Sundance 2021 first impressions: In the Same Breath, In the Earth, Knocking, The Pink Cloud, How It Ends
Mining the woes of our fluid reality, this year's line-up captures the dissonance we've all felt under long stretches of self-isolation.
Before COVID-19, pandemic movies mostly made for cautionary lessons and vicarious thrill rides. They were heightened realities we watched from the safety of a controlled environment behind layers of allegory. With thousands still dying every day, it has sadly become all too literal. Perhaps watching such movies, and still enjoying them is a masochism of sorts. But they also serve as a broad enough metaphor to encompass a variety of ailments currently afflicting the human condition.
Film festivals are no stranger to the virus metaphor. Buzz around films spreads like contagion, creating a ripple effect from within the festival bubble to the outside. Sundance 2021 arrives as a potent antidote to beat those self-isolation blues and fix that 2020 hangover once and for all. Mining the woes of our fluid reality, this year's line-up captures the dissonance we've all felt under long stretches of self-isolation.
In the Same Breath not only sounds like a pandemic horror movie, but plays out like one. And horror movies are scariest when they're inspired by real-life events. The story of Nanfu Wang's documentary began and ends at Sundance. "I'll never forget 23 January 2020 because it was the day when Wuhan was locked down and also the day Sundance Film Festival opened last year," she said in the film's introduction. "I had left my son with my mom in China and flown back to Utah to attend the festival. I watched the news in China every day and night in horror. And after getting my son back to the US, I felt compelled to make this film." Like in One Child Nation, Wang's voice-over establishes an intimate connection with the viewers, bringing us directly into a world we're all still trying to make sense of.
Most of what's chronicled in the film has already been reported: how China suppressed information about the outbreak, how citizen journalists tried to circumvent the "great firewall", and how Xi Jinping and co turned the crisis into another triumph for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Through the propaganda machine that is its state-run media, we see how China reclaimed the narrative by rewriting it altogether while shutting down any narrative that ran counter to it. Wang lets the men and women of Wuhan regain some narrative control, allowing them to relay their experiences before, during and after the 76-day lockdown. She assembles players from both sides — from the hospital staff to family members of the deceased — to uncover the truth beyond the propaganda.
As the epicenter shifts from Wuhan to New York, Wang draws parallels between the two countries' response: both intentionally downplayed the severity of the virus, even dismissing it as a seasonal flu; both used partisan networks as a propaganda arm to shape the pandemic narrative; both muzzled its frontline healthcare workers, even sacking those who spoke out. The US faced an added challenge because its citizens weren't just fighting Coronavirus but also the virus of misinformation. The country prides itself as a beacon of democracy, and one of its lynchpins has always been freedom of speech. Wang wonders: how do you defend that right when you have a president suggesting the consumption of bleach to fight a deadly virus, and his acolytes dismissing masks and vaccination with evangelical fury? It is harrowing to see ICU nurses break down as they recount the tragedy of patients dying on their watch while scrambling for supplies.
The success of Beijing's aggressive measures to curb COVID in contrast to Washington's poor response was used by the CCP to reinforce their Communist model, even promoting it as superior to Western democracies. With the epidemic not relenting, the story is far from over. But In the Same Breath serves an important wake up call for governments the world over, especially with new strains and waves on the horizon.
On the feature front, In the Earth is entirely a product of our pandemic reality. Shot in 15 days in August 2020, Ben Wheatley's new film resonates with this-is-happening-now detail, not just sci-fi’s this-could-happen. Minutes into the film, there's talk of quarantine, lockdown and third waves. The pandemic is just a springboard for a survival horror story on shrooms. A scientist (Joel Fry) teams up with a park ranger (Ellora Torchia) to investigate a research site deep in the woods, where his colleague went missing. The woods, according to local folklore, is home to a hostile spirit. The truth will lead them to a Möbius strip of mystery and madness. Man and nature, art and science, sci-fi and occult horror intersect in relationships, from conflict to co-existence. In their intersection are deeper, if not entirely tangible, ideas with a life-imitates-art-imitates-life urgency. After the disastrous Rebecca remake, Wheatley returns to form with another wholly original work of horror.
Zoe Lister-Jones's new film How It Ends is as weirdly uplifting as the end of the world can get. On humanity's very last day on Earth, Liza (Lister-Jones) realises her life has been a “series of regret after regret after regret.” So, with the support of her metaphysical teen sidekick (Cailee Spaeny), she sets out to put things right with her family and friends. On this "existential scavenger hunt for her soul" (as Colin Hanks calls it in the movie), she touches base with an absolutely loaded ensemble of recognisable names: Helen Hunt, Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Nick Kroll and at least three members from the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia team drop by as Liza saunters through empty Los Angeles streets. Alas, the film's strained attempt at hilarity out of a hopeless situation becomes so tiresome, you can't help but shrug at some of its myopic insights. Its sunny nihilism manifests in conversations and declarations. Like this one: "I want anyone who will give me a modicum of attention, paired with the promise of rejection. A little seductive, a little sociopathic. Someone who could potentially love me but also prove to me that ultimately I'm unworthy of love." If you're seeking a movie for the end of the world, this ain't it.
It is hard not to recontextualise some films through the lens of our ongoing nightmare. Consider Frida Kempff’s Knocking for instance. The Swedish psychological thriller isolates Cecilia Milocco's Molly in a prison of her own trauma and psychosis, brought on by a recent tragedy. Molly has just been discharged from a psychiatric facility. When she moves into a new apartment, her isolation is disrupted by the sounds of constant knocking on the ceiling. Finding its source and the ensuing drama will make her question her own sanity. Having experienced some degree of cabin fever in the last 10 months or so, we can relate to the uncertainty she feels. Kempff constructs an ambience of lockdown terror by confining most of the action to the apartment. That's why there are moments which get under our skin. But when we question Molly's sanity, Kempff is also proving her point about the gendered phenomenon that is gaslighting, and the horror of not believing women.
If In the Earth and How It Ends were shot during the pandemic, The Pink Cloud was conceptualised (in 2017) and shot (in 2019) by Iuli Gerbase way before it. In this Brazilian love story, a sudden lockdown forces two strangers, who hooked up just the night before, to spend quarantine together indefinitely. Dating was a tricky beast in and of itself before the pandemic. For Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça), a one-night-stand is expedited to the moving-in-together phase the following morning. Throw in the added hurdle of dealing with lethal clouds hovering above. Going outside is near-instant death. Giovana and Yago must fast-track their relationship to the next level of commitment in order to survive. They break up and make up multiple times in the dire circumstances of a prolonged quarantine. Watching them come to terms with oppressive boredom and inertia relates to our own troubles over the past year.
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