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DIRECTED BY: Keishi Kondo
FEATURING: Kaho Seto, Satoshi Oka, Saionji Ryuseigun
PLOT: Still grieving from the accidental death of her daughter years ago, escort Miyabi’s dreary routine is shaken up when she meets a strange client who only wants to take pictures of her individual body parts.
COMMENTS: New Religion arrives at Slamdance with an assured style and polished look that belies its low budget. Using little more than colored filters, an evocative soundtrack, and some remarkable microphotography, Keishi Kondo delivers a crowdfunded wonder, shot mostly on weekends with a first-time cast, that most of the time looks like it could have come from a major Japanese studio.
New Religion relies heavily on atmosphere: its full of slow, portentous glances scored to ominous drones, hinting at horrors unseen. The sound design is a key element, so see the film with a good stereo system, if possible. The opening credits set a tone of mystery: scritching strings accompany a pan over a blood-red cityscape, which merges into a tinted tour of moth anatomy. This is followed by shots of abstract organ-like structures and a possible fetus that forms and melts before our eyes, as the music swells and resolves into a desperate drone. This moody experimental-film opening deserves comparison to the disquieting prologue of Under the Skin. We emerge from that brief storm into a quiet drama, with main character Miyabi recalling the loss of her daughter and remembering a photograph taken with the child on a beach. A scene of her and the girl staring out to sea, then slowly turning to face the camera, will recur a couple of times; its significance is eventually revealed—perhaps, although as her strange client Oka says, “memories can’t be trusted.” Miyabi moves through her life in a sad daze, obsessively watering the plants on her balcony or sitting in near silence in a grungy basement with two other prostitutes, waiting to be called up for a date. For most of the movie no one expresses much visible emotion, even when angry or frightened, which makes Seto’s desperation as her mind breaks down in the film’s second half stand out: her grief is set free, along with an irrational hope.
The film works as a melancholy drama, but contains eerie notes which are not fully expressed, haunting the story like fleeting memories. Oka, a purported survivor of throat cancer, speaks only through an otherworldly electrolarynx. He is obsessed with moths, and might be indirectly linked to a series of homicidal rampages and terrorist bombings. Who Oka actually is isn’t made completely clear, but he is a catalyst for an inhuman transformation, and he feeds on women like Miyabi whose deep emotional traumas make them receptive to whatever voodoo he performs through his photographic project. Oka’s motives are as murky as Miyabi’s grief is vivid. In the end, what he offers seems to be voluntarily entanglement in a web of dreams: dreams where the dreamer dreams of another dreamer, while simultaneously being dreamed themselves.
Kondo’s curious concoction will mesmerize and enthrall many art-horror fans. Others will find the deliberate pacing more of a chore—while still being intermittently mesmerized and enthralled. But there’s no doubt that this is a promising debut, and we salivate thinking what Kondo could do with a bigger budget—if he is able to maintain his independent sensibilities. It would not shock us to look back years from now and realize that New Religion founded a cult of Kondo.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“One of the strangest, most refreshing edge-of-genre films in recent years.”–Kim Newman, The Kim Newman Website (festival screening)