Exhibitions: “Shinique Smith: Bright Matter” at MFA Boston

I visit the Museum of Fine Arts Boston fairly regularly–I’ve seen almost all of their major exhibitions (plus many smaller ones) since I moved here in 2006–and while I respect their vast collections, up-to-date facilities, and significant works in the Impressionist, Japanese, and ancient Egyptian categories, I have found little to praise in the diversity department. Their pre-Columbian holdings are hidden in the basement, their African and Oceanic galleries are weirdly situated, and their main exhibits especially (which I do hold as the most important marker of a museum’s tastes and priorities, since they are the main thing museums will advertise, merchandise, celebrate, etc) leave much to be desired in terms of representation. In the past several years in their large exhibition galleries, they’ve primarily shown white men (Edgar Degas, Dale Chihuly, Alex Katz, Mario Testino, Jamie Wyeth, Richard Avedon, Ellsworth Kelly, etc), authorless objects like samurai armor, or fashion primarily designed by white men. The only major show I can think of with named artists of color is Fresh Ink, displaying the work of ten contemporary Chinese artists (only one a woman). The Quilts and Color show from this summer was notable for its focus on works made by women, even if they were anonymous housewives, but the text associated with the show rarely mentioned the actual makers of the works, instead choosing to discuss everything in the context of color theory and the collectors’ process. There is an admission that these quilts anticipate later experiments in color and optical effects by influential artists like Josef Albers and Bridget Riley, but the fact that the people actually pioneering these ideas are “non-artist” housewives is never mentioned.

Shinique SmithEntrance to Shinique Smith: Bright Matter. All photos by the author.

All this frustration with the MFA’s lack of diversity is just a lead-up to say how pleased I’ve been with the museum’s contemporary wing as of late. Not only have the ever-changing contemporary galleries become much more inclusive of women and people of color, but the special exhibitions have been far from safe in their choices of artist and theme- usually foregoing big names in favor of exposure for international artists who are less known in the US. They’ve had Israeli photographer Ori Gersht, experimental ceramists, Iranian women photographers, political artists from Latin America, and now, Shinique Smith, an inventive and multi-talented black artist whose works makes an impact in both scale and material. Side note: we went to the same college, which kind of blows my mind because I can’t think of any artists I really love who went there.

Pulling from a range of graphic references–including graffiti, Cy Twombly, calligraphy, fashion design, rock music, breakdancing, 80s nostalgia, and Jean-Michel Basquiat–Smith has forged a distinctive style through her incorporation of lowbrow textiles, sweeping gestures, and collage elements in a variety of works. She is probably most known for her sculptural clothing bundles, representing “bales” of clothes sent from the US and other Western countries to communities in Africa for re-use. Though they make compelling statements about the intersection of race, culture, and consumerism in the clothing industry, I found them kind of underwhelming in the context of this exhibit. I think they’re probably most effective in large groups filling up a gallery space, as opposed to strewn individually throughout the rooms. I felt similarly about her hanging clothing bundle sculptures, collectively titled Parade, which are so interesting but just not placed well here. I wanted more of them peppering the space about my head, so they might truly invoke the parade floats hinted at in the title. I do really like all of these sculptural pieces, I’m just not sure they were shown off to their best effect in this specific display.

shiniquesmith-installationviewShinique Smith: Bright Matter. Installation view.

shiniquesmith-Parade-2014Shinique Smith: Parade (detail), 2014.

Luckily, I had plenty of beautiful things to engage me with Smith’s truly lovely wall pieces, many of which are brand new and haven’t been shown before. These large-scale canvases combine all manner of material, including paint, fabrics, bleach, beads, dolls, and magazine cut-outs, resulting in visually stunning abstract works that benefit as much from a distanced viewing as from a close inspection of detail. Smith is adept at blending aspects of memory and nostalgia in a way that feels universal, filtering her own associations through ambiguous, abstract compositions. In a work like Inner Clock, she pieces together elements of her own youth, deeply intimate symbols as well as actual personal objects. And yet, because of her deft blending of familiar materials, I can still easily find my own experiences in this: the pink-haired doll, the deflated balloons, the pink boa and mannequin arm; all remind me of specific events or moments in my own life, from birthday party afterglow to art class sculpture projects. Similarly, her impressive Of a Particular Perfume easily calls to mind the soft quietude of my grandparents’ house simply in its use of a pink crocheted shawl.

