They come from countries and genres far removed from each other, but two films opening this week both deal with the subject of loss. In the entertaining, very Southern documentary Finders Keepers, the man at its center loses his leg. In the historical Chinese drama Coming Home, the heroine loses first her husband, then her mind.
Finders Keepers focuses on a story you may have heard — one of those only-in-the-South tales that would have tickled Flannery O’Connor’s Gothic funny bone. Here’s the story: At an auction on a foreclosed storage unit in Maiden, North Carolina, a fellow named Shannon Whisnant bought a barbecue grill, took it home — and discovered inside it an embalmed human leg, severed below the knee.
Whisnant did what most of us would. He called 911. Then, he started seeing dollar signs. A self-styled flea market-level entrepreneur, he thought maybe he could make money turning the limb into a tourist attraction: Pay $3, and you can take a gander at the gam.
The original owner of the appendage, however, opposed the plan. John Wood, who preserved his limb he lost in a plane crash, wanted to use the leg as part of a memorial to his deceased father. (Don’t ask; I never quite understood what he was trying to do, either.) He wants his leg back. But Whisnant says — well, look at the movie’s title.
As the men take their feud to the media, the documentary gets as weird and funny as you might expect. But it has depth, too. As you watch, it continues to unfold, like a flower or Chinese puzzle box, revealing increasing complexities. The story could have been just a flavorful segment by CNN’s chronicler of oddities, Jeanne Moos. (Moos did, in fact, feature the story.) But the more we come to know Wood and Whisnant, the richer, stranger, more messed up and potentially heroic they turn out to be … though not in equal measures.
The battle between the men uncovers social fissures, particularly economic. Wood grew up as a Maiden rich kid, with a tennis court and any toys he and his sister asked for. Their schoolmates clamored to celebrate their birthdays at the Wood estate. Well, the classmates who ranked, anyway. “John was kind of a spoiled brat,” Whisnant says. “If you didn’t know John Wood, you was a nobody … I guess I’m a nobody.”
A privileged upbringing didn’t protect Wood from self-harm, though. Before the accident that took his leg, he’d struggled to remain sober for a year. Following the amputation, prescribed painkillers became the gateway back to addiction. The movie includes plenty of footage from his TV appearances in the mid-2000s, coasting through interviews drunk and blasted on cocaine.
Well, at least there’s a chemical cause for his intoxication. Whisnant seems perpetually high from an exaggerated view of himself as a visionary, businessman and potential standup comedy star (though he never says anything that’s intentionally funny). He comes across as a cornpone Donald Trump with deep delusions about his actual talents and intelligence.
As different as they are, Wood and Whisnant share a couple of things. Both turn out to have daddy issues. Both sought approval from their fathers, and neither one got enough. And both are supported by women who have ample reason to turn around and walk the other way. Wood’s sister Marian, his mother Peg and Whisnant’s long-suffering wife Lisa turn up throughout the movie as a Greek chorus of common sense as the men in their lives melt down very publicly via the hungry maw of 24/7 media.
By the end of the movie, one of the men has moved toward personal redemption; the other seems even further adrift on a tide of denial than he was at the start. An American original, Finders Keepers shows that what’s funny and what’s tragic are often inextricably bound together.
With the Chinese drama Coming Home, director and Beijing Olympics opening-ceremony mastermind Zhang Yimou reteams with his muse, actress Gong Li. (Their collaborations include Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and To Live.) Here Gong plays Yu, a schoolteacher raising her teenage daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen) on her own. Her professor husband Lu (Chen Daoming) has been stewing in prison for 10 years, an ideological victim of the Cultural Revolution.
The film’s first act depicts Lu’s escape and suspenseful attempt to reunite with Yu, though daughter Dandan has become a bright red cog in Chairman Mao’s indoctrination machine. The bulk of the movie plays out several years later, when Lu returns home a free man, only to find that everything has changed. Dandan’s nationalist fervor has softened; sensitivity has begun to grow in areas it could never find root in before. That’s because she has had to become a kind of single parent to her mother, as Yu once was to her.
Suffering from trauma-induced psychogenic amnesia (yes, it’s a real thing, something I’m sure has made a lot of soap opera writers happy), Yu continues to function in her daily life. But she has a big blind patch of dementia when it comes to her ex-husband. She knows he has been away, and she awaits his return. But even when Lu is standing face-to-face with Yu … she doesn’t recognize him.
As Lu and Dandan contrive to find ways to spark Yu’s buried memories, the movie sometimes plays like a strange mashup of Amour, 50 First Dates and Groundhog Day. It can be as frustrating to watch as it is for Lu to find a way back into his wife’s memory. Actress Gong, usually so fine, sometimes seems a step removed from her character. You can see her play-acting at portraying this older, afflicted woman.
Still, the film manages to reach a poignant conclusion, showing us two intimate strangers standing together in the snow, waiting for both a person and a past life that can never, ever return.
Finders Keepers. A documentary by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel. Rated R. 82 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Coming Home. With Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Rated PG-13. 109 minutes. In Mandarin with subtitles. At the Tara.