Film Review: God's Land

Taiwanese cultists follow their spiritual leader to a mid-size Texas city, where they're regarded with a mixture of unsurprising suspicion and sometimes startling openness in this long, slow but sometimes sharply observed drama about cultural differenc

There's already trouble between Hou (Shing Ka), a doctor, and his wife, Xiu (Jodi Lin), who earned her own medical degree but deferred to expectations that she would be a stay-at-home mother to eight-year-old Ollie (Matthew Chiu), long before he uproots his family and settles them in Garland, Texas, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. The fact that Hou truly believes the nutty ramblings of Teacher Chen (Jackson Ning)—which involve seeing the face of God on TV, and the arrival of a spaceship on March 31st that will transport the faithful to the 18th dimension—while Xiu thinks they're a load of nonsense doesn't help.

Xiu quickly tires of wearing the white track suits and cowboy hats that cult members somehow continue to think help them to blend in with the overwhelmingly Caucasian and African-American locals despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, hates having to share their home with another couple, both true believers, and loathes Hou's newfound expectation that she'll turn into a silent, deferential wife who never thinks of questioning his judgment.

The locals—including earlier generations of immigrants, some of them assimilated Asians, like the Indian motel owner convinced that Xiu is going to kill herself and Ollie when she all she wants is a little break from her husband's hectoring—don't know what to make of the odd but earnest visitors. And frankly, they can be forgiven for worrying that they're going to wake up one morning to news reports of their very own Jonestown. And while Teacher Chen's followers try to explain themselves to outsiders by giving frequent press conferences, his bespectacled spokesman (Wayne Chang) lacks the kind of slick, telegenic presence that might have eased some minds, especially when he starts talking about things like the magical properties of soda or steaks speaking to human beings from the bellies of those who ate them in the days before God's arrival.

Based on real events that transpired in Garland in 1998, Miller's thoughtful God’s Land is alternately fascinating and stultifyingly dull…actually, that's not true—it's more tedious than enthralling, but finds its groove just frequently enough that you wish it had done so more often. Though undercut by some amateurish performances, leads Lin and Ka are remarkable, and Chiu is a charming, unaffected child performer. The film is strongest when it stays close to the family, whose complicated dynamic is delineated with considerable grace and subtlety. The poignant conclusion neither ridicules nor endorses the cultists' belief, instead acknowledging that the experience of divinity is a deeply personal thing whose transformative power isn't subject to consensus.