Through such work, Smith ably forges a connection with her viewers, a recognition of object and material that links to memory, tied up in the obscure associations each individual may have to a fabric pattern, a piece of jewelry, an abstract shape. She also references street and youth subcultures in her use of graffiti-style writing and recognizable collage elements, while pulling from a host of other sources. This kind of allusive art-making can have mixed results: Some artists seem overly bent on referencing everything they can, on citing more known works of art so they can elicit a knowing “a-ha!” moment in their viewers. Smith incorporates a lot of re-used and re-hashed material, but always in a way that pleases the eye visually as much as it arouses our nostalgia. She seamlessly works it into her bold, energetic painting style, with sweeping strokes curving and falling across her large canvases, echoing the folds of a piece of cloth or beads strung on a necklace. In a winking response to Abstract Expressionism, she maintains the importance of action and gesture but rejects the sanctification and self-importance associated with that movement.

shiniquesmith-InnerClock-2014Shinique Smith: Inner clock, 2014.

shiniquesmith-InnerClock-2014-2Shinique Smith: Inner Clock (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-OfaParticularPerfume-2011Shinique Smith: Of a Particular Perfume, 2011.

shiniquesmith-Splendid-2014-2Shinique Smith: Splendid, 2014.

shiniquesmith-Splendid-2014Shinique Smith: Splendid (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-Majesty-2012Shinique Smith: Majesty, 2012.

shiniquesmith-Breath&Line-2014Shinique Smith: Breath & Line (detail), 2014.

Smith’s stimulation of the senses is kicked up a notch in the final work of the show (at least, in the way I walked around it): Breath & Line. This installation is set in a small room covered in mirrors, lights, and black graffiti-like calligraphic scrawl, and whispering audio plays throughout, sampling poetry, song lyrics, and Smith’s own breath. In her continued use of nostalgia, she also incorporates scent- one of the most powerful links to memory. It is an understated but powerful piece, beautiful in a way that is slightly haunting. Breath & Line marks something of a turn for the artist when compared to the other works on view in Bright Matter– its black and white color scheme, flat graphics, and hushed voices seem removed from the plethora of loud, cluttered, colorful, playful pieces in the rest of the gallery. But its more serious atmosphere also led me to re-consider the tone of some of those other works as I re-traced my steps back through the exhibition, finding new elements and themes in works I had at first appreciated more at face value. Smith’s technique relies on layering, on piling on, and in doing so she encourages multiple takes and readings, collecting together positive and negative, specificity and ambiguity, and “high” and “low” all at once so that individual works often feel like well-packed suitcases full of her own lifetime of experiences. And perhaps yours, too.

shiniquesmith-BellyButtonWindow-2014Shinique Smith: Belly Button Window, 2014.

shiniquesmith-BellyButtonWindow-2014-2Shinique Smith: Belly Button Window (detail), 2014.

shiniquesmith-NoKeyNoQuestion-2013Shinique Smith: No Key, No Question, 2013.

shiniquesmith-TheSpark-2013Shinique Smith: The Spark, 2013.

shiniquesmith-UntitledForVandalsOnlyNo1-2009-2Shinique Smith: Untitled (For Vandals Only No. 1), 2009.

shiniquesmith-UntitledForVandalsOnlyNo1-2009Shinique Smith: Untitled (For Vandals Only No. 1) (detail), 2009.

shiniquesmith-WithWingsNewlyMadeofWater-2014Shinique Smith: With wings, newly made of water, 2014.

Movie Review: Times Square (1980)

times square

Seen: In 35mm at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

Set in that bygone era when downtown New York was overrun with punks and freaks and strip clubs and boomboxes and graffiti, Times Square follows the adventures of unlikely duo of Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado), a shy, lonely, wealthy 13-year-old girl, and Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson), an abrasive, anti-authority 15-year-old punk . They meet in a hospital where they are undergoing tests for seizure-related issues, but they soon break out together and decide to make it on their own in the streets of New York City. They move into an abandoned warehouse (or train station? or something?) and do well enough for themselves stealing food, taking clothes from some old trunks they found, and dancing (clothed) at a club. But Pam’s father (Peter Coffield) is a high-ranking city official and a media frenzy erupts after her apparent kidnapping and later admitted disappearance, especially after over-opinionated DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry) dedicates his radio show to encouraging the girls in their break for independence. Eventually Nicky decides she wants to be famous, working with LaGuardia to form a punk band.

