Night Fishing (2011)

Night Fishing (파란만장, or Paranmanjang, which literally means: 'Ups and Downs’, or better interpreted as ’An Eventful Life’ in the context of the film) is a short film directed by an acclaimed South Korean auteur, Park Chan-wook. It was written by PARKing CHANce, a team of brothers, Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong. It won the Golden Bear for the Short Film at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival and solidified Park’s critical standing as one of the most original directors of his generation. Whilst a certain technical aspect of the direction did much to distract from the creative feat achieved by this movie at the time of release (the entire film was shot by iPhone 4), we now have a sufficient distance from the hype originated from such a technical ‘novelty’ and thus are in a better position to assess their achievement with this film. Night Fishing shows that a short film should not be judged as a smaller and cheaper version of a feature film: in its best form, a short film can eliminate temptations to develop superfluous side plots or characters, and crystallise what it is that a director wants to express without being reductive. Since I have already reviewed exemplary films such as Freckles and Dam Keeper, I shall digress from further elaborating on what a great short film can generally achieve. I might also add that an even shorter format, namely music videos, can achieve a great aesthetic and critical/philosophical sophistication (see my reviews of I’m Afraid of Americans and Love Is Lost). These instances show that, because of its restrictions, a shorter format could bring a greater focus and an opportunity to experiment in a way that is not usually possible for a feature-length movie: shorter running time can force a greater focus to the subject expressed; and the briefness can allow an aesthetic experiment to define the entire film, instead of inserting flashes of brilliant insights which could disrupt the aesthetic and conceptual integrity of a cinema. That being acknowledged, Night Fishing is truly one of a kind in regard to the subject and the way it is expressed.

Night Fishing begins with an ominous undertone. The shot of an abandoned winter farmland impresses the sense of inconsolable desolation. At a glance one could tell that something went seriously wrong and brought an untimely end to a life once flourished in this place. Admirably, the cinema is devoid of sentimentalism; it is dominated by a deep sense of loss, yet there is a strange sense of detachment to it, as if one is looking into the world through a magnifying glass, albeit an ancient one found at an abandoned house. Then, out of the blue, a traditional Korean ceremonial hat flies over the wasteland. A group of oddly dressed characters, a bearded quartet in black to be precise, appears against the wintry skyline: their presence reminds us of one of the most iconic images in the history of cinema, that is, the closing scene of The Seventh Seal wherein dance of the dead is seen against the empty heaven. Then, suddenly, a portrait of a Korean deity momentarily appears in the sky. The use of this image at this juncture is purposeful yet perplexing, especially for someone who is unfamiliar with religious practices in Korea. Yet, given the overall impression of the film so far, it is abundantly clear that this seeming strangeness is not for a superficial satire as seen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). In fact, the use of this image represents a rarely discussed aspect of Park’s work, the subject which must be examined later in this article. Following this startling moment, the black clad quartet reappears. They begin to perform a mournful song about a failed marriage: the narrator’s ex tells him that her husband is bankrupt, and she is divorcing him. Why she tells him this now over a drink is anyone’s guess, yet there is an unmistakable sexual tension, the mixture of allure and unresolved resentment, and an irresistible pull of desire and a sense of abjection felt in advance for its fulfilment. The performance is eerily comical yet strangely urgent; it is at once darkly intense and self-consciously unhinged.

Then, the film transposes to the main story; a man in a baseball cap (Oh Kee-seok) softly continues the song and approaches the river bank in the cold evening light. He comes to a spot and sets up several fishing rods to begin his nightly toil. The radio station blares out yet another song about an unrequited love. As the film follows the benign routine of a recreational fisherman, a sense of sorrowful disquiet progressively deepens. When the music switches to what sounds like a traditional song, the protagonist stops cutting a freshwater fish with a knife and appears to introspect for a moment: he vaguely senses that something is amiss. He appears to realise that he cannot remember something critically important. Yet the moment of reflection is all too brief; he goes back to his spot and waits for another catch. It is already dusk, and the sky is strangely tranquil. Then, suddenly, we are thrown into a ghostly monochrome landscape at the dead of night. As the man relieves himself in the bank, the icy sense of dread begins to take hold. With grainy monochrome frames popularised by The Blair Witch Project (1999), it certainly raises viewers’ anticipation. Still, what awaits the protagonist in the following sequence will take your breath away. Upon hearing the bells attached to a fishing rod ringing, the man rushes to retrieve his pray. It soon becomes clear that the catch is not an ordinary one. He heaves with its weight and struggles to keep his bearing on the muddy shore of the black river. He staggers and stumps over the rest of fishing rods, and, upon pulling his catch out of water, an ordinary little fish swings around his ankle and entangles his legs, causing the man to slip and fall onto the mud. Then, suddenly, he lets out a fearful scream. At the end of the hook lies a maiden in white with a porcelain face and long raven hair (Lee Jung-hyun) instead of a common freshwater fish. This metamorphosis signals a radical turn of the narrative: we suddenly find ourselves in a twilight zone between life and death.

Whilst the anticipation is steadily raised through these developments, what follows them from this point on is truly astounding. It turns out that the ‘dead woman’ is not dead at all. She is in fact a shaman who has come to contact the fisherman who met his demise by venturing a night fishing despite a heavy weather warning. She has come to guide his soul from this mortal coil. To this end, she reminds him of the fact that he is deceased. Once he realises it, the screen suddenly blasts with an incredible explosion of sound and vision; we are shocked to find ourselves in the midst of a traditional Korean ritual wherein a colourfully attired shaman performs a rite and readies the dead to open his chest to loved ones for one last time so that he may rest in peace. The shaman, by speaking for the dead, enables to create the last opportunity of reconciliation through a dramatic catharsis. Only by completing this process through a shaman, the dead could be prepared to state his final wish and leave this world for good. Lee Jung-hyun, an internationally renowned K-pop singer, brings an absorbing performance that haunts our days and nights. Lee’s ability to flawlessly embody several distinct characters as a shaman inspires an awe. She plays: a dead woman, a ghost, the dead man’s daughter, the spirit of the dead fisherman, and a shaman who performs a rite of departure. From a beautiful corpse to a strangely homely yet terrifying ghost woman, then to a crying child missing her dead father, Lee makes a series of seamless transitions which surely spooks the viewers. Yet, in her capacity as a shaman who facilitates a reconciliation between the dead and the living, Lee brings a forgotten dramaturgy in front of us; like in Ancient Greek dramas wherein the fate of mortals are determined by divine interventions, Night Fishing embraces a mythical territory without reservation. It is remarkable to witness the revival of ancient shamanistic tradition in modern Korea which is one of the most advanced industrial nations today. Whilst it is easy to brush this subject aside by rendering it a cultural curiosity, it is important to question Park’s intention in telling a story of life and death through this religious practice native to Korea, for religion is featured in a few high-profile films of Korean New Wave Cinema such as The Wailing (Na Hong-jin, 2016) and Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009). To this end, I shall present the outline of religion in South Korea.

