Tag Archives: Folklore

CAPSULE: ENYS MEN (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Mark Jenkin

FEATURING: Mary Woodvine

PLOT: A solitary observer notes the progression of floral growth on a craggy coastal island whose tragic history begins to manifest.

COMMENTS: The heavy winds over the spit of land in the sea, the endless break of water on the rocky surf, and the defiant upright glowering of a singular plinth are the entire world of the unnamed observer in Mark Jenkin’s contemplative Cornish horror film, Enys Men. There were once, we eventually learn, others on this island, but through the repetition of our observer’s days, tasks, and rituals, it becomes clear that a horrific double-tragedy doomed this island to be nothing more than the playground for gusts, seabirds, and a lonesome botanist.

Days, tasks, and rituals: these are the concepts Jenkin explores, hoping (perhaps) to better understand the intersection of self, geography, and history. The days are clear enough. They’d probably happen without us, without Jenkin’s island observer. But she is there, chronicling the growth—actually, chronicling the growth of the growth; for days, she marks one species of jaunty flower “no change.” Observing these plants is one of her daily tasks, a break-down of the day into what needs to be accomplished. Alongside these chronicles, she reads the soil temperature and… and beyond that, it is unclear. What fills the rest of the observer’s days are rituals. After each reading, she drops a stone down a grated shaft, waiting to hear its distant thud. She reads a survival manual. She listens to a radio. And day after day, as the tasks and rituals go by, there is “no change.”

Until one day, there is. Enys Men is a film whose narrative, if you haven’t guessed by now, teeters on the abstract. Onscreen flashes, largely incoherent, like sidelong memories jutting into the periphery of your thoughts, hint both at the observer’s history, and the island’s. An “in memoriam” plaque lists landsmen and mariners who died attempting to save other doomed souls. The change in the flora correlates to a change in the observer’s rituals, when she accidentally discovers another piece of the land’s history, in the form of a nearly buried rail-track, and a long-forgotten sign from a visiting vessel.

The observer’s mind doesn’t deteriorate, per se, but adjusts to the steady rhythm and landscape she is living in. The past—hers and the island’s—are represented cyclically, as opposed to linearly. A lichen arrived on the flowers, and it begins to claim the observer. Tying her closer to her domain, the flora unmoors her falsely anchored perception. Her memories, and the island’s memories, intermingle, come and go with the rhythmic flow of the surrounding ocean, and flit to the whims of the coastal winds as her self, and the island, slip further into the cosmic tide.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Things don’t “add up.” That’s fine with me. I was riveted by every moment of this haunting weird film. ‘Enys Men’ made me legitimately uneasy. ” – Sheila O’Malley, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous) (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: KING JUDITH (2022)

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King Judith can be rented or purchased on-demand.

DIRECTED BY: Richard Bailey

FEATURING: , Joanna Schellenberg, Jenny Ledel, Emily Ernst, Rhonda Boutte

PLOT: A police detective investigates a car crash which ends the lives of three women and triggers the disappearance of a fourth.

Still from King Judith (2022)

COMMENTS: Viewer discretion is advised: this film is best viewed as a treatise on American feminist folklore. The plot’s threads remain unwoven until a quiet reveal at the finish, and even then the pervasive mystery is not put to rest. This method of storytelling is in keeping with the Southern Gothic style, relying heavily on ambience and spirituality—both religious and otherwise. The ethereal-but-anchored tone also echoes the subject matter: ghosts, memories, and revenants. And despite the sun-infused imagery and wispy, often (overly) poetical dialogue, there is a sense of unspecifiable loss wrapped around the ambiguous happenings.

The facts at hand are scant. Known: three women died in a car crash while en route to a “macabre literary festival.” Known: the sudden appearance on the road of a fourth woman, recently evicted from her tent-home of twenty years, triggered the crash; this woman’s whereabouts are unknown. Known: this tragedy is followed by a series of deaths-of-despair on the parts of several ostensible witnesses. Through the detective’s interviews with the victims’ friends and associates, and obliquely pertinent poems sent to her by an unknown observer, the meandering turns of events are uncovered. But what it all adds up to remains opaque, both for the film’s protagonist and for the audience.

While enduring the first third of the movie, I felt a growing apprehension—the bad kind. I feared I would have to spend an entire review dumping on an unlucky indie filmmaker. The opening mystery-tedium and the lead actress’ unconvincing performance (imagine a keen twelve-year-old girl attempting to come across as a thirty-something “seen-it-all” kind of cop) nearly sunk it. To my relief, King Judith manages to transcend both the sum of its parts and its myriad flaws. (As with anything “Southern” or “Gothic”, patience pays off, in this case handsomely.) The second act opens with a bar scene in which writer/director Bailey at last finds his storytelling voice. What follows is an encounter where an awkward fellow beautifully regales a childhood ghost experience, and the young woman he’s speaking with (one of the three car-crash victims) in turn share the amusing story of the “Mounted Aristotle” caper from Alexandrian times.

