Roads Past Uncertainty: The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2021

Here I am at the Etheria Film Festival, in spirit again. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since the Festival was forced to move from its physical Theatre viewing locations in the United States onto the online platform of Shudder. These have been uncertain times, and I didn’t know if I would ever cover — or even see — a similar event again.

But if I were to say that the Etheria Film Shorts of 2021 have a unifying theme or motif, it would be uncertainty: of being lost, or remaining in transition, and trying to find your way off a familiar path. 

So let’s get into it. Heidi Honeycutt, the founder and Director of Programming of Etheria introduces this round of female-directed short films across genres, and then introduces the 2021 Etheria Inspiration Award. It is presented to The Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang by the legendary film and television producer Gale Anne Hurd: who herself had actually won the Award in 2019. One thing that Hurd mentions with regards to Kang’s work is that she is excellent at telling character-driven stories: which is fitting given how most of the cinematic stories in this current anthology are, by necessity, directed by the trajectory of their protagonists wherever they might go. 

Our viewing night begins with Kelsey Bollig’s The Fourth Wall: a film about a resentful actress who has to essentially share her next big theatre production with three other idiots while suffering from what seems to be a series of seizures, or the beginning of a nervous breakdown. The director’s statement on the Etheria website, which I’d suggest you check out as some of them provide a bit of background for their films, explains that she wanted to take the story back to the origins of cinema, and perhaps even cinematic or theatrical experimentation: which she identifies as France. As the protagonist’s nose bleeds, and her hallucinations with regards to her resentment over her peers continues, you wonder where this will go. And I have to say, when she makes her decision, when she lashes out, it is satisfying. It’s a tame Grand Guignol — a naturalistic, graphic, amoral horror show where gruesome acts like murder seem so real — within a flimsy production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And I have to add that there is something truly great about what she does to the American actress who is only there because her father is the director, and she doesn’t bother to learn how to speak passable French beforehand: expecting others to accommodate her. Essentially, I love the fact that the Etheria Film Festival starts itself off with a foreign language film and, after dealing with reading about several film viewers subtitles and wanting to hear English dubs — it feels like a tremendous “fuck you” to that contingent that I greatly respect. I also want to add that I appreciate the fact that English captions do not interfere with foreign subtitles on Shudder: at least for how the Etheria Film Festival is formatted. 

So we break The Fourth Wall with a commentary on Murder being the tenth muse, and wondering what the protagonist will do next after her moment of transgressive narrative effulgence is over, to find someone on another Narrow path as directed by Anna Chazelle. Like The Fourth Wall, I didn’t know what was going on at first. Is the protagonist being haunted by ghosts? Is this a dystopian death match? Will leaving the path of dirt and gravel which she can’t step around lead to the ghosts of her victims getting her? It is fairly clear that she is terrified of leaving that trail, even ignoring screams of agony and pleading. She’s surviving, and you can tell that she’s been doing this for a while. I didn’t know that this was a post-apocalyptic story, even after watching it, though Chazelle identifying it in the lens of personal stories told in after such world-ending events — about individual lives trying to make sense of a now senseless world in line with what Hurd says about Kang’s work at the introduction to the Festival. At the end though, despite all that effort, the main character has to make a choice: one that tests her faith, or her certainty. It’s like Orpheus, except there is no Eurydice, and you have to wonder if it is the promise that makes her decision: or simply being so tired of this constricting road of life? There is a reason why it turns to night when she leaves, however — into darkness — and as a viewer you are left in this haunting meditation of that fact.

Narrow isn’t the only film with a character that steps off her path. In fact, I would venture to say that so far two protagonists have done this: one ending in glorious murder, and the other being consumed by the roars of the night. You Will Never Be Back is almost an answer to the end of Narrow, but unlike its predecessor it isn’t an ending. That would be too merciful. Mónica Mateo presents us with another foreign-language film, this time in Spanish, in which her protagonist Ana leaves her partner David to go to an event, only to find a small portal in the hallway of their apartment. It only takes one moment for everything Ana knows to be stolen from her, to have never happened to begin with, and to know — as only the mentally-challenged or dying are aware of who she is — that she will never escape this place: this dim, floral, Mobius strip forever trapping her in a temporal purgatory. It’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone, but there is something even more sinister when you consider how mundane and everyday this story begins, and due to one small decision everything in one person’s life — and their relationships — is over, and they are lost. It’s … especially timely given the current climate.

And it really doesn’t end there, does it? We come to Katy Erin’s Bootstrapped. A casual movie night between two lesbian partners turns weird when one of the partners, a physicist, comes back from the future begging her partner not to break up with her. As she explains to her partner, it is because she broke up with her this particular night that made her obsessed with her work, and discover time travel. The problem is that corporations and the rich took advantage of her work and abused this power, leaving masses of people in war and fear in order to colonize the future: where they wouldn’t have to deal with any of it. It’s only she apparently learned that she could travel to the past. Of course, the reason the breakup happens is revealed by this future incarnation, and it makes it happen. It figures that the end of the human species would be the result of a failed relationship, although you realize just how self-serving the time-traveler had really been. Hell, the other protagonist even asks her why she wouldn’t talk with her past self, and seems like less an issue of paradox, and more the fact that she is afraid of “affecting her own memory.” So perhaps the end of human civilization, or existence is more of the result of human pettiness and selfishness more than anything. It’s funny too, as I just rediscovered Jeremy Lalonde’s James Vs. His Future Self, in which this film is a nice counterpoint. I guess the traveler, in this case, bootstrapped herself, in more ways than one. 

And then, we go from supreme selfishness to the opposite in a serious situation. In Ciani Rey Walker’s Misfits, it is 1960s America and we find ourselves in a chapter house of the Black Panthers. Everyone there seems to be Black university students and activists. There are two leaders: a young woman who studies law, or a book of law, and another who understands that sometimes you have to take physical action in order to do what needs to be done. We have scenes of comradery. There is even a White student who is friends with this chapter. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know, or I wasn’t sure that the Black Panthers had white allies though I know the Freedom Rides definitely had Black and White participants. But the scene starts off, not with mobilizing, but just young people surviving daily life, and kidding around with each other until the news comes on: Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated. 

Misfits is a film that can, and should, have an entire article or review dedicated to it. Suffice to say, the chapter house organizes to protest, but one of their own gets beaten nearly to death by a police officer: who is shot by the White student. And then, these Black students and activists, they have to make a choice in a system that would destroy — and has destroyed — them. There is so much I want to say about this film. It is easily, along with last year’s Conversion Therapy one of my favourites, and it is unfortunately timely. The fact that the movie begins with a young woman attempting to memorize a legal text, and ends with another holding the barrel of a gun says a lot and what might be criminal to one person, at one time in history — or just — is explored here. And the film ends with a list of names “In Loving Memory:” Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many Black lives taken by police brutality. It is a powerful, sombre ending to a film that takes place in the 1960s, but whose violence and injustice it depicts continues to this very day.