Although South Korea has developed into one of the most advanced industrial nations in the world and their products such as smartphones and automobiles have become household names, its population remains largely religious: according to a 2012 survey, atheists consist of only 15% of population. Given the persistent popularity of native shamanistic practice called Sindo, which is believed by the most of the ‘non-affiliated’ (about 56% of the population), it is safe to say that this ancient religion is still an integral part of South Korean Geist. Curiously, this vastly popular religion is categorised as religiously ‘non-affiliated’ group of population. It suggests that Sindo, despite its long history and popularity, is not officially recognised as a proper religion in South Korea. This lack of recognition is nothing new: despite its enduring support amongst the populace, Sindo has never enjoyed the official endorsement of the power-that-be. The first major religion that ruled over Sindo was Buddhism. Introduced by Chinese in 372 to the northern kingdom of Goguryeo, Buddhism became a political force before the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) suppressed it in favour of Neo-Confucianism. Under the Joseon reign, Buddhist temples were destroyed; monks and nuns were prohibited from entering towns and cities. As a result, Korean Buddhism lost much of its influence; currently about 15% of population is affiliated with it. Whilst Sindo also suffered marginalisation under the Joseon rule, its popularity has never waned: at the dawn of the 20th century, the vast majority of Koreans practiced it. Whilst there was a decline of its popularity in the early 20th century, it is still considered the most practiced religion in Korea. The aforementioned dip of Sindo's popularity in the early 20th century is due to the specific political circumstances of the time: Korea suffered 35 years of brutal Japanese rule (1910-1945) during which Japanese attempted to absorb Korean Sindo into their state religion, Shintō, in order to enforce the worship of Japanese emperor. During this national crisis, Koreans turned to Christianity, which established the stable base in the peninsula since the 18th century, as a means to resist the Japanese Anschluss of Korea. Whilst Christianity took an advantage of this trying period, its influence is waning since 2000, and Sindo still remains the most popular form of religion in Korea by a substantial margin: according to a 2015 survey, Christianity is practiced by about 27% of population; and 56% of population is non-affiliated. Given the number of atheists, this leaves just over 40% of Koreans practicing this ancient native religion today.

Then, we must ask at this point of our inquiry: Why Sindo, now? I think that there are two reasons why Park has given Sindo a prominent place in this cinema: firstly a reason which considers Korean cultural, not necessarily national, identity; and secondly a critical/philosophical reason which stems from the dissatisfaction in the modern Form of Life dictated by Industrial Materialism. Industrial Materialism is a term I use to define the Geist of Industrial Era which is present in all forms of industrially developed societies: whilst capitalism differs from socialism and communism regarding the means of regulating the distribution of power, these societies unanimously see the world as the aggregation of materials for the production of commodities in order to promote economic growth as a means to an end: domination. The most recent elaboration of this concept is quoted from my article on the Artificial Intelligence and the concept of humanity (Happy Birthday, David).

This kind of materialism must be traced back to the shift in metaphysics, namely, Descartes’ sharp distinction between Mind and Body. According to the French philosopher, Body denotes all material entities, not limited to the bodies of animated entities. Mind is a substance capable of mental activities such as thinking, and survives the destruction of individual bodies since they are separate entities. Mind is present only in God and humankind, hence, according to Descartes, animated entities other than humans must be considered ‘things’. Based on this understanding, the French philosopher famously declared: the cries of animals ‘in pain’ are in fact mere mechanical noises in reaction to certain stimuli. If Descartes is right, then, the shriek made by an animal who is about to be slaughtered is no different from the sound of a stone being ground, or the sound of a musical instrument played by a virtuoso. In this light, the world except humankind consists of mere materials which we are entitled to exploit in any way we can/want. Whilst Descartes’ instrumentalism is under certain restrictions, and by no means directly responsible for the brutality of Industrialism that followed, it came at a particular historical juncture wherein Europeans were about to move away from the restrictive measures imposed by ecclesiastical authorities and preparing themselves to embrace the crude reductionism represented by Industrial Revolution which rendered, yet again, humankind without capital as expendables. The eventual domination of Anglophone empiricism means that the crude materialism which has come to shape the Geist of Industrial Era destroyed the metaphysical ‘safety mechanism’ which, despite its destructiveness, unjustness and incorrectness, kept humankind’s ambitions in check. God was soon declared ‘dead’, and humans without capital became expendable entities ‘which’ fulfil given functions (in non-capitalist societies, states alone own capital; hence the officials of the states function as business owners in capitalist societies. The means of controlling the distribution of power may be the only difference between respective systems).

Whilst it appears moot to mention Park’s denouncement of Industrial Materialism, for anyone who takes the vocation such as artistic creation seriously must reject this Weltanschauung in the first place, it is how Park expresses his rejection of this most infectious Geist that demands our attention. Generally speaking, there are several ways to resist crude Materialism which reduces the world into an aggregation of inanimate objects. One might take a philosophical argument against it by advancing the notion of epistemological/linguistic limit inherent to a human agent, thereby denying the possibility of ‘knowing’ precisely the nature of the world in itself. This argument results in undermining the metaphysics which enabled the crude materialism: the mindless reduction of the world into inanimate objects cannot be justified on account of our constitutive inability to access immediate reality (If in doubt, read some credible writing on Bohr and Heisenberg such as: Heisenberg and the Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics by Kristian Camilleri). One could also resist crude physical reductionism by stressing the critical importance of phenomenology as a necessary component of how we exist and operate in the world, and thus stressing the importance of subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Finally one may condemn the instrumentalism on ethical ground by arguing that each agent must be treated as an end in itself, not a mere means. Whilst there have been countless attempts to reject this dominant Geist intellectually, such efforts have had little effect in persuading general public to withhold its support of this distinctly modern Geist. The reasons for the lack of success for these intellectual effort to resist this Form of Life are manifold and too complex to discuss here: I shall limit myself by mentioning in passing some of the contributing factors such as cognitive dissonance, the abysmal appreciation of intellectual vocations amongst public and the lack of willingness amongst intelligentsia to broadly construe and redefine the Geist of modernity itself. Whatever the precise reasons of the failure of intellectual resistance against this dominant Weltanschauung, the fact remains: religion, whether traditionally established or newly entered the fray, has capitalised on the growing discontent and resentment against this Form of Life (as for the popular notion of ‘spirituality’, so long as a respective belief system involves some metaphysical notions to ‘justify’ and articulate their Weltanschauung, it must be regarded as a form of religion. When it lacks metaphysics, then it could be understood as a modern form of self-help. It rarely is properly undertaken as a conscious aesthetic/philosophical praxis).

