a sorrow together. Mark and Karen’s marriage is a life-changing communion that affects Jason and Alex just as much as it affects them. In this film, marriage has its inevitable problems, but it’s not an absurd impossibility. Here — in holy matrimony — there is peace and pleasure between life’s blows.
In addition to optimistic images of friendship and marriage, consider Lucky Life’s authentic portrayal of Christian faith. Perhaps the most unforgettably hopeful image in this regard is the wide-angle shot of Jason setting out to sea on a ship as if being ushered into eternity — or a later shot of him slowly entering the ocean as if his impending death is about to be swallowed up into unyielding life. Or consider prayers communicated on bended knee, voices raised in unison of praise around a campfire, and a feast reminiscent of the last supper. None of these images feel manipulatively evangelistic, but Lucky Life is unafraid to capture the reality of these young adults’ sincere fidelity to God. More specifically, it’s Jason’s trust in God that sustains him amidst his cancer. And it’s the memory of Jason’s faithful perseverance that will sustain his friends, providing their imaginations with a firmer sense of transcendence.
A couple of the film’s flashbacks have a Jon Brion-esque tone about them but, unlike Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Joel and Clementine are haunted to the point of seeking memory erasure, Mark and Karen want to remember even the “blows” amidst the memories of “peace” and “pleasure” because these memories might redeem moments in their future. This hopeful commitment to the past — with all of its sorrows and suffering — makes Chung’s film simultaneously haunting and lovely.
Haunting and lovely might be one way to describe life’s exilic passage. Jason tells Mark that he and Karen’s marriage is “a beautiful thing” that has “affected us all.” Later, Jason’s commitment to God will be a beautiful thing that guides his friends after he is gone. Lucky Life begins with the depiction of a large bridge. A sense of passage is a dominant image and motif in Chung’s film. I want to say that Lucky Life is about life’s trajectory, how we are either led by the light of loving relationships with friends, spouse, and God, or found lost and alone, overlooking the void without a way across.
Lucky Life is like this: it’s finding clarity in the pain; it’s dealing with the pain by finding contentment in the relationships we make that construct a bridge for us in this life; it’s looking in awe at the oceanic eternal and having the focus of life taken off of ourselves; and, as a result, it’s finding a distinctive, life-changing hope in selfless love that we will one day be restored.