Myra Aquino’s The Gray also has a police officer, or at least a former one. And he is also dead. However, this former officer is in Purgatory: in an office place processing people to Heaven, and Hell based on his own black and white ideals. He’s been there for a while, and his contemporaries are attempting to get him to retire: to choose where he needs to pass on. This character is different in a lot of ways from the wounded cop in Misfits. He has a strong sense of justice and morality, to a point where it ruled both his life and his afterlife. He had also been in a mixed race relationship with his Filipino wife before his death. And, up until the events of this madcap weird fantasy afterlife comedy, he’s never compromised: until he sees his son in Purgatory. I’d like to think that, based on what happens and the decisions he makes, that God or whatever powers exist in that afterlife arranged a situation that challenges this man’s thinking — and he finally decides to truly let go of the rules to do what he thinks in his heart is right. It’s both a light-hearted, and moving film as the former officer seems to sacrifice himself to hell in order to give his son another chance to live, and take care of his mother. And while we don’t need the clarification of what happens from Aquino, it is nice to have it nonetheless. Also, can I say that the threat of the bureaucracy taking away the protagonist’s “subtitle privileges” reminds me of The Fourth Wall, feels like another hilarious jibe at subtitle haters?

While love helps someone leave their narrow path of bureaucratic certainty to make their own “leap of faith” such as it is, another protagonist finds it — or the beginning of loneliness’ end — in Silvia Conesa’s Spanish language film POLVOTRON 500. A man in the future attempts to sleep in an old automated sex booth, but accidentally activates one of its sapient hologram sex workers. And while he first wants nothing to do with her, and she just desires to provide her function, they actually begin a conversation together and he realizes that they both have something in common: they are both lonely, and they want company. It could have easily ended in a cynical transactional manner, or something saccharine but I like the fact that she is still a sex worker artificial intelligence, and he is a paying credits-customer, but that human connection between them outside the beaten path feels incredibly real in a time of great disconnection.

I’d like to say that Aislinn Clarke’s Eye Exam is the weird film of the nine. It is essentially about a protagonist who goes to an optometrist who is looking for … eyes. She ends up lying in her exam, just to get away, like a man before her who runs out of the room, and the building. It’s hard for me to fit this into the thematic structure I’m identifying. Perhaps, in that dark room the danger is staying the course and telling the truth so that the monstrous voice and Cyclopean visions around the protagonist can get her eyes, as they tried to with the man before her, and it’s only through looking away, through lying, through deciding to veer away from this path, that she can save herself. It is a counterpoint to POLVOTRON 500 for sure in that holograms are visual constructs, and while the protagonist attempts to also ignore what he sees, to wait it out, or eventually leave, he accepts the more positive situation. The character in Eye Exam, however, seems to have dodged being taken by something worse in deciding not to accept it.

And this brings us to the final film in the Etheria Film Festival: Astrid Thorvaldsen’s Who Goes There. I’m almost surprised that the Festival ended with this movie. This isn’t because it is a bad film: far from it. Three Norwegian sisters live in a remote cabin on the American frontier. Their parents seem to have died of a fever, while one of the sisters is slowly being consumed by it. Then, a mysterious man finds them, and after Ingrid — the oldest sister — saves him from dying of thirst, he offers his services as a doctor for their dying sister: for a price. It is a film about survival, being afraid of death and possible treachery, of caution, and the price of letting something in: be it having a prayer answered, or simply opening a door. In the end, unlike the protagonist from Eye Exam, someone gets what she prayed for, another gets what she asks, others die, and perhaps it’s survival — and living — that is the final punishment. When I think about it, perhaps Who Goes There is appropriate in that it ends off with an uncertainty of both identity, and of what the future holds. 

It is my opinion that it is no coincidence that the Etheria Film Festival of 2021 ends with a film that tangentially deals with sickness, but also infection of a more infernal kind. I always wondered, when thinking about many other events such as the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, if a group of judges had already chosen a few film entries before the Pandemic. And while the After Dark might not have had the opportunity, I feel like the Etheria Film Festival might have had all of their entries, and chosen them accordingly. At the Film Festival’s introduction, we are told — half-jokingly — that nine great films had been chosen but didn’t make it due to “distribution problems” or something to that effect. While last year’s Etheria theme, to me, was about interconnection is a disconnected world, I feel like this year’s verges from going behind the scenes of a trite situation, to teetering off a slim line of reality and getting lost in time, sabotaging yourself and others in a cycle, to hard choices in impossible, enclosed situations, to selfishness and selflessness, and knowing when to run, or let something inside.

As of right now, even though I know Etheria is publishing their past films through Amazon in its own series, I don’t know if — even in a year — we will see this Festival online anymore. That is a path branching from uncertainty as well. It is a new time, beginning, and while it is still dangerous, the potential is there too, and I’m glad that whatever else happens, I got to see one more Etheria Film Festival.

And please check out the Etheria Film Festival website. There are more Director’s Statements there, and they are worth checking out: as is this event, which ends on July 25, 2021. 

And This Hole Leads to Another Hell: Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror Imprint

This Dissection and Speculative specimen contains extreme subject matter, and Trigger Potential. As with its predecessor, Reader’s Discretion is advised. 

I know how I opened up with my first article on Takashi Miike’s Imprint. I said a lot of things, and I explained why I reacted and said the things that I did. However, it wasn’t entirely accurate. You see, while I did write those words first on Twitter, what actually got me to truly look at Imprint, beyond my visceral reaction, was the following I wrote afterwards on Facebook: which goes into more detail:

I just watched Masters of Horror‘s Imprint.

I don’t say this lightly, you understand, but Takashi Miike, you suck. You suck so much. You use folklore brilliantly, you are excellent at illustrating human cruelty, and genuinely making a viewer feel really bad. Seriously, the amount of horror, pathos, and what-the-fuck I felt in this one episode that — surprises of all surprises — wasn’t released on North American television has been the most I’ve felt in a while.

I mean, damn. Granted, it wasn’t as disgusting as that one scene in Audition. *That* fucking scene.

But still, Takashi Miike … you suck. You suck hard. And not a horror director, my ass.

There isn’t much of a difference. Takashi Miike has claimed he isn’t a horror director, but I disagree: even though I know now that he’s created a wide variety of films across different genres. But I will say this. On Facebook, I was called out on my reaction, and some people didn’t understand that I was reacting strongly to one particular scene, and aspects after that. And then, I looked over what I wrote and realized that while most of it is venting, there are two aspects of this film that my mind began to digest in addition to, and beyond, the torture scene: mythology, and narrative.

