The Films of 2017 (4 – 2)

4

grad

Cristian Mungi’s previous films have been some of the finest dramas of the past two decades, socially conscious works which use an intense natural realism to convey feelings of dread, despair and decay. While Graduation continues his trend of using his native Romania as part of a broader commentary on modern societal values and their fundamental hypocrisies, Graduation takes a much more palatable, almost delicate approach to its subjects. While Mungi continues to only find difficult answers to complex questions, his interrogations feel more compassionate than before, though no less considered and precise.

In the past, Mungi has covered issues such as illegal abortion, eating disorders, queer issues and psychosis, though they tend to exist within broader ideas of an abusive and failing system. Graduation is closer to the system than ever before, as a doctor attempts to positively influence his daughter’s exam results after she is attacked. What begins as an attempt to skew an unfair result to her benefit becomes a case of perpetuity; that by condoning and facilitating a system in its dishonesty, you are simply asserting its and reinforcing its corruption. In doing so, you remove the independence and autonomy of those below it.

This broader idea mirrors the domestic focus of much of the film, drawing parallels between the whispered corruption of the state and the domineering presence and expectation placed upon children in their home lives. In doing so, Mungi humanises the processes and manipulations which exist within systems, simply by categorising them as products multiple human weaknesses. However, once entangled, the reasoning and rationale cannot be deciphered and regardless of intent, engaging in corruption merely breeds further corruption.


3

level

Taking place almost entirely on a small farm in Somerset, The Levelling is an expansive film of remarkable restraint which alchemizes contrasting feelings of resentment and kindness to fashion something penetrating and elegiac. Hope Dickinson Leach’s debut as both director and screenwriter finds her populating her film with intricate, personal details which she audaciously refuses to authoritatively expand upon, content in constructing an image that is idiomatic to her characters rather than pandering or expositing to an audience.

The Levelling initially appears to be furrowing itself into a mystery, as a sister returns to her childhood family farm to find her brother has died from a self-inflicted wound. Her father, boisterous and seemingly pathologically disinterested, refuses to confront the death, continuing to act as if all were normal. However, much like the flooded farmhouse at its centre, there is an undercurrent of unspoken despair and guilt. The Levelling takes its time to dig through its characters histories in an organic yet pressing way, examining their insecurities, flaws and grief with a commiserate eye.

On the outskirts of the human story, there’s an emphasis placed upon the inability of nature to react or care to the psychological weight of the central characters. There’s a sense that this seeming lack of meaning or purpose has unreasonably formed certain worldviews within the film, forcing a breakdown of communication and letting unspoken pain root itself and take control. Despite these nihilistic ruminations, in the final moments a wave of empathy breaks through, a momentous powerful force that changes the outlook from one of bleak stoicism to profound human understanding. This refusal to succumb to silence, detachment and false imperturbability brings an emotional intimacy and comprehension to a world seemingly bereft of understanding. It gives a faint but tangible ray of hope, with the knowledge that a destructive cycle can only be perpetuated if left unacknowledged.


2

lady bird

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a small marvel, an intimate buzz through the final high school year of a teenage girl in Sacramento. Honest to the point of frequent discomfort, the true joy of Lady Bird is how softly and without irony it allows itself to be. In a genre often mired by archness and sardonic stylings, Lady Bird soars on sincerity, nostalgia and gentle sentimentality. The nostalgia and sentimentality never consume the film, with the titular character’s acerbic, selfish and ungainly nature presented without apology or recourse. She is endearing despite herself, captured with wit and occasional bursts of kindness which signal a greater maturation and depth to come.

Gerwig’s screenplay evokes a sense of disillusionment of place and people not simply through dialogue, but through its intelligent structure. While the film chooses to employ a few impressionist flashbacks towards the end,  it mostly paces itself and reveals itself in the manner of memory. The story unfolds over a year but feels like a collection of vital, alive, subjective snapshots, often capturing a single exchange or line of dialogue and moving on. Whether these memories are embarrassing, poignant or destructive, they all come together to form something perceptible and revealing, like a warm recollection, recounted by someone slightly older and wiser.

There’s a selflessness at the heart of Lady Bird, in both the film and the character. It’s not a film about developing the singular identity or affirming the nature of its central character. Gerwig instead uses and dismantles the staid fallbacks of stories about young adults to cover a broader canvas. The journey that Lady Bird takes isn’t one of self-fulfilment, but rather one of finding yourself in other people and the places you call home, and understanding that others live their own internal lives. This poetic reverence for home and nostalgia doesn’t come across as trite or vapidly comforting, nor does it undermine the central characters meaningful and purposeful ambition. Instead, the film considers that wherever we go, we carry the places and the people that we care about with us.


