In case you didn’t already know, Asia is totally the new Europe. You can attribute that to the glut of movies repainting each and every corner of the continent as a glorious new tourist destination. Slumdog Millionaire turned Mumbai’s widespread poverty into the backdrop for a modern fairytale. The Fast and the Furious boys took their hotted up automobiles to the streets of Tokyo. Even the Sex and the City gals ventured into Abu Dhabi (and consequently set back Eastern/Western relations by almost a hundred years). If Roman Holiday were made today, I suspect it would be renamed Ramallah Holiday. An American in Penang. National Lampoon’s Himalayan Adventure. Who knows? Maybe Woody Allen will venture to Asia once he’s tired of this whole European jaunt. Vicki Cristina Bandar Seri Begawan anyone?
Obviously, I’m joking. But only half joking. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about the sexualisation of Asia, particularly the poverty-stricken areas, in western cinema (and forgive me for using the similarly lazy and dismissive term ‘western’). At its worst, you have Sex and the City 2. Even at its very best, the films can come across as somewhat exploitative. Not so with Claire McCarthy’s The Waiting City, a sumptuously photographed and fully realised emotional journey into the heart of India. It recalls both Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (two films that I personally adore, but yes, are criticised for their orientalism). It similarly features lost characters searching for meaning and a cure to their existential angst in a mysterious new land. The difference? It features genuine characters outside of our Caucasian protagonists, and dares to suggest, “Hey, maybe these white people don’t deserve to look down upon all Asian people? And perhaps their deeply ingrained psychological issues can’t be cured by some hocus-pocus Eastern mysticism?”
Joel Edgerton and Radha Mitchell star as Ben and Fiona Simmons, an affluent Australian couple who head to Calcutta to pick up their newly-adopted daughter Lakshmi. Although both seem genuinely excited about inviting a new life into their family, Fiona approaches the trip the way someone would approach having to pick up a package from the post office: excited for the parcel, but annoyed to have been inconvenienced by the trip. She’s a lawyer, and has no choice but to take her work with her on their voyage. Ben, a formerly successful musician, is content to tell Fiona to loosen up, and spends all his time strumming generic Jack Johnson-esque pop-folk songs on his guitar. At first, Ben and Fiona come across as d-bags of the highest degree.
As a reviewer who has endless patience for Wes Anderson’s similarly self-involved characters, I was concerned that I would quickly tire of Ben and Fiona’s antics. But something happens. No, they don’t undergo an instant epiphany that changes them into better people. As the film goes on, and as the couple are told by Lakshmi’s case worker they will have to wait a few weeks before they can see their daughter, the full dimensions of their personalities are revealed. And to the credit of writer/director McCarthy and the performances of Edgerton and Mitchell, these are fully-realised characters. The subtleties of their relationship are slowly unveiled; their fragility is tested time and time again. Both characters – particularly Fiona – are completely broken down and rebuilt during their time in India. Whether it’ll keep is a different question. But the people we meet at the beginning of the film are not the same as ones we farewell at the end.
Edgerton and Mitchell are aided by two stellar supporting performances. Samrat Charkrabarti plays their driver Krishna, and although he flirts with playing the character as both pitiable and pious, he reveals a stubbornness that is both unexpected and appreciated. Compare that to the slaves (yes, they’re slaves) in Sex and the City 2 (and I’ll keep referencing that movie in a derogatory manner until it stops being racist). Tillotama Shome also has a small but significant role as Sister Tessila, the young woman who raised Lakshmi from birth at the mission. As Fiona begins to question her worth as a mother, Shome’s Tessila provides some worthwhile perspective. That being said, Isabel Lucas’ inclusion as an Australian muso and former friend of Ben’s is totally unnecessary. Her character seems to have reached some sort of Indian enlightenment. She was more believable as a robot.
Much of the joy of The Waiting City comes from the slow unraveling of the characters relationships, as well as in the gorgeous cinematography of Denson Baker. Indeed, the film’s final third introduces a whole new element that I dare not even hint towards, lest I ruin it for the rest of you. The Waiting City is a joyous experience; full of life and love. It makes a trend – even one that begets Sex and the City 2 – worthwhile.