Fantasia 2019: ‘Ode to Nothing’ – a Bold, Captivating Triumph
Marietta Subong delivers one of the best performances of the year in the art-horror hybrid from the Philippines.
Loneliness and loss are the main themes explored in Dwein Ruedas Baltazar’s third feature Ode to Nothing (Oda sa Wala), a bold, captivating and richly textured film and one of the best to emerge from Fantasia this year.
Ode to Nothing revolves around Sonya (Marietta Subong), an embalmer who runs a funeral parlor on the main floor of her family’s old gated home. Business isn’t going well. Clients are scarce and Sonya is struggling to pay rent while trying to avoid her landlord (Dido De La Paz) who is often lurking about threating her and taking household items to cover the interest she owes. She lives a lonely life, spending her days staring out the window waiting for dead bodies to pop up on her doorstep while briefly interacting with her aging father (Joonee Gamboa) who barely speaks to his daughter. Much of Sonya’s pain and suffering comes from the absence of her mother, who we assume has passed away due to a photo of her framed in their home.
One night, the corpse of a middle-aged woman arrives at Sonya’s home, under rather questionable circumstances. As the body lies unclaimed in the morgue, Sonya’s luck begins to change, and business begins to pick up. And the more dead bodies arrive, the faster she is able to pay her debt. But the corpse becomes more than a good luck charm. She soon befriends the deceased, speaking to her daily while tending to her work. Soon her conversations with the dead body lead to questions about her past, the death of her mother, as well as the unhealthy relationship between her and her father. Her obsession takes an even stranger turn when Sonya decides to move it into the living space and dress the corpse in her mother’s clothes. Somehow, this decision rekindles Sonya’s relationship with her estranged father, and both she and her dad begin to treat the dead woman as a member of the family.
It takes a strong person to work at a funeral home and a thick-skinned person to willingly walk into the eye of a hurricane and withstand the waves of other people’s grief on a regular basis. To appear calm and collected in the face of death yet show empathy towards those grieving is like walking on an emotional tightrope. Sonya appears to be strong on the outside but as viewers glimpsing into her life, we see what others don’t see. While not scared of the dead, she is afraid of something even more terrifying: loneliness.
Sonya is emotionally broken, searching for answers to her mother’s death, searching for a way to keep a roof over her head and food on the table – and searching for a way to connect to her father. More importantly, Sonya is searching for some way to make herself visible and searching for a friend. Like the rotting corpse that she keeps as a companion, Ode to Nothing is a story about a lost soul. “Maybe it would be better if I just disappeared rather than physically be here and feel invisible all the time” she whispers to her dead friend.
Baltazar opens and closes the film with the Chinese folk song “Mo Lì Hua” – first playing over an image of a white light bulb covered by a swarm of flies and in the final scene, replacing the bulb with the moon and the flies with something more disturbing. One quick internet search tells us Mò Lì Huā translates to jasmine flower which in the Philippines is used to symbolize love, devotion, purity, and divine hope — here, it symbolizes Sonya’s hope to rediscover happiness in the wake of her mother’s death. It becomes clear that with the arrival of the old woman’s corpse, Sonya now has someone she can talk to and someone who will listen to what she has to say, even if she cannot respond. And her father can relive his once-happy marriage, even if its a dead body standing in for his late wife.
Ode to Nothing is nothing short of gorgeous despite the morbid premise. Shot entirely in 4:3 aspect ratio with the curved edges of 8mm film, the cinematography courtesy Neil Daza further heightens the theme of loneliness and isolation as characters are often framed within spaces of a door or window — or somehow separated by an object. Sonya’s home, for example, is surrounded by security bars keeping intruders out and just about every shot frames her so she appears within a prison both physically and emotionally. Meanwhile sound plays a huge factor as well, or rather a lack of sound since Ode to Nothing lets Sonya’s loneliness consume the viewer through static shots and lingering silence that goes on for minutes at a time.
On paper, Ode to Nothing might come across as a darkly twisted horror film but in fact, it is an entirely different beast — a film which explores the effects of heartache and the human need for connection. There are no outright scares to be found but it does feel supernatural with plenty of ways to interpret the finale – the most popular being a metaphor of how the memories of the dead must be preserved, much like the literal preservation of a corpse. If anything, Ode to Nothing is a rather hopeful film and a story that makes it clear that not all is lost in death.
- Ricky D
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.