I’ve been trying to see this movie for years but haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy, so I was excited when the Brattle Theatre screened a print as part of their Girls Rule! series (though admittedly their copy was pretty red/faded). It is flawed, but decidedly fun and feminist. I love any and all movies about female friendship, and this is one of the best I’ve seen in that it offers a very positive and open portrayal of a close female relationship, fraught with clashing personalities and divergent goals, but tightly bound by shared hardship and mutual admiration. There’s a bit of lesbian subtext in there, too, which I fully supported. These girls have grown accustomed to no one listening to them, and the film is largely about them each taking control of their own voices, and how even that kind of agency can be co-opted. The two leads are phenomenal, playing their actual ages (which surprised me) and lighting up the screen with their musical and youthful energy.

Trini Alvarado captivates with her porcelain features and soft but powerful speaking voice, spouting lines of poetry and throwing looks of longing across the room. Robin Johnson is the true standout, every expression equally rife with vitriol, swagger, and self-loathing, imbuing the character with a delicate balance of vulnerability and extreme antagonism. And god, that smoky voice of hers just slays me. Tim Curry inexplicably plays a very New York dj but keeps his accent (I don’t think he can really do an American accent, it’s why he didn’t end up playing Brad Majors in the Rocky Horror sequel), and his character primarily functions as a foil for Pam’s straitlaced, career-minded dad. LaGuardia is similarly self-obsessed, but uses his position of power to extoll the grit and grime of Times Square, to encourage these teen girls to resist any and all authority, and to generally fuck things up for Mr Pearl, who plans to “clean up” the city. Curry is charismatic and funny enough to make the role work, though it is largely a satirical caricature.

Times Square does focus on the friendship between Pam and Nicky, and that is its main strength, but it is also an exploration–and memorialization–of the culture of the period, albeit a watered-down version. The girls rock out to Talking Heads, The Ramones, and Suzi Quatro, they mix-and-match vintage clothing, they sneak into strip clubs and adult movie theaters. They stroll confidently around the titular neighborhood, allying themselves with apparently unemployed, delinquent, and/or homeless adults who fill the streets. Most of these extras are played by black men, but few have any lines or names, acting more as set dressing for these rebellious white girls trying to carve out a niche for themselves. Despite their youth and naivete, Pam and Nicky never seem to be in any danger, and their punk lifestyle never derails into sex, drug use, or serious violence. It’s all a bit tame, but admittedly I was grateful for that given their very young ages. My biggest actual problem with them as characters is their misguided appropriation of racist and ableist slurs to align themselves with self-imposed outsiders. Maybe this is just period-specific thing, like Patti Smith using the n-word in 1978’s “Rock n Roll N****r” to celebrate outsiders, minorities, and rebels. It is an interesting way to call out Pam’s dad on his hypocrisy, since she claims they are terms he uses in private, but he is never called on it or seen to re-evaluate his obviously racist and ableist views. Mostly the whole scene is just a reminder that these girls–sympathetic and wonderful as they are–are kind of deluded, and ultimately more privileged than they’ll ever realize.

With its grungy sets, girl-power plot, talented cast, and cultural commentary, Times Square is primarily an enjoyable comedy-drama that makes me want to rock out with my best lady friends. It’s a bit clumsy at times (mostly because the producers shoved some random scenes in to add to the soundtrack, without director Allan Moyle’s consent), and overly simplistic at others, but I came out really loving it. I immediately went home and found the soundtrack so I could relive my favorite moments. Attitude, friendship, rock and roll, fashion, feminism, parents just don’t understand: Yes.


Pair This Movie With: I feel like I could program a marathon around this movie, so many films came to mind that would go along with it. For blogging purposes I’ll limit it to three suggestions. For a fun, music-centric teen comedy with female leads, I do enthusiastically recommend Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. For a grittier exploration of teen girls forming a rock band, there is of course Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. And for more adult look at the fading-but-fascinating punk rock subculture of early 80s New York City, I put forward Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens, whose caustic main character actually reminds me a bit of Nicky.

