Dir. Keishi Kondo (2022)
A call girl who has recently lost her daughter has a strange customer who insists on taking pictures of various parts of her body. She discovers that the parts he photographs are able to feel the presence of her dead daughter.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Screambox has been on fire lately with their releases, touring the world and giving their paying customers a smorgasbord of American and international releases that explore all sorts of horror staples, from body horror to documentary (including a new Robert Englund documentary that is a must-see for horror fans). In New Religion, releasing June 20th from the streaming network, a mother who has recently lost her daughter (after a bout of negligence, no less) is forced to work as a call girl after her husband divorces her. The country is victim to rising unemployment and a down economy, threatening even the world's oldest profession with insolvency. Thankfully, Miyabi (Kaho Seto) gets a paying customer, though unfortunately he happens to have a few quirks, namely taking pictures of random body parts (a spine here, an eye there) of his new companion. Miyabi notices, however, that the more pictures that he takes, the more she feels the presence of her dead daughter.
New Religion does its best to deliver as much emotion as it does horror, correlating Miyabi's melancholic existence with the collapse of the society in which she lives. Her profound loss still affects her three years later, and the peculiar cast of characters that live within her new world are all as damaged as she is. Her customer, the only one that we see her visit, is obsessed with moths and photography, and his attempts to capture her on film leads her to a metamorphosis not unlike those that are undergone by his other infatuation. While Miyabi is probing her client for details around a bizarre string of slashings that may have been performed by one of her coworkers who was the man's previous escort, the man remains focused on his task, taking pictures of her in his dimly lit cave of an apartment. His singular focus is similar to Miyabi's focus on her daughter, allowing the audience to see the neuroses of both parties on full display.
Director Keishi Kondo does a great job with this one, utilizing an almost total lack of soundtrack or score to give his film a claustrophobic mood that further identifies the audience with Miyabi. Her world is tiny, despite living in a big city, because she is unable to step outside of her own limits because of her grief. She is stuck in her tiny apartment, watering the plants on the balcony that her daughter fell from, living as an echo of her deceased child in an inescapable loop. Despite attempts by those around her to help her escape, such as the neighbor/cohabitant who offers to get a job to enable her to move out of the city or the driver who warns her not to get too close to a man with such aberrant demands on his escorts, Miyabi is trapped. Kondo displays Miyabi as if she is a museum piece, pinned under glass like her john's collection of lepidoptera.
There's something that just feels off about the film, as if Kondo is giving us a view of something we're not really supposed to see. It feels very personal, a relentless progression of a forlorn life that is following an unavoidable track into madness. The loss is inescapable, any way out of Miyabi's predicament feeling pointless and without hope. Miyabi becomes increasingly unhinged, the sole recipient of her daughter's return, her physical deterioration contrasted with the increasing physical presence of her daughter. Seto does a great job with the character, delivering a gorgeous and haunting performance that shows a woman whose emotions are at best surface level and at worst completely dampened by despair. The cinematography is phenomenal, delivering an eerie aesthetic that alternates between the light, pulsing blues of a nightclub and the deep, disturbing reds of moth man's dungeon-like home. The audience never feels safe, as even the well-lit balcony of Miyabi's apartment is home to horrific tragedy in the film's opening frames.
All in all, this is a film that will be a hit for lovers of emotional horror and the intricacies of Asian cinema. While there are some elements that could use some refinement, such as the movie's slow, plodding framework and the relative lack of action through most of the runtime, the visual aesthetic is excellent and the performances within don't leave a whole lot to desire. Director Keishi Kondo has an eye for the bizarre, and the refinement of his vision will likely lead to even better efforts in the future.
Who this movie is for: Foreign horror lovers, Emotional horror fans, Botanists
Bottom line: Perhaps too slow for some but containing an emotional gutpunch that will hit home for many viewers, New Religion is an enthralling depiction of grief and the inescapability of the worst parts of life. Star Kaho Seto is wonderful in her performance as a grieving, guilty mother, and director Keishi Kondo delivers a watchable film that feels uncomfortable all the way through. This one is streaming on Screambox June 20th, and if you can stomach the slow-burn, unconventionality of what Kondo puts on film, this is one you'll definitely want to check out. As inventive as it is intriguing.