A satire of male entitlement that is neither surreal enough to be amusing nor cutting enough to be insightful, Demons is an exhausting experience. A two-hander between an abusive male director and the actress in his latest play, it combines horror and comedy to an ambitious, yet frustrating effect. While notable for its playful aesthetic and willingness to shake things up, it only lands half of its jokes, and even less of its horrors.
Vicki (Yanxuan Vicki Yang) suffers from intense paralysis. In an early anecdote, she remembers trying put her hand up at school to go to the toilet. She couldn’t do it, wetting herself in the process. The young woman feels much the same way around Daniel (played by one of Singapore’s most successful theatre directors, Glen Goei), a domineering and abusive man who turns Vicki’s life into a living nightmare. Trauma becomes a fact of her everyday life, resulting in an immersive, surrealist, and very strange cinematic experience.
It’s easy to see what Demons is trying to do here. The abuse of power is an already absurd fact of life that has been accepted as a necessary part of the myth of the male artist. Director Daniel Hui gave himself the same name, making Demons something of an autobiographical portrait of the trauma a director can cause, intentional or not, when making a work of art. Why not turn it up a notch to see just how stupid the whole myth really is?
For example, one particularly absurd scene sees Daniel give Vicki a fish, telling her it’s a hat. Everyone goes along with it, making for one of the best laughs in the movie. Yet, unlike a Yorgos Lanthimos movie, we never truly know the rules, making it hard to be immersed in this bizarro world. Additionally, instead of tying the absurdity to a fundamental reality of human life, it stretches off into realms that seemingly bear no relation to this original power dynamic. This is especially true when the plot switches things up entirely halfway through, imagining what it would be like if Daniel were in Vicki’s shoes. At first, seeming like a necessary investigation into the relations between the sexes, the film cannot tether this change to real emotion, and loses the thread entirely.
With a boxy, 16mm aesthetic that recalls the lost film documented in Shirkers, Demons utilises its small frame to really focus on the human face. But these actors, although admirably chewing into the material with everything they’ve got, prove rather distracting. It’s hard to tell if they are intentionally hammy, or the players are genuinely that poor; either way, they get tiresome quickly, overacting every scene like they’re in the final school play.
With Crazy Rich Asians, Shirkers, and A Land Imagined, the tiny island nation of Singapore is finally having its long-awaited moment in the cinematic sun (it helps internationally — as in for America — that most of the nation speaks English as either a first or second language). By casting Glen Goei, director of Forever Fever, the first Singaporean film to ever do well internationally, Demons is forging new ground while paying homage to the past. Sadly, this film seems unlikely to be popular outside of the small sovereign city-state.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.