It really all comes back to the character of the Woman as played by Youki Kudoh. She tells Christopher, and by extension the audience — us — three stories. One is about her poor, but idyllic childhood before she is sold to the brothels so she can make a living. Then there is Komomo’s suicide. Then we find out that the Woman stole the jade ring, and framed Komomo for it. In the screenplay, she goes as far as to help the other girls torture Komomo, but in the film she mostly watches in absolute horror as they do so. Then after that we find out that she strangles Komomo with the rope from which she hung. And then we see that her tale of her family and her relationship with a kindly Buddhist Priest was all a lie: that her father was an abusive drunk, and her mother an abortionist for a struggling peasant village. We even see her dispose of the fetuses, her Mother and herself: the late-term aborted lives looking nothing less than gangly human jellyfish. 

And the Woman is raped. She is molested her entire life. First, by the Buddhist Priest who shows her depictions of Heaven and Hell, and tells her she will obey him or she will go to Hell. Then, by her father after he beats her mother within an inch of her life. And then, as we saw before, by customers. She tells Christopher that “I had nothing. Only this hole bound for hell. Trading it to make my living was only natural.” 

All of this would be horrifying in, and of itself, right? From a very young age, the Woman is taught that her hole — her vagina — is a conduit to Hell, that just by living, by making a living with it, by giving birth, she is a sinner, and she will go to Hell. It doesn’t matter if she’s obedient, or not. She even tells Christopher: “Men don’t like our holes, they yearn for the hell behind them. The hell they were in before being born.” It is a cycle of samsara, or maya: of the mind being clouded by the senses, and pain. In a way, she is basically saying that everyone — this whole world — already is Hell: on that perpetuates itself.

But there is another layer. There is another level, or realm, of Hell. A lot of Far Eastern philosophy and theology posits that there are several hells. So, at the start of Imprint we see that the Woman has a pinwheel in her room. This pinwheel begins to spin without so much as a breeze. And then, when we see that the Woman’s Mother isn’t a midwife, but is an abortionist, we see a multitude of pinwheels blowing on the riverside: the same river where she and her daughter dump the aborted fetuses of the women that come to them … who are too poor to have other mouths to feed, but whose husbands or men continue to impregnate them nonetheless. The pinwheels are placed there by the Mother to commemorate the lives of those dead children, before they are even children. It is a Japanese custom to plant these pinwheels at the site of miscarried and stillborn children, for the deity Jizō to protect and guide their souls to the afterlife. 

Yet for a pinwheel to turn on its own in a brothel is probably an inauspicious sign, especially as we know the souls of the dead are all around Christopher and the Woman. There is another Japanese custom, or rather a myth. It’s said that if a wife of a miserly man rarely eats, a second mouth will form on the back of her head, eating twice what she would, and screeching obscenities if it doesn’t get what it wants. This mouth can also form if a miserly man accidentally hits his wife in the back of the head with a wood axe. But, more tellingly, a woman can develop this second mouth, complete with moving snake-like hair if they let a stepchild — perhaps a child — starve to death. This is the myth of the Futakuchi-onna.

The Woman herself resembles Kuchisake-onna, or the folkloric Slit Mouth Woman, but she is really a Futakuchi-onna. The reason for this, as we see a hand-like creature with teeth form from the side of her skull — her parasitic twin “Sis,” like a female version of Basket Case’s Belial still attached to their sibling — is that, in her final story, we find out that her Mother and Father were actually Brother and Sister. They were forced out of their town  as a result of their incestuous affair, and forced to wander and eventually settle in this peasant village. The Woman is cursed as a result of this incest taboo. But there are other folkloric elements. Her Father is a miserly individual that takes most of her Mother’s money from abortions to feed his alcoholism. In addition, the Mother has aborted many children, possibly many of her own before the Woman, and perhaps those spirits have cursed the Woman by extension. In the script, the Woman says the reason her Mother saved her after leaving her to drown was that she survived in the river for two days: the Mother realizing what she was earlier, and not wanting to be cursed by letting her die, or perhaps starve to death. An interesting fact is another way a Futakuchi-onna is created is when a mother starves her stepchild in favour of her biological child, and her daughter can also become possessed as a result. It isn’t precise, but most myths aren’t.. Most folklore is dirty, and bloody stuff.

The Woman is no exception to this, and neither is what the Futakuchi-onna presents. William Leung says it best in his article in his work Misogyny as radical commentary — Rashomon retold in Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror: Imprint. That second mouth is all about repression, about the resentment and bitterness inside a woman buried deep down, and manifesting as this other being. In the Woman’s case it is her sister that she all but absorbed in the womb, but it serves that purpose. After all, the Woman is raped by her Father, her Mother’s Brother, and her Sister gets her to kill him: smashing his head open, making a wound in the back of his skull, with a rock. We see a scene in the draft of her Mother looking expressionlessly on as the trader takes her away after this, but it’s not included in the film. But “Sis,” which is a great nickname as it sounds almost like “cyst,” even if it’s not intentional, also makes the Woman take the jade ring, and frame Komomo for the theft: as she likes “shiny things.” It makes sense. In the screenplay, the Woman’s Mother even mentions that they had once come from a family of affluence, with rice and Western candy abound. This didn’t make it into the film, but it makes sense that if “Sis” is that feminine rage of being violated, that she is also that greed for the food she barely got growing up, and jealousy for a life of riches she will never have. 

But I also remember fox possessions from The Tale of Genji, how the spirit of a fox or some similar entity will use a woman — as women are considered to be natural mediums of the supernatural in Japanese lore — to cause mischief, and express resentment, but also communicate truths, and hidden knowledge. “Sis” knows things. She can not only mimic Komomo’s voice, but she even seems to know things about Christopher himself. 

The two sisters, this Futakuchi-onna, reveal two truths to Christopher for the price of one. The Woman explains why she killed Komomo. And this is where her Hell ideology comes into play. When you consider that her Father is her Mother’s Brother, and he abused her Mother, possibly raped her, and molested her as well, then considering how the Buddhist Priest educated her about Hell after violating her, you see the cycle of karmic suffering closing in a much tighter circle. Everything is interconnected for the Woman in an unbearable way. Combine that with the fact that she’s seen what happens when men have sex with women, and create disposable fetuses, and her own experiences in the brothel you can see how she equates sex and family with Hell: easily.

There is a concept I was introduced to back in my Japanese Literature and Film class. It is called Amae. It is a term utilized by the Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi in his book The Anatomy of Dependence: which deals with the idea of a uniquely Japanese need or drive to be in good favour, and dependent, on everyone around you. More specifically, Amae is supposed to be rooted in the parent-child relationship, and having someone take care of you. 

