Undergods (2020)

Director Chino Moya’s debut film is an impressive dystopian anthology with strong performances and a striking visual style. It’s been compared to Black Mirror and the films of Terry Gilliam, and while there are hints of both it has its own distinct identity.

Set in a bleak unnamed city ruined by war or disaster, the initial scenes set the tone. A dishevelled man limps through the grey mist passing a filthy corpse on the kerbside. Before too long, a van stops by and two men get out. They collect the body and hurl it into the back of the van on the top of a pile of waxed carcases circled by buzzing flies, as they engage in a world-weary conversation like a Shakespearean double-act.

Géza Röhrig and Johann Myers in Undergods

These two body-snatchers, named K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig), are our storytellers, recounting three tales all set in this forbidding world. In the first, a middle-aged couple, the first occupants of a new apartment block, cautiously offer aid to a mysterious neighbour in need (Ned Dennehy, Mandy) who turns out to be more of an imposition then they first suspected. The second tale echoes ETA Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’, and concerns a wealthy merchant who swindles a crazed inventor (Khalid Abdalla, The Kite Runner), unwittingly putting his daughter (Tanya Reynolds) in danger as a consequence. In the final – and longest – tale, Dominic (Adrian Rawlins) finds his world disintegrating when his wife (Kate Dickie, Prevenge, The Witch) reappraises her life after the surprise reappearance of her previous husband, missing for fifteen years.

Kate Dickie as Rachel in Undergods

Like most anthology films, the tales are a little uneven. The third story feels slightly too drawn-out and could have benefitted from some trimming. But Moya, who professes a love for twisted anthologies such as The Twilight Zone and the Creepshow films, has created an enticingly bleak universe that feels larger than the confines of the three individual components.

Moya, who has previously directed music videos including St Vincent’s ‘Digital Witness’, has created a bold visual tone, a world of grey shuttered concrete and brutalist, semi-ruined architecture. Shot in a CGI-enhanced Belgrade, it blends the visual style of the 1980s Soviet decay and post-apocalyptic ruin inspired by comic book artist Enki Bilal and reminscent of The Road and Children of Men. Much of the architecture is real, but the cityscapes have been digitally enhanced to remove traffic, streetlights and all signs of a thriving metropolis, with the occasional fictional building skilfully layered into the backdrops including a looming sinister tower that appears to have a concrete UFO perched on top. Much like Terry Gilliam, Moya makes inventive use of his limited budget, with careful camera framing, fog and shallow focus making his sets appear more expansive and impressive than they are. This is a landscape where the protagonists wander like ghosts, their demeanours as grey as the dust and fog.

The Undergods cityscape, filmed in Belgrade with layers of CGI decay

Moya blends the three tales effectively and disarmingly. Rather than give each a conventional ending, he has them blur into one another, the connecting lines playfully wrong foot us. Side characters become protagonists, the past, present and future merge and even the storytellers become characters in their own tales. This strange layering disorients the viewer, and the blended influence of Borges and Kafka makes the world consistent yet strange. Moya was inspired by Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ in how the individual tales meld in unique and inventive ways. Although this approach denies us the satisfaction of conventional conclusions, I enjoyed the lack of neatness in these open-ended tales.

The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent and believable. Perhaps the standout is Adrian Rawlins who gets a delicious set-piece when his character self-destructs during an overwrought karaoke meltdown that is both awkwardly embarassing and tragic. A theme of masculine fragility and helplessness links the three tales, each of the male protagonists each must confront their own ineffectiveness and humiliation as their self-defining roles in their families and relationships disintegrates. All the women characters, though strong and competent, primarily act to counterpoint the male character’s weaknesses.

But despite this thematic despair, an enjoyable thread of dark satire runs through the tales in their visual inventiveness and at-times absurdist set-ups. It pokes fun at corporate blandness, at new-age psychobabble and at the grey monotony of mediocre, meaningless lives, particularly when accompanied by a chirpy yet paranoid 1980s-style synth soundtrack. The inhabitants of Undergods seem to have sleep-walked into a consumerist numbness, an Orwellian state of non-being.

This is an impressive debut that, although not without its faults, is ambitious, inventive and unusual. Its dark humour and bleak world building are effective and a collection of strong performances make this dystopia very human and relatable.

Undergods writer and director Chino Moya and actor Adrian Rawlins at the Rio Cinema, Dalston on 29th May 2021

2 thoughts on “Undergods (2020)”

    1. I enjoyed it. It’s not perfect and the script could have used some tightening up, but it’s thematically consistent and it creates a believable world. You could imagine dozens of such tales taking place in the same city / universe.

      Liked by 1 person

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