Director – Chino Moya – 2020 – UK – Cert. N/C 18+ – 91m
Overlapping narratives unfold within a mysterious city which resembles something out of Eastern Europe – Glasgow Film Festival Friday, February 26th to Monday, March 1st
In a grey urban environment resembling an unspecified city somewhere in Eastern Europe or possibly Russia, two lorry drivers go about their daily routine of picking up corpses from the street. These two characters form the frame story of what is to follow, although exactly what that is isn’t clear from the narrative’s meandering nature. There are stories within stories wherein the character you think is the main character is suddenly usurped by a different character. Several times over.
That’s a pity because they are potentially very interesting stories, so it’s frustrating to see them consistently half-baked. The anthology film is, after all, a tried and tested format and this film attempts do something radical and new with it. The problem is though, to make that form work you really need to understand its rules before you play around with them, break them, or abandon them altogether. This film seemingly lacks that understanding, or thinks you can throw away the framework and everything will still somehow work. It won’t. Or, at least, it doesn’t work here.
In one story, for instance, a father is telling his small daughter a bedtime story. She insists on his including monsters. But she has fallen asleep before he got that far having earlier complained that the story isn’t that interesting. The audience wants monsters too. Certainly this film has nasty characters, which might be described as monsters, but if I’m told a film contains monsters I expect more than nasty characters. No doubt I’m supposed to enthusiastically embrace these narrative games as cinematic innovation. But actually, I just feel cheated.
Back to those overlapping stories. A man used as industrial factory slave labour is unexpectedly set free. He returns near catatonic to his wife, who is now married to a engineer recently promoted to an executive position within his company. She takes a greater interest in her returned husband over her newer one. It’s hard to relate to such characters. They seem little more than pieces in a grand design. Or perhaps it isn’t a design so much as a hodge-podge.
If the viewer is to be charitable, the main character may not be any of the human actors at all, but rather the peculiar city in which the tale – or tales – are told. Even that is infuriating. Two men searching for the man’s daughter in a building go through a door and fall several storeys only to find themselves in a seemingly, entirely different city. Or is it? I wanted to know more about this strange metropolitan world with its complex social strata, but it wasn’t always clear how one part of the society related to another – or even if some parts were supposed to be another place altogether related in a story in the original location.
In the film’s favour, the visuals are constantly arresting, but that isn’t of itself enough. The strong cast try really hard too, but the problem lies with the material with which they have to work. I really wanted to like the film, but, in the end, I just didn’t care.
Undergods plays Glasgow Film Festival Friday, February 26th to Monday, March 1st 2021. It had its world premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on Sunday, August 30th 2020, when this review was originally written.
Glasgow Film Festival: Friday, February 26th to Monday, March 1st.
Sunday, August 30th (world premiere); Wednesday, September 2nd.