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Ode to Nothing

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/25/20 22:18:46

"Better than the usual story of someone talking to the deceased."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Films like "Ode to Nothing" aren't quite a genre unto themselves, but after a while one can be a bit jaded: It's sad, with a fanciful but eccentrically morbid premise, the sort of thing that's a bit transgressive and daring, but which is clearly meant to be taken seriously. They get made on a regular basis because there's something to it, and when someone has as keen an eye for where she's going with the idea as Dwein Baltazar does with this one.

She begins by introducing the audience to Sonya (Marietta "Pokwang" Subong), who runs a small funeral home, presumably passed down from her father Rudy (Joonee Gamboa), who mostly sits in the apartment above in silence, waiting for Sonya to prepare dinner, while she deals with people who want to haggle past the last minute. They're behind in rent and loan-shark landlord Theodor (Dido de la Paz) when a Jane Doe is dropped on their doorstep, and as time drags on, she starts to find the corpse more friendly company that her father, though she has her eye on handsome street vendor Elmer (Anthony Falcon).

It's kind of hard to grasp the level of loneliness on display in Ode to Nothing at first. It's right out front from the start, and it is fairly clear that this is what the film will be about from the start, but Sonya must sink deep into a genuinely frightening desperation before the full extent of how it's eating at her becomes completely clear, and that's when the filmmakers know that they can push the film somewhere else. They often choose not to, sinking further into despair, but the possibility was there. The audience still knows that a line has been crossed, that the characters have reached the next crossroads, but the fact that things clearly could change at these points but don't every time just emphasizes how difficult it can be to get out of such a hole.

It's hard work at times, because this has to be a quiet film, spending enough time on isolation and scenes where little actually happens to show how you can be isolated even with someone else in the room, or how something else can skew your perception. The filmmakers create a constricting environment in interesting ways - the picture itself is squarish, for example, but not necessarily cramped inside that rectangle. Some portions of the building are actually fairly roomy, but the static camera makes the audience feel pinned down, unable to do anything unexpected. They build eccentricity into delusion in expected ways and then veer into other directions.

It's surprising but not. Lead actress Pokwang pulls everything inside without seeming blank, and even her eruptions seem precise, as far as she can go without driving someone away. It's an impressive balancing act, as it can sometimes be very difficult to be withdrawn and individual at once. She's the film's biggest star but her job is often to come across as small compared to more broadly acted characters, or to shrink away; she comes the most alive when talking with a corpse but even then, there's something more than a little hidden, like she's just doing what she thinks other people do when they're together.

Interestingly, the film never seems particularly interested in why Sonya is lonely; it doesn't necessarily matter, and giving a reason might just frustrate the audience for how the problem isn't being solved. It's just about being in that situation and seeing how it can drag a person down, precisely and tellingly. There is, in this case, a bit of life to the idea of someone only talking to well past talking back.

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