When it comes to social thrillers about the dehumanizing tendencies of capitalism that feature fatalistic climaxes at birthday parties, “Undergods” is no “Parasite.”
Nor would I jump to make the unfair comparison if “Undergods” didn’t appear to be explicitly name-checking Bong Joon-ho’s thematically rich and exciting movie – adjectives I’m hesitant to apply to Chino Moya’s flat, occasionally aesthetically intriguing first feature – in one early scene. Where Bong Joon-ho shepherds his ideas through tight construction and interesting characters, Moya’s “Undergods” insists on holding the audience at arm’s length even as it shines its conceptual spotlights in our eyes. But by making its storytelling akin to something alien and indecipherable, the urgency of those concepts is sapped.
But perhaps that’s the idea Moya means for us to wrestle with, oppressive ambiguity amid the remains of what we can imagine may have once been. The undefined world “Undergods” unfolds in – a concrete metropolis of bombed-out buildings and crumbling infrastructure, where even rare rays of sunlight look artificial – looks as though cataclysm arrived long before its denizens had sufficient time to reckon with it. Well, perhaps that isn’t the case for the very first denizens we meet—a pair of ragged men who drive around this wasteland picking up corpses, taking swigs of God-knows-what out of either a massive flask or a miniature tin gas can.
That opening just about sets the tone for an aggressively cynical movie, which, to be clear, isn’t an issue in and of itself until it becomes clear Moya’s screenplay doesn’t intend on giving any narrative specificity to his “Black Mirror”-esque tone. So we’re left to pick up what we can from the images, and here “Undergods” provides some hints: The dystopian blue hues of David Raedeker’s eerie cinematography; the sleek meeting rooms of a sugar-free gum company where excess amounts to nothingness; the corpse-like physicality of Moya’s performers, rarely taking joy in life so much as trudging through it; the obvious metaphor of geography, with stately dining rooms juxtaposing the grimy mess halls of subterranean societies where a kidnapped member of the higher class is forced to strip, shave and eat nasty gruel.
What’s going on down there anyway? One brief scene suggests the prisoners are helplessly being forced to keep the city above functioning from down below, bringing to mind another Bong flick. Elsewhere, some you-might-miss-them remarks about a prisoner’s potentially unripe age evokes cannibalistic intentions. Whatever the answer may be – whether or not Moya even has an answer for us to determine – it all feels as though “Undergods” is masquerading as something more dangerous or visceral than it is. The movie dumps us into a world and a handful of characters’ lives beyond reclamation, but we never feel that pivotal pang of regret for never having had the chance to try anyway.
We never feel it, that is, save for one late-movie interaction which proves most fruitful in helping us to decipher “Undergod’s” messaging. A suburban housewife played by Kate Dickie – who, as in her memorable “Game of Thrones” and “The Witch” performances, gets a chance to go gleefully and completely off her rocker here – is desperately trying to crack through the shell of a former partner who has returned after 15 years, seemingly having spent that time in this world’s literal and socioeconomic underworld.
Did he escape? Was he exiled? Was he simply released? The specifics elude us here too, although there’s something – something – potentially useful in the implication about who we become when the comforts of familiar circumstances are suddenly snatched away, and about the systems which cause that to happen. The vignette ends violently, as we might expect it to. But given how “Undergods” lacks an overarching narrative, those bloody consequences evaporate like smoke rather than lodge themselves in our brain the way I imagine they’re intended to do.
"Undergods" is not rated. It's now available on digital VOD platforms.
Starring: Kate Dickie, Adrian Rawlins, Burn Gorman, Michael Gould
Directed by Chino Moya
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