Naturally the problem with religion as means of ‘resistance’ is: it betrays its letters of intent. Religion, to all intents and purposes, has always been a tool of mass control: it is an effective way to write, rewrite and maintain the story of ‘people’. With its ability to manipulate the story/history of any given Geist, it is still an effective way to restrain/mobilise the masses. In this precise sense religion is a direct ancestor of modern political propaganda. Yet, despite its power over the masses, religious beliefs themselves cannot sustainably attain its ultimate end, that is, domination, without having access to material resources. Hence all religious practices inevitably establish some forms of institutions which are the pretext to the ‘synthesis’ between ’spiritual’ authority and the executive one. The common scheme is that the former affirms the legitimacy for the latter to rule, and the latter protects the material security of the former. Whilst the first half of the 20th Century saw the sharp decline of religious authority which conceded much of its function to political ideologies, it was brought back in business in the latter half of the 20th Century. Whilst the landscape of power has seen many changes since the beginning of modernity, the fundamental mechanism of governance has remained the same: in order to attain/maintain domination, a power-that-be must secure the means to control the masses. To this end, it must obtain two kinds of authorities: ‘spiritual’ and executive. This resulted in a curious case of contradiction which is specific to modern industrial era: the pious embraces science conditionally. They reject scientific world-view yet embrace its by-products, that is, technology and engineering. So long as science serves their end, the religious embraces modern science whose fundamental principle rejects metaphysics on which the legitimacy of a given religious belief system rests. Despite their rejection of science on metaphysical ground, their opportunistic embracement of science’s offspring, technology and engineering, is such that religious, who are supposed to uphold and safeguard morality, unquestionably embrace the development and the deployment of technological means to indiscriminately and effectively destroy nearly all life-forms. Whilst such a selective attitude toward science is perplexing and certainly inconsistent with their 'beliefs', once put in a proper context, it becomes clear that there is nothing to be surprised about this phenomenon: religion, just like executive power, serves the one and the sole end, that is, domination. And thus, so long as science provides us the weapons (e.g., guns, the Bomb) that win wars and ensure our domination over the Other, the religious would empathically stand by it.

At this point of inquiry, it is beneficial for us to re-frame the questions regarding Park’s attitude toward religious practices in Korea as follows: 1) What is the reason for Park’s apparent endorsement of Sindo over other religious practices in Korea?; 2) What aspect of Sindo does Park find helpful in the age of Industrial Materialism? The answer to the first question must be quite clear by now: Park appreciates the fact that Sindo has never enjoyed the official recognition as a proper religion despite its popularity and its distinct place in the development of Korean Geist. Despite all appearances, Park is a fierce critic of the established cultural narrative of his native South Korea. His darling masterpiece, The Handmaiden, represents the damning picture of Korean society under the Japanese rule. Two main villains are Korean imposters: they shamelessly assume Japanese identities to satisfy their insatiable greeds. Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) is a Korean collaborator who has been financially rewarded by Japanese for his contribution to the Japanese Anschluss of Korean Peninsula. He became a naturalised Japanese citizen by marrying a Japanese noblewoman whom he promptly commits to a secure mental institution. Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), on the other hand, is a Korean forger who steals the identity of a Japanese nobleman and plans to take full control of the enormous fortune left for Kouzuki’s niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), by marrying her. Whilst these two Korean characters are morally degraded beyond human recognition, others are not far behind. Korean maids at Kouzuki’s estate cannot have enough of a handsome ‘Japanese nobleman’. The ‘den of thieves’, from where Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is sent to assist Fujiwara's elaborate swindle, operates an orphanage of Korean infants and assists their adoption to Japanese families for financial gain. Their daily routine is quite ‘efficient’: they show no hesitation in pacifying a fussing baby with a spoonful of rice wine. Throughout the duration of the movie, none mentions the cruelty of Japanese rule which has already inflicted the lasting scars on Korean Geist. The depth and the extent of Korean degeneration depicted in this film, although functional, is so damning that I for one have no idea how Park got away without a nationwide protest and condemnations. On the other hand, in his highly original take on Vampire genre, Thirst, Park unleashes his most uncompromising condemnation of Christianity. As a priest (Song Kang-ho) descends into a chaotic abyss of primordial human desires, his Christian faith offers no resistance. The man who once wished to sacrifice his life for greater good turns into: a vampire, an adulterer, a serial killer and a rapist. The irrelevance of religious faith reaches its culmination when the protagonist’s mentor reveals himself as a selfish old man with nothing to offer in terms of spiritual redemption. Again, given the history of Christianity in Korea, it is difficult to imagine how Park has not been publicly prosecuted by the Korean public. In both cases, the public reckoning would have been just as harsh as Park’s judgment on the official narrative on modern Korean history and culture. Park’s confrontation with the dominant narrative on such fundamental aspects of South Korean society could have been severely punished as a heresy. I for one am glad that such concerns have been unwarranted and Park continues to enjoy artistic freedom.

Given Park’s unorthodox view of his native South Korean Form of Life, it is not too difficult see why the director favours Sindo; despite its enduring popularity and the prominence within South Korean popular Form of Life, it has never been recognised as a proper religion by the political authority. By giving prominence to this popular practice of shamanistic rite in Night Fishing, Park highlights the schism within South Korean Geist; the official attitude toward religions on one hand, and the popular one on the other. Recognising this sharp disparity between the official national identity and the enduring popular cultural identity is of critical importance, for this duality explains most of the internal conflicts existing within South Korean society. For example, Bong Joon-ho’s international breakthrough feature, The Host (2006), represents the duality of South Korean Geist with the monster, the Gewalt that threatens the domination of humankind over the Other. The creature is arguably the metaphor for the polarity and the contradiction regarding South Korea’s conflicting attitude toward the presence and the function of the American military in the Korean Peninsula. Whilst widely regarded as an ‘necessary evil’ in the face of the military threat from its northern neighbour, just as in Japan, the American military’s pledge to protect its allies has been met with deep scepticism. Like all American bases around the world, there is a prevailing resentment against America’s military presence and its exploitative practice, especially the immunity granted for its military personnel; their criminal actions, especially that of a sexual nature, have been routinely gone unpunished. Whilst Bong’s exposé of the deep schism of contemporary South Korean society is quite timely and a pointed one, in Night Fishing, Park addresses the historic nature of duality existing within Korean Geist. By featuring this ancient religious practice, which has been dismissed as an outdated superstition by both religious and executive authorities, Park illuminates Korean Geist as an uneasy composite of two distinct Forms of Life: the official Form of Life on one hand, and the popular one on the other. Whilst they are indeed intertwined, it is abundantly clear which Lebensform enjoys Park’s support: he has consistently opposed the official narrative and, for the first time in his career, positively expressed his explicit support for the popular Form of Life by giving Sindo a central role in Night Fishing. It is unclear what the exact meaning of his endorsement of the popular Form of Life is. Is he espousing a form of political anarchism? Or is his anarchism strictly limited to cultural and intellectual praxis? Or does he actually believe in shamanism? Whilst we have no clarity to state one way or another, we can safely conclude: Park recognises the duality in South Korean Geist and he has made clear in which Form of Life he is interested.

