At festivals these days audiences would be hard pressed to parse whether what they’re watching is celluloid or a digital projection. Soon the same may be said about the origin of the “films” themselves: at Toronto two years ago Raúl Ruiz stole the festival with Mysteries of Lisbon, an endlessly expanding and contracting television miniseries that mutated before one’s eyes to become cinema, literature, poetry, television, melodrama, and oral history. With Ruiz gone (though his wife has brought another of his projects to the screen, and to Venice and Toronto, Lines of Wellington), the strange allowances and experimentations of medium muddying has this year been been engaged by fellow fabulist Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who is showing his own miniseries, Penance, first at Venice and then at TIFF. In it, Kurosawa overlaps the worlds of Franju—uncanny materiality, extensive dramatic flatness and surrealist lyrical imagery—with that of Ruiz—belonging to a tradition of folklore and fables that’s self-perpetuating—to engage the television format by positing a world of endless, haunted storytelling.
The atonement of the title is the burden for four young girls who witness a stranger taking away a classmate who is later found by them raped and murdered. Despite facing and speaking to the stranger, the girls claim to have no memory of his face, and the crime goes unpunished. The victim’s mother curses the young girls for their unexplained silence and, fifteen years later, the girls, now women, pay for their mysterious inability by becoming pathologically involved with men who they must kill. Thus a single crime ripples through psyches, pinballing through time and the world. The girls each grow up to be particular kinds of sociopaths (asexual, hyper-violent, asocial, and jealous)—though it is Kurosawa’s ambiguity as to whether they would have anyway—and the murders they commit hint at little release from a world of crippling loneliness and dysfunctionality.
This central tone is communicated both through Penance’s actresses, including the mother whose own penance is the subject of the final episode—near-somnambulists whose behavior and skewed perspective puts them out of sync and out of touch with the world around them, and, to a degree, with the audience—and through Kurosawa’s mise-en-scène, a skeletal array of cavernous but closed spaces indoors and out. Shot predominantly on location, as is common with Kurosawa’s cinema, and digitally in pure, monochromatic swathes of glowing black-black, white-white and green-green, Penance’s world feels like the flesh and blood has been stripped out of it. It is as if the audience itself is wearing the glasses from Carpenter’s They Live that reveal behind the real world its bare, cruel architecture. The audience essentially shares the vision of its severely damaged characters: what we see is achingly vacant, mysterious, and quietly, inhumanly alive with strange refractions of scattered light, unearthly air currents, and the continuous, eerily harmonious way people seem to find mournful, isolating arrangement inside blank frames and empty spaces.
Each episode isn’t quite of the same genre as the last—one takes awkward, failing stabs at a muted farce—and the televisual form lets Kurosawa, adapting a novel by Kanae Minato, retain his cinematic world while experimenting with its potential story paths and their tonalities. Horror, melodrama, ghost stories, and social psychology—the fears and expectations of transitioning from girlhood to womanhood—rebound in the still air, as grief and trauma are transmuted through individuals to re-mark people across unchanging time in an unchanging world. (Despite jumping 15 years into the past/present, Japan remains the same, and the dead girl’s mother doesn’t age.) Yet the world is already uncanny in Penance even before the crime, holding that steady-handed, nearly deadened but unblinking gaze that so frightens us in the work of Georges Franju. Which brings us back to Ruiz and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of finding the origin of something, the start of a story, the explanation of a sadness, the meaning of a crime. Those are here, indeed, but the doors are not closed, the windows not shut: the final images of Penance are of billowing curtains, an unsourced glow and endless fog, each suggesting not the end of a story, of a journey, but being lost in the middle of one.