What you need to know
In the second of a four-part survey, our film critic CJ Sheu reviews two films that build replete, immersive worlds.
The of my Sundance 2023 series looked at unpredictable films. In part 2, I want to highlight films that build replete, immersive worlds. Again, the inclusion of a documentary here may seem strange, but how wonderful it is when a documentary doesn’t just give you information but utterly throws you into its time and place.
First, the fiction film. Rachel Lambert’s Sometimes I Think About Dying stars Daisy Ridley (who’s also a producer) as Fran, a supply manager at a tiny Oregon company who, you know, sometimes thinks about dying. Not suicide, just the feeling of being dead, as envisioned in elegantly arranged tableaux of her, for instance, splayed out on a forest floor or deserted beach (production design by Dan Maughiman). On the outside, though, her default state is mortifying shyness, and she’s embarrassed by her morbid predilection. Then Robert (Dave Merheje) joins the office, and she finds a reason to try to open up.
I really, really wanted to like this film. The cast all do excellent work, including the ensemble that plays the rest of Fran’s coworkers; they nail the banal chitchat and bland humor of water cooler conversation, accentuated by Maughiman’s production design and cinematographer Dustin Lane’s desaturated images (the tableaux are a pointed exception). The environment feels much more soul-killing than your run-of-the-mill office, and Fran blends right in. And when sparks do fly in Fran’s head, Dabney Morris’s score comes in gently, yet crescendos into what sounds like (very quiet) cannon fire.
The film’s weaknesses lie in its writing, by Kevin Armento, Stefanie Abel Horowitz, and Katy Wright Mead based on Armento’s play, Killers. To give credit where it’s due, Franz Kafka was bedeviled in a similar way: When the story goes in one direction, it’s brilliant; but it doesn’t know how to change directions. Every stake, obstacle, and twist feels treacly and clichéd in a patently Sundance way. There are hints of real darkness, but none are explored. Not even a small-minded or mean coworker. Sometimes it made me think about dying. I wish it had the courage to be less normie and just openly address its actual theme: kink shaming.
A film that does dive deep into the darkness is Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto’s somewhat arbitrarily capitalized AUM: The Cult at the End of the World. (Braun also co-composed the fittingly apocalyptic score with Charlie Braun.) It may be traditional in structure (talking heads, archival footage, biographical flashbacks, animated reenactments [by Greg Yagolnitzer] — the works), but that perfectly fits its subject: How did the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks happen? The film traces the relatively innocuous origins of the cult behind the attack, Aum Shinrikyo, and its founder and guru, Shoko Asahara. Most Japanese know this story well: The film is aimed squarely at a Western audience, and is based on the book The Cult at the End of the World by David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, who are interviewed extensively here. And that Western audience might be surprised to learn that the sarin gas attack was but the most destructive of a series of assassinations carried out by Aum in the surrounding months.
As yoga, meditation, and the usual quackery about levitation and psychic powers gradually morphs into chemical weapons manufacturing and the buying of former Soviet military equipment, including a helicopter, we feel a mounting dread at what we know is coming, and a raging fury at the police and government agencies that Aum had managed to infiltrate and incapacitate. But the real shocker comes at the very end, when it’s revealed that the cult is still very much alive and kicking, now . According to an ending title card, “Japanese authorities refuse to designate a recipient for Asahara’s ashes [after state execution], fearing it will fuel Aum’s rebirth.”
There’s a lot of very trenchant criticism here, criticism of the media’s tendency to make light of absurdities grounded in insecurities that can quickly find a violent outlet — Joker (2019) comes to mind — criticism of the weight of political history that can distort what just social institutions should look like today (Japanese authorities fear evoking the dark days when they used to persecute non-Shinto religions), and even criticism of the death penalty: One Aum victim notes that executing a criminal means “all of the truth is blocked out” and “we can no longer learn the essential nature of th[e] case or study how to prevent something similar from happening again.” Though staid in structure, the film explores subject matter that never seems to go away.
READ NEXT: Sundance 2023: Fiction Films of Note
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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