And finally, there is one more question for us to ask: What has Park found in Sindo? Other than the political and historical reasons, is there anything in Sindo which Park finds helpful in addressing the modern existential discontent? How exactly is this ancient practice helpful in mitigating the effect of modern existential angst, that is, the crippling sense of meaninglessness, when all else have failed? To answer this question, first we must have a close look on what might make Sindo distinct from other religion for Park. Only then we can begin to properly understand the reasons why Park featured this ancient practice at the heart of this unearthly yet strangely moving short film. Whilst Sindo is one of many religions practiced in Korea, it enjoys a distinct place amongst Korean Geist as an ancient and a native practice. As a religion, it does have a set of beliefs and some vague metaphysical claims about afterlife. Like most religion, Sindo’s metaphysics involve some form of ‘reckoning’ and ‘judgment’ on one’s entire life against the moral standard set by gods before leaving the earth completely for a ‘better place’. Whilst the metaphysical notions of ‘gods’, ‘final reckoning’ and ‘afterlife’ are common amongst all religious practices, Sindo, like most ancient and popular beliefs, lacks a developed theology to justify its metaphysics and the institutions to eatablish it as a sociopolitical force. Its existence entirely relies on local shamans and popular beliefs in their supernatural abilities. Whilst it is altogether unclear just how Park is invested in Sindo and its metaphysics, a close examination of Night Fishing shows just how irrelevant the question is. Whilst Park features the images of deities in Night Fishing, the most important function of Sindo in this story is to show that there is a fundamental need for us humans to have this final moment of reconciliation and catharsis at the moment of death, and this occasion is only made ‘possible’ by the shaman’s ability to dramatise it. This ability to create a moment of catharsis by a dramatic enactment of the process of passing is unique to shamanistic traditions: no established major religion allows such a dramatic enactment of a final ‘direct’ interactions between the living and the dead. Although they all offer some form of rituals to provide moments of catharsis for the mourners, it is the priests themselves who speak for god(s), hence the therapeutic effect remains relatively anemic. Only shamanistic traditions can induce a robust catharsis amongst participants by allowing the dramatic enactment of a ‘direct’ communication between the living and the dead. The success of this practice hinges on the participants’ belief in a shaman, and her/their/his dramatic ability to persuade them of the truthfulness of the practice.

In Night Fishing, Lee Jung-hyun makes a strong case for this ancient practice’s power of persuasion. Lee’s explosive performance captivates our attention throughout the duration of this unapologetically ancient spectacle. The process of persuasion is carefully documented in the first half of the rite. The mourners initially appear stunned in disbelief in the midst of chaotic actions, and not without a good reason: it is not easy to see a lonely middle aged man in a young, beautiful and frenzied woman in a drenched traditional costume. Yet, it is Lee’s acting which makes every mourner believe the actuality of their final encounter with the dead. Once one realises this point, the question regarding Park’s faith in Sindo becomes moot. One can easily interpret this religious rite as a pure enactment of catharsis by aesthetic means. And shamanism does provide an occasion when the human need for catharsis in face of an overwhelming angst of life could be fulfilled through the dramatisation of the final tête-à-tête. Given the similarity of the process of an actor immersing herself/themselves/himself into a role and a shaman’s 'channelling', Night Fishing, at one level, is providing a persuasive case for the transformative/therapeutic capacity of dramatic art. Still, an aesthetically accomplished work such as Night Fishing can never be reduced to one simplistic scheme or another. Whilst there is little doubt that Night Fishing is about the most fundamental human condition, that is, the finiteness of human existence and the need for some form of catharsis in facing it, the fact remains that Park chose to demonstrate these subjects through the ancient native religious practice. And this is the point where Park’s critique of industrial Form of Life may be most acute. As we have been so advanced as to ceaselessly inventing the means of mass destruction with ever greater efficiency in our pursuit of domination to the point where we have been capable of the total annihilation of life for a very long time, modern civilisation has no concept of what it means to be human. Since the very concept of meaningfulness of human existence is antithesical to the Geist of Industrial Materialism, there is no hope of finding means to articulate such a meaningfulness within it. In this light, Park’s enactment of this native ancient religious practice is more than a political act of defiance or a powerful case for dramatic art's place in all human Form of Life. This short film hits the heart of the matter regarding the discontent of Industrial Materialism. Whilst Park does not endorse religion in general, Night Fishing does offer a solemnly compassionate contemplation on our fundamental need for meaningfulness. To this end, it brings back the drama as it was understood by the ancient Greeks to whom the art and the religious worship were often one and the same practice. By doing so, Night Fishing deftly demonstrates the complex relation between the human angst regarding its finiteness and the means to pacify it without surrendeing human agency to one metaphysics or another. Hence Night Fishing, despite its briefness, is an important movie both in terms of the subject and its scope, and can be judged against the most accomplished masterpieces such as Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon. And this alone should be enough to persuade the serious audience to embark on a multiple, successive and obsessive viewing.

No Light And No Land Anywhere (2018)

Have you ever found yourself lost in the world that is utterly absurd? Suddenly you fail to recognise anything familiar to orient yourself. In a mirror the reflection of a stranger blankly stares you back. You become dissociated from your physical sensations. You lose the ability to think of what might become of you: you cannot be bothered except when you are gripped with blood-curdling panic from obscure anxiety. Then, in a brief moment of clarity, you wonder: How it comes to this?

Amber Sealey’s third feature film, No Light And No Land Anywhere, follows the cascading descent of a British woman called Lexi (Gemma Brockis) who finds herself adrift in the flat, sunlit senselessness of Southern California. Following her mother’s death, Lexi flees from her deteriorating relationship and boards a flight to LA. According to Lexi, this is a trip she has planned to make: all her life, she has longed to meet her estranged father who abandoned her and her mother when she was a three-year-old. She knows that her father moved to LA and started a new family, only to abandon it and disappear again. He still lives and works for odd jobs in LA. She knows that she has a half sister (Jennifer LaFleur), and she too has not heard from him. She remembers the fateful moment with the tragic attention of a young child: one ordinary afternoon, after making himself a chicken sandwich and eating it, her father steps out of the house as if he was going to have a smoke, and vanishes. As she embarks on the journey to see him face to face, ironically, she is following his example. Judging from a string of angry text messages from her ‘ex’, the departure was at once unexpected and unannounced: like her father, Lexi walks out of her life in London with little or no warning to her friends and her partner. To make matters worse, Lexi does not know what to do with herself except following a thin thread that might lead to her long-lost father. Whatever comes of her quest, it is the only excuse Lexi has of her existence now.

No Light And No Land Anywhere is an intensely engaging indy cinema directed by Sealey and co-written by Miranda July. Intriguingly, it is rife with clichés yet not being plagued by it. Understanding the reasons why it is so should help us grasp what sets this relatively short feature apart from countless films about a woman on the razor’s edge. The film begins by showing Lexi following a standard reaction to a break-up and a mid-life crisis. She is a sleepwalker who runs away, eats junk, and gets herself laid. Yet, as careless and desperate as these actions are, they do not tell us anything about who she is. Lexi, in her confusion and dissociation, does what everyone is permitted to do in her situation. In this sense, the argument must be made with the Form of Life that is founded upon the principle of instant and compulsive gratification of desire regardless of its origin, its nature and the implications of its appeasement. Quite fittingly, Lexi’s story unfolds in the sun drenched LA, which is devoid of the intense urgency of West Berlin, or the poignant contrast of light and shadow that characterises the street of Manhattan. Not dissimilar to Jarmusch’s Florida, Sealey’s LA is a flat giant screen filled with white noise of eternal sunshine that turns every living soul into a ghost who randomly appears to and dissolves into the surface of our already compromised consciousness without a trace.