King Judith never fully shakes off its pretensions; there are too many random shots of poetical movement in front of poetical backdrops, plenty of “quirky” artist characters, and dialogue of the “…reckless urges to climb celestial trellises, and slide down them” variety by the bucketful. The grandiloquence is heading somewhere, however, and its meandering way covers interesting intersections of folklore and psyche, feminist and otherwise. And Richard Bailey’s detective-story frame is apt. In the world of memory, tales, history, the supernatural, and the hereafter, there are “no answers to our questions, only rewards—fascinating details, luminous things; on and on it goes: the work of gathering clues.”

Kind Judith is currently streaming for free on Tubi.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird little film that mixes folklore, and Southern Gothic, with a dose of women’s studies, and comes up with something that feels almost like a stage play that was adapted for the screen.”–Jim Morazzini, Voices from the Balcony (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: INU-OH (2021)

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犬王

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Voices of Avu-chan,

PLOT: A blind itinerant priest crosses paths with “the King of Dogs”, a vivacious and deformed creature with a talent for dancing; through the priest’s music and the dancer’s storytelling, they attempt to lay the lost souls of the Heike clan to rest.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I have come to the conclusion that perhaps everything in Masaaki Yuasa’s œuvre should get canonized, particularly as we now have the elbow room to do so. (Night is Short, Walk on Girl was shortchanged due to numeric constraints.) Inu-oh brings an unlikely legend to bombastic life, fusing rock opera, ballet, pyrotechnics, spirits, curses, gender self-discovery, physical transformation; it’s a 21st-century story about a 14th-century performance troupe unearthing the secrets of an 12th-century war.

COMMENTS: It tickles me that Inu-Oh is Masaaki going “commercial.” This stems to a great extent, of course, from the fact that here in the United States, film norms are sickeningly normal: we are reigning kings of the lowest white bread denominator (so much so that it was controversial when Disney took a belated and modest stand against overtly bigoted legislation in its home state). Among the many themes explored in Inu-Oh, gender identity is near the fore, along with the nuances of parental acceptance of someone’s true self.

But let me stop that vein of thought for the moment. This is film for, and about, entertainment. It’s about musical revolution, and the delineation of the esteemed Noh tradition, which harkens back to the middle of last millennium. Inu-Oh follows Noh’s traditional story arc, lacing it with modern rock sensibilities. (Well, maybe not “modern” rock, but certainly strains of Buddy Holly through Jimmie Hendrix and Freddie Mercury.) The titular character is a born performer, despite—or because of—the fact he is a born monstrosity: an unnamed son of a proto-Noh performer, a boy of ambiguous shape, deformed face, and a long, strong arm. He embraces his outcast status, at one point referring to himself as “the Horrible Gourd” in honor of his misshapen mask. But as the son of a dance troupe leader, it comes as no surprise that Inu-Oh was born to jump and jive.

Tomona, the biwa priest, has a comparatively subtler trajectory. The son of a salvage diver, he is blinded at a young age when he and his father retrieved cursed regalia. Masaaki’s visual treatment of this unseeing musician is a treat, as total darkness gains rough outline of form with each sound Tomona hears. Being unable to see, the priest-musician (a biwa is never without his four-string shamisen and bachi) does not fear Inu-Oh, and is so able to help the mutant through his journey. Tomona’s personal journey is also about transformation as he evolves into an increasingly feminine entity, adopting the name Tomaori by the film’s end. The morphing of their name allows them to grow into their true form, but plays havoc with the spirit world, and with their ancestors—as one’s given, or accepted, name is what allows Tomona/Tomaori’s father to maintain contact from the afterlife.

While the first half of Inu-Oh is “merely” steeped in music, song, and dance, the second half is one long string of hand-clapping, foot-stomping musical numbers showcasing the monumental talents Tomona and Inu-Oh share as natural performers. They give the forgotten fate of the Heike spirits full-throated treatment, with Inu-Oh performing transgressively non-traditional storytelling through song and dance, while Tomona positively shreds it on their shamisen. Contemporary shogunate politics play a role in the story as well, as does the concurrent, tragic tale of Inu-Oh’s fame-obsessed father. Masaaki Yuasa never settles for half measures, and every theme—friendship, salvation, transformation, politics, and music—ties together in an animated vortex of vivacity and sonic rollercoaster of rocking melody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This anachronistic rock musical promises a return to the playful, literary surrealism of ‘The Tatami Galaxy’ (2010) and its 2017 spin-off, ‘Night Is Short, Walk On Girl,’ but comes up short… There are individual sequences that reach the psychedelic heights of Yuasa’s best work. But too often, this tale of the liberating power of art is about as mind-expanding as an early-afternoon set at Fuji Rock Festival.”–James Hadfield, Japan Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LAMB (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Valdimar Jóhannsson

FEATURING: , Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson

PLOT: A childless couple living on a remote farm in Iceland become attached to a newborn lamb.