Komomo is depicted in Imprint as a naive girl wanting someone to save her. In a way, her description of her family — who she claimed didn’t abandon her to the brothels — is similar to how Mother tells the Woman about their family in the early draft of the script. Komomo firmly believed that in another time, she would have been a Princess, never mind the fact that the other prostitutes claim her family committed suicide out of shame, and she was sold by her foster family to cover their debts. Moreover, Komomo believed Christopher would come back for her, and take her to a whole new life. Now, you can easily interpret this as your typical “Princess waiting for her Yankee Knight to rescue her” trope, but I can argue that Komomo feels Amae to the family she’s lost, still dependent on them for her personality, then the brothel — especially when she gives the Woman her portion of rice when the Madam starves her for not working — and then towards Christopher who she believes will take care of her: like a father-figure. 

Amae is supposed to be an ideal of social interactions, and the love of a child-parent relationship. The Woman, understandably, doesn’t feel this: or at least not in the same way. She never had anyone to take care of her. Her Mother made her work for her keep, albeit teaching her how to assist in taking lives. Her Father neglected, and violated her. And the authority figure that is the Priest used her for his own gratification. The Woman is used to this cycle, as horrible as it is.

But then, she meets Komomo once she comes to her brothel. She reaches out, and offers her rice when the other girls don’t even bother. According to the Woman, she even defends Komomo’s dreams and hopes from those girls by threatening them: to make them look like her. However, you need to remember that any form of attachment to the Woman is Hell. From the vagina, or hole you enter into the world through, to the penises that use you, and the guidance that becomes exploitive and coercive. But this kindness, this arguable … Amae, it’s too much. It’s not the same as the twisting cleaving that the Woman’s whole life has been based on. Even “Sis” is only “helping” her because they are forced to share the same body. 

So the Woman, after “Sis” has her way with the ring and the punishment, sees Komomo. She sees her completely destroyed, but still holding onto that hope. She explains to Christopher that if the Devil saw them together, he might just think Komomo is just as bad as she is as she is her friend. And so, the Woman claims she tried to hate her, and killed her herself so that God or Buddha would take her away. More than anything, I believe that after Komomo’s torments the Woman was simply offering her a mercy killing: because if she hadn’t, Komomo would have continued in that brothel, as the nature of her punishments were made to spare her face, and sexual organs — the Madam’s property — as the patriarchy in the form of the syphillic solicitor and his bobbing cockhat laughed at her misfortune. The way the Woman could have seen it, Komomo continuing on would have seen her dream of seeing Christopher again die, and she would have been tortured to death, or killed herself: both fates condemning her to Hell.

In an act of love outside of Amae, the Woman releases Komomo from her suffering — away from this vindictive patriarchal system that punishes you for behaving or misbehaving. According to the Woman, it’s the only conscious and sober choice she’s ever made in her life. Or perhaps, in that sense, the Woman takes on a maternal role: becoming the parent that takes care of the child, of the innocence still in Komomo, by helping to end her pain. It may also be a major sense of thematic empathy. It is no coincidence that Komomo’s body is seen in the same elegantly crumpled position after her torture by the other prostitutes as the Woman’s had been when she was a girl after her father raped her. Of course, it’s also possible that the Woman killed Komomo because she resents the dependence and approval that Amae entails, and that between her and “Sis” they destroyed that possibility. Then again, the Woman is still dependent on the brothel to live, and her “Sis” who dictates her life, and is the most assertive element of the two of them.

And then, speaking of “Sis,” there is her truth to Christopher, and how it brings this whole twisted film full circle. Christopher tells the Woman that the reason he loved Komomo was that she reminded him of his dead younger sister. That is a pretty disturbing revelation on its own, until you also take “Sis’” words into account, and how they affect Christopher: triggering his last flashback in which he remembers his sister begging for her life, after doing “what he asked” before he kills her.

Think back to the whole thematic structure of this film. The Woman and “Sis” have to share an entire body between them, and how “Sis always gets what she wants.” Her Mother and Father were Brother and Sister, and her Father beat her Mother, and then terrorized the both of them. Christopher killed his sister, presumably after raping her, and then wanted Komomo to himself because she was basically a sister-surrogate for him. Also, consider what Komomo might have gone through had Christopher found her alive: what the status of a Far East Asian woman, who had been a prostitute, would be in a Caucasian-dominated nation like America. In fact, you can go further with this inquiry when you consider the idea that programmer and writers Chris D. and Wyatt Doyle present in their commentary track on the Imprint’ DVD: that Christopher first found Komomo as a child. It doesn’t look good either way. Komomo wanted a parental figure to protect her. Christopher would have essentially replaced the brothel in having the power of life and death over a woman who reminded him of the sister he murdered. 

Christopher can’t face these truths: that he is part of a system that exploits the women and girls he claims to love, that he destroyed both of them. He tries to kill the Woman, and it is telling that when he shoots her in the head, she appears to him as Komomo: with her brains oozing out of the back of her skull, from a wound not unlike that of the dead pregnant woman’s head at the beginning of the film; not unlike that which apparently creates Futakuchi-onna.

It all comes back to holes leading to Hell, doesn’t it? At the end of Imprint, Christopher is back on the Japanese mainland: in a deep pit of a nineteenth century Meiji prison. The male guards are dressed like proper Imperial soldiers. They mock him for killing an innocent girl — in the screenplay it was for killing “a whore,” perhaps the property or merchandise of society as William Leung puts it — and he will spend the rest of his life there: after they “have some fun with him.” He’s left with his water ration, to rot in his own sense of personal horror. In the script, he smashes his head against the wall and sees Komomo reaching out to him and then morphing into his dead little sister as he screams. In the film, he holds his water ration containing the vision of a dead fetus. Perhaps he sees it as his murdered innocence, or a representation of a potential and love killed by him, and a patriarchal world. He holds the bucket, and cradles it, singing a broken lullaby as the spirits of Komomo and his sister stand there: each holding a pinwheel. 

The ending to Imprint in the screenplay implies that the Woman has survived, that as she put it to Christopher, he couldn’t kill her. In the film, after the credits, we see her. Her “Sis” doesn’t manifest, as she does in the screenplay. Instead, she is cooking a fish, and enjoying it. Then, she looks up, and it feels like she is looking right at us: at the audience. She smiles.

I thought about that. I wondered if Christopher really had killed Komomo, or planned to do so. Did the Woman change into her? It was probably a thematic device, but as I think about this entire debacle, this tightly knit hole into hell, I recall Yugiri’s failed affair and the pain he causes in The Tale of Genji towards the women in his life. I think about Komomo suspended with her own urine pouring over her broken body after the women in life almost sensuously torture the hell out of her. I remember how Murasaki Shikibu was an attendant of the Imperial Court, but a minority as a woman with power. And I consider the message that Shimako Iwai’s presence as the sadist in Imprint makes: of the person who created the story that made the basis of the film almost knowingly looking at Komomo, and us: the audience.