 

 

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The Films of 2017 (7 – 5)

7

thelma

A scandinavian-noir with a tantalising supernatural bite, Thelma is a shapeshifting portrait of a young woman coming to terms with her repressed sexuality. It’s redolent of Stephen King yet aware of modern complications, disinterested in the superficiality of nostalgia and instead choosing to forge an icey trail of its own. It might be tempting to blanket the film as merely winter Carrie, with blazing fires replaced by chilling waters, but Thelma is much too ambitious and self-aware to be so easily dismissed.

Director Joachim Trier works from a script penned by both himself and Eskil Vogt, and, save for one a spectacular montage, plays it with a downbeat, minimalist attitude which evokes the work of Tomas Alfredson. As the titular Thelma, Eili Harboe gracefully slides from a youthful naivety to embittered darkness, as the third act takes her to a location so remote it could function as the very end of the world.

It’s in this third act that the film’s  suffocating grasp is at its most pronounced, and Trier doesn’t allow the story to close cathartically or spectacularly, its ambiguities allowing themselves to beguile and permeate. It suits the character, having slowly unravelled part of herself but still without complete understanding or meaning. Perhaps she’ll never find a whole truth, but what’s valuable is she’s no longer denied the opportunity to search for it.


6

lady macbeth

A young woman, wed to an older nobleman, finds herself in the dizzying throes of an affair with a stablehand. It all sounds very typical, with the reliably distasteful sexual politics of the genre painting the opening movements with an assured but audible sigh. However, Lady Macbeth reaches its logical culmination relatively early into proceedings, and chooses to boldly and unrelentingly explore the darkness of its concept. What initially plays as unconvincing becomes deliberate artifice, as Alice Burch’s screenplay pushes her anti-romance towards ever more viscous places.

Assuredly managing the story is Florence Pugh’s central performance, which utterly dazzles in constantly unexpected ways. The film asks her to darken and retract as the drama mounts, and she is remarkably up to the task. Yet she never closes herself off to the audience, even as her actions cascade towards abhorrence, and she allows herself to remain readable and lucid. Her decisions come across as a collusion of entirely human evils, ones formed inside a head where fantasy and fear swim together, with her self-interest denying her the opportunity to divorce them. This ruminating, illuminating character study allows the film to have it both ways; disavowing the conservative, misogynistic moralising of the time period whilst remaining unconvinced of the fantastical escape its genre romance provides.

Lady Macbeth is the coldest film of the year, which is meant entirely as a positive. At a relatively brisk 89 minutes, it’s impressive how much it manages to freeze itself over, portraying a Victorian forbidden romance that capitalises on than dispenses with its tropes, more interested in burrowing itself within a bed of inhumane truculence. The toxic fetishization of a fake romantic ideal is the arrow that plunges itself into the story’s heart, and all that remains is bitterness. “It is done”, indeed.


5

personal

Personal Shopper is possibly the film that has lingered most in my head this year, as over the months its spectres of grief, isolation and duality have taken shape and rearranged themselves to take on deeper meaning. It’s an almost impossibly difficult film to talk about thoroughly and convincingly, with its stark genre permutations and inclinations covering a plot ambiguous to the point of frustration.

Kristen Stewart gives one of her finest performances as Maureen, an isolated American living in Paris, who is attempting to connect with her recently deceased twin. The film isn’t shy about its ghosts, openly delving into ideas of hauntings and spirituality unabashedly, sincerely, using Maureen as a subjective vessel with which to explore the stratum between personal, intimate grief and a broader feeling of disassociation and loneliness. As a flood of sinister, yet erotically charged text messages infiltrate her life, Personal Shopper expands and dilates its themes, moving into realms of identity in an ambiguous, anonymous society whilst sadly, poignantly depicting the vacant melancholy of estranged and missed human connections.

In some ways, the film seems to call back to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo, another ghost story circulating around the body of technology and our place in and beyond society. But while Kurosawa’s film was firmly about societal breakdown in the face of inescapable oblivion, Personal Shopper’s scope is much smaller and resonant. It focuses on the life of one person, and her anomalous lack of purpose, leading her to reject meaningful existence in favour of the unknowable; out of fear, out of self-loathing and out of doubt for her own future. It’s quiet, intimate and, well, personal.