Still from Lamb (2021)

COMMENTS: Debuting director Valdimar Jóhannsson has been adamant in interviews that Lamb is not a horror movie. While that may not be strictly accurate—Lamb abuts the supernatural, relies on ominous music cues and a bit of shocking violence, and nurtures a sense of unease throughout—the lack of intent to horrify is an important consideration to get your expectations in order.

Anyone going in expecting a stately A24 horror outing a la St. Maud (2021), The Lighthouse (2019), or Hereditary (2018) will likely grow impatient in the first forty-five minutes as the movie languorously spends its time following the slow rhythms of farm life. Maria and Ingvar, all alone except for a dog, a cat, and their livestock, spend long days grazing their sheep, preparing and eating meals (including lamb chops), and servicing their temperamental tractor. The only event that breaks up the idyllic monotony is the unexpected birth of a new lamb. After pulling the babe out of its mother, Maria gets that motherly look in her eyes. The couple take the lamb inside their home and care for the newborn like a favored pet, lavishing as much affection and attention on it as they would on an infant. The cute-as-a-button critter is usually lovingly wrapped in swaddling clothes, and it’s only when we get a brief glimpse of its lower extremities that anything resembling horror starts to take root.

Things perk up a bit after the overly-long introduction, helped by the arrival of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother, who crashes at the farm and, like the audience, looks askance at the couple’s unnatural attachment to the animal. Things still proceed relatively slowly, but the viewer’s interest is held by dreamy visuals of the verdant Icelandic valley and the strangely expressive lamb (formed from a variety of techniques, including CGI composting and puppetry, into an aberration that’s simultaneously ridiculous and uncanny). The narrative is thin, but the metaphorical implications are broad; the story is driven by a likable couple’s need for something to love. (Coincidentally, displaced and delusional parental love is also a key feature of the recent Titane). It falls just short of earning a general “” tag, but for those who enjoy slow but offbeat art-house movies that focus as much on gorgeous scenery as horrific visions, Lamb may serve to fill an empty space inside of you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a kind of WTF object of fascination… Even the (excellent) trailer from boutique studio A24 can’t find a way to entirely hide the movie’s hyper-bizarre premise.”–Taylor Antrim, Vogue (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Alicia Vikander

PLOT: King Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts a challenge from the mysterious Green Knight to deliver a blow that will be returned to him in exactly one year.

Still from The Green Knight

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Green Knight reconnects us with the deep weirdness of ancient legends, where even Arthur’s shiny new Christian order cannot banish the strange chthonic magics growing from the world below.

COMMENTS: We find him hungover in a brothel on Christmas morning. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is dissolute, only seated at the Round Table thanks to nepotism. He tells his uncle that he has no stories to tell, but when the half-tree, half-man Green Knight strides into Camelot (summoned, it seems, by witchcraft), he himself will become the tale. Since none of Arthur’s other knights will accept the oaken interloper’s proposed “game” to trade blows—delivered a year apart—with his axe, Gawain, suddenly ambitious to make a name for himself, steps forward and unwisely cleaves the Knight’s head from his trunk. This fails to deter the tree-man, who merely picks up the severed appendage and reminds Gawain of his date one year hence.

Thus begins Gawain’s quest to become a man. The knight’s code of honor Gawain aspires to demands that he keep his word and, although his resolve trembles a bit, he never seriously doubts that he will face his fate. Lowery fills out the sketchy 14th-century poem with some new incidents (which feel authentically Arthurian, like a version of the story of St. Winifred), but his main twist on the ancient legend is to make Gawain human, relatable, a man with feet of clay who nonetheless perseveres in his duty—or one who is pulled forward inexorably by his fate. As with most of The Green Knight, it’s unclear whether Gawain’s willingness to sacrifice himself is noble, or merely predestined. Contradictions abound: the pagan and the Christian exist side by side, an ancient story is told through a modern lens, and green, as Alicia Vikander reminds us in a long poetic speech, is simultaneously the color of life and of death.

There are strange things in the world which defy all logic, and Gawain experiences many of them on his journey. Heads persist separately from their bodies, women pass out magical totems and sashes, corpses hang at crossroads, giants plod along in an inexplicable parade, and a fox joins his quest (and dispenses advice). In every hut and castle along the way, Gawain encounters strange residents who may actually be ghosts, fairies, or magicians. Dreaminess overtakes our hero as he advances towards the Green Chapel, but in the end, only the clear inevitability of the axe-blow awaits. The formalist minimalism of Lowery’s A Ghost Story yields to a fiery maximalism of fantasy, but the dire existential edge remains.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A mystical and enthralling medieval coming-of-age story in which King Arthur’s overeager adult nephew learns that the world is weirder and more complicated than he ever thought possible, ‘The Green Knight’ is an intimate epic told with the self-conviction that its hero struggles to find at every turn. Stoned out of its mind and shot with a genre-tweaking mastery that should make John Boorman proud, it’s also the rare movie that knows exactly what it is, which is an even rarer movie that’s perfectly comfortable not knowing exactly what it is.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)