Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Discovering the Films of Allison Chhorn

The Plastic House (2019)
With the ever-growing expanse of online film exhibition, never has it been easier to share and see one's projects spanning amongst a global catalog. The privilege to freely showcase not only benefits artists, but to those less fortunate in their means to accessing cinema. Whether it be short animated works to provocative avant-garde statements, video sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo have altered the film distribution landscape, paving way for independent filmmakers to self distribute and communicate. And in the case for this year, for the festival circuit as well. This brings me to my subject in focus today, Australian based filmmaker Allison Chhorn.

I discovered Allison's work due in part to her newest film, The Plastic House (2019), being programmed as part of this year's Visions du Reel online festival. It was during my viewing where my receptive senses triggered, alerting my consciousness that I had stumbled across something great, which I should note is typical for how I react to art of such notable magnitude. Chhorn's deeply personal film is that of translating the concern of life post-mortem of both parental figures. At first appearing as an esoteric documentation of Chhorn's grieving, the subject of death is immediately alluded to with on screen birth to death dates of her mother and father, placed over filmed spaces of memorial grounds (which are later revealed as false through an unexpected, but temporarily affirming reveal towards the end). The film spends a majority of its duration obtusely meditating and pondering with a fragmented chronicle of her day to day household routine. A large sum of this time dedicated to cultivating inside a massively enclosed greenhouse, the titular plastic house. Chhorn's individual shots often linger in static, allowing room to cognitively concentrate and wander her dense, textured environments. Working in tandem to this is an equally rich soundscape to punctuate the sensory effect of each image. At some point the weight that builds from the passage of time sets in while subsequently removing the perception of it. Chhorn warps our ability to make temporal assessments, making time and place mush. What does life become when the people who brought us into this world are no longer there? Do we continue to live the same lives as before or do we endure a metamorphosis into a new existence? Chhorn's examination of this inevitable future through fictional forecasts of her own experience paint a singular portrait of perhaps a more quiet existential plight of the human condition.

Last Time (2018)
Not long after my viewing, I had gotten into contact with Allison herself and was immediately given the opportunity to watch her prior piece, the short film Last Time (2018). Clocking in at an economical four and a half minutes, Chhorn wastes none of her limited running time. The first few seconds open with an out of focus tracking shot of a secluded parking lot on a warm, mild weathered day before cutting to a wider shot (in focus) now tracking the motivated movement of a young adult black male as he approaches an unknown destination. The next cut switches to a close-up, revealing him to be holding a dark green piece of clothing before cutting to the interior of a compact vehicle, inside a lone Caucasian woman, seemingly of the same age. Traditions in continuity would expect the young man to enter the vehicle at any given moment, except he doesn't. Perspective is then found from that of the woman where we are given secluded views of what she sees from within the parked car. Then, Chhorn hits with the title card to introduce the film. With roughly a minute of set up, Chhorn immediately puzzles with her distinct approach to non-linear editing. What follows is a fleeting narrative labyrinth that instantly brought the work of Alain Resnais to mind and to a more contemporary degree, Joachim Trier. The man finally enters the driver's seat of the car where a sudden tension between the two passengers is felt in their body language and tonal removal from each other. Chhorn's synopsis for Last Time reads as follows, "A dress. A couple. He holds on to the past but does she see a future? Or will this be the last time?" Ostensibly about the disintegrating relationship between the woman and man, Chhorn only provides brief flashes of memory shared between the two with the only context being that an established connection exists. Though despite the mental barriers, Chhorn manages to transmit emotional hooks from the manipulation of sensory materials. All mundane and inconsequential, but all personal.

The images and sounds of Chhorn's work remain barred off in complete subjectivity. Her films evoke something highly textured and viscerally felt but never direct, which to me, is the most exciting cinema to interact with. Her fragmentary, non-linear narratives suggest a unique relationship where memory and consciousness exist dependently on the passage of time, movement of space, and the waves of sound. Senses relating to the experiential also have as much to do with temporal and physical awareness as the personal abstractions themselves. Her films, to some scarily accurate degree, capture the psyche of memory as it is processed, chopped up, and replayed in one's internal. So while specific narratives are induced and explored within each of her films, it's the recollection of the immediate, and at times unassumingly mundane, that make up the tangible reality.

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