Undergods

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Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Undergods
"The dystopian stories in Spanish director Chino Moya's feature debut nest within one another like a series of Russian dolls - dolls that have been carved by someone with a soft-spot for JG Ballard." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

The dystopian stories in Spanish director Chino Moya's feature debut nest within one another like a series of Russian dolls - dolls that have been carved by someone with a soft-spot for JG Ballard. Each brings a bleak message from the near-future, accentuating elements of modern malaise so we see them in all their grotesque detail. Framing them all is something a little more removed and fantastical, a futuristic post-Apocalyptic landscape roamed by K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig), who banter about the unfortunates in their dreams as they drive around on the lookout for corpses... and possibly fresh meat.

Crafting his tale the way he does, so that the stories open out from one another, means Moya can play with fragments, not always crafting an 'ending' but rather moving on from one world snapshot to the next. Is that cheating? Perhaps, but you'd have to say he does it with style.

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The first of his tales could almost be a subplot of Ben Wheatley's High Rise. Set in a modern block that is still under construction, it's home to Ruth (Hayley Carmichael) and Ron (Michael Gould), who find themselves welcoming an unexpected guest. Harry (Ned Dennehy) - who Dominik Moll fans might note is "here to help" - says he's their neighbour, locked out, needing shelter for the night. In the larger framework of Moya's film, he's the first of several ambiguous 'guests' whose status of welcome or otherwise hangs in the balance.

The second tale unfolds as a bedtime story, complete with monsters, told by Octavius (Khalid Abdalla) to his daughter Horatia (Maddison Whelan) about a businessman, Hans (Eric Gordon) who rips off a "Foreigner" (Jan Bivjoet) with disastrous consequences. The only thing beyond money that Hans loves in the world is his daughter Maria (Tanya Reynolds) but, like everything in Moya's film even that is dysfunctional. It also brings with it its own unwelcome guest - Maria's boyfriend Johann (Tadhg Murphy).

Lastly, in the most compelling and fleshed out world, live Dom (Adrian Rawlins) and Rachel (Kate Dickie), a married couple with a teenage son (Jonathan Case) who barely communicates with them. They too, are about to welcome a guest, Sam (Sam Louwyck) - from Rachel's past and the film's future - who brings everything that is wrong with their lives into focus.

Moya's film - which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2020 - slots together as a bleak indictment of modern middle-class life. He may not be bringing quite the same level of dark humour to bear as the likes of Ben Wheatley or Peter Strickland, but he's in the same ballpark. This is satire with a sharp edge - a place where you might cut yourself on the observations about office parties, karaoke and winning the lottery or miss the little asides, such as they way Rachel pitches fresh food into the bin after serving up ready meals to the family.

It's almost inevitable that films like this will have parts that are stronger than others and the segment concerning Hans does, indeed, feel like a bedtime story, over-familiar even in its discomfort, that could easily have been jettisoned in favour of the much stronger book-ends. Moya has assembled a cast that packs a punch, however, and his stars elevate the cracked emotions on display until you feel shattered too.

Dennehy has a way of bringing menace to characters that is so quiet, you barely notice it until it's too late, while few actresses have the ability to move from neorealism to the brink of madness without missing a beat like Dickie. Burn Gorman, as Dom's boss, and Rawlins also skate to the edge of emotions with ease. The electro scoring is a bit too bullying in places, obvious in comparison to the more subtle calibrations of the performances, perhaps reflecting Wojciech Golczewski's background in horror films.

As a debut, though, it has a complexity that a lot of other first-timers wouldn't dare touch and if not everything quite pays off, there's enough here to show Moya's aptitude with storytelling that bodes well for his future, even if he doesn't think much of ours.

Reviewed on: 31 Aug 2020
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Undergods packshot
An otherworldly journey through a Europe in decline - a collection of darkly humorous, fantasy tales about ill-fated characters and doomed fortune.

Director: Chino Moya

Writer: Chino Moya

Starring: Johann Myers, Géza Röhrig, Michael Gould, Hayley Carmichael, Ned Dennehy, Khalid Abdalla, Eric Godon, Tanya Reynolds, Tadhg Murphy, Jan Bijvoet, Kate Dickie, Sam Louwyck, Adrian Rawlins, Slavko Labovic, Jonathan Case

Year: 2020

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: UK, Belgium, Estonia, Serbia, Sweden

Festivals:

Fantasia 2020

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If you like this, try:

High-Rise
In Fabric
You, The Living