The Films of 2017 (10 – 8)


#10

mother

There are coherent arguments to be made that Darren Aronofsky’s latest film is a failure, and perhaps including it at number ten is a personal concession to those arguments. Its structural allegory is both too obvious and yet too muddled, Lawrence’s performance is emotionally indistinct and the darker elements can sometimes play as revelling in the ideas in condemns. There are very few wrong opinions when it comes to mother!, and its subjective inner nature often feels as conflicted as the reactions it provokes. And, oh, does it provoke.

To mount a defense, it is audacious. Audacity is not a virtue in and of itself, but for a mainstream film to so deliberately play against expectation and form is worth celebrating even if the content is, for some, too unwieldy and unconvincing. Aronofsky’s house feels more like a stage, and his allegory a backdrop for a hysterical screed against celebrity culture, the destructive nature of gender roles and the abuse of women to facilitate the empowerment of men and the broader social conscience. The material becomes increasingly ghoulish the more the narrative foundations crumble, eventually arriving at a destination of grand guignol that maniacally smashes together The Giving Tree and European extreme horror. Depending on your tastes, this could be utterly enrapturing or entirely off putting. I found it to be both.

Whether Aronofsky makes good on his thematic trajectory is debatable. Perhaps he gets too caught up in his notions of cosmic exploitation to hammer down the finer human details in his grand plan. It feels almost wrong to award a film for the bold attempt rather than the successful execution, but its hostility is sincere and potent, despite coming dangerously close to losing itself in its misanthropic ravings. Some say it just takes time to settle, but I don’t think it ever does settle. Maybe that’s entirely the point.


#9

it comes at night

It Comes At Night is a sophisticated chamerpiece that makes a fine companion piece alongside last year’s brilliant The Witch. Both films are despondent, bleak, suffocating looks at the breakdown of the family unit when confronted with uncontrollable horror, but while The Witch fully embraces the supernatural, It Comes At Night’s greatest strength is how it chooses to embrace more organic, crueler unknowns.

Unfairly marketed as a ‘bump in the dark’ horror film, It Comes At Night is much more preoccupied with the notions of survival and protectiveness, and the manners in which they evolve to a paranoid blindness. Set during an unspecified disease outbreak, the film spirals around the mutual benefit and eventual mutual destruction two families inflict upon one another as bid to keep what they love safe. There is no interest or evocation of possessions or personal goods, no distinct evil or discernible moral pandering as the story contorts itself to a place of despair. The victims and the monsters are one and the same, confused and frightened in a world that has long since stopped caring about them. Initially it all feels nihilistic, but the films true central themes blossom with poignancy, asking us the value of our lives against both those we barely know and those we love.

Director and screenwriter Trey Edward Shult builds the film out with purpose, initially guiding us with long, organic takes  which eventually bleed into disorienting static as life evaporates from the story. The warm oranges of humanity’s fires and lights go out, sinking us into a black, fractured dreamstate of a dying world and family. The frame constricts as the situation becomes more and more inescapable, the reality of existence consumed by the horror of non-existence and the numbing loss of purpose. The film grapples with the notions of a traditional family unit and what it means in the face of the unrelenting, unanswerable questions of death and suffering. It’s not what comes at night that should scare us; it’s what doesn’t.  


#8

all me

In a year filled with films grappling with the consuming nature of despair and grief, Call Me By Your Name is a powerful rebuke. Ponderous yet always delicate, it transcends the typifiers of a homoerotic love story by acknowledging its complicated genre and artistic history, but ensuring the trajectory remains sincere and focused on the individual emotional journeys of its characters.

As a romance, Call Me By Your Name is sensual and tender, but never disregards the awkwardness and emotional complexity of blossoming love and sexual attraction. In fact, the deliberate clumsiness of their physical and emotional intimacy only braces the chemistry between the two central characters. They never feel too comfortable with one another, but that only highlights their believable vulnerability, their unsteady conversations and fumbled kissing revealing a beguiling honesty with each another. The sex scenes invest more in the anticipation than the culmination, portraying a relationship in which two people genuinely, sincerely enjoy being with the other person. 

