The premise of a 10-year-old left by her separated parents to look after her ailing grandfather isn’t a hopeful one. It makes matters worse that her family was forced to leave its home in Bikini Atoll following the nuclear testing in the ’40s and ’50s. Yet in the hands of producer/directors Jack Niedenthal and Suzanne Chutaro, THE SOUNDS OF CRICKETS AT NIGHT skillfully balances deadly radiation with the supernatural, family dysfunction with innocence, and isolation with inner peace. The results are oddly charming yet shadowed by darkness so that it never becomes cloying. It recalls the restrained wonder of renowned Thai director Apichatpong Weerasthakul, as further tempered by the darkness of David Lynch.
When the burdened and isolated granddaughter Kali becomes dangerously sad and unhealthy, her grandfather Jebuki summons a Marshallese deity, Worejabato, to heal her. Shortly afterward, a bearded, barefoot, and amnesiac American (played by Niedenthal) is washed ashore. He effortlessly blends into Kali’s life, but could he really be Worejabato? The fantastic, arty, and appeal is further carried out by a cast of local, nonprofessional actors playing themselves. A priest plays the priest, while city workers and council people take on similar roles. What really makes the movie work is kids acting like kids — a miracle even in films with big budgets. That’s what allows elements of magic to not only take place but actually work. The supporting cast is equally and wonderfully odd, as well, including a bald and tattooed spirit, mystical quibbling conjoined twins, and a tourist who is convinced that Worejabato stole $3,000 from her and pursues him with gusto of the paperboy in BETTER OFF DEAD.
Other images aren’t so cute. In addition to the little girl being teased and there is stock footage of playful island life followed by mushroom clouds and locals being treated for radiation disease. Displacement from home, broken family, loss of identity, and eroding tradition are only some of the themes that are presented dreamily yet effectively in this modest and skillful film. The special effects are cheap but THE SOUND OF CRICKETS AT NIGHTis rich with culture, heart, and intelligence.
Synopsis written by: Martin Wong