New Religion

New Religion (2022)

New Religion had its world première at FrightFest 2022

After a brief impressionistic prologue in which abstract shapes, transforming bodies, fluttering moths and fractal patterns – all red in colour – emerge from the darkness, and a red-filtered cityscape and its inverted image are seen mirroring each other, New Religion opens with a primal scene, as little Aoi (Hana Nakamoto), watering the plants on the balcony of a high-rise apartment, climbs a stepladder and falls out of shot. It is like the primal scene that opens Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), except that Aoi’s mother Miyabi (Kaho Seto), far from being distracted by sex with her husband, is lost in her book – Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To The Lighthouse, which, much like writer/director Keishi Kondo’s feature debut, is preoccupied with loss, time and image. 

Three years later, Miyabi is still beating herself up with grief and guilt over her daughter’s death – and her estranged husband occasionally rematerialises to beat her up more literally with his bitter recriminations. Miyabi still lives in the same apartment, now with new DJ boyfriend (Saionji Ryuseigun), and makes ends meet working as a call girl. At her workplace, Miyabi’s damaged colleague Akira (Kuroe Mizuta) raves about her long dead father as though he were still alive, before going on a bizarre killing spree and then on the run. Miyabi is left to take over Akira’s last client Oka (Satoshi Oka), a strange man whose voice is creepily distorted by an electrolarynx, and who seems, when not with call girls, to spend his entire time sitting in the dark watching documentaries on the metamorphic life cycles of moths. Uninterested in sex, he wants only to take polaroids of Miyabi, body part by body part, for a private photographic collection that breaks his subjects down into piecemeal mosaics.  

Even as, in shades of Yasuzo Masumura’s Blind Beast (1969), Miyabi is being deconstructed for Oka’s peculiar art project, conversely Aoi is being reconstructed, her ghostly presence making itself ever more felt in the apartment to the distraught, increasingly deranged Miyabi who wants nothing more than to see, hear and hold her beloved daughter again. “You know no one can replace you,” Miyabi’s boyfriend tells her, sensing that he is losing her to whatever madness is taking over – yet replacement of one kind or another is definitely happening here, whether it be the dramatic reappropriation of the third-century Taoist scholar Zhuangzi’s famous Butterfly Dream allegory, or an apocalyptic, literally bodysnatching infestation of our species by another, or a psychodrama of trauma’s transformation into something more deluded and destructive.

For New Religion offers a wilful confusion of photographic image and entomological imago, of reality and dream. Much as Miyabi, lost to loss, is struggling to pick up the pieces, she is twice seen literally doing this, as she gathers up the scattered sections of a bracelet that once belonged to Aoi, or the broken sherds of a pot plant that Aoi once lovingly tended. We viewers too are challenged to construct something coherent, and to find meaning, in this tale’s disconnected episodes and peculiar turns. It is an uneasy, fragmented portrait of grief, its different parts all held together by an overwhelming, sometimes terrifying industrial score (from Zeze Wakamatsu, Akihiko Matsumoto and mimm).

Meanwhile, the narrative keeps circling back to the beach where Miyabi was once photographed with Aoi, in a fleeting, long since past moment of happiness preserved in the ephemeral medium of film. It is a liminal space where seemingly solid ground is ever buffeted by the boundless sea beyond, where mortality and infinity meet at the horizon, and where once joyful memories have become mere castles in the sand, eventually, inevitably atomised and reassembled to form something else, rich and strange. Like the montage with which it opened, New Religion is indeed impressionistic and abstract, hinting at a mysterious mirror world of turmoil and trauma beneath its visual images.

strap: Keishi Kondo’s feature debut offers entomological snapshots of a mother’s deepest grief, delusion and dreams

© Anton Bitel