One might consider that such an observation of LA too is a cliché. It cannot be denied that LA, and America for that matter, has been characterised as a modern wasteland on many occasions. Then how this 70 minute miniature leaves us with a lasting, and deeply satisfying, affective experience? Firstly, what makes this feature different from others comes down to Sealy’s unflinching commitment to the protagonist, Lexi, whose journey traverses LA in its most mundane light. This directorial decision is quite justified, for Lexi is a forty-something who fled from her life with little or no possession and hanging by a bare thread of hope to find someone who dealt her and her mother a cruel blow with a grotesque nonchalance. Our protagonist is neither a celebrity, an heiress, nor a fugitive: the only thing she can call her own is an emotional burden forced upon her at the tender age of three. The austerity of Lexi’s story prohibits the director from staging an artificial suspense and/or a prosaic melodrama: Sealey and Brockis’ commitment to the story is such that they show no regard to how Lexi comes across to the audience. Sealey demonstrates steely soberness that depicts everything as it is. Even the scenes involving sexuality, though graphical, is incredibly realistic in that it represents this animalistic activity in the most unflattering light. Neither Sealey nor Brockis attempt to make an excuse for what Lexi does in this regard: it is utterly daft, distasteful, and unnecessary, and Lexi knows it. Human sexuality represented here has a look and a taste of cake made up of cancer agents mixed with cigarette ash. Admiringly, Sealey resists the temptation to make a pointed theoretical statement by this scene: whilst Sealey does not forget to contextualise the story by aptly situating it in one of the most dysfunctional metropolises, the director makes starkly clear that it is Lexi who initiate these actions. It is this brutal honesty that sets this cinema apart from the rest despite all the clichés. By not treating Lexi as a mere product of our Zeitgeist, Searley was able to cut deeper into Lexi’s separatedness.

No Light And No Land Anywhere also benefits from Sealey’s directorial vision: this is a cinema of process, not of plot. Whilst a ‘standard treatment’ of this story would be to turn it into a comedy, be it a feature film or a TV show, by inventing countless sub-plots and foul-mouthed sub-characters to keep the audience ‘engaged’, Searley has none of it. As one critic noted, the plot is indeed ‘thin’. The problem with this assessment is: it is completely missing the point. As a cinema of process, the plot must be as simple as possible. Artificial twists of plot would merely distract the audience from what is most important: to be fully present with our protagonist in every moment of her journey. No Light And No Land Anywhere thus features a few central characters. To this approach to work, Sealey needed a lead actor who could sustain this aesthetic austerity not by doing but by being, and a cinematographer who could make every object breathe. In this regard, No Light And No Land Anywhere has found a perfect solution. Gemma Brockis is a true revelation. She was tasked with a very difficult role whose presence sustains the entire project. There is not much Brockis can do with the script in itself, yet she manages to inject subtle and silent, yet nevertheless explosive emotional urgency to every scene. And it is Brockis’ presence and performance that reminds me of a certain cinematic triumph, namely, Steve McQueen’s Shame [link]. Whilst Lexi is far and away from the human vortex wherein Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and Sisi (Carey Mulligan) inhabit, Brockis brings some of the urgency and ‘nakedness’ that made McQueen’s contemporary classic so devastating. Whilst the dramaturges of these two features are not comparable, they come from the same darkness and Brockis was able to show it with the help of an excellent cinematography by Catherine Goldschmidt. Whilst Goldschmidt’s aesthetics here is not devoid of poetry, what she produces here is opposite Peter Flinkenberg of Woodshock [link]: No Light And No Land Anywhere, despite named after Rumi’s poetry, is distinctly more Anne Sexton than Sylvia Plath as it should be. As Flinkenberg elevates every shot with such a rare infusion of terror, beauty and vulnerability that speaks so much of Theresa (Kirsten Dunst), Goldschmidt presents the white-out condition that is at once LA in its realistic light and LA as Lexi’s mirror. No Light And No Land Anywhere does not allow Traklian flight of images found in Woodshock or a mesmerisingly complex composition of raw, bleeding, and incredibly rich contrasts that make Shame a singular accomplishment. Hence Goldschmidt’s ability to find poetry in the mundane by breathing life into every detail of a shot proves to be indispensable for the film’s success.

Yet, perhaps the most important feature of No Light And No Land Anywhere is that, despite being a cinema of process, and that process being quite barren and washed-out, Sealey, Brockis and Goldschmidt were fully capable of shifting into a completely different mode, however briefly, when such a move is required. There are moments when Lexi makes real connections with people she encounters. And, more importantly, despite Sealey’s refusal to make a pointed social statement through this cinema, there is an important lesson to be learnt, that is: women need not to punish one another on account of the men who failed them. Despite everything, Lexi shines in these precious moments of enlightenment. And, on such unforgettable occasions, No Light And No Land Anywhere is most compelling.

Woodshock (2017)

Notice: The subjects of the movie reviewed in this article include substance abuse, clinical depression, and euthanasia.

 

What would you do if you could relate to no one yet everyone wants a piece of you and refuses to leave you alone? What if you are in perhaps ‘well-meaning’ yet unwanted company and would rather be on your own, even if it meant they see you potentially go off the deep-end? If you ever had to ponder such a thought, then you are not alone. Or, at least, this is the thought and the feeling you experience through a grieving young woman in a strangely arresting delirium called Woodshock.

The movie, which lasts only a little over a hundred minutes, is the debut feature of the Mulleavy Sisters, Kate and Laura, who are behind a haut-couturier called Rodarte, whose meteoric rise established them as a new voice for the industry. It is filmed exclusively in Humboldt County, Northern California, which is famous for its imposing redwood forest, ominous summertime fog, and seductively desolate coastline. It is also known for fishing and lumber, yet it has gained notoriety as the epicentre of cannabis culture in North America. Then, I suppose, it is rather unsurprising that the film is unconventionally disjointed just in the way a fever-dream is. Whilst Woodshock in its essence has nothing to do with the conventional narrative which dogmatically relies on plot and character development, let us pretend for a moment that it does, and I shall elaborate on what actually happens on the screen and what must have happened before the story began, in order to clearly see why this is an outstanding effort from the first time directors. It is essentially an exercise in redundancy, yet, given the universal condemnation of this cinema for the perceived lack of ‘coherence’ and ‘substance’, it is a step that must be taken to make a case for this excellent effort from the Mulleavys.

Woodshock intimately follows the descent of Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) in the wake of her mother’s death. In fact, Theresa assisted her terminally ill mother (Susan Traylor) to die peacefully at home in the woodland. Grief stricken and guilt ridden, Theresa refuses to leave her late mother’s home and dwells there like a phantom. She does so despite the nervous discomfort expressed by her significant other, Nick (Joe Cole), who works at a lumber mill. He is a reliable yet emotionally disengaged domestic partner. He is laconic and aloof to the point where it is not clear whether he knows anything about the circumstances of Theresa’s mother’s passing. To his mind, he is the one who ‘takes care of her’, and to this end, all he needs to do is to provide financial security. Listening to her feelings about the experience of letting her mother go seems a completely alien concept to him. The only time he appears to be at ease is when he stays late with his mates at a local pub, sipping beer. It is blazingly clear that he cannot be happier if Theresa could just ‘move on’ from her loss and grieving. Thus, it is not surprising at all that, after a brief introduction, Nick conspicuously disappears from our sight: he hardly engages with Theresa’s world. When he appears, he is only there to nauseate Theresa with his stubborn and self-serving simplemindedness: all he cares about is Theresa’s whereabouts, that is, whether she is ‘cheating’ on him. It is abundantly clear that he has no ability to think of and act on her best interests.

