Tsai Ming-Liang's first feature in five years is a mysterious and alienating series of tableaus about the fragility of flesh and the smallness of humanity.
Vertigo, they say, is not really a fear of falling; it's a fear of jumping. The gap between the subject and the ground creates such strong psychological conflict in the afflicted that the temptation to eliminate it by leaping into the void is overpowering, and dizziness sets in.
A similar dynamic exists between the voyeur and the object of his or her scrutiny. In the chilling and dread-laden "Red Road," Jackie (Kate Dickie), a closed-circuit television operator in Glasgow, sits before a bank of video screens connected to surveillance cameras across the city. Her job at "City Eye Control, Division E," is to monitor the feeds for suspicious activities, and to report what she sees to the proper authorities. She scans some of the city's worst neighborhoods for signs of trouble, with an eye toward averting it before the victims need to call for help.
From the very first scene, we feel an ambivalent tension between Jackie and the people on her screens. She can't help empathizing with the overweight young woman who works as a night janitor, donning headphones and dancing to her MP3 player in an empty office building. Or the man who walks his old and ailing English bulldog. But Jackie remains at a distance. They have no idea she's watching.
We immediately sense that Jackie is harboring a darkness and despair that isolates her from everyone else. She uses the wall of video images as a buffer between herself and the outside world -- or between herself and her own life. Until she spots a red-haired man named Clyde (Tony Curran), and -- feverishly, compulsively -- penetrates the screen and, for reasons unknown, begins to insinuate herself into his life. It's an excruciating process, but she seems driven to forge ahead, even when she feels she can't go through with it.
"Red Road," written and directed by Andrea Arnold, contains hardly a trace of conventional movie exposition. Nobody tells anybody else things they already know just for the sake of informing the audience. You piece together what you're seeing -- as Jackie does, watching her little abstract video screens -- asking yourself what it all means. Jackie's life, and the screen space around her, is compartmentalized; frames within frames visually separate lives from one another. But there are dots to be connected. The mystery deepens and the apprehension builds until something, or someone, eventually has to snap.
"Red Road" feels like a descent into hell. Outside the clean, geometric orderliness of the City Eye Control studio, the late winter/early spring landscape of Glasgow resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland, littered with trash (human and non-human) and cast-off remnants of civilization, as if in the aftermath of a terrible storm.
But maybe, just maybe, this is also a chronicle of one woman's instinctual, unanticipated emergence from her personal hell, an inner place so bleak and cold it's like a black hole, sucking her down inside herself. When a splash of blue sky hits the screen in the final act, it is both shocking and cleansing.
The turning point is a sex scene so naked and intense that it induces queasiness. It's not just about lust and it's certainly not about romance, but it's expressed as raw sex. We're aware that something else -- something more important -- is going on here, too, and the undercurrent of manipulation and violence makes the feverish encounter nearly unbearable.
"Red Road," which won a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and swept the Scottish BAFTA Awards (a U.K. version of the Oscars), distills the essence of Hitchcock ("Rear Window"), film noir and Bertoluccian obsession into a new kind of thriller that feels distinctly Scottish (or Glaswegian). Expect more. This is the first film in a project called Advance Party, in which three writer-directors will make films featuring the same nine characters, played by the same actors. Major characters in one film may be minor figures in another, and there are no restrictions on tone or genre. There's no telling what happens next ...
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