An Unpredictable Journey
Emilie Upczak’s “Moving Parts” looks at how much is communicated and accomplished in a short amount of time. We follow the unpredictable journey of a young Chinese woman as she immigrates to a different country for the same reasons so many others do. Extortion and human trafficking play roles in the journey and the way in they factor into this harrowing story feels quite real and authentic.
Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian) comes to Trinidad and Tobago by boat with other young woman and is brought to a secluded port via a smuggler who tells her brother, Wei (Jay Wong) that he owes a “tax” of ten-thousand U.S. dollars. They promise to come up with the money, but it’s this extortion is just one of many 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 is not clear why or how this location was chosen as a place to relocate, but we eventually see it to be a place where many people have come for years in an effort to find better lives. How long they intended on staying there is something else.
Wei secured a position for Zhenzhen in the kitchen of a local restaurant run by a Mrs. Liu (Jacqueline Chan), a mature woman who may be involved in another type of service industry as well. As Zhenzhen gets settled and starts working under the head chef (Godfrey Wei), she is noticed by Evelyn (Kandyse McClure), a woman who lives nearby. We eventually learn why Evelyn is so observant of the new arrivals to the island. She runs an art gallery while dealing with her brother, James (Nickolai Salcedo), who is homeless and on the street. Her derelict father (Conrad Parris) is also of great concern. He has ties to local illegal affairs. It doesn’t take long before Evelyn and Zhenzhen’s lives intersect and this is beneficial to both women.
Desperation sets in as both Wei and Zhenzhen feel the pressure of the debt they owe to her smuggler and they make decisions that seem to be the only way out. Wei turns to gambling and Zhenzhen to an alternate method of employment at a nightclub. 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 ties to get out of the situation.
“Moving Parts” opens on the sea, with the camera following the boat which carries Zhenzhen to her new home as it carries the audience into this world that we probably never knew about. We’ve all heard of the hardships of starting anew in a different country, particularly regarding immigration, and we’ve all heard of sex trafficking. “Moving Parts” is put a face and a heart on these topics and in turn helps us realize that these people exist. Each of us is a guest on Zhenzhen’s journey, witnessing all the moving parts at play in her life and what part she is often forced to play.
Director Upczak immerses us into the environment in order to learn who these characters are. We come closer to the people we follow and to the atmosphere where they are. The camera gives much more than typical establishing shots, we’re taken through the 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 and a visual approach here that is clear and understandable. 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 siblings are different, both men have an effect on them. Zhenzhen and Wei are emotionally weighed down by their recent loss of their father 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. She seems to avoid influences and temptations that won’t benefit her and while it pains her to see her brother living as he does yet she knows she can’t help him if he doesn’t want it. Help is exactly what Zhenzhen knows she needs, especially when a tragic incident leaves her alone and she turns to Evelyn. These two strong and resilient woman gradually see each other and we benefit from that just as much as they do.
Much of what we see is because of how the actresses portray their characters. Both 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 needs a certain amount of exterior cautiousness as well, since they do not know who they can trust. The screenplay (co-written by Upczak, Nicholas Emery and Jay White) shows rather than tells and carefully balances what to show the audience as the story unfolds.
Ths is a well-intentioned film that covers a lot of familiar terrain. It is eye-opening to see how thin the boundaries are between legit (but exploitative) menial labor and outright sexual servitude.
Valerie Tian gives a brutally honest and painfully vulnerable performance. Her character makes plenty of mistakes, but she matures quickly, which gives her an interesting developmental arc. Jay Wong is compelling as Wei and he shifts in the opposite direction. Jacqueline Chan is chillingly villainous as Mrs. Liu, but Godfrey Wei is the film’s secret ingredient, adding both grace and grit as the restaurant’s chef.
We know exactly where “Moving Parts” is going and it breaks little new ground getting there but seeing this story unfold against a Caribbean backdrop gives viewers a full sense of the extent of human trafficking crimes. It should convince us that the time for some sort of global treaty prohibiting passport confiscation should exist.