And I think about how involved I got, and how there is a complicity in watching a narrative unfold. There is a complicity in being, or letting yourself, become part of a system of sighs and sin and slaughter and slavery: fact or fictional. You get caught up in the cycle of it. You feel like it’s more than second-hand embarrassment or chagrin, or even empathy. You feel like you are a part of it, by virtue of seeing it happen. And the liminal figure of the Woman knows this, her smile bidding you to see if you can handle her Matrixial “truth” better than Christopher: if you can deal with the hell you make, and carry inside of you. Either way, Takashi Miike’s film leaves its mark on me. 

This Hole Leads to Hell: Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror Imprint

This Dissection and Speculative specimen contains extreme graphic subject matter, and Trigger Potential. Reader’s Discretion is advised. 

After I saw Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror film Imprint, I wrote the following on Twitter:

I don’t say this lightly but … Takashi Miike, you suck. You suck so hard.

You know, #Audition was terrifying enough, even disgusting. You know the part. But #Imprint … I haven’t been so filled with horror, pathos, and what-the-fuck in a while. Damn, it was brilliant.

I mean, Takashi Miike, you had to know there was no way #Imprint could be shown in North America. You just had to … I mean … Dude. Come on, man.

You suck. Your work is brilliant, but you are such a troll. Not a horror director, my ass.

So why did I respond like this? 

Right. So, years ago I took a Japanese Culture and Film course. And one of the requirements of this course that I took was that our entire class had to read Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari: also known as The Tale of Genji. It is here I learned a lot about Japan’s Heian Period, the concept of fox possessions, Buddhism and its place in that whole monarchy, a constantly rotating court of royalty and nobility, silken finery and subtle cruelties, many cherry blossom viewings, women generally getting screwed over, and a whole ton of romantic and erotic affairs. I understand, of course, that this isn’t precisely history: even though Murasaki herself, its creator, was a Lady-in-Waiting and poet in the Imperial court: credited with creating the first Japanese novel in Japanese: once considered to be a woman’s written language, or that of poetry compared to the masculine and more overused royal Chinese characters: or so I recall from the time. 

What I do remember, more than any of this, is this one scene in The Tale. The protagonist, Genji, the “beautiful shining prince” who is also one of the Emperor’s illegitimate, yet high-ranking offspring, has many affairs. I didn’t understand him. I tried to relate to this man in this court in this society and time. But he had a son, named Yugiri who is more sombre and less outgoing than his father, though far more along in his studies at the court and through the classes than he is. Unfortunately, there is one chapter where Yugiri endangers not only his standing, but his relationship with his wife, all to harass another woman who wants nothing to do with him. 

The fact is, I couldn’t stand it. It drove me absolutely up the wall that this character would do that. In fact, I got so angry I threw the book across my room. Later, I told my Professor about this, and he thought it was the most hilarious thing in the world. No, more than that. He was pleased. He was pleased because I would never have even done that if I’d been bored, or I didn’t have any feeling invested whatsoever. 

The truth of the matter was that I got invested in that ephemeral, but flawed and worldly place, and sometimes it made me uncomfortable. But it also made me think.

And it made me care. 

I don’t have a material copy of Imprint to throw across the room, and even if I did, I wouldn’t do it. Imprint doesn’t take place in the medieval Heian Period, but in the Meiji Era: the nineteenth century where the Japanese Emperor was officially restored to the head of state after the dismantling of the Shogunate, and the nation’s adoption of many Euro-American sciences, technologies, and philosophies. 

Yet the American journalist Christopher, played by Billy Drago travels seemingly away from these developments to a far island “of whores and demons” to find a woman he loves: a prostitute named Komomo that he left some time ago. Now, thanks to Joe Bob Briggs and The Last Drive-In, I’ve watched Takashi Miike’s Audition, and I saw that liminal place between different perceptions and perspectives of reality and time. I already knew that there would be one scene — at least one scene — that would really fuck with me. In other words, I knew even based on this small amount of information about Imprint, no good was going to come of this.

But holy damn.  

There is something mythic, with an element of the kaidan — or ghost story that Takashi Miike has mentioned — to the setting right off the bat. Christopher is on a boat with a group of labourers when the boatman finds the bloated corpse of a pregnant woman floating in the water. This is a prelude as to what’s going to come. Fascinatingly enough, according to the screenplay written by Daisuke Tengan, who is also the screenwriter for Audition — the woman’s hand was apparently supposed to move towards the boat, or at least from Christopher’s perspective. This would have foreshadowed even more of what happens in the film with Christopher, and who he encounters. 

The island is a place out of time, with some Victorian dress for the prostitutes there — women with red dresses and wigs, blackened teeth, milk pale skin — clamouring to offer their services behind the bars of their brothel: literally a tarnished, gilded cage. Christopher is still looking for Komomo, and is directed into one establishment for the night by a syphilitic solicitor with a rooster hat on his head, and a missing nose. It all starts to fit together into an image that, when you look back on it, makes a whole lot more sense. But by then, it’s too late, and you’ve seen the horror in it. You’ve been taken into it.

Takashi Miike makes you invested in a young, disfigured prostitute who is never given a name: sitting off to herself, and not bothering to even solicit her services. Half of her face is stretched tightly, a birth defect. But it doesn’t take away from her presence, or the layers of personality she exudes. Youki Kudoh plays her role well, seemingly demure but worldly, tired, and beautiful. You can already see there is a lot more to her, and whatever Christopher finds is going to be through her. 

No one on the island seems to know Komomo, though Christopher has followed her trail to this place, but this disfigured girl — who seems to see or sense the dead — does know her. The girl plays this for laughs at Christopher’s expense, though in the screenplay I read she is dead serious about seeing the spectres around her: that both he and she can see. It makes me frustrated in another way, as Imprint is a film adapted from a short novel or novella written by the writer Shimako Iwai titled Bokke e, kyōtē, which is a regional Okayama expression or series of words meaning “really scary.”

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an English translation of the novella, but from what I’m given to understand the story is written in a way where the prostitute — who also doesn’t seem to have a name — is telling a patron a story, or a series of stories, but the reader never gets to see the patron, or read what they have to say. The whole interaction is, according to William Leung in his indepth Misogyny as radical commentary — Rashomon retold in Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror: Imprint, in “a monologue format.” Interestingly enough, that would mean Bokke e, kyōtē is written solely from a female perspective, a narrator who is the only force that makes sure her male patron even exists in the story as the reader only knows about him through her one-sided conversation, and Shimako Iwai is the writer that makes this possible.

