During one of many understated scenes in Lee Isaac Chung’s “Lucky Life,” a character expresses the desire for “a chance to slow down a bit more,” and his friend concurs. Such an abstract wish could serve as the tagline for Chung’s meditative, lyrical and yet hauntingly familiar look at the elusive nature of memory among day-to-day experiences. The movie revolves around the weekend getaway of four friends: Jason (Kenyon Adams), Alex (Richard Harvell) and recently married couple Mark (Daniel O’Keefe) and Karen (Megan McKenna). Although Jason is dying of cancer, he seems pensive rather than sad. The rest of the group attempts to follow his lead, but an aura of discomfort hangs over their scenes together, as they collectively come to grips with the issue of mortality at hand.
If that sounds overly pretentious or boring, then “Lucky Life” is not a movie for you. I was mesmerized by it. Shifting between their vacation at a North Carolina beach house and the aftermath of Jason’s death, Chung embraces a patient rhythm defined by mood more than story. Fleshing out his strategy, cinematographers Jenny Lund and Koji Otsuka capture expressive images of the characters wandering alongside the ocean at dusk, or sitting together in a candlelit room, lost in thought. At times, the vacation scenes engender a temporal sensation closer to that of an installation piece. The camera lingers on deceptively innocuous images — such as the close-up of sand-covered hands or the back of Jason’s head as he stares out at the sea — imbuing them with broad conceptual power.
At the same time, Chung gradually conveys the precise sense of displacement endured by his characters, particularly Mark. A sad sack writer of the coffee shop variety, Mark appears routinely concerned for his future, which becomes apparent through passing glances and excerpts of conversation rather than any single tell-all monologue. In the aftermath of Jason’s death, he and Karen prep for the arrival of a newborn child, while relaxing into settled young adulthood. Tragedy strikes a second time, but it comes and goes in a single scene rather than through any sort of extended melodrama. Blending realism with deceptively intelligent visual conceits, Chung conveys his ideas through the passage of time and the subtleties of social engagement. The outcome is alternately frustrating and magical, a testament to the movie’s keen portrayal of everyday encounters.
The emphasis on feeling rather than straightforward narrative progression endows “Lucky Life” with a poetic sensibility, the logical outcome of Chung taking inspiration from poet Gerald Stern for both the movie’s title and its tone. Stern’s 1977 poem of the same name includes several of the fragmentary moments literalized by Chung’s story (“This year was a crisis/I knew it when we pulled the car onto the sand”), and Mark frequently reads select verses in voiceover narration. The source material and the movie blend together to create a broad rumination on existential frustration. Less an adaptation than a reframing of literary concerns, the movie makes the poem come alive in cinematic terms.
Chung, whose acclaimed 2007 directorial debut “Munyurangabo” dealt with two young friends in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, repeats his uncanny ability to elevate seemingly minor exchanges to a place of deeper significance. His willingness to play loose with the sequence of events provides the key to his technique. During a casual conversation with Mark, Karen recalls the time they spent with Jason during the beach visit. “He died so soon after trip,” she says. Suddenly, we’re back on that very trip, forced to contemplate the nature of Jason’s presence – and, later, his absence – as Mark surely does each day.
With their incessantly thoughtful sensibilities, Chung’s small group of personalities is at times too easygoing and cordial, almost to a robotic degree. Nevertheless, the performances remain strong enough to convey a steady degree of psychological turmoil lurking in the shadows. Subtext is Chung’s mightiest weapon, and he wields it with an able hand.