It seems as though short films tend to exist somewhere between one of two poles. On one extreme there are the lo-fi experiments and the indulgences of crazy ideas that could never be sustained over a feature length running time while on the other there are features in miniature, films that in all respects but running time are on par with full length theatrical films. Tran Quoc Bao's Bookie falls squarely into the latter camp. If ever there was a calling card for a Hollywood gig this is it and in this context I mean that as a huge compliment. Bookie exists within a flawlessly realized world, a world populated by entirely fleshed out and believable characters, driven by a compelling narrative and brought to sumptuous life by Bao and cinematographer Shaun Mayor. It is a film that manages the difficult trick of feeling much larger than it actually is, effortlessly conveying the sense that although you are seeing only one corner of a larger world that world is indeed just outside of your field of vision.
It is 1963 and Ken Quitugua plays the titular bookie, a quiet man plying his illicit trade in an R&B bar ruled with an iron fist by Jackson, the boss whose smooth exterior belies a dangerous, violent core. Jackson rules all within his walls, more importantly Jackson owns all within his walls and anyone who oversteps their bounds can expect a bloody departure. We enter on the night of a big fight, the crowd clamoring to lay their bets while the band blasts out some hot sounds. Bookie has his eye on the bar girl but she is - like all else - the boss' property and strictly off limits. But when Jackson raises his hand to the beautiful girl Bookie can't help himself, wanting to help he encourages her to lay down a bet that could earn her enough to get free of Jackson and the bar for good, not realizing that the fight is rigged and she is destined to lose. Trying to put things right will put Bookie squarely in the firing line.
Bao's film succeeds incredibly well on three major levels, each of which is arguably just as important as the others. First, he creates an entirely compelling recreation of the time. His setting is flawless, right down to the smoking hot band on the club stage, and that attention to detail immediately draws the audience into the world he is trying to create. Second, he shoots his world in sumptuous black and white, giving it a distinct noir edge that sets the basic rules of the place without anyone ever having to actually explain the rules of the place. Just by shooting the way he does - and doing it damn well - everything is understood, we know what sort of world we are in. Third, he draws excellent performances out of his entire cast. Leading man Quitugua is apparently a key member of the ZeroGravity stunt team working in the Bay area and while his physical skills are put to use in the film's bloody conclusion they pale next to his strong acting work. All of the support players are similarly strong and Bao is smart enough to keep the focus on his characters and his players and use the genre elements only to support his characters rather than overwhelming them.
Bookie is a little gem of a film, twenty minutes that shows that Bao and his talented cast and crew are capable of far, far more. Now someone give them the chance.