It is equally unfortunate that this Okayama dialect couldn’t be utilized in the film: making Imprint a foreign language film with English subtitles would have done dividends for it, and added that authenticity to the setting. But Showtime is an American network, and apparently Takashi Miike did the best he could by having the actors speak a form of accented English to approximate the dialect. Also, it might have been problematic to determine what language Christopher, or Billy Drago, would have spoken if everyone was speaking a form of Japanese. Someone might have had to speak English, anyway. Even so, It’s interesting to look at how this discussion of the novella, whatever its original language, translates through the screenplay, and into the narrative of the film. Writers and critics like Leung examine the presence of Christopher as an embodiment of an Occidental masculine gaze, or a narrow need to seek out “truth”: to know, and comfort one’s self in that knowledge regardless of anyone else’s status around you. I’ve read reviews where Billy Drogo’s acting is criticized for being flat, and unconvincing but while this might not have been purposeful, I think that his performance in addition to his appearance as a dissolute Westerner adds to his character: showing the audience, making it clear to us, that he has something to hide: that the man doth protest too much when he says his only goal is to find the woman he loves.

I think it’s also telling that Christopher and Komomo, as played by Michie Itô, are the only named characters in this film, while everyone else — most of them women — don’t have any names at all. I would argue, and perhaps others have already done so given that this film was released in 2006 and many have already made their … mark on it, that Komomo is only mentioned by name in that she is the only thing that’s important to Christopher. Everyone else, as described by the prostitute — the woman he’s staying with for that night — are the Madam, the woman’s Mother, Father, the Buddhist Priest that taught her about Heaven and Hell, and — eventually — Sis. The other prostitutes don’t even have names, and the brothel solicitor is just a diseased cock.

The fact is, this island — by thematic design — and from the way the woman describes it as a place of “whores and demons,” exists away from a defined, empirical reality. This is not a place where people have names, or lives, or futures. This is where people come to fuck, and die. At the same time, as a critic or scholar like Leung would mention, this place is very much a part of the mainstream culture and society that rules it. Women and girls are given away from places of famine and cultural shame to brothels to work with what the prevailing society thinks is their only defining trait: their bodies. 

It’s interesting. In Western philosophy and aspects of Gnosticism you have the figure of Sophia — of Wisdom in the form of a woman — that a philosopher, generally a man, always pursues. But Leung in his work defines Youki Kudoh’s prostitute character as “the truth.” And as “truth?” She is somewhat deformed, but also sultry, coquettish, sly, but also silent at first until she unfurls herself, and reveals what she truly is. The writer Iwai created her novella, the inspiration for Imprint, with the idea of her character having a secret, and moving on from there. 

So let me get back to making this more personal, even though it is fairly clear at this point in the game that Imprint isn’t particularly Christopher’s story, or from his perspective, but it has always been dependent from the storytelling narration — and subsequent layers of lying and unraveling description — of Youki Kudoh’s character: of the woman. 

As I said before, the Woman is identified as “truth” by Leung, and even Christopher — presumably due to his journalistic instincts — singles her out to spend the night with him, and possibly get him the answers that he thinks he wants.

And, eventually, she tells him what happened to Komomo. It is a painstaking process, in which first he finds out she was here, then she died, and is then told she committed suicide through hanging. And this is the part where … my visceral reaction comes into play.

We find out why Komomo died. Komomo, who was a favourite girl at the brothel, was accused of stealing the Madam’s jade ring. She is taken to the linen closet by the Madam and her fellow girls where they torture her. Brutally. Takashi Miike doesn’t fade out from the scene, or hint on things. It makes sense. In the interview “I am the Film Director of Love and Freedom: Takashi Miike,” he admits that he took one non-descriptive line about the situation from the script, and constructed this entire scene.

Of course he did. 

No. You see it happen. You see it all happen. You see the girls burn her armpits with incense sticks. You watch as one particularly sadistic girl with a red-gold wig — actually played by Shimako Iwai herself — with a relish almost bordering on eroticism, even love — drive acupuncture needles into each of Komomo’s fingers, under the nails to the point of seeing blood bloom like in the introduction of the Masters of Horror series. Then, they hold her mouth open and drive those same needles into her gums, Iwai’s character taking special delight in placing the needle just inches away from Komomo’s eye. Afterwards, they hang her upside down and question her. The thing is, in the script, she had urinated all over herself during the needles sliding into her, Takashi Miike has it so that she pisses on herself as she’s suspended by that rope. And, the entire time, you hear her screaming, begging, grunting like an animal, writhing around, her eyes rolling back into their sockets from the agony, as she is utterly dehumanized.

That scene fucked me. It wrecked me. This was the mental equivalent of me throwing The Tale of Genji across the room. It filled me with rage, at seeing this poor girl — who did absolutely nothing, who was even kind, and just told stories to keep her sanity, who waited for Christopher to find her — tortured by these merciless other women, while the solicitor laughs at her with his rotten cock bobbing up, and down on his head. It was disgusting, and I wanted all of these evil bitches to pay for what they did to her, while at the same time feeling major empathy, and a sense of protectiveness for this fictional woman. 

Takashi Miike’s Audition was hard on me. I’m not talking about when Asami Yamazaki tortures Yasuhisa Yoshikawa, although that also sucked, but I mean the vision Yoshikawa has of a mutilated man drinking Asami’s vomit out of a dog bowl.

I just … I couldn’t.

This scene of dehumanization, and the body losing control just hit me, and while Audition made me feel ill, this part of Imprint made me angry. And yes, looking back, this — these are the transgressive places — is where I said that Takashi Miike sucks. And he sucks hard.

At the same time, the scene is brilliant.

Think about it, if you want. Here are these women, these — as Youki Kudoh’s Woman puts it — “daughters of joy,” trafficked sex workers having internalized a society that rejected and used them, and indoctrinated them into provided male pleasure, using their instruments of that indentured profession in their culture to inflict non-consensual pain on a body that is like their own, but it isn’t one of them: not for the purposes of this exercise. Incense sticks are supposed to create a smell that will relax you. Acupuncture needles are made to provide health benefits for the body, or sadomasochistic releases. Even the rope, that suspension, can be tied to kink practices like Shibari and erotic bondage in general. Komomo’s mouth is held open, used for another’s pleasure, and long phallic objects are inserted into soft, pliant places.

Even her cries of pain can be sold as sounds of pleasure to an audience indoctrinated into responding to such. I will never forget the sadist either. Shimako Iwai is not only a writer, a tarento — a television celebrity or personality — but also a pornographic director, and someone particularly vocal about sex, and sexual pleasure. And here she is, playing a sadist using all of those tools against this character, and you realize she doesn’t give a jot about that jade ring. In fact, none of the girls do. Not even the Madam does. It is all about Komomo, according to the Woman, having been “too good,” “too favoured,” and this theft is just an excuse to release all of that suppressed feminine resentment on someone else. It’s horrific because these women have also been victims, but like demons in hell, they have reached the point — in a manner similar to the women in The Handmaid’s Tale as they tear apart a chosen criminal — where they will tear apart their own for doing exactly what they rest of them have been doing, even excelling at it, even loving the men, or the man doing it. And they themselves love inflicting this cruelty on her, things that had been done to them by men and society in many different ways.