However, referring to Call Me By Your Name as a love story sells it somewhat short. It’s more a bildungsroman, in which the thesis of Elio’s relationship with Oliver is that, regardless of outcome, it’s something he should not neglect for the rest of his life, even the event is momentary. That the joy and pain and romance and parting are all meaningful, valid and worthy parts of his experience. The denouement is purposely unsatisfactory in a way that is considerate of the power of their relationship: that for something to truly hurt, it must have brought meaning to our lives in the first place. Call Me By Your Name earns that meaning, and is never taudry nor does it patronise. It simply presents the love between its characters and asks you to believe it, and believe that it has purpose and value. And it convinces entirely. 

Pre-1980s J-Horror Month: House

I still don’t have a better name for this.

House 1

House  is unique within the post Golden Age of Japanese cinema. Its anarchic nature isn’t particularly removed from the confines of Japanese film (precursors include Shunya Itō and successors include Takashi Miike) but its blending of broader commercialism with an aggressive, chaotic aesthetics that builds itself around madcap horror set-pieces makes it a sui generis popart masterpiece. It superficially foregoes the trappings and traditions of Japanese ghost stories, while secretly burying their tragic undertones beneath the floorboards.

In a conventional setup, seven schoolgirls travel to the mysterious, eponymous house owned by one of their elderly relatives. In a less conventional payoff, the house begins to devour the girls in a series of grand guignol scenes that are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes horrifying but always bizarre, outlandish and mesmerising. The film’s tone is rigorous, though demented, with director Nobuhiko Obayashi unleashing an assault of formats and media in just the basic scene-setting. The film transitions from frame bending inserts, to stop motion, to animation in ways that jar but in a conscious way, with this chimerical nature deliberate and purposeful yet never ironic nor arch.

As the film’s narrative evolves into something more manic and morbidly hypnagogic, Obayashi expands his vocabulary to include almost every in-camera trick in the book. The disorienting layering of effects, shutter speeds and splicing produces an intoxicating nightmare, so emblazoned with bold energy and Kafkaesque visuals that the final section of the film is near indescribable in palatable, reasonable terms. But what’s most invigorating is how the film takes lessons and established trends from his commercial background and slams them together with a bolder, more abstracted vision.

House 3

Obayashi discussed the story and ideas with his young daughter, asking her what she feared when visiting her grandparents in the country. It shows, as the horror is built around a child’s perspective, with gleeful, anthropomorphic abandon. A piano whose lid transforms to a mouth, a grandfather clock bleeding all over its own mechanisms, a ceiling light sucking you inside to feed; these are all frighteningly bizarre visuals that feel uniquely tailored to the worldview of a young child who is unsure and unsettled within their environment. With special effects that are deliberately scrappy yet endearingly luculent,  the film works as much as a down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy tale as much as it does a horror film. Perhaps more so.

Obayashi began work in experimental film in the 1960s, with an overt avant-garde sensibility that was still notably vibrant and playful. He moved into commercial directing in the 1970s, and while experimental filmmaking and commercial directing seemed entirely opposed to one another at the time, the structures of House resemble a thoroughly successful mixture of both. Obayashi felt many directors were too proud to move into the realm of commercials but he enjoyed the higher budgets, making particular note of how you could film a perfectly blue sky. This line of thought is most apparent in his use of mattes to convey the shifting skylines, When the schoolgirls stop at a radiant mountain backed by clear blue sky, they are foregrounded by a billboard showing the exact same image, a reference to the film and the house’s own artificial and deceptively comfortable nature. Later, the sky takes on shades of orange and black, not as a beautiful sunset but as a suffocating texture that resembles an encroaching fire.

The film’s musical score, a collaboration between Asei Kobayashi and psychedelic rock band Godiego, further bridges the expressionist and the popular. Kobayashi’s piano pieces are strange, lilting lullaby melodies that grow and further mutate as House spirals further into madness. Initially sounding youthful, joyous and innocent, as the film sparks into its final act they become warped and sinister, yet retaining a beauty and lyricism which marks a true ghost story. Meanwhile, Godiego’s songs crash in to further accelerate the already propulsive energy of the film, wrapping themselves around blistering montage sequences with an upbeat frivolity that almost distracts from the dark core of the film. House 2

And that core is dark, indeed. Born in Hiroshima in 1937, Obayashi intended the film as a story about the conflict between the older and younger generations. The girls are seen as innocent, undamaged by the war, perhaps even naive to the destructive mark the conflict and the atomic bomb left on Japan. When one girl recounts a story of war and loss, it is presented as a film within a film, the girls’ perception of the events distorted by time and history so that is resembles a sort of fiction.

