Dystopian Park a Hauntingly Eerie Gem Worth Visiting
An uncontrollable virus has systematically wiped out all adults. Only prepubescent children remain, knowing that once they mature, they will likely die choking on their own blood, as their parents and older siblings did. It’s Lord of the Flies on a global scale, with survivors becoming borderline feral as the line between life and death devolves into something horrifyingly meaningless.
Ines (Chloe Guidry) and Bui (Nhedrick Jabier) are traveling by foot along the coast, searching for a rumored scientist who is supposedly close to finding a cure. They come across a rundown amusement park, its only inhabitant seemingly a lone girl. When Ines goes to investigate, she discovers that Kuan (Carmina Garay) isn’t nearly as helpless as she looked.
Writer-director Shal Ngo’s feature-length dystopian debut The Park asks a lot of its audience. It essentially revolves around three kids, all forced to grow up much too soon, two of whom are part of a brutally senseless killing in the opening minutes. The explanation for humanity’s destruction is kept purposefully vague. It all plays out as something of a violently gruff, stylistically ambient mood piece. Ngo refuses to pull his punches, even though his “heroes” are not even old enough to take driver’s ed.
Much of the first two-thirds revolves around Ines and Kuan. Even though the latter gets the drop on the former, she sees something in this newcomer to the park that makes her life worth sparing. Kuan tries to show Ines that this world doesn’t have to be the hellscape it’s been inexplicably transformed into. She has a crazy idea that the only way to save everyone from the virus is to give them a reason to hope. Kuan wants to make people smile, and she refuses to succumb to despair, even though she’s suffered just as much as every other survivor has, maybe more.
Not quite as well developed is the bond that links Ines to Bui. They have a history that goes back to before society’s downfall, and they’ve been connected through literal blood, sweat, and tears. But the introduction of Kuan puts a serious crimp in their relationship, and it has Bui questioning if he can still trust Ines to have his back like he’s always had hers.
For a barely 80-minute motion picture, Ngo still packs a ton of themes and ideas into his relatively simple scenario. But he has a painter’s eye for visuals and a sociologist’s determination to dig straight to the heart of the matter. He doesn’t ask the audience to so much forgive Ines for her actions as he assumes they will be able to eventually understand them. Good, bad — the line separating the two has all but vanished. But the yearning for a better tomorrow remains, and if a person can come to understand and believe in kindness and empathy once again, maybe they can start down a path that leads to redemption.
It’s only the early days of March, but I say right here and now that newcomers Guidry and Garay turn in two of the best kid performances of 2023. They are marvelous, achieving a naturalistic authenticity that’s invigorating. They convey so much by doing so preciously little. Seeing them forge a lasting connection is something special, so much so that even heartbreakingly tragic revelations weren’t enough to make me stop wishing they’d find a way to persevere together into an otherwise uncertain future.
Unfortunately, that third-act revelation is both far too obvious and dealt with in much too heavy-handed a manner to be successful. The way it pushes Bui into the center of Ines and Kuan’s argument doesn’t work, and I wasn’t happy with how coincidentally the virus raised its terrifyingly ugly visage at around the same moment as well. There’s also the introduction of a new set of characters who, while vaguely referred to earlier on as “blue meanies” (which is admittedly rather clever), seem inelegantly propelled into the drama so a conclusion can be rushed to and not much else.
But I find I don’t particularly care. Ngo’s hauntingly eerie filmmaking style captivated me, the performances by Guidry, Garay, and Jabier were strong, and the entirety of the final ten minutes enraptured my soul in ways I did not see coming. The Park is an unexpected gem that I fully anticipate visiting again before the year is out.
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)