Chain Reactions

By Kieron Corless

chain-jem-cohen.jpgFrom left to right: 1-5 Chain, 2004. 6 Jem Cohen

The striking new feature from us essay film-maker Jem Cohen seeks traces of the personal in the global precinct

Jem Cohen’s documentary films constantly blur boundaries and cross genres, as in Lost Book Found (1996), with its beguiling blend of essay, autobiography and fiction. The newly released Chain, Cohen’s first fully-fledged feature film, deploys a similar technique. Part story, part documentary travelogue, Cohen’s trademark associative style evokes the worlds inhabited by two fictional characters who never meet, inserting their respective stories into a collage of anonymous late-capitalist structures – shopping malls, high-rise office buildings, retail parks and motels – with which we’re all by now familiar. These images are drawn from several different countries, pointing up, with unerring accuracy and poignancy, the homogenising US-led influences to which cities and suburbs the world over have increasingly succumbed.

Throughout Chain, the personal and global dimensions constantly intersect and inform each other. Tamiko (Miho Nikaido, a regular Hal Hartley collaborator) is a young Japanese woman on a business trip to the States to seek out potential sites for theme park developments, with which she’s been besotted since childhood. Tamiko’s identity appears to have been almost completely subsumed into the corporate world-view, so much so that she proffers a dismayingly racist view of Japanese employment practices she’s either misinterpreted or swallowed uncritically.

Meanwhile, Amanda (Mira Billotte) is a homeless white drifter whose atonal drawl is punctuated with the occasional inexplicable peal of laughter. By night she sleeps in dilapidated buildings and records video diary entries, which she has vague plans to send to her estranged family. By day she haunts the local mall where it’s warm, skilfully evading the security guards and scavenging for food. The two characters are lightly but sympathetically realised, principally through voiceover and unobtrusive observation, and both actresses deliver compelling performances. But whereas Amanda comes across as a real-life character in a documentary, Tamiko always feels like a fictional character being portrayed by an actress. This may be down to the intimacy and immediacy of Amanda’s straight-to-camera addresses, but I also suspect it’s partly because the Amanda character is less concocted and more deftly written.

However, a more serious criticism has been levelled against the film. Ioannis Mookas, writing for the website ‘Senses of Cinema’, believes that, ‘transfixed by the epiphenomena of globalisation, Chain is... in Benjamin’s phrase, an aestheticisation of politics.’ I’d argue this is a reductive reading of the work. It’s true that Chain’s images are suffused with a spare beauty, that Cohen’s compositions can be ravishingly elegant. But rather than simply capturing or creating beauty, the camera’s gaze feels much more complex and nuanced. In fact, the images are often beautiful and alienating, desolate at the same time. There’s a compelling tension between the awful and the gorgeous, between attraction and repulsion, in the worlds his characters inhabit. The film never traffics in spectacle or fetishisation or fake lyricism. On the contrary, Cohen’s concentrated long takes evince an analytical, compassionate, curious, engaged and, most importantly, nonjudgmental gaze, which the aesthetic element by no means supersedes or cancels out.

As a self-professed political filmmaker, Cohen always opts for subtle, oblique strategies rather than a simple preaching to the converted. In Chain, it’s an invitation to consider incidentals, ephemera, objects, buildings and people we often overlook or take for granted. No MTV-style fast cutting here; instead, everything is slowed down (itself virtually a political act in a culture of bombardment and speed), creating a welcome quality of minimalism and stillness, a rhythm more attuned to careful observation. There’s a delicate tension and ambivalence about the film’s critical stance on our global situation, alongside its refusal to judge or condemn the people who have to find a way to live in these difficult circumstances.

The emphasis is always on taking the characters’ lives seriously and trying to comprehend a complex situation unpatronisingly. In fact, the lives of the protagonists don’t feel bleak or oppressive; instead Cohen shows how they manage to map their way through this social landscape with courage and dignity, finding something worthwhile, even redemptive and beautiful, in their solitary lives. Not that the journey is without its moments of doubt, uncertainty, panic even (see Tamiko’s last scene); however, there’s no denying that despite this, a kind of equilibrium is achieved and maintained.

For my money, Cohen’s films are never less than resonant and relevant, and he’s some way ahead of the pack in documenting, with sombre, delicate precision, the unsettling times we’re all having to negotiate now.

Chain is currently on release in the UK, care of the enterprising Independent Cinema Office. Love and thanks to Dr. Fiona Candlin for sharing her incisive, extremely helpful thoughts on Chain.

Kieron Corless writes for Time Out London.