Keening Woman (Hong Kong, 2013)

When in doubt, shoot it like a dream sequence. That seems to be the major underlying principle in Rita Hui’s sophomore feature, Keening Woman, an experimental art-house film that forgoes the conventions of genre and traditional narrative structure in favor of a more spiritual experience. Rooted in Daoist doctrine, the film mixes elements of an ordinary ghost story with the director’s highly abstract and surrealist vision of a character’s dazzling encounter with the spirit world. The film’s style and plot stand on a league of their own, yet its appeal depends entirely on the viewers’ tastes and willingness to engage with the film’s hermetic imagery.

The plot revolves around Cotton (Michelle Wai) as the titular “keening woman.” Cotton’s job involves wailing for the dead and performing the ritual ceremonies that help the spirits pass into the cycle of reincarnation. She belongs to a certain group of people that are able to see the ghosts and spirits around them. Unlike others, however, she has always felt genuine empathy for the spirits that pass on. Her life changes when she encounters the ghost of Ling (Mitsu Hana), the recently deceased daughter of a disturbed psychiatrist. Against the advice of her boss (Hon Man Ko) and her boyfriend (Ryan Lui), Cotton engages with Ling and allows her to probe deeper into her ego. The two get closer together, and since there’s only one body available, Cotton and Ling become indistinguishable from each other.

In Keening Woman, the spiritual world is real – so real, in fact, that in one particular scene, non-believers are explicitly called out and scolded. Several title cards with lengthy (too lengthy, perhaps) excerpts from religious texts drop in at various points throughout the movie to explain the film’s theological doctrine. The texts go in quite a bit of detail in regard to things like the cycle of life and death, the hierarchy of the spirit world, among others. Yet, despite the level of granularity, the supernatural elements are never so spelled out as to achieve logical consistency. There always remains a sense of vagueness and abstraction that leaves a lot of room for speculation on behalf of the audience. One such example involves the precise nature of the threat that spirits pose to those who are not careful with them. Despite the constant warnings, we are never sure what exactly are the dangers that Cotton faces by her association with Ling. Wai’s stoic and minimalist performance as Cotton oscillates between confusion and anticipation, with a combined result that is as cryptic as the rest of the movie. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does leave the audience in an emotional limbo, uncertain how to relate to the protagonist of the film.

Hui reportedly conceived the story of Keening Woman after childbirth, where she perceived the experience as both an act of connection and separation from her newborn child. This adds an interesting dimension to the film as Cotton’s experience on screen displays a similar pattern. Her consciousness alternates between herself and her spiritual alter-ego, Ling, forging a relationship analogous to that of a mother and her newborn child.

The visual aesthetic of Keening Woman evokes a dreamy sensation that verges on the psychedelic. Often, the camera meanders on its subjects in slow motion against a natural backdrop (the location is rarely made clear), complemented by creative editing and “student-film”-inspired special effects. It’s certainly experimental, though it is hard to see exactly what the experiment is trying to achieve.  Many elements that Hui evokes here are reminiscent of late Bergman – Persona (1966) or Cries and Whispers (1972) come to mind – or even Tarkovsky at his most meditative, as in Nostalghia (1983). But unlike her sources of inspiration, Hui’s work resembles far more an exercise in aesthetics rather than a finished work, lacking the connective tissue to give meaning to her surrealist sequences.

Keening Woman offers a deeply personal experience that defies objective characterization. Ultimately, I cannot say whether the film is good or bad, only that it has the immense potential to appeal to some and drive away others.  Whether one considers it an intimate character study or a philosophical treatise on eastern theology (or both), Keening Woman has the ambition to explore novel cinematic ground and should be applauded for it.