Meanwhile, the elderly relative (simply named Auntie and played with a serene and sinister edge by Yōko Minamida) represents the bitterness and hatred created by the war. She despises the girls, cruelly jealous of how young and vibrant are with the chance of love in their future. As such, her spirit within the house devours them, a broader allegory for how if left unchecked, the sins of the past will consume and destroy the young which follow. With that in mind, the charred skyline around her home begins to take on a greater, weightier meaning.

In the end, what’s remarkable about Obayashi’s accomplishment is that he sacrifices neither his pop tenancies nor his artistic ones. His history as a commercial and experimental filmmaker is his debut’s strength, wrangling a traditional, fantastical ghost story into a madcap, exciting, viscerally anarcho-punk experience. While more distinctly genre filmmakers such as Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson would come to typify this brand of horror cinema in the eighties and nineties, none of them would capture the lucid expressionism of House. It is a singular, beautifully realised entity that is daring, exhilarating and thoughtful.

House 4

Pre-1980s J-Horror Month: Ugetsu

I need a better name for this.

Ugetsu

Ueda Akinari’s short story collection, Ugetsu Monogatari (literally Tales of Moonlight and Rain) was first published in 1776, and while the ghost tales that lie within have become a popular staple of Japanese culture, there have been few film adaptations. Imagine if Dracula or Frankenstein had merely one or two productions featuring their distinctive visages. Part of this is that Akinari’s stories are reinterpretations, drawing from traditional Ming dynasty supernatural tales and fables, then revitalising them by integrating their original Chinese elements with modern Japanese storytelling and culture. As such, a direct adaptation of the stories doesn’t make as much sense when the elements and themes are naturally woven into the fabric of Japanese ghost stories. However, Akinari’s collection is still something of a progenitor, condensing and compiling its ideas in such a way for it to become a fount of inspiration for readers and writers. 

The same can be said of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 adaptation, which trimmed the title to simply Ugetsu and the nine stories down to two. More accurately, it fuses The Lust of the White Serpent, a tale of supernatural seduction, and House Amid the Thickets, a tale of supernatural tragedy. The stories are distinctly separate in Akinari’s collection, yet Mizoguchi’s choice to collapse them into one narrative provides a supportive structure and a more satisfying resolution.

Ugetsu 1

The film concerns pottery artist Genjuro and his family, who live in a village during Sengoku Japan. Around them is a violent and spreading civil war, with their home under constant threat from the roaming bands of soldiers. His brother in law, Tobei, obsesses over buying a suit of armour and becoming a samurai. Eventually, the two men’s individual greed consumes them. Genjuro is seduced into the home of Lady Wakasa, who admires him for his craftsmanship, and he neglects and eventually abandons his wife for her. Tobei purchases a set of armour and heads to war for glory, eventually securing prestige, almost accidentally, through cowardice rather than being a worthy fighter.

Mizoguchi depicts the men in his film as selfish, arrogant, superficial and insecure. Their lust for recognition isn’t portrayed as heroic or even particularly understandable. They have simple, but comfortable lives with women who love them, but both choose to sacrifice it in favour of an idealised and romantic notion of masculinity. Genjuro is seduced not by the sexuality of Lady Wakasa, but rather by the praise and adulation she drapes over his craftsmanship. Tobei is not drawn to the life of a samurai through notions of heroism or even glory, instead he fawns over the armour, the spear, the helmets, the horses. The superficiality of the samurai image is what he desires.

While these two stories diverge, their thematic trajectory is the same. Mizoguchi pays just as much attention to the plight of the female characters in the film. Their abandonment during war time is the emotional core of the film, with a particularly pointed attack on comfort women, an audacious and notable move from a film released not even a decade after the conclusion of World War 2. A refrain throughout the film describes that for men to gain in war, women must suffer. For soldiers, the women in war are just part of the spoils, drawing parallels between Tobei’s ascent to Lordship and his wife’s descent into sex slavery. Meanwhile, Genjuro surrenders to his seductress for the warmth and comfort of her wealth and standing. In his secluded paradise, he doesn’t need to worry about survival or providing for his family. But it’s all a charade, with the spectre of a helmet lying at the centre of the house, a reminder that Genjuro’s sanctuary is a product of the suffering and destruction of those left outside. The tragic results that close the film only reinforce this, an indictment of the fantasies wealthy and powerful men wrap themselves in  as they wilfully disillusion themselves to the horrors they gain from.

