There is a base materiality to Hirobumi Watanabe’s Cry, the story of a pig handler (played by the director himself) is told in circles: He eats breakfast with his elderly mother. He walks through a field in the countryside. He tends to pigs crowded into a mud-soaked barn. He eats lunch beneath a set of power lines. He returns to the pigsty and gets back to work. He walks home. He eats dinner with his mother. He washes the dishes and cleans her dentures. He reads a book. It cuts to black, and the days starts again.
The film is structurally
similar to Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011), complete with stark
black-and-white cinematography and near-silent protagonists, and thematically
reminiscent of Georges Franju’s abattoir-set
Blood of the Beasts (1949) or Maud Alpi’s mesmeric
slaughterhouse documentary Still Life (2017). Yet Cry is never oppressive in its seriousness. Like Watanabe’s other
films since Poolside Man (2016), Cry infuses the repetitious
cycles of everyday life with laconic existential humour, finishing his cycle
with a light weekend trip to the movies.
Still, despite its
occasionally humorous turns and casual 75-minute runtime, Cry is almost
oppressively meaningless. Woohyun Bang’s black-and-white cinematography is
almost blinding at points, while at others, the silent protagonist is barely
distinguishable from the dark spaces he inhabits. In other places, Bang’s
cinematography emphases the cross-hatched metal supports of the pig pen,
imprisoning the unnamed man behind the same bars that separate him from the
animals. Despite the silence of its protagonist, the soundtrack is
dominated loud noises – wind, drumbeats and the screeching of pigs.
Much could be made of the film’s title (sometimes translated into English as “Scream”), an obvious reference to the wretched squeals of pigs that dominate its soundtrack, but could also be applied to the existential banality of its silent protagonist’s day-to-day life, or to the frustrations of spectators provoked by its abject boringness. For these reasons, many viewers will find the film’s tediousness a sadomasochistic exercise at best and a painful waste of time at worst. The film jars with every convention of pleasurable narrative filmmaking, and ultimately ends up as a heap of miserable cinematic ennui.
With all that said, for
viewers willing to fester in its meaninglessness, there’s something oddly pleasurable
in Cry. The presence of mud-soaked pigs – shots in various positions eating,
resting, and having sex – could be thematized in any number of ways to mean any
number of things, but they are ultimately meaningless. Just as its protagonist
lacks language, the film is devoid of symbolic meaning. Its events simply occur,
and do not – and need not – become anything. Watanabe’s pigs are not a metaphor, but an
absence of metaphor.
For viewers willing to
wallow in its base materiality, Cry may well be a rewarding experience. For
everyone else, best stay out of the sty.
Duncan Caillard is a PhD candidate in Screen and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne. His doctoral research addresses emptiness in the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, concentrating on the intersections of space, inactivity and silence in contemporary art cinema. In addition to his academic work, he has worked as a programming assistant at the Hawaii International Film Festival, and currently coordinates the Melbourne Screening Ideas program at the University of Melbourne. Beyond his love for Southeast Asian cinema, Duncan loves good coffee, pizza crusts and the magic of Paddington 2.