Art: Wangechi Mutu’s Grossly Beautiful Collage

yomammaWangechi Mutu: Yo Mamma, 2003. via Nasher Museum of Art

Combining diverse artistic approaches–including ink drawing, collage, installation, painting, video, and animation–and commenting slyly on race, gender, colonialism, and sexuality in her subject matter, Wangechi Mutu has always most attracted me with her work’s sickly beauty. There’s something so eye-catching yet simultaneously upsetting about her mixed-media compositions, they force viewers to look first for pleasure and then again for meaning. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, and educated at Cooper Union and Yale University, Mutu has been exhibiting since the late 90s but seems to be gaining more and more recognition in recent years, with a major solo museum exhibition that is ending its national tour at Northwestern University this fall. Her work has primarily focused on subversions of the female form, which Helaine Posner describes as a “cross-cultural look at the exoticized, eroticized, and demonized female body, particularly the black female body, as the repository of society’s fascination and fears” (The Reckoning). Her female figures tend to be elongated and contorted, at times even lumpy, made up of disparate pieces that seem to call out the innumerable expectations, presumptions, and stereotypes placed upon women in general by contemporary societies, and on black women specifically.

Many of her pieces mix pornographic imagery with ethnographic photography like that seen in National Geographic. In her series of collages collectively titled The Ark Collection, she playfully and pointedly juxtaposes black female porn models with details of Masai tribal textiles, jewelry, and figures taken from popular snaps by photojournalist Carole Beckwith. Mutu intentionally draws associations between the hyper-sexualization of black women in contemporary media and the long-held Western fascination with women living in so-called “primitive” or “exotic” cultures. Complex and confrontational, these works are also intriguingly beautiful, inviting viewers to consider how their different parts add up to a bitingly satirical whole. In these as in other works, we see a kind of dualism, which Mutu has herself described: “I was thinking in terms of two histories; I was moving from seeing myself as a person from Kenya in America, to seeing myself as a fusion of the two. When two ideas come together, it doesn’t always create a very logical result, it doesn’t add up to what people expect, and you can’t tell where one begins and where one ends” (“Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu”).

Mutu- the ark collection2Wangechi Mutu: The Ark Collection, 2006. via Border Crossings Magazine

Mutu- the ark collectionWangechi Mutu: The Ark Collection, 2006. via Border Crossings Magazine

In many of her more recent pieces, the artist works on a large scale (about life-size for her figures) to create mixed-media representations of female-animal-plant hybrids, seemingly amorphous bodies that exist in fantastical landscapes. Her imagery seems to reference everything from environmental concerns and sci-fi technology to high fashion models and acid flashbacks. It is easy to draw a line between her work and the early cut-up collages by Picasso (which she cites as an influence), the gritty, exaggerated bodies of Egon Schiele, the overlapping composite paintings of Francis Picabia, and the grotesque figures of Georg Baselitz; however, Mutu brings the aesthetic of these white male modernists into the current age, and infuses it with her unique perspective, gendered and racial experience, and cultural signifiers. Of her identity as a black woman artist, she has commented, “Part of my baggage with feminism is that it still hasn’t taken into consideration the work done by women outside America and Europe. We’re coming from very different behavioural patterns as far as how the patriarchy expressed itself on us. European and American women occupy a very different space from African women, and even that is too general because there are different countries with different histories and different religions… I still feel there are many battles to be fought concerning how women are placed in society” (“Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu”).

Another thing I appreciate about Wangechi Mutu is how she elevates the collage technique to a higher plane, as it is not typically considered a “high art” form. Many well-known artists have worked in collage (Picasso himself was a pioneer of the medium), but it is rarely considered a primary approach for major artists aside from someone like Hannah Höch or Richard Hamilton. I’ve never been quite sure why, I assume it has something to do with the typically small size of collaged works, or perhaps that it is by nature appropriative. Mutu’s life-size scale and expert utilization of different media, along with her captivatingly bold visual style, lend her collages a dynamism and confrontationalism that is not so often communicated with small cut-paper collage. She continues the practice’s tradition of using found imagery to comment on societal and cultural issues, but is not obvious about it in the way the Constructivists and Pop artists were, nor so cheeky as Dada artists, preferring to hint and cajole until her audience realizes the profound subtleties found within. Her figures suggest characters, her compositions suggest narrative settings, and we are allowed free reign as viewers to examine closely how she employs symbolic imagery, and how these women are positioned and what their gestures or actions may indicate. Her imagination and expansive artistic vocabulary continually blow me away, and here I’ve only scratched the surface of her varied output (she’s probably most known for her mixed media works, but she also does performance, installation, sculpture, and film). Actually, I should just take a step back and let her work speak for itself.


