Chino Moya’s Undergods was one of the premieres at Fantasia Fest 2020, and from the very first frame, the film is visually stunning. Slate grey fog rolls over the crumbling remains of a large city. Dingy Brutalist architecture and Scandinavian boxy minimalism collide to make Undergods‘s vision of the far future both incredibly eerie and depressingly plausible, a smash collision of the more cold and functional aspects of modern design.
K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig) ride through the streets in grime coated coveralls, collecting corpses from the streets, and tossing them in the back of a battered old truck. As they go about their grim task, they tell each other stories, dreams that they have had, anecdotes to pass the time between swigs of what looks like gasoline. This is the first framing device for a trio of tales that skip across space and time, but are loosely based in the same universe.
A married couple in a nearly empty subdivision lets their locked out neighbor stay the weekend, with dire consequences. A greedy merchant defrauds a mysterious foreign stranger on a business deal, and an innocent party pays the price. A discontented married woman’s life only gets worse when her presumed dead first husband arrives on her doorstep, after 15 years in a prison camp.
Each tale is a smaller human scale drama, rather than the sharp slap of comeuppance that usually accompanies genre anthology films. Each set of lives is duly torn apart, but it’s a slow unraveling, with a certain coal black, very dry comedy. If there is a bit of a snicker at the protagonists, it is only because of their smug hubris at thinking their money, status, or social class means that any of them has their lives entirely figured out.
The aesthetic is just as strong in the pre-dystopian sequences and director Chino Moya and cinematographer David Raedeker give each tale a distinct color palette. The first segment places the married couple in an apartment full of muted, faded tones, rusty red rain pounding outside the window, grey shower steam filling their lonesome apartment. The merchant in the second story exists in a home full of high ceilings and dark shadows, the flickering light of the fireplace almost swallowed whole by walls long faded into murky shades of beige. Only in the third vignette, when we get a brief glimpse into how the wealthy live, is there a spot of bright color and sparkling clean.
The international ensemble cast turns in incredibly tight performances across the board, but Adrian Rawlins and Kate Dickie deserve special mention for fantastically lived in, committed performances. Kate Dickie’s Rachel is radiating chilly disaffection, and Adrian Rawlins’ Dominic barely conceals his frustrated rage. The final segment does have the strongest script of the three stories presented, but the pair’s masterful build of simmering tension as its central couple really helps Undergods go out on a high note.
Unfortunately, all of its carefully calibrated visuals and well modulated performances can’t quite paper over the weaknesses in Undergods‘ script. The framing devices don’t quite line up the way they are obviously intended to, and it leads to a somewhat disjointed viewing experience. While each tale is engaging on its own, and the actors all do some very fine work, the transitions between segments feel jarring. It seems a bit of a convenience shortcut to move us along from dystopian future, to domestic drama and back again.
The frame within a frame of a parent telling a (rather adult and violent) bedtime story is particularly odd. This segue serves as the intro to the merchant protagonist of the second story, without any other narrative purpose. It is not helped by the fact that that particular tale is the weakest of the lot. The entire second segment is rather glacially paced, in a way that feels overlong.
Wojciech Golczewski’s synth heavy score, while well crafted, seems particularly trendy and out of place in a movie that is otherwise very much outside of concerns regarding any specific era. It’s timely when the rest of the film is purposefully timeless.
Undergods biggest strength lies perhaps in its message, which lingers despite some procedural flaws in execution. If we are headed toward dystopia, it won’t be a big concentrated flash of disaster or war. The road to its particular brand of hell is a whimper rather than a bang. Sometimes all it takes to start the downward spiral is to make a much smaller error, to open the door and let the wrong one in.
Wicked Rating – 7/10
Director: Chino Moya
Writer: Chino Moya
Stars: Johann Myers, Géza Röhrig, Michael Gould
Release date: August 30, 2020 (Fantasia Film Festival)
Studio/Production Company: Z56film, BFI Film Fund, Velvet Films
Run Time: 92 minutes