Still, Nick turned out to be half-right in his juvenile suspicion. There is another man who hovers around Theresa like a house fly in search of something to land. The owner of a local cannabis dispenser, Keith (Pilou Æsbek), calls her back to work within what appears to be only a few days since her mother’s departure. Despite his all-too-transparent interest in Theresa, and his obnoxious mannerisms toward women, he has a better picture of what Theresa is going through than her hapless domestic partner. The problem is: it is not that Keith is particularly emotionally receptive towards Theresa. He simply knows what it is like to send someone to the other side, for he has done it quite a few times himself. It is he who provided the means for Theresa’s mother’s death. Whilst Keith’s intention is humanitarian in that he only assists someone with a terminal illness with explicit consent, he completely misreads the situation with Theresa by inserting himself in the middle of a devastating and very personal process of loss. To Theresa’s chagrin, the situation repeats itself: here is another man in her life who tells her what to do without any ability or care to take her feelings into consideration.

It is not that Keith is wrong about euthanasia: like Theresa, the film remains ambivalent on this subject. Rather, it is how Keith talked Theresa into it, and why he made his case, that are in the wrong. It is clear that Keith was overly enthusiastic in his advocacy of his ‘method’ to the effect that he did not realise just how deeply Theresa was ambivalent to the idea, and how she would suffer as the consequence of assisting her own mother’s death. Clearly driven by his desire to be closer to Theresa, Keith pitched the benefits of his 'method' to the point where he may not have been attentive and respectful enough to Theresa’s fear and grief of losing her mother. Selfishness of Keith’s relation to Theresa is plain from the way he insists on keeping Theresa within his orbit despite her reservations. Once Theresa has assisted her mother’s death, he immediately begins to treat her as his de facto accomplice. He confides to Theresa of their mutual acquaintance’s decision to die with Keith’s laced cannabis, thereby asking her not only to keep their secret confidential, but also implicitly asking her to act as an angel of death if an opportunity arises. In fact, by not turning up one day, he puts Theresa in a position to perform the solemn service to the aforementioned acquaintance, Ed (Steph Du Vall); he knew Ed would visit his shop and ask for the item any day, and he purposefully left Theresa alone so that she must fill in for him. Yet, this is not because Keith respects Theresa or that they share deep and implicit trust in one another. Whilst the practice of euthanasia binds them with their dark secret, the confidentiality turns out to be one-sided: judging from the wording of the condolences, another mutual acquaintance, Johnny (Jack Kilmer), learnt what happened to Theresa’s mother from Keith. And it is quite obvious that Johnny is yet another man who wants to be involved with Theresa. Whilst Johnny appears to be less demanding and intrusive than others, his interest in Theresa is unwanted. Yet, none of them are willing to give her what she really needs: being left alone to be face to face with her ‘woodshock’, that is, her existential alienation from the world. It is clear from her monologue at the beginning: Theresa has been a ‘woodshocked’ person long before the story chronicled by the film begins. Her mother’s passing indeed intensifies her estrangement from the world to the point of catastrophe, yet the feeling of deep alienation has been always there. It is what defines her, and how she exists in the world.

It is utterly baffling that practically every critic was unable to discern what I have described above. Judging from their reactions and condemnation of the film, it is clear that they simply could not get anything out of the narrative of Woodshock. They decried the perceived absence of the pretext upon which the story came to life. They could not understand why Nick is almost non-existent. They were appalled by the scene that involves a violent confrontation between Keith and Theresa. In short, they were utterly lost in the woods, and the irony of this phenomenon is not lost on me, for Woodshock is not about euthanasia or substance abuse; ultimately it is an intricate cinematic contemplation on alienation and estrangement from the world. Whilst ‘woodshock’ is a regional expression in Humboldt County that designates the experience of disorientation caused by being lost in the woods, the title represents Theresa’s state of mind well: she is completely estranged from the world, or from Dasein itself. And thus, the unintended effect of critics getting lost and disoriented by this film is despairingly comical. I find it incomprehensible as to why anyone can miss what I described so far, yet it is also vexingly clear as to what went so wrong with them. There are a few reasons why they are so hopelessly wrong about the nature of this cinema and I shall elaborate in what follows.

Those who are hostile to Woodshock are lost because of their dogmatic and blind acceptance of what they see as the golden rules of storytelling, which places primal importance upon an accessible and gripping plot, and character development that keeps the audience at the edge of their seats. If one executes the rules well enough, a movie should be destined for box-office success. Given a chance, it will earn screenings at prestigious film festivals, and might even win an Oscar or two. In short, these rules are there to ensure that a product of financial investment is entertaining and appeals to the masses. According to this philosophy, every film must produce tremendous returns, financial or otherwise. This is no doubt the most fundamental ethos of Hollywood studios, and, given its complete grip of the market, the so-called ‘golden rule’ enjoys the status of absolute orthodoxy. As I elaborated in a three-part article on Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (which is located in a section called Inside the Leviathan in a page titled Shadowplay), this attitude has a long history in the United States.

From a general historic point of view, this attitude toward storytelling is deeply rooted in American identity; in the name of democracy, Americans express an anti-intellectual attitude toward every aspect of life. American hostility against sophistication and intelligence means: if there is anything that demands even a rudimentary effort from the audience or readers, a story must be pretentious and does not deserve their money. According to their idea, everything must be explicitly explained and they must be entertained in the process. As such, what they call ‘art-house’ movies are not the only victim of their hostility; given the popularity of motion pictures, eventually the application of the rule was extended to music, literature, and, quite literary, every aspect of life. American Form of Life must bend backward to their cherished ‘golden rule’ which states: The masses need not to think; they need to be entertained. Absolutely no effort should be required from ‘people’; they simply sit back and enjoy themselves as life slips by them.

Given the zeal with which Americans adhere to the demand to demolish art and mould it into entertainment, it comes as no surprise that the blue print for the cinematic ‘golden rule’ was first successfully developed and demonstrated by an American: D. W. Griffith’s notorious white suprematist propaganda, The Birth of a Nation (1915), is heralded as the first feature length film in history and demonstrates the power of cinematic language to a great effect. It was also the first box-office ‘blockbuster’, and, at the time of its release, it greatly helped to legitimise the Ku Klux Klan by glorifying its heinous criminal activities and its violent ideology based on a viciously false representation of freedmen as vile and vengeful rapists. Regrettably the said ‘masterpiece’ set the box-office on fire, and according to some, after adjusting the values of currency, The Birth of a Nation could well be the most profitable movie of all time. Whilst a very few contemporary movie-goers know anything about Griffith and his role in the history of cinema, his legacy still lives on as he set the precedence and the expectations for what a ‘good movie’ ought to be. Albeit being blazingly false, the story is clear and accessible; it is based on an undying cliché of the confrontation between ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. Moreover Griffith’s technique of artificially amplifying suspense and grabbing the audience’s attention was immensely innovative and effective in Griffith’s time, and immediately became the reference point of what one might call the nascent classical cinematic grammar which is strictly followed and sometimes improved by the directors of entertainment films. Immensely popular and unimaginably profitable, the standard set by The Birth of a Nation became a creative formula for directors, a business model for producers, and an invisible norm for the audience. And, lamentably, since every art form is commodified for the masses, the consequence of ignoring or challenging such norms is quite severe. And, given the dark origin of this particular mode of storytelling in cinema, the passion with which the juries of taste attack anything they see as blasphemous is unnerving to say the least.