untitled-640x845Wangechi Mutu: Untitled, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

onceuponatimeWangechi Mutu: Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies became afraid of her The End, 2013. via Nasher Museum of Art

ridingdeathWangechi Mutu: Riding Death in My Sleep, 2002. via Nasher Museum of Art

Mutu- Forensic_Forms_5-598x845Wangechi Mutu: Forensic Forms, 5 of 10, 2004. via Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu - SantigoldWangechi Mutu: The End of Eating Everything, 2013. See a clip of the short film. Film still via Wangechi Mutu

Mutu: Fish-Trinity-1100x728Wangechi Mutu: Sketchbook Drawing (Fish Trinity), 2011. via Wangechi Mutu

MutuWangechi Mutu: Blue Rose, 2007. via Wangechi Mutu

misguidedWangechi Mutu: Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies, 2005. via Nasher Museum of Art

People-in-Glass-Towers-Should-Not-Imagine-Us-EDITED-1100x766Wangechi Mutu: People in Glass Towers Should Not Imagine Us, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

Mutu_361_TheStormHasFinallyMadeItOutOfMe_loresWangechi Mutu: The Storm Has Finally Made It Out Of Me Alhamdulillah, 2003. via Wangechi Mutu

Me.I1-1100x675Wangechi Mutu: Me.I., 2012. via Wangechi Mutu


Robert Enright and Wangechi Mutu. “Resonant Surgeries: The Collaged World of Wangechi Mutu.Border Crossings Magazine.

Helaine Posner. “Wangechi Mutu.” The Reckoning: Women Artists in the New Millennium. Prestel Publishing, 2013.

Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey.” Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

Wangechi Mutu artist site.

Movie Review: The Devils (1971)


Seen: In 35mm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.

In mid-17th century France, Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu together enforce Catholic dominance across the country. In his fanaticism, Richelieu entreats the king to tear down the walls surrounding the small city of Loudun, which–while Catholic–is basically self-governing and (in his mind) a likely haven for Protestants. Charismatic priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), who is beloved by the townspeople despite his known affairs with local women, has been in charge since the governor died, and he resists any orders to destroy his city’s defensive walls. Meanwhile, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), Mother Superior at Loudun’s Ursuline convent, experiences explicit visions involving Grandier as a sexy Christ figure, and confesses to a suspicious local priest (Murray Melvin). He assumes she is possessed by a demon, while Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), who is sent to tear the walls down, sees it as a means to delegitimize Grandier, accusing him of witchcraft. What follows is a sensational series of events involving satanic curses, crazed nuns, illegal marriage, violent exorcism, political trial, and fiery death.

This movie. I find myself suddenly obsessed with this movie. It is bizarre and grandiose and over the top and scathing and sensual and darkly funny, and really quite beautiful. The sets are towering and modern, rendered in sweeping lines and stark tans and greys, matching the overblown grandeur of both the French court and the Catholic Church. Ken Russell takes a true story and blows it up into this truly singular, scandalous piece of cinema. The melodrama is turned all the way up, like past 11, and I love that, especially since the tone is perfect for such a pomp and circumstancey target as Catholicism. Russell eagerly recognizes the strange blend of sexual repression and orgasmic ecstasy, pain and pleasure, guilt and pity, self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, all so intricately connected within the religion, especially in this time period. Sex and violence–while theoretically discouraged–are unquestionably major elements found within the church’s actions, whether in bloody executions of heretics or the romantic affairs of priests.

the devils

One of the many interesting aspects of The Devils is its protagonist, Urbain Grandier, as played by the devilishly sexual Oliver Reed. He is introduced as a well-liked public figure, then immediately shown to be a philanderer who coldly casts aside his aristocratic fling the moment she reveals she is pregnant. He is certainly a flawed character, both as a priest and as a man, yet in the greater scheme of things (namely Richelieu vs Loudun), he is in the right. He nobly fights for his city, defending it against power-hungry fanatics, and I couldn’t help but root for him even if I found some of his behavior repugnant (to be clear, I don’t care that he was a priest who broke his celibacy, or a priest who got married, but that he abandoned a scared woman whom he impregnated). Reed has this constant look of condescension about him coupled with a palpable charisma, weird sexual energy, and a good head of hair; I admit I fell for him just a little bit. And I liked how in this very moralistic atmosphere the “good guy” was himself not exactly meeting high moral standards, continuing with Russell’s exposure of religious hypocrisy.

