Berlinale 2021: Ted K tells the story of the Unabomber as a demented eco-activist

If someone told you what ‘Taste’ was about, you may think of Zakariya Mohammed’s ‘Sudani from Nigeria’: a footballer from the African nation ends up in Asia...
Berlinale 2021: Ted K tells the story of the Unabomber as a demented eco-activist

While watching Tony Stone's Ted K – as in, Ted Kaczynski, as in, the Unabomber (played by an excellent Sharlto Copley) – I kept thinking of other loners, fictional and otherwise. In a scene where Ted K is packing a suitcase, we see a copy of George Eliot's Silas Marner. Now, there was a man who liked his space. Another book written around this time, the mid-1800s, comes to mind: Walden, of course. The "plot" was about Henry David Thoreau's experiment of living a simple life in the proverbial middle of nowhere. He felt that "society" was not necessarily the way to live. In practicing individualism (isolationism?), he also practiced minimalism. And yet, the outside world keeps making itself felt – say, in the force of a train thundering past. The first scene of Ted K has Ted K feeling the force of a few snowmobiles thundering past the space he's made for himself in the Montana wilderness. You feel his rage.

You know the murderous feeling when someone cuts you off while driving, or when someone rips open a noisy bag of chips during a quiet movie? Multiply that by infinity. That's Ted Kaczynski. How dare they? That's his state of being, watching these fun-loving people on their souped-up snowmobiles. "In a city, there is nothing for noises to destroy because one is living in a shit pile anyway." But how dare they bring their noise here? And because this kept happening – not just these snowmobiles but also jet planes leaving a plume of smoke in the sky and a dozen other reminders of "civilisation" – Ted K decided to hit back.

Between 1978 and 1995, he killed three people and injured 23 others in a nationwide bombing campaign against those he held responsible for advancing modern technology and destroying the environment. What he did was not for the human race. He probably thought the human race was screwed, anyway. He did this because of his own desire for revenge. Ted K details this revenge to an extent, but it is not a birth-to-arrest biopic. It uses Ted K's words to frame his story. While discussing a power struggle in society between the "weak" and the "strong", Kaczynski wrote, "The only sensible alternative for the weaker man is to kill the strong one while he has the chance. In the same way, while the industrial system is sick we must destroy it." This is there in the movie.

Along with these snatches of text, we get images. We get an idea of what it must be like inside this man's head. The pretty woman he meets in a library: is she real? Ted K doesn't seem to have had a sex life at all, if we go by what he tells his mother over the phone. "I never got past first base," he yells. "You know what that is? Tongue-rubbing!" The film's best sequence reminded me of Quicksilver's breathtaking prison break in X-Men: Days of Future, set to Jim Croce's 1973 hit "Time in a Bottle". Here, the song is even older, Bobby Vinton's "Mr. Lonely". Ted K's very existence seems to explode around him, in exquisite slow motion. That he ends up captured for his crimes is almost an afterthought. The inside of his mind appears to have been the real prison cell.

Taste, by Lê Bảo

From 'Taste', by Lê Bảo
From 'Taste', by Lê Bảo

If someone told you what Taste was about, you may think of Zakariya Mohammed's Sudani from Nigeria: a footballer from the African nation ends up in Asia to make a living (he has a son back home), and he ends up injured and unable to play anymore…  He says, "The world is not one-way traffic. One can think he knows what direction he is going, but it might turn out to that another way is the right way." He could be talking about this movie, which does not head down the "one-way traffic" the man's plight seems to suggest. It's not about "oh, he's lost his job, now how will he provide for his son?" Instead, the man moves in with four middle-aged Vietnamese women (we are in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City) and they, as the press notes put it, "revert to a primal state."

The five people live as a unit, a frequently unclothed unit. They cook. They clean. They sleep together. They eat. They use the toilet, squatting in full view of others the way your dog might during a walk. They seem trapped, like animals in a cage – towards the end, when the film steps out of this dungeon-like abode, you almost squint at the sunlight. I doubt we'll see a better-looking film this year. Lê Bảo's sensuous framing of poverty brings to mind films like Pedro Costa's Vitalina Varela, where the poor are ennobled in almost portraiture-like shots. I doubt we'll also see anything as mystifying, for you could read anything and everything into the proceedings: from our capacity for survival to our relationship with animals, from issues of emigration to how to find out how much a piglet weighs. For a debut film, you can hardly ask for more.

Related Stories

No stories found.