Dir. Takeshi Kushida (2020)
A photographer who runs a photo-retouching business meets, and falls for, a social media influencer with body dysmorphia.
Arthouse horror is often hard to do right, but the key tenets are going to be beautiful cinematography, a compelling plot, and stellar performances from people who know they’re in an arthouse horror film. While 2020’s Woman of the Photographs doesn’t hit all of those marks, it comes awfully close, and it’s got some great high points that will stick in your mind for days. The film follows the story of a man named Kai (Hideki Nagai), who once had dreams of becoming a professional photographer but is now stuck in his family business of photo retouching. He’s a complicated man, having lost his mother and subsequently never having another relationship with a woman throughout his life. He’s standoffish, often rude, and difficult to get close to: he prefers to do his work without speaking and return home to his pet praying mantis, who he eats dinner with every night alone in his apartment.
On one of his photo excursions, he meets a woman named Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki) who is quite possibly even more complicated than he is. Kyoko was once a dancer and now makes her money through sponsorships in her career as a social media influencer. She posts beautiful photos for her followers, but their numbers have been declining in recent years, resulting in her ever-greater attempts to get noticed. When she injures herself during the photo shoot that Kai stumbles upon, she starts to realize that her wounds, which Kai can photoshop out of her pictures, are becoming more and more… interesting. While director Takeshi Kushida never goes full Cronenberg with the body horror within the film, there are definitely come gross-out moments that are tough to watch. Thankfully, nothing gets inserted anywhere where it doesn’t belong and things never get too gross, so you can all keep your sanity intact while checking this one out.
The story of Kyoko is a parable of modern life, as her increasingly dire attempts to increase her stardom on social media becomes more and more of an obsession. When she sees her likes she hears applause in her head, the kind that she used to receive during her ballet performances. It’s an excellent portrayal of the sickness inherent in seeking approval from people you don’t know online, as all of these people speak to her as if they’re friends despite never having met her in real life. She seems to be falling for Kai, but it is difficult to tell how much of that is because of what he can bring to her photographs. The same can be said, of course, for Kai, who sees Kyoko as a muse for his own photographic brilliance. Together, the two are an odd pair, made moreso by Kai’s absolute refusal to speak to her. In fact, he says nothing through 99% of the film’s runtime, allowing his facial expressions and body language to tell his story of a lonely man who never knew that he was lonely and a person who longs for the same type of brilliance that his new paramour used to show through her dancing.
It's a beautiful film, but I can’t quite put my finger on why, exactly. The story is interesting enough, to be sure, but the lack of dialogue make it incredibly important that the actors are able to put all of their thoughts and feelings into play without saying a word. They mostly do a good job of this, at least enough that the audience can generally tell what’s going on throughout. Where the film really shines, though, is the sound design. It’s an ASMR-lover’s delight, as every sound within the film is amplified as if we are sitting right next to the foley artist as they create each sound effect. While this can be a bit disorienting at times, as some sounds come across as almost too loud, it is all used to help tell the story. Some sounds are used to show the isolation, while others are used to show importance: each nibble of meat that goes into the praying mantis’ mouth is broadcast with THX precision, showing the vitality to the film of even this small creature (as well as how much more important to its owner it is than its stature would indicate.) There’s enough emotional impact within to make you feel something, even if its revulsion. For tiny-budget body horror, that’s quite an achievement. Unfortunately, the film’s snaillike pacing and ultra-slow-developing plot will leave a lot of viewers behind. That’s a shame, because this one clearly has something to say, even if it doesn’t always use the dialogue to do it.
Who this movie is for: Foreign horror fans, Body horror lovers, ASMR Podcast listeners
Bottom line: While Woman of the Photographs won’t be everyone’s taste, it is still an emotional tale of obsession, loneliness, and the affection that we desire from others. As director Takeshi Kushida shows, the need to have attention from people we don’t know in today’s day and age can be replaced by the affection of those that we can seek to be close to in our real lives. For some people, however, their tangible “loved ones” are just a means to an end. Thankfully, this one didn’t take the praying mantis metaphor to its extremes, which is where I expected the film to go, because it’s a much more beautiful film without stooping to the obvious. Check this one out if you get the chance and you love emotional J-horror, just don’t expect the horror elements to shine as brightly as the emotional ones