Ugetsu 2

But this is a ghost story after all, though these elements skirt around the central events in the background, leaving disquiet and discomfort until they burst through to the forefront. A sequence in which the central characters attempt to cross Lake Biwa begins to plant the seeds and showcases the distinct influences Mizoguchi is drawing from. The horror in the film plays to the traditions of Japanese theatre, with Lady Wakasa’s face painted to resemble a Noh theatre mask. Meanwhile, Funio Hayasaka’s unconventional score bases itself on Geza music, with rising, droning flutes and faded vocals giving way to capricious percussion. Mizoguchi was the antithesis to his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu, and built Ugetsu around flowing single takes, trying to cover each scene with graceful, fluid motion. This omnipotent camera moves exclusively with character movement, giving a floating and spectral presence to even mundane events. Moreover, his technique establishes itself as powerfully resonant in the film’s final movements, building to a single showstopping move that breaks time and space in heart rending fashion.

Just as Akinari’s writing is a catalyst for much modern Japanese horror fiction, as is Mizoguchi’s adaptation. It gives us the foundations for which much of Japanese horror film would come to build upon, a story of life encroached upon by spirits of the past we can’t relinquish. While not overtly frightening, the traditions of the Japanese ghost story are here and built upon. Lady Wakasa’s curse is a deeply sad one, reflecting ghosts not as unknowable evils, but as reflections of melancholy, unfulfilled past lives. The epilogue is haunting, with Genjuro’s sins and failures reflected back at him forever. By attempting to cling onto fake ideals, we lose ourselves and our identities and punish those who love us. Ugetsu is about attempting to exist in a world we don’t belong, at the expense of those around us. Much like the ghosts trapped inside our stories.

Ugetsu 3

 

 

Serial Experiments Lain

And you don’t seem to understand…

Lain Review

I get the need for explanation and for answers, but for some things I can’t help but feel it’s a self-defeating pursuit. There is a certain joy in having the mechanics unfurled in front of you, to see the way the gears and the cogs interweave, but it’s a cold inspection rather than a full blooded fondness. Arguments have been made that if something requires explanation to admire, it’s not worth the time to begin with. I don’t quite adhere to that, but there is a vein of truth to it. If the only joy in a piece of opaque and abstract art is in attempting to make it unambiguous then it can often reveal itself to be merely self-satisfied.

Serial Experiments Lain is deeply opaque and abstract, but also deeply self-dissatisfied. It’s a show buzzing with anxieties and dissociation, a world in which existential dread is a pervasive normality. It’s not interested in pandering a philosophical worldview or a moral imperative, though it evokes several of them. Serial Experiments Lain is more about a state and a sense of perception, one that wilfully disconnects from its narrative structure to better communicate a sense of disconsolate tone and claustrophobic emotion.

Serial Experiments Lain centres around, well, Lain, a shy and reserved school girl who finds herself enraptured by and (perhaps literally) drawn into the Wired. From the very first frame the show appears to operate on technological dream logic. Suburban streets sprawl and cascade into spreads of consuming white, black and red. Lain is surrounded by a pervasive electrical hum, as telephone wires wrap and twist themselves around her entire town. In its opening episode, the show captures a sense of anxious isolation like a soft and hypnotic drone. It’s a state of awareness where everything seems intense and immediate but we and Lain are unable to give any of it focus or life. The world around us is constant and overbearing, but we can’t discern its individual elements.

Lain Review 2

Lain’s distant perception of the world runs in contrast to her view of the Wired. In reality, she is shy, soft and scared. In the Wired, she is articulate, confident and brave. The duality of identity is an omnipresent theme in Serial Experiments Lain, particularly in terms of the self-perceived identity. The entire world the show inhabits is one constructed by Lain’s perceptions, contorting and twisting to fit the vision she has of it.

Lain’s central concern becomes her vision of her as a God. The Wired gives her the capability to be fully in control of her identity, to construct a version of herself that isn’t subject to the perception of others. In reality she finds suffocating ambiguity, but in the Wired she can find comfort in the observable nature of raw data. Lain’s ‘real’ world is depicted as numbing in its expanse and terrifying in its nebulousness. While the Wired is all text, the simplicity and comprehensibility of it, to Lain, makes it palatable. And eventually, effervescent.

The identity split that forms within Lain is one that could stem from many different issues, from autism to depression to deeper issues of psychosis, but diagnosis of her character is irrelevant. The crux of the show is not to explain or demystify the complications that expand within Lain, but to take her identities to their logical conclusion. The Wired is safety to her, but immersing herself in it only leads to a different sense of disillusionment and a further stripping of who she is. The central melancholy of Lain is that even though her identities seem to grow powerful and ubiquitous, there is no ‘her’, no central entity from whom it all flows By absorbing herself deeper into the Wired and fracturing herself further and further, she loses the sense of self she was attempting to gain from this world.

