Fantasia Review: Life: Untitled
Life: Untitled, the feature debut of writer-director Kana Yamada, starts with a direct-to-camera address, a monologue indicative of the film’s origins as a stage play. But Yamada — adapting her own work — quickly makes it clear that she possesses a keen understanding of the fundamental differences between the mediums and avoids the trap so many cinematic adaptations have fallen into. Despite the contained nature of the screenplay, Yamada and her crew take full advantage of the freedom that film can allow, even on a small budget, and make clever use of the various settings to imbue the production with a stylistic naturalism far removed from the artificial theatricality that can often come when a film is too beholden to source material designed for the stage.
Yamada’s confidence and creativity make for an impressively nuanced look at a group of sex workers. Charming and depressing in equal measure, the film chooses to spend the majority of the time focused on the mundanities of the job — the central location is the small office where a handful of women wait for the calls that will send them out for clandestine hotel room meetings. For a film focused on sex work, sex really isn’t part of the narrative equation; rather, Yamada is much more interested in how these women handle their downtime, how they function in an environment that walks the line between camaraderie and hostility.
Now, it’s possible some may see the film’s depiction of sex work as an occupation populated primarlily by “broken” individuals — though it’s rarely made explicit, there’s an underlying sense that most of the women in this particular outfit have some sort of personal, or at least societal, trauma in their past that has led them here — but Yamada’s intimate focus tends to negate such extrapolations. The film is less about sex work in general as it as about these particular sex workers, who are ultimately held up as examples of both strength and futility. These are women fighting for autonomy in a world overwhelmingly run by men — men who are shown to be far more broken and emotionally confused than any of the women they consistently demean — and Yamada and her all-around excellent cast show true compassion and respect for each of these characters, setting them up as three-dimensional human beings rather than objects to be pitied.
As Life: Untitled unfolds through its loose narrative, tensions build and manifest in different ways. Violence erupts, sex is weaponized, emotions are internalized and externalized — sometimes in unexpected fashion. As it all starts to come to a head, Yamada seems to lose a little trust in the medium’s ability to convey her themes nonverbally and leans into telling when she could (and for the most part does) show instead. But such small missteps can be forgiven when a first-time director shows this level of control over tone and visual storytelling; by imbuing her characters with real depth — even those with limited screentime — she earns every bit of emotionality and allows her boldly nihilistic finale to ring true. It’s an ultimately humanist work, and one that serves as a calling card for a bright future ahead.
The 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival will be running Aug. 20th through Sept. 2nd.