This film works on a number of levels. It is a fearless criticism of the Catholic Church as an institution, a playful historical satire, a riveting and romantic drama, an investigation of the sadomasochistic elements of religious fanaticism, and certainly an artistic triumph. Its politics are muddy yet biting, its characters confused yet deliberate. The combined star power of Oliver Reed and captivating/unsettling Vanessa Redgrave is enough to sell it, but it was often the little things that really held my attention: the opening shot of an androgynous Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) performing onstage as Venus; the ridiculous fight between Grandier and two sniveling hack doctors (involving a stuffed crocodile); Sister Jeanne’s mad attack on wide-eyed “fornicator” Madeleine (Gemma Jones) through the bars; hints as to the sexual desires of repressed nuns; the dominant effect of Derek Jarman’s modernist sets; the proto-Girls-Gone-Wild possession sequence; the eye-catching style of Father Barre (Michael Gothard), a no-nonsense exorcist with round sunglasses, long hair, bare arms, and bright white gloves. Everything just worked for me. I loved this movie.


Movie Review: Chanthaly (2013)


Seen: On my laptop with a downloaded HD file, a perk from the Nong Hak indigogo campaign.

Diagnosed with a debilitating heart condition in her childhood, 22-year-old Chanthaly (Amphaiphun Phimmapunya) does not leave her house much. Her mother died in childbirth, and her doting father (Douangmany Soliphanh) raised her as best he could, but she has always felt the absence of a mother in her life. As an adult she lives quietly, running a small laundry service from their home with the help of her cousin, and playing with her adorable dog Moo. She starts experiencing visual and aural disturbances that might be her dead mother’s ghost, or might be a hallucinatory side-effect of her heart medication. Chanthaly becomes convinced her mother is trying to reach her, trying to tell her the truth about her death, and she gradually comes to distrust and resent her well-meaning but overprotective father.

I was initially interested in Chanthaly because of the story behind its making: director Mattie Do is both the first female filmmaker andfirst  horror filmmaker working in Laos, whose nascent film industry is small and limited. To make this movie she basically got together a small group of friends (plus her adorable dog, Mango) and set everything up at her house and just… made a movie. Which is pretty amazing. The film screened at some festivals but does not currently have any home release, so I was happy for the opportunity to receive a digital copy as a perk of Do’s fundraising campaign for her next project, Nong Hak.

Set entirely within the protagonist’s house, Chanthaly is a compelling, emotionally complex drama that employs horror tropes to emphasize the experiences of a troubled young woman. I’ll admit I was disappointed there wasn’t more actual horror–I was expecting something much scarier, I guess–but that’s just about the only criticism I have. The film plays out as a tense but evenly-paced drama as we watch the title character go about her day, confined to her house, interacting with few others save for family members and her neighbor, convinced her dead mother is trying to communicate with her, yearning for a more active life but also scared to move beyond her familiar surroundings. She is in many ways a product of a patriarchal society, with her illness acting as a metaphor for the quiet, weak role often assigned to women. The moments of horror are quick and sudden, mostly in the form of ghostly apparitions Chanthaly sees briefly in the dark. The story plays out gradually, allowing the viewer to become fully invested in the lead character’s situation and in the mystery of her visions. She believes so strongly that she’s somehow found a connection to her mother–the strong female role model she needs–that we too want to believe that it’s real, and not drug-induced hallucinations.

What really sold me on Chanthaly is the third act, when an unexpected twist completely changes the nature of the tale, but maintains the themes of love and loss. Here, the filmmakers expand upon the vague ancestral-ghost mythology that many cultures subscribe to, introducing a world where spirits reside in intensely bright versions of real homes, can implant memories into the living, and may even kill to maintain a veneer of happiness in the afterlife. The truth about Chanthaly’s ghostly visions is more complex than it seems, and indeed it is never fully explained, so that viewers may come to their own conclusions about our heroine’s troublesome visitor. It’s a fascinating prospect, and turns an already-interesting drama into a thought-provoking spiritual horror. Ultimately I was the most impressed with how moved I was by this film, likely because it reminded me of real loss, of real death, and though the film operates on a paranormal plane its handling of character and suffering felt utterly connected to actual experience.


Pair This Movie With: The use of interiors and general themes reminded me of Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters, which is totally scary and would make a very cool double feature.