Contrasting the patriotism of the Olympics with daily struggles in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Wayne Wapeemukwa’s Luk’Luk’I explores the shallowness of national identity.
Vancouver appears on screen in hundreds of films, but is undisguised in only a handful. The City of Toronto award for Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF, Wayne Wapeemukwa’s Luk’Luk’I*, is not only a rarity because it depicts the city as itself, but in doing so, exposes the city’s own disguise. Vancouver is one of the world’s most expensive cities to live it; the film takes place during the 2010 Winter Olympic games, an elaborate celebration of Canadian nationalism for those who could afford the prices. Yet Vancouver is also home to what is locally known as “Canada’s poorest postal code”, the Downtown Eastside, treated in policy as a containment zone for drug addiction, sex work, and poverty.
By attempting to contrast the nationalist atmosphere of the gold medal hockey game with the daily struggles in the Downtown Eastside less than two kilometres away, Luk’Luk’I explores how shallow the idea of national identity is. The opening shot is an extremely blurred crowd from a hockey game, chanting “Go Canada Go” against the backdrop of sinister ambient noise. Outside the arena, we meet five residents of the Downtown Eastside. The cast of four non-actors (Angel Gates, Joe Dion Buffalo, Eric Buurman, and Angela “Rollergirl” Dawson) and one professional actor with a disability (Ken Harrower) worked with Wapeemukwa to create fictionalized versions of their personal experiences.
Their stories are each told in one of five vignettes, all set during the day of the gold medal game. Each equally emphasize their dreams and challenges. For example, Eric wants to reconnect with his adult son over the hockey game, but when he gets unexpectedly fired, he decides to shoot heroin instead while listening to the broadcast. Wapeemukwa uses a range of visual styles across the sequences, from shaky handheld realism to drug-induced phantasmic visions of flying saucers. Rather than experience the benefits of national unity, each character lacks social or monetary support. Worse, each gets wronged by a fellow Canadian in some way: defrauded, illegally detained by police, or sexually assaulted.
But the film fails to convincingly conjure the grandeur of the Olympics, which is necessary to juxtapose that extravagance with the lives of the film’s marginalized protagonists. It’s not even obvious that the Olympics are taking place. Presumably because of the film’s budgetary constraints, the city on screen looks empty, yet this was a time when the streets were packed. The International Olympic Committee is notoriously stringent with their copyrighted insignia, leaving the film to rely solely upon the audio broadcast of the hockey game for its Olympic depiction. Unfortunately, Wapeemukwa does not find a creative way around these limitations. The one thread that tied the vignettes together is underbaked: the contrast between the privileged few who could participate in the Olympics’ feel good Canadian patriotism with those who are systemically excluded is lost. What remains are five uneven vignettes, which range from poignant to overwrought, more a catalogue of suffering than a questioning of Canadian priorities.
* the Squamish language word for the place European colonizers built Vancouver on