This intolerance for anything intellectually challenging further compromises the audience’s ability to appreciate the intricacy and the complexity of the world and our relation to it. When someone is self-entitled with the sense of righteousness and has already made up one’s mind, there really is nothing from which such a person can learn. It is quite common to spend one’s entire life confined within a solipsistic personal echo chamber and considers oneself ‘free’. Such a person sees everything in black and white, and thus one must have opinions on every imaginable issue, and one must be always ‘right’, even when the experts of the subject and/or the concrete evidence contradict the ‘Truth’. The symptom of cognitive dissonance has been widely and most strikingly evident in the United States for quite some time: somehow many Americans come to conflate their constitutional right, that is, the freedom of speech, with a self-entitlement of mere opinions. Giving a thorough examination of one’s own position is somehow a sign of ‘weakness’, and one’s opinion is judged not by the correctness of one’s argument, but by the degree of fanaticism with which one professes to stand by it. 

It is because the ‘Truth’ for them is a matter of faith, not the result of rational examination. They know the Truth in their heart, despite the fact that their ‘personal truth’, to which they claim their immediate and intuitive access, is a mere variation of pre-existing linguistic concepts, that is, public concepts historically developed within a given Form of Life. Since all concepts are historic by nature, they are contingent, and thus non-absolute. Yet, in such a solipsist Form of Life, they still insist that they know the ‘Truth’ and live according to such a nonsensical claim. It is nonsensical because they do not even know the meaning of ‘knowing’ and what it means to appreciate the limit of human knowledge. Yet, ironically, in such a Form of Life, a discussion like this must be condemned as ‘intellectual gibberish’, and thus the confusion goes on to infinity without any hope of improvement, which might be seen as non-consequential, for they wish no cure in the first place. Therefore, in the land of solipsism, anyone who decides to do anything outside of a set of accepted norms would be publicly and severely punished. 

Fortunately for some of us, there have been quite a few who are willing to transgress such norms to create fascinating works of all kinds, and sadly, for the most part, they are made to pay a heavy price for their contributions. And, by giving birth to Woodshock, the Mulleavys became one of the latests in the list of cultural prosecution. Fortunately, the condemnation of their debut feature does not threaten their creative career. They should be able to walk away from this instance without damaging their reputation as the new voice of the fashion industry. As for Dunst, despite the poor review of the film itself, her own performance has been universally praised, and thus she should ultimately emerge triumphant from this collaboration. This is a rare instance where the uncompromising creative risk taking pays off: whether ‘people’ like it or not, the film is done, and the Troika get away with it. Three women ultimately got their own way.

And what a collaboration it is. Whilst not all original works are great, Woodshock is a truly mesmerising cinematic art. First and foremost, Kirsten Dunst’s performance is absolutely magnificent. She is tasked to carry the entire movie, and she delivers. Dunst is not only captivating; she makes every moment and aspect of the film unbelievably alive. Whenever she appears on the screen, even the faint reflection on the glass pane assumes a life of its own. The degree of intensity Dunst brings to the screen is such that one forgets that it is an actor whom we are following; she literally moves and breathes as Theresa, and as her Geist. Woodshock is a film of great authenticity and immediacy despite, or rather, because of its dream-like nature. With her presence, every frame becomes a strange subjective state wherein Theresa’s thoughts and feelings, which are at once tangible and obscure, become the performer’s as well as the audience’s. Peter Flinckenberg’s cinematography and Peter Raeburn’s score contribute tremendously to create a rare cinematic expression of the mind of our tortured protagonist: it nearly turns Theresa inside out, yet not completely. With all the images of ‘hallucinations’, she remains an enigma and retains opaqueness, that is, a certain degree of impenetrability that is necessary for the maintenance of agency. In short, Woodshock is a piece of near-perfect cinematic art that creates a category of its own.

That being acknowledged, it is not difficult to see some references and sources of inspiration in imagining, drafting, and executing this gem. By casting Dunst as the grieving protagonist, Woodshock appears as the silent sibling of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). This impression is not completely misguided. In a sense, Woodshock revisits the subject of Melancholia, that is, grieving and depression, and perfected it by presenting it in its pure form without von Trier’s megalomania. Whilst von Trier imagines a personal crisis as the end of the world, the Mulleavys do not. They present Theresa’s descent strictly as it is: a personal catastrophe. As Melancholia enjoys the distinction of being the only movie about Götterdämmerung wherein the world as we know it actually ends and human species go extinct, the inflated overture with which he gives a cinematic expression distracts from the personal, intimate, yet no less serious experience of personal descent to the abyss. In this sense, Dunst and the Mulleavys succeeded in completing what must be for Dunst unfinished business from Melancholia. Woodshock sharply focuses on and captures Theresa’s by no means linear trajectory, with a kind of respect and tenderness which is truly rare. Whilst Theresa mostly remains in her late mother’s home, the poetry with which each moment is expressed makes the viewing experience intimate, yet not intrusive. Dunst spends a lot of time in undergarments, yet the gaze is not sexualised at all. A careful viewer should be impressed by the breathtaking beauty of the harmony between acting, music, and cinematography. One would never have suspected that a film about grieving and depression could be so lyrical and poetic. 

In this sense, Woodshock was the movie which von Trier could never have created; his self-involvement means that he will never be able to truly respect his protagonist, Justine. Despite Dunst’s illuminating performance, the Dane can only see her as a piece in his ‘cinematic masterstroke’. Thus, Melancholia, with all of its captivating artistry and poetry, is an exercise of megalomania: to envision one’s minor apocalypse as the end of the world as we know it not only comes across as too much of a self-indulgence, but also is symptomatic of the Dane’s ‘condition’. What von Trier expresses through Melancholia is nihilism, boredom, and contempt, rather than the genuine grief and depression embodied by Justine. Grief and depression make one feel insignificant, rather than inflate one’s self-importance. Given the context, I suspect that Dunst played a critical role in doing justice to this mode of existence. Woodshock allows the audience an unforgettable cinematic intimacy with existential alienation from the world. It is a moving tribute to Theresa, and countless souls like her, who suffer silently without any respite and understanding from the world that estranges them with its disorienting senselessness. Woodshock is not to be recommended for casual audience looking to be entertained. Yet, by all means, it is a great piece of cinematic art. Hence, regardless of the reviews, we have plenty of reasons to applaud this creative feat. We also have another cause to celebrate: Dunst’s coming of age. She has been active for quite some time, and, despite her penchant for independent movies, she has been mostly known as a dependable performer in entertainment films. Yet, she has been as of late recognised as one of the finest actors of her generation. Her brilliance as Justine in Melancholia was recognised with the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival, yet, more importantly, playing a clinically depressed character appears to have had a liberating effect. In the wake of Melancholia, she has been consistently showing of what she has been capable as an actor. And she is preparing herself for the next step: directing a feature film. Given her accomplishment in Woodshock, one cannot help but to await with great anticipation for Dunst’s directorial debut, the cinema adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is said to star Dakota Blue Fanning as the protagonist. Despite the enormity of the project, I have every reason to be excited.

