With his first two feature films, Patrick Wang had already solidified his reputation as one of the most confident and accomplished filmmakers of the familial domestic drama. In the Family is a 169-minute probing of a gay Asian-American widower (played by Wang himself) in a custody battle with his late husband’s Southern white family for the son he raised. The Grief of Others is a lively book adaptation about an Upstate New York family whose various traumas and guilt ripple through their interactions and relationships. Wang’s artistic and creative leap from those two films (now available on the streaming platform Apple TV) to his most recent film, A Bread Factory, is a delightful surprise. This ambitious film — divided into two parts, together over four hours long — bespeaks an artist who is not pursuing a mainstream breakthrough. A smart film that showcases Wang’s willingness to experiment and take risks, it is also incredibly personal to him.
A Bread Factory is an atypical epic about small towns and the role of art in communities, particularly in theater, which one character in the film calls “poor people’s therapy.” Part I of the film, titled “For the Sake of Gold,” has a relatively traditional narrative structure. In the fictional New England town of Checkford the 40-year-old old arts center the Bread Factory is facing possible closure when a mysterious foreign performance-art duo called May Ray enters the town seeking the same local arts grant that the Bread Factory needs to survive. The premise on its face harkens back to classic Hollywood underdog stories set in small American towns, the ones perfected by Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life.
The Bread Factory is run by a lesbian couple, Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry-Macari), who converted a former bread factory into a theater, film, poetry, and music space. Their daily operations are not overly romanticized, although at times there are flourishes of unpredictability and tempers flaring up. Some moments veer into absurd comedy, such as the couple’s dynamics with the young children who frequent the arts center. The centerpiece in “For the Sake of Gold” is a City Council meeting on the subject of the Bread Factory keeping its grant. In these sequences, Wang portrays the inseparability of art and political activism for the Bread Factory’s two founders.
The division of A Bread Factory into two parts is less a narrative device than a way to resolve Part I’s narrative (although the happy ending is not set in stone), allowing Wang to explore more of his film’s world and performers. In Part II, called “Walk With Me a While,” the film becomes far more experimental, deconstructive, and unpredictable. It includes musical performances and spontaneous tap dancing at a local café. A waitress and amateur actress is convinced by Greta and Dorothea to take part in their production of Hecuba, with full sections of the play’s production featured in the film. Wang shot his film in Hudson, New York, with dozens of professional and amateur actors. The imbalance of the cast in terms of acting skills is apparent at certain points in their interactions. Yet Wang makes the daily lives of people in constant performance endearing. Some have compared Wang’s style to Jacques Rivette’s interest in experimental theater, but there is something uniquely American and original to Wang’s work that defies easy categorization.
Wang experimented with film techniques in previous features, in addition to challenging racial and domestic stereotypes. In the Family used visual motifs that centered and isolated the lead character to show how the world around him chose to see him. The film’s long, continuous shots prefigures extended single-shot sequences in The Bread Factory. The Grief of Others played with sound, mise-en-scene, and older, nearly unfashionable film techniques such as iris shots to astonishing degrees considering the relatively conventional narrative. Wang’s theater background shines through in these set pieces in A Bread Factory that are often clever and sly in their parodies and provocations. While he makes the May Ray duo an easy enemy and parody of modern performance art, vilifying them as symbols of outside interests, his focus is on the town’s struggle to keep its sense of identity, and the importance of capital as much as art. Ultimately, everybody in Checkford is a performer. A Bread Factory explores those multitudes on the individual and community level within this small town fable.