I caught two American science fiction mind benders at South Korea’s Jeonju International Film Festival last month that have been very divisive among viewers and critics. I enjoyed them both and recommend auteur Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which is his long-awaited follow-up to his debut film Primer, and director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Both challenging works are unique artistic visions, and have the following things in common: minimal dialogue, beautiful cinematography, enigmatic storylines that are slowly revealed, and their own unique worlds.
I advise going into both of these films with as little knowledge about them as possible, even avoiding trailers. I’ll avoid spoilers and just set up the stories with what you’ll see only in the first few minutes.
Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as — I’d like to keep this a secret, but alas, it pretty much appears in the first sentence or two of any promotional materials or reviews about the movie — a space alien who drives around Scotland looking for men. I honestly feel that learning any more about the story than that before you go in is doing yourself a big disservice. Just prepare yourself for a sometimes surreal 108-minute trip with stunning visuals and imagery. Fans of Johansson will find much to like here; her performance is solid and understated, and her character goes through several changes, including philosophical ones.
Those of you who have seen Carruth’s 2004 shoestring-budget debut time-traveling film Primer might assume that his sophomore effort might be at least equally puzzling as his first — and you would be right. In the opening scenes, we see, among other things, how a drug that includes live roundworms is manufactured, and how it is used to control the minds of those who receive injections of it. Amy Seimetz plays Kris, who is forcibly given this drug by a mysterious character who then tragically manipulates her into doing things that she does not initially remember. Later we meet the character of Jeff, portrayed by Carruth — who, by the way, also wrote, directed, produced, edited, cast, scored, and designed the movie. Kris and Jeff seem to have many things in common on several levels, and the relationship between these two emotionally fractured people is the heart of this complex, puzzling film. Seimetz, who also stars in Ti West’s latest film, The Sacrament, gives a wonderful performance here and Carruth plays well against her.
Amy and Jeff have a difficult time figuring out what has recently happened in their lives, and many viewers might feel the same way. Carruth slowly feeds us small pieces of his puzzle; some viewers may find their patience tested. Upstream Color is challenging and sometimes confusing, but in my opinion, is never dull and is well worth watching.
The next big film fest here takes place later this month, when the Pucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (nicknamed PiFan) happens. This is a genre film lover’s dream, as PiFan screens more than 200 feature-length and short films from around the globe in the horror, science fiction, fantasy, dark comedy, animation, and related realms. Most are making their world, international, or Asian debuts at PiFan. I plan to see 42 films between the festival’s July 17-27 run, so you can expect extensive coverage from me.