Freckles (2016)

Denise Papas Meechan’s Freckles rattles with emotional urgency and intensity of our protagonist, Lizzie (Jenn Halweil), who, like many of us, suffers from low self-esteem and an uninspiring life. And, like many of us, she ‘knows’ the source of her unhappiness, and this ‘curse’ is presumably something we cannot break by ourselves.

Freckles tells us a story about Lizzie, who believes that she is alone, repulsive, and rejected for one reason alone: her freckles. Whilst this premise appears unlikely for a regular viewer, from the subjective standpoint of Lizzie’s, it does not matter from what she is suffering: the only fact that matters is that she is suffering, and we must focus on how much she is suffering, in order to comprehend the danger she faces. And, as Papas Meechan demonstrates, it is a dangerous place to be, for, in this intensely subjective state, the sufferer knows only one thing: one’s suffering. In Lizzie’s world, her identity is singularly defined by her ‘curse’, i.e., freckles, and the entire world is characterised by her suffering alone, which is so intense that it is as if she is the only person who has ever existed with freckles.

Still, what Lizzie suffers seems quite odd. Lizzie suffers from her body-image, yet she is young, lovely, and fit. She does have freckles, to be sure, yet our society is quite 'forgiving' of this particular feature. Several celebrities and supermodels have them, and their freckles are not even ‘photoshopped’. They are even considered 'charming'. Then why freckles? I think this choice by Papas Meechan demonstrates her deep understanding of contemporary American culture. Papas Meechan focuses on the degrading effect of our insatiable demand for ideal female beauty, yet, quite rightly, she also leads us to realise that body-image problems are only part of a larger, and more fundamental, problem. To realise this, it is useful to shift our attention to Lizzie’s co-worker, Margo (Jane Dashow). She is older than Lizzie, and not exactly fit. Yet, she shows no sign of hesitation in her pursuit of, well, ‘happiness’. She dates, she eats what she wants when she wants, and she is absolutely unapologetic about who she is and what she enjoys. In this self-affirming attitude, Margo is everything Lizzie is not.

It is thus no surprise that Lizzie holds Margo with contempt. Lizzie at once envies and deplores Margo. She envies her because she wants for herself what Margo is indulging. Yet she looks down on her because Margo doesn’t ‘know’ that she is ‘unattractive’. Lizzie, despite her self-hatred, probably knows that she is relatively more acceptable in light of contemporary standards of beauty. She is young and fit, so she should be more attractive. Then why in the world, she wonders, is she still a virgin, and yet Margo gives her an earful about her sexual conquest? The only explanation, in Lizzie's mind, is her freckles. To see whether she is right or not, we must examine her encounter with Brody (Antonio E. Silva), on whom Lizzie has a crush. Brody is her neighbour and he is extremely friendly. An extrovert, he is not very intimidated by Lizzie’s lack of social skill. Their brief exchange shows an interesting aspect of Lizzie’s torment; it becomes clear that Lizzie is not alone because of her physical appearance. She is alone because of her self-image. She believes that she is repulsive, and thus her mannerism toward others is painfully awkward. From Brody’s standpoint, it seems that Lizzie does not want anything to do with him.

As the story develops, it becomes clear that the source of Lizzie’s torment is not the freckles themselves; she is suffering from a severe form of paranoia induced by our culture which imposes an impossible ideal of physical beauty. Lizzie can no longer see the world around her objectively, and what she sees, from the negative expressions on the faces of strangers to bizarre cartoons that depict Margo’s private life, are effectively her hallucinations. That being acknowledged, it is important to note that her case is not unrelated to other forms of paranoia bred in the United States. Whilst Lizzie internalised the cultural obsession of physical beauty, there are other objects of obsession which are equally powerful. Take the obsession of: masculinity; guns; money; sex; religion; fame; or political ideology. All of these obsessions induce powerful paranoia, which is underlined by fear, angst, and rage. In contemporary America, we don’t have to look for survivalists in the desert to see evidence of the culture of paranoia. Whilst diverse in subject, there is a common feature to all this paranoia; they are decidedly steeped in violent confrontations. And Lizzie’s story is no different in this regard.

In this sense, this thoughtful film is a perfect companion to one famous glimpse on the culture of paranoia: 'I’m Afraid of Americans' by David Bowie (1997, link). This music video, despite being less than five minutes long, captures the extent to which American culture breeds paranoia of all kinds, and I see a parallel with Freckles so that I cannot help but to treat the two as a pair. Seeing these two pieces together makes us realise that we are all susceptible to paranoia. In Freckles, it is Lizzie, an outcast, who suffers a severe paranoia. In 'I’m Afraid of Americans', it is David Bowie who becomes paranoid of a ‘paranoid’ stalker (Trent Reznor). As Bowie tries to escape from the stalker, he starts hallucinating random gun violence in the streets of America. In this sense, the two works represent two sides of the same story; one from the perspective of a perpetrator of violence, and another from the standpoint of the victim. The parallel does not end here; Lizzie’s monologue, especially at the beginning, reminds us of the emotional intensity and fragility of Reznor’s songs such as 'Hurt’, link (The Downward Spiral). Just like in the best songs by Reznor, her emotion intensifies and is finally expressed as a hell-fire of violent rage, without losing touch with the more tender and fragile side of the sufferer. From this point of view, Freckles shows the making of a paranoid stalker who appears in ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, whilst the latter expresses Brody’s experience in an alternate universe wherein he narrowly escapes from Lizzie.

It is important to note that, in America, everyone is a potential victim of the culture of paranoia, becoming trapped in their own self-projected image of the world, and can lose the point of humane contact with the world as a result. With complete lack of common ground, the society undergoes a terrible degeneration; the cultural, political, and social disintegration of America has been widely reported for quite some time. Whilst it is perhaps impossible to pinpoint a single reason as to why America can induce such a powerful paranoia in many of us, including non-Americans, it is clear that the culture of contemporary America creates all sorts of obsessions. The excessive nature of the ills that are induced by this culture is utterly devastating, and effectively destroys the ground on which we might develop civil discourse. In this light, Freckles joins the ranks of important statements about our Form of Life. It is a thoughtful contemplation of the human cost of our paranoid culture, and, even though all paranoia won’t escalate to a homicidal passion, this film makes us aware of just how horrible it is to be shut off from the world around us.

For more information, visit: http://frecklesfilm.com

Also visit: http://denisepapasmeechan.com

And: http://jennhalweil.com