Untitled

Lain is mirrored by Masami Eiri, creator of the Wired. To him, his hand in its inception guarantees him the right to a Godlike status. But his existence is solitary and meaningless without others and when he emerges back into reality, he is nothing but grotesquery and flesh without a mind of his own. But while Eiri lacks a human desire and reason to exist in the corporeal world, Lain retains her best friend Alice. However, Lain’s ascent (or descent) into Wired Godhood destroys their friendship, with Alice traumatised and unable to relate or comprehend Lain. Lain feels her only option is a full reset, to remove herself from everyone’s lives and save Alice ever having known her.

For a show that spends much of its time tangling itself up in narrative and philosophical cables, the most honest moments come from Lain’s final decision. For me, the only reading that feels correct is one of cowardice, one of a scared girl who sacrificed a singular identity for a breadth of shapes and forms. Yet none of them are her, and she attempts to justify it as expansive Godhood. Her inability to deal with her friendship compromised it, and though her feelings for Alice remain relatively ambiguous, there is certainly a trace of repressed sexuality in Lain. For Lain, seemingly everyone in the Wired loves her, yet the one person she herself loved won’t or can’t return those feelings.  It ends up as too much to be bear, and so she hits reset.

At the end of the show, Lain seems content to merely be a shape of her former self who watches the lives of those she cares about from afar. She resigns herself to that of a a small, fond, distant memory, rather than face that rejection again. For Lain, that pain of being pushed away is too much, so she pushes back until nothing of her remains.

While all this might seem heady and pretentious, Serial Experiments Lain actually carries itself with a brash and unforgiving harshness. Aesthetically the show emphasises the punk in cyberpunk, with a mix of Godard, Tsukamoto, Lynch and Nicolas Roeg. The musical score IS part techno-club dance beat and part shrieking, scraping rock guitar. The zeitgeist like approach to conspiracy laden imagery suggests a self-awareness that embraces the notion that Lain’s perception of herself is a falsity, and we are merely seeing her own obsessions come to life.

Lain Review 3

However, what’s truly special about a show like Serial Experiments Lain is that you could read all of this and think we watched something entirely different. The density of the show allows for everyone to engage with in different ways and to different levels, and it’s certainly not because of a reliance on cheap ambiguity and wide open interpretations. You could read Lain as a show entirely about tone and atmosphere, or as an actual sci-fi opus, or as many other things as you desire. But that’s not what I read it as.

For me, Serial Experiments Lain is a personal, affecting experience about our disassociated identities and how they clash with those close to us. It’s about hiding and fleeing from those you love and care about because you’re scared that how you present yourself doesn’t sync up with who you truly you are. It’s not a show about the anxiety of technology, it’s a show about the anxiety of ourselves, with our brittle, easily broken forms. We spend so much of our time craving admiration, acknowledgement and affection in any form so we wear any face to get it. And we ignore that the only people worth being loved by are those we sometimes try so desperately to push away, because there is fear in being open and honest and singular. It’s a commitment to letting someone know you and giving them the opportunity to hurt you, or even to hate you one day.

But what Serial Experiments Lain tells us is this: “If you aren’t remembered, then you never existed.” Even Lain, with her seeming omnipotence, doesn’t exist. Because she has no one who thinks of her.

The Wailing

the-wailing

What’s in a title?

Good horror movie titles are gloriously uncomplicated, but belay so much beneath their darkened veneer. The Shining. The Exorcist. The Thing. The Haunting. The Evil Dead.

The Wailing.

The Wailing, an epic of a horror film that clocks in at around two and a half hours, has a title that recalls Shirley Jackson or perhaps even Edgar Allan Poe. But this is a relentlessly, unquestionably modern horror film, knotted and twisted with 21st century fears. It’s a film about religion, the decay of cultures and the role of a patriarch. It’s a film about the fear of the foreign and insular, wilful ignorance.

But most importantly, it’s a film about a father and his daughter.

Jong-goo is a police officer in the small mountain town of Goksung, where a variety of murderous outbreaks have occurred. Jong-goo eventually begins to suspect a Japanese stranger living in the mountains, his belief reinforced when his daughter, Hyo-Jin, appears to fall under the same possession-like trance as the other victims.