I wanted to hate those women, and that anger remains, but the true horror here in Imprint I feel isn’t supernatural or limited to one innocent individual’s suffering, it’s that this twisted patriarchal order and internalized misogyny, exists and created this entire thing. Leung definitely delves into this idea when he mentions how Christopher ignores that whole reality just to focus on Komomo. Hell — and I don’t use the term lightly, as the Woman herself goes into her ideology of Hell as the film goes on — he even sees them suffering, behind those bars, ravenous and desperate, and when he sees the dead pregnant woman float by. In the screenplay, he doesn’t even acknowledge the corpse while the labourers pour sake into the water, except to notice it grabbing at the boat. In the film, he at least has the decency to take off his hat as the labourers offer prayers.

This place, in Imprint, is literally Hell. But as the Woman’s Sister says at the end of the film, hell is a place but it’s not a space you can run away from. You carry it with you.

Takashi Miike in the documentary “Imprinting: The Making of Imprint” explains that he told Michie Itô, as he directed her during her torture scene as Komomo that  “It’s like you are in a pretty field of flowers, and an old man is bashing your head in with a stick.”

That sentence sums up that world, that scene, and what comes after, pretty well. 

The Colours of Ari Aster’s Midsommar

It’s hard to bring something new to a previous, or even an ongoing conversation. Sometimes, it’s hard to say anything at all. 

I don’t remember when I saw the preview to Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror film Midsommar. Certainly the first look at the Fangoria issue, and its cover featuring the film, made me wonder just what kind of horror I would inevitably be facing this time around. But, deep down, I knew what it was going to be. The truth is, I’d seen it before.

Or I thought I did. In a few interviews with Ari Aster, he says that he’d been going through a terrible breakup, and it influenced the script that would become Midsommar. I can believe that. It doesn’t take much to relate to the idea of a beautiful, ongoing, sunny world where your heart is shattered into a million pieces, and you are obliged to just keep smiling, or at least go through the motions of the dance. I think we’ve all been there, really. I know I have. 

Midsommar can feel like a fever dream in what seems to be an idyllic situation, except you feel that sense of loss pounding away in your chest, the music around you muted and distant as your mind tries to withdraw from the stimuli but also attempting to keep away from the pain. The scene where Dani Ardor, played by Florence Pugh, at a party with her boyfriend and his friends and the forced and detached look on her face comes to mind.

But as I’m writing this article, and I think more about my initial impressions of a movie I saw a year and a lifetime ago, I realize I relate to this film and the atmosphere in another way. You see, before I knew about Dani’s actual physical loss I read the premise to the film in which she is essentially at this outside communal event while essentially going through the process of a strained relationship, and the inevitable separation that is soon to follow. It’s those similar motions, almost being walking wounded in the heat and light of summer, being only being linked with someone in name, trailing awkwardly, not wanting to bump them, and end the mirage — even needing to have them remain to deal with a deeper pain, or fear — but knowing, deep down that it’s inevitable, and a part of you blaming yourself for this coming dissolution. 

Through the year or so, I’ve read and watched a lot of commentary on this film. I’ve seen people claim that Hårga commune is central, and that it’s ethnocentrism and isolationism — and its penchant for human sacrifice — symbolizes fascism, and racist ideologies: and the dangers that a cult has on the psychology of someone who suffers from depression and loneliness: how a sense of belonging and love-bombing can indoctrinate someone into abhorrent beliefs. Likewise, I’ve even heard that others believe Midsommar isn’t a horror film because it has a “happy ending” for the protagonist. Still more think it is about the end of a relationship, and how that ultimately plays out at the end of the story. 

I can see all these different aspects. It’s no coincidence that in a deleted scene in the film, on the road to the Hårga commune in Sweden, that the students pass an anti-immigration sign, and that Mark — the practical joker and general asshole of the group — tries to bait Pelle, their friend who belongs to the commune, by showing him a book called The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark: in reference to the Nordic runes that the Hårga utilize. However, while these scenes and others are in the Director’s Cut, they were taken out for a reason, because they were either too on the nose, or they took away from the rest of the film, or both. Ari Aster also acknowledges these influences, and it’s no coincidence that there are only Caucasian people in the Hårga, and it’s pretty clear that Josh — a Black student — along with Simon and Connie — who appear to be Indian — are pretty much going to die, though their deaths seem to be ritualized due to the Hårga knowing the former will try to break their rules and steal their secrets for his research, and the latter because they want to leave and potentially reveal to the world the secrets of their ninety year cycle Midsommar ritual: including the ättestupa– the elder suicide — in the movie (though social or hegemonically-supported suicides of the “unhealthy” or the “undesirable” do have some fascist overtones).. 

The connotations are all there. The Hårga are not innocent. They know exactly what they are doing, and they will lie, and massage events to make things go their way. The fact that they sent Pelle as an exchange student to America, and he purposefully brought these friends over to the commune shows a great deal of organization on his, and their, part. Pelle knows, for instance, that Mark has an inherent irreverence towards life, that Josh only cares for his research over everyone and everything else, that Christian — Dani’s distant boyfriend — is a sycophant, narcissist, and generally weak-willed, and if you go by the deleted scenes, has this penchant for gaslighting his girlfriend. And he knows about Dani’s loss, about the murder-suicide of her sister Terri and her parents. 

At the same time, the Hårga genuinely seem to believe in what they practice. They think that seventy-two — numerologically adding to nine altogether, perhaps like the Nine Worlds on the Nordic World Tree — is the full winter lifespan of a human being. They do not seem to have a central leader, though there are elders that have a variety of functions even though they do have regimented roles in their society. The Hårga don’t seem interested in exterminating other diverse people, or outsiders, or even having authority outside of their land, but they use them in their ritual when it occurs: either through sacrifice, or keeping genetic diversity — a lack of inbreeding — in their commune. They definitely practice eugenics, and while the mention of their oracle — the deformed boy Ruben — supposedly represents “racial or genetic purity,” it is also an ancient custom in many different cultures, and even among nobility and royalty. 

I think this film is all of those things. My issue is with those who believe it is only one thing, or another. Midsommar can be an allegory for fascism and extremism, or cult indoctrination, or racism, or even a breakup revenge story. You can even make a case of Midsommar being a critique of North American grief culture, and a lack of a sense of community, empathy, and a centralized sense of self and independence that just fills empty and hollow.

As for me, I think like Ari Aster’s other film Hereditary, this film is about grief. It is about dealing — or not dealing — with a profound sense of loss, and the failure of one social order or group in helping someone dealing with that, and what might fill that void instead. None of the above insights are mutually exclusive with this idea, but it’s pretty reductive to say that one or the other, or another, are all that film is about. 

