A producer from Chicago sitting on the sofa next to mine looks terrified. It's minus 40 degrees (wind chill) in his city and he isn't sure if any flight might dare to take him home. His face is pale. You'd think he just walked out of the Oscar nomination ceremony. Apart from the brutal cold wave gripping most of North America right now, horror has worn several other faces at Sundance this year.
There is the singularly physical horror of Under The Shadows director Babak Anvari's latest, Wounds: an absurdly indulgent movie with no ambition other than playful mind-fucking and horror-effect tinkling, and one that only hardcore midnight nerds might take a shine to. "What? That's it?" gasped many a bemused viewer at the premiere, after an abrupt cut-to-black closing shot that is so audacious, so arrogant, so weird because of how it seems to scream: "You expected a narrative? Cute. This was a social experiment!" Armie Hammer stars as a charming New Orleans bartender who drinks too much, cheats on his live-in girlfriend (Dakota Johnson) a bit, and ends up with a customer's mysterious cellphone after a particularly debauched night at work. What he finds in the phone's photo gallery takes over his life; it slowly disintegrates into peals of jump scare images, absurd mental flashes, moody humans and gory cockroach-infested savagery. I'd love to identify a metaphor about technology and masculinity here, but the director clearly has stranger (and not deeper) ideas. Anvari has "adapted" this from a novella – whose purpose I cannot imagine – and has gotten gleefully carried away with the spooky devices at his service. Hammer is dark and fine and committed to messing with us, but hey, if I just wanted to watch grown men lose their shit for close to two hours, I'd prefer an English football game.
Far more visceral and "unseen" are the systematic horrors revealed in the excellently researched and brave investigative documentary, One Child Nation. A Chinese co-director (Nanfu Wang) now settled in America returns to her ancestral village as a young mother to examine the history and propaganda of China's infamous 30-year-long "One Child only" policy. "What is the point of a country without a memory?" asks one of many reformed victims of the communist government's controversial law, while urging the current generation to not brush that bleak period under the development rug. The documentary initially reaches out to several traumatised locals, past and present, old and young, from her childhood, to paint a country that may have compromised its emotional truth in favour of economic survival. Yet, as the film zooms out of her life to go beyond the obvious psychological scars of the affected families, One Child Nation becomes a superbly informed long-form piece on the murky sub-culture bred out of what was supposed to be a purely political machine. Adoption agencies, medical practitioners, human traffickers, ambiguous financial trails…the filmmakers expertly employs a personal prism to expose a broader view of a vast nation at odds with the humanity of its own ambitions. Whoever knew that a sham unfurling in plain view of the world was actually suspenseful enough to be a thriller?
Speaking of thrillers, Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy's latest, Velvet Buzzsaw, is what happens when Ruben Ostlund's dry European art satire The Square has a transatlantic lovechild with the brashness of the iconic Final Destination series. Odd combination, yes, but what about art is supposed to be predictable? Velvet Buzzsaw is more of a noir horror comedy -– in that the film is funny and wildly entertaining precisely because it dares to present itself as a campy spook-fest within the cut-throat universe of modern art. The plot hinges on the discovery of a bunch of path-breaking paintings in the flat of a now-dead man; the LA art world goes into a tizzy, with everyone clambering to get a piece of this precious pie. Gallery owners, art advisors, greedy agents, self-important critics, desperate interns and morose artists combine to create a nutty netherworld that is seduced by its own sexiness. Unbeknownst to them, the tortured paintings have the power of destroying the people that are involved in its opportunistic restoration.
The subtext is wicked and sardonic: pure art is exacting revenge on the commercial hawks that have turned the field into a pretentious business. Which is why even the killing, too, is artful and imaginative here. Some of the scenes bring down the (adequately designed) house: an agent enters a famous artist's studio and coos appreciatively at the profundity of a particular installation, until he realises that they're regular trash bags. A bloody, severed body of a lady is mistaken as excellent "performance art" for hours in the city's most popular and avant-garde gallery. Schoolkids even play in the 'blood'. A bisexual critic (nobody does spoofy-but-creepy Jake Gyllenhaal the way he can) hears verbose excerpts of his own ruthless reviews in a closed sound-installation room until it drives him berserk. A girl is "consumed" and swallowed by a wall mural. It's all very horrific to the characters of the merciless film, which makes it all the more funnier for viewers who don't understand this environment. We derive great pleasure out of watching capitalism suffer in an age where purity is a dying virtue. It's no wonder I, the cash-strapped Indian writer more than 27 hours of flying time away from home, started grinning at the state of the unfortunate Chicago-based gentleman.