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by Jay Seaver

"It's a different world but it's still falling apart."
3 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: If the world is going to hell, it's going to hell in different ways in different places for different classes, and they all may as well be living in different worlds. Or at least, that's the apparent idea behind Chino Moya's "Undergods", a set of three or four stories that may be set in the same decaying world or may just be stories the people in those worlds tell each other, but who can tell these days?

In a dystopian world, K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig) collect the bodies they find on the streets, selling the live ones to a sweatshop. Elsewhere, Ron (Michael Gould) and Ruth (Hayley Carmichael) appear to be the only residents of an apartment tower, at least until charming Harry (Ned Dennehy) knocks on the door, saying he's locked himself out of a flat on a different floor. In a storybook city, businessman Hans (Eric Godon) is offered what seems like an incredible opportunity by a foreign engineer (Jan Bijvoet), but when he copies the plans and turns the man down, daughter Maria (Tanya Reynolds) is kidnapped, forcing Hans to recruit her artsy new boyfriend Johann (Tadhg Murphy) to help rescue her. And just as middle-manager Dominic (Adrian Rawlins) is starting to curry favor with his boss (Burn Gorman), his wife's long-believed-dead first husband (Sam Louwyck) reappears, and Rachel (Kate Dickie) immediately devotes herself to his rehabilitation from crippling PTSD.

The niftiest trick Moya manages here comes from how he connects these various threads, very carefully creating fictional space between them until the characters in one stumble into another. At that point the audience can be forgiven if they think this is part of a parallel-worlds fantasy setup (and to some extent it may be), but soon characters from the most seemingly out-there portion are just popping up in the most bougie and familiar, and it suddenly becomes a different story. Sure, there's just enough distance that one can construct some sort of off-screen portal between worlds, but the very effort of doing that world-building on one's own indicates that it is probably unnecessary and counterproductive - despite the way each group of characters sees the others as part of some world so unfamiliar that it may as well be imaginary, the simpler answer is that this is all happening together, and may be more connected.

Many directors would then start revealing the connections and larger pattern, but for better or worse, Moya doesn't. On the one hand, it's fine and even laudable; it keeps a lot of different situations from collapsing down to the actions of one villain; on the other, it gives him little opportunity to highlight how the situations are related at all, even when they directly cross over. It also makes the film effectively an anthology, although one with a strong theme that carries through, which can be frustrating - the film can very easily seem to peak early if, say, the Ron/Ruth/Harry segment interests you more than another. There's also a tendency for them to head to the same sort of ending in every story, and by the end the "twist" is no longer shocking.

Inevitably, some members of the cast are better at handling the tight constraints than others - Johann Myers and Géza Röhrig quickly become the sort of scuzzy Greek chorus that helps move the film along, while Michael Gould and Adrian Rawlins manage to find unique takes on what is in many ways the same sort of disappointed, jealous man, while Tadhg Murphy takes a guy introduced as a sort of ridiculous free-spirit artist and makes him someone the audience easily identifies with. Moya doesn't exactly create great roles for the women playing opposite them - Kate Dickie's Rachel is the only one who feels important, in large part because she runs with the part where much of the rest of the cast is content to be low-key.

The stand-out star may be the crew finding locations, many in Serbia and Estonia, that stand in for a fallen and decaying world, perhaps felt most keenly in the empty grounds around the building where Ron and Ruth live, which becomes an exaggerated example of developers building fancy apartments without any sort of organic neighborhood around it. Whether down in the exploitative trenches or in the offices and homes where management has separated themselves from their workers and customers, there's a sense of decay, if not on-screen, then just off.

It's a useful idea for a movie, even if the gimmick of how the pieces tie together is probably more interesting than any of those actual pieces manage. And if it's pessimistic, it's at least seldom drably so, offering some screwiness to go with its decay.

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originally posted: 09/03/20 07:02:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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