I’ve had a bit more time to think about this. When I first saw Midsommar, I felt kinship with Dani. I know what it’s like to lose something, or someone, or feel it happening — and you don’t want to admit it. Or the logical part of your brain knows where this is going, but the emotional part still holds on … until it doesn’t anymore. The fact that Dani’s initial grief happens in winter makes no difference that she is still dealing with this in summer, and trying to keep up appearances. Dani suffers from anxiety and depression, and somewhere along the line she’s had to learn to “act normal” or “pass” with it. And this before her sister and parents die. 

Dani is living the North American dream. She’s gone away to college. She’s living on her own, for the most part. During this time, she has a steady boyfriend. Dani also has a therapist, a casual friend she talks with about her problems, and medication. She is even studying psychology or psychoanalysis at school: either to help herself, or her sister who has constantly, throughout their life, been suffering from her own mental illness. Clearly their parents didn’t know, or didn’t want to know — or were incapable of knowing — the extent of it. 

We see what happens. After texting her sister, and calling her parents multiple times, she gets the news of their deaths. It breaks her. And all she has is the comfort of a boyfriend who is pretty much done with their relationship, who isn’t comfortable enough to be there for her when she needs help or is not wired with the empathy or the mental tools to do so, and his friends who don’t feel much of anything to her beyond her being a nuisance. The times she’s nodding blankly at a party she doesn’t want to be at, lying in her bed for all hours, and then going into bathrooms and either crying, or trying not to have a panic attack — and making sure no one else can see her “moments of weakness” — really strikes me. 

And Florence Pugh plays this out well in her body language, and her facial expressions. She tenses up her forehead into a creased brow, and her mouth turns into a literal frown: face bordering constantly on an ugly cry. She looks like she is constantly on the edge of bawling. I know, from the other end of this, how painful that is: to see it happen to someone that you love. In the beginning, when Christian is holding her and she is screaming her agony, there is this numb, almost helpless look on his face. And I know that look. I’ve been there. It sucks. It was one of the few times I almost felt bad for Christian, but then I felt worse because of knowing his wavering feelings or his uncertainty, and seeing how Dani needed someone to actually be there for her: to actually hold her.

To be held. 

Pelle asks Dani, as they are at the commune and Christian has forgotten her birthday, if she feels held by him. And that question stayed with me. It still does.

The thing is, Dani was looking for something even before those deaths. There is a picture in her room depicting something very similar to the Hårga art we see at the beginning, and during the film’s events. Even after the ättestupa, for all of her horror, she starts unconsciously mimicking the gestures of the Hårga in her movements as she stumbles off. And the Maypole Dance, and the way she begins to start talking in Swedish with the other girls even after imbibing their medicinal drink, and winning that contest to become May Queen: I don’t believe it was rigged. I think she genuinely, and unequivocally, won that dance. Something Dani is attracted to all of this, something Pelle might have seen, but even the Hårga with their Oracle could plan for so much. 

Critics have compared the Hårga to fascists or cultists, but I see them as an older culture. Those stones on their property, and runes have been there for a long time. Their Midsommar meals and all their rituals — even their deceptions, especially their fabrications — are choreographed to the nth degree like a Passover Seder writ large: commemorating various events, stories, and applying them to their followers in a seasonal and cyclical manner. Even the pictures of the May Queens seem to go back a great deal in time, and there is something about the fact that Midsommar happens every ninety years. This is not new. This isn’t the 1980s messianic cult of Jeremiah’s Children of the New Dawn in Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 film Mandy: with their masculinist overtones, and a pyramidic temple tribute to an egomaniac. That cult would not survive the death of their leader, having been made to essentially glorify him. And Red Miller, played by Nicolas Cage, made sure of that. That temple, that structure, burned in memory of his wife, Mandy Bloom whom the cult brutally immolated alive: leaving Miller a ravening, grieving, psychopath driving into a horizon of darkness.

Midsommar itself isn’t the only horror film, as some have said, created in broad daylight: Robin Hardy’s 1973 The Wicker Man definitely comes to mind on that front as a series of celebrations with at least Celtic folklore influences. But Midsommar’s central theme, I feel, is grief and the loss of not just family or loved ones: but a previous, and tenuous, sense of self. Dani’s journey, if anything, aside from the Hårga’s pyramidic wooden temple that is burned purposefully with its own sacrifices — the last decided by Dani herself — reminds me of Arthur Fleck’s from Todd Philips’ The Joker.

The Joker was made in the same year as Midsommar. Like Arthur, Dani loses her sense of family identity, perhaps already having been distant when it still existed. Her relationship with Christian, while had actually happened, was no longer present. She had been around people, and a society that ignored her and, low-key in her case, judged her for her mental illness and not being able to fit in, or “pass” as “normal.” Like Fleck, she keeps reaching out for a connection, and meets maybe one person who cares from her home, but mostly just disinterest, or disdain. She is gaslit by someone she trusts, and made and after-thought. You notice that throughout the film she barely even smiles. 

But just as Arthur Fleck lets go of the faulty and defunct illusion of what he thought he was, or wanted to be, to embrace the chaos that is his nature — a state without an origin — Dani finds order and meaning with the Hårga. They provide a sense of community. The women want her to bake with them. The girls dance with her. She is made May Queen on her birthday, or around then. For the first time, in her entire life, or at least in a long time she feels special. And when Christian runs off to be with Maya, another girl at a breeding ritual, she finally airs her grief: and the Hårga performatively channel it with her. It’s not a ruse, or an artifice. They feel her pain, and they work with it. Where Arthur Fleck finds solidarity with the furious, resentful mobs of Gotham and channels their rage into a dance of destruction and violent liberation, Dani makes a decisive choice to end a failing relationship that represents the lack of connection with the world from which she came. There is something cathartic, you can see, as she watches that pyramid with Christian in the bear suit inside burn. And that smile on her face, while twisted, is genuine. It might as well be painted in her own blood, but I suspect she doesn’t need that: as what we are seeing is what’s now in her heart.

I think that Dani, from the new paradigm she’s shifted into, is actually happy. She is in a culture that has strong matriarchal and gender-shifting elements, and a communal society. Death has a meaning in it, and it is not an arbitrary thing. It’s certainly not a lonely end, or a lingering one. She knows her fate now. Other critics say that Dani will be horrified once the love-bombing, or the honey-moon phase of the cult’s seduction ends but I don’t think that’s how it will play out. I think she has the structure and the support of people. The deaths and sacrifices happen rarely, and most of their life is pastoral. Dani is a part of the Hårga now. She is their May Queen. She is their flowering, smiling, goddess-figure. 

You see, I think the terrifying thing about Midsommar isn’t the machinations of the commune, or the fascist and cultic overtones of the Hårga. It’s the fact that Dani has embraced it. It’s that she’s happy. It’s this burning alive of her former boyfriend, and her peers, and human lives, and her accepting her own ritual death one day is — in fact — her happy ending: the happy ending of a now twisted mind in a world-view that is quite legitimate to her. And it leaves you unsettled, just as it makes you think.