With all of us knowing (along with a smattering of denialists amongst us) that our time alive is finite, Scud’s journey into the minds, hearts, souls and bodies of a covey of individuals whose—for various reasons—lives end “before their time” is a must-see for anyone really serious about coming to a better understanding of their last days of existence.
The narrative glue that binds the series of short films into a cohesive whole is the troubled psychiatrist Ryo (Ryo van Kooten delivers a wonderfully paced and nuanced performance) who is frequently faced with the challenge of preventing his patients from committing suicide. And so the film becomes a kind of case book, documenting a variety of—at times—truly incredible sets of circumstances with virtually none of them ending well for at least one of the principals.
To set the stage, the film lifts off with the ravages of Chairman Mao’s “up the hill, down the field” policy, forcing educated young city dwellers into the wilds of the country (Inner Mongolia in this instance) to be re-educated for work that will provide food for others: best leave their finely honed intellects and state-threatening books behind (Big Brother is watching).
With deliberately silent exchanges between the handsome newcomer and his thrust-upon-him family letting viewers fill in the conversation blanks, we see the newcomer morph from out-of-his-depth cowboy to a wrestler that even manages to send his surrogate “dad” to the ground. In a wonderfully ironic twist (perhaps the bare-chested clutches during the match might have brushed on “forbidden” parts of the anatomy) the patriarch—on a moonlit night with metaphoric wolves working their way into the mix—offers his naked body to the displaced student only to be refused.
And thus the first suicide is fuelled out of shame for expressing repressed inner feelings which the sudden widow may have guessed but chose to leave “well enough alone.”
Thus prepared, viewers set sail on a voyage of the damned making ports of call at a cult-like suicide banquet and a soothsayer’s (Susan Shaw compassionately portraying Lay Red) inability to “see” the death of her son in a bus crash: producing one of the most magical parts of the production as the naked ghosts of all of those killed appear to the grieving mother—trapped in a netherworld for those who have left the planet so very unexpectedly; the childlike music reinforcing the mood to a T.
The other earthy comings and goings focus on one main love story (Ryo with the initially infectiously joyous Adrian—enthusiastically then broodingly rendered by Adrian Heung) accompanied by a comely visual artist (Sebastian Castro) falling into deadly, unrequited love with a social columnist (Leni Speidel)—their failed romance producing the marvellously metaphorical public fountain sequence where the naked artist is most brilliantly blown away.
Full stop: I have deliberately used the descriptor “naked” on many occasions. There are not very many in the ensemble whose private parts are not laid bare to the camera. But as with Utopians (cross-reference below, perhaps the filmmaker’s soul-cleansing next film) the nudity is seldom erotic (in this case, save and expect for the mother dutifully jerking off her exceptionally troubled son, before ensuring that THAT will never happen again), but much more a celebration of the body beautiful, adding stark contrast to the untimely ends of those who, literally, appear to have it all (witness superstar Ryan—Ryan Zhu who knows he can fly away from it all) only to purposely call it quits.
As good as the narrative and acting is, the film would not be nearly as successful without Charlie Lam’s exceptional cinematographic skills. With so many countries and settings to capture, he manages to find some earth-tone hues to bring so much under one roof (and in the tradition of Samsara—cross reference below—silence once more speaks loudly) his transitions—notably at Red Centre Way—allow for much-needed moments of reflection before the next “leaving” takes stage.
The original score has a haunting theme that adds further unity to the various losses; selecting Smetana’s “Die Moldau” from Má Vlast is a subtlety many may not understand, but nonetheless relate the music’s power (Má Vlast translates to My Homeland), where so many of these doomed souls at first abandon and then—depending on their/your beliefs—rediscover their inner selves.
The last words on the screen (frequent use of screen text provides immediate context to some of the situations) is “Let there be no end to the voyage.”
When this one does finish, the proof of that statement will come in the post-screening conversations that it generates. Miss the closing credits at your peril. JWR