CHAIN written and directed by Jem Cohen, starring Miho Nikaido and Mira Billotte. 99 minutes. Opening gala Thursday (April 7), 8 pm, at the Bloor Cinema. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Malls are like dark matter: they’re all around us, but culturally they’re nearly invisible. Filmmaker Jem Cohen stumbled across this fact while trying to avoid it, and it led to his first narrative feature film.
Best known for his music biopics Instrument (about Fugazi) and Benjamin Smoke and his collaborations with musical luminaries like REM and Elliott Smith, Cohenalso reveals an obsession with landscape and architecture in his films.
"I was interested in disappearing neighbourhoods, places with a really distinctive regional character," he explains. But their scarcity forced him to recognize that there was an encroaching world of malls, motels and six-lane highways that he was deliberately shutting out.
"I had to go out of my way to avoid getting this stuff in the frame, and I felt like maybe I had some kind of responsibility to contend with this, to think about how it affects people."
The result is Chain, a vast and varied display of deadly edge-city architecture held together by two parallel narratives. In one, a Japanese businesswoman assigned to analyze and report on shopping malls and amusement parks around the globe slowly drifts into air-conditioned alienation as her links to her employers grow more and more tenuous.
In the other, a young runaway wanders from mall to abandoned house to cheap hotel, recording a ghostly video diary on a stolen camera.
Both women are almost more thought experiments than characters: what happens to a person with no social ties who’s exposed to this kind of prefabrication 24/7?
"I tried not to tell you what to think about them," says Cohen, "not to judge them or make them entirely explicable. On the other hand, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I’m not appalled by the way space and life and people are being homogenized."
It’s a fine line between neutrality toward his characters and horror at their environment, and truth be told, overall the horror wins out. But that’s not a bad thing; Cohen’s long gaze at the invisible edges of our cities is eerie and engrossing.