Director and writer Na Hong-Jin’s previous films have been anarchic in their narrative construction, often losing themselves in a mire of messy side characters before closing dourly and a little too succinctly. However, The Wailing’s foreground storytelling is some of his finest, driven by an admirably committed and range spanning performance from Kwak Do-won. The breadth and length of the film can seem at first overwhelming, but the melding and shifting tones keep it alive and buoyant for the entire running time. Just when things seem to be falling into a routine, Hong-Jin composes another frothing and dazzling set-piece, whether that be the most bombastic exorcism in film to date or a brief excursion into gloriously gory Sam Raimi territory.

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However, The Wailing’s most effective moments concern the central father and daughter dynamic. Jong-goo is not a stoic, alpha masculine father out to save his daughter. He is clumsy and foolish. He is prone to anger and strives to a machismo he could never hope to actually achieve. But he’s also vulnerable and sad. His attempts to save his daughter are galvanised by their warm and convincing relationship early in the film, and his failings transmute from quirky and amusing to rich with genuine pathos and tragedy.

Indeed, the final act of the film is uncompromising and piercingly sad. It’s a reminder that the most effective horror films need to be more than scary, disturbing and shocking, but that they must be mature and adult in ways few aspire to be. There is nothing cheap about the denouement. It justifies the film’s length with aplomb, with the final shots sticking in the mind like shards of glass.

The Wailing is, to some extent, a film of two ideas. The central narrative thrust of Jong-goo and his daughter is one, a deeply felt story of personal responsibility and loss of control. The second is broader, more societal and existential. Jong-goo comes across three people who appear to live on the fringes of his compact village society. There is the traditional Korean shaman, who comes to exorcise Hyo-Jin of her demons. There is the Japanese man who lives in the hills, who becomes the prime suspect in the strange events that are unfolding in the town. And third, is a mysterious young woman who frequently appears to Jong-goo.

Each of these characters is mischievously and devilishly ambiguous for the vast majority of the running time, perhaps even to the point of frustration. When Hong-jin finally lays his cards on the table, the reveals initially seem baffling. But the success and satisfaction of these supporting characters comes in their thematic depth and puzzle-like nature, asking the audience to construct the truth from implication and subtlety.

What this gives the film is a beautifully empathetic look at Jong-goo, while also a touch of damnation. The complexity and opacity of these characters means that the frustration and confusion of Jong-goo is brought into sharp focus. He is a simple man with a simple desire: to protect his daughter. The existential forces at work mean nothing to him, and he believes he is dealing with the corporeal. His attempts to bully and chase and berate that which frightens and beguiles him only invites evil further into his family.

Then, once the narrative is looked at as a collective, his own arrogance and ignorance become clear. His forceful ways with the Japanese stranger, his unwitting trust in the Korean shaman, his distrust of the young woman. If Jong-goo had stopped to think and consider, he may not have made the same mistakes.

But how rational can we expect a father to be when his daughter’s life is on the line?

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The Wailing also has a spiritual conflict surrounding the film, one between the traditional Korean shaman, the Catholic church and the Japanese shaman. The film treats none of them particularly kindly. The Korean shaman comes out the nastiest of them all, a cold-blooded depiction of the meeting of fake culture and capitalism. The Catholic church are pragmatists to a fault, seemingly lacking any spiritual insight whatsoever. The film has a softer depiction of the Japanese shaman, as he loses his spiritual battle to the physical battle of the angry townspeople.

The battle of the spiritual and the physical is the crux of the film, asking us to not fear the dark but to confront it with intelligence and rigour. It asks us not to accept the kind face of every monster in the shadow, and not to spit on the monstrous face of the kind stranger in the hills. When we neglect this, when ignorance and fear overcome us, we bind ourselves to our fate. But how can anyone expect any different, when we are only human, with human fears and human prejudices?

So, let’s rewind. What’s in a title? What is The Wailing?

The Wailing is the sound of confusion and despair, of being small and human and alone. Of being so determined to protect those you love against something you can’t see and can’t comprehend. It’s a sound without much form, as we lash out against others in a desperate bid to be important, or forward thinking, or to try and stop our loved ones from being afraid. 

The Wailing, then, is a truly humanist horror film, using its characters to expose humanity’s insecurities and failings, while always understanding why they choose to act the way they do. The profound sadness that lies at its heart is one of empathy and the wish that people could see beyond themselves, even if just for a moment.