It’s apparent from the opening frames of The Lockpicker that we’re deep in troubled teen territory as a youth sits up late at night writing in his notebook; the manner in which he is not only shrouded in darkness but hidden by the hood of his sweater warns us that this protagonist is going to be difficult to get to know. Although we are soon afforded a clearer look at Hashi (Keigian Umi Tang), a disaffected Ontario high school student with a predilection for petty theft, his state of mind remains elusive for much of the film’s duration, even when his sullen expression is scrutinized in the tight close-ups favoured by director Randall Okita throughout this feature debut.
Recalling the poetic yet emotionally detached style of Gus Van Sant’s teenage portraits Elephant (2003) and Paranoid Park (2007), Okita’s roaming camera frequently follows Hashi from behind as he navigates high school, a part-time job at an outdoor clothing store, his home life, and the local party scene. Through the minimum daily inter-actions with friends and teachers, Hashi tries to maintain the appearance of normalcy, but is actually a distant presence since his adolescent psyche is struggling to come to terms with the suicide of his close friend, Tess. He pays little attention in class, instead listening to audio recordings of conversations, and has taken to stealing money from fellow students. Aside from a strained relationship with his sister Lucy (Stephne Halliburn), Hashi only keeps company with his co-workers Greg (David Woroner) and Sara (Storie Serres) whom he accompanies to parties where drugs promise escape but only take him further into a state of intense introspection.
Eschewing revealing flashbacks or heartrending monologues, The Lockpicker is a sustained exploration of trauma which instead conveys Hashi’s inner turmoil through a muffled soundscape which occasionally emphasizes everyday noises to jarring effect. With little dialogue to work with, especially in the first third, newcomer Tang creates a compelling, frighteningly recognizable portrait of youthful alienation through guarded body language and a range of default moods for different situations (school, work, home) that are adopted to sustain a measure of peer acceptance. It is because Tang projects such a particular sense of interiority that Hashi’s desperate hope for a better tomorrow – represented by a school sailing trip and his crush on Sara – will remain just that. Instead, Hashi finds himself struggling to contain violent urges follows acts of aggression towards him and his friends.
It is here that Okita’s distancing becomes less of a stylistic reflex and more a means of calling attention to issues in today’s wider youth culture of which Hashi simultaneously functions as perpetrator and victim. The school scenes make tacit criticism of the education system as, through Hashi’s conversations with a school counselor and one of his teachers, we see flickers of genuine concern followed by box ticking in order to limit the exposure of the individual educator or institution when dealing with potentially problematic students. Although the film that goes to aesthetic lengths to illustrate the interior self, it is also concerned with public monitoring – the school counselor makes a point of instructing Hashi to report on any students who exhibit suicidal tendencies while his wallet-pilfering is exposed when his victims set-up a makeshift surveillance system. The attitude of the school principal once Hashi’s thievery is reported is surprisingly impartial, leaving the students to pursue their preferred form of justice, and relieving the institution of responsibility for crimes (and future related crimes) committed on its premises.
Given that Okita’s vision of mundane high school routine is disorientating in itself, his use of dream sequences feels unnecessary, despite the unsetting nature of these hallucinations. Making the leap from experimental shorts to a narrative feature, Okita seems to be structuring his slender story as a series of notes or impressions on a theme, with some passages making more of an impression than others. While the lack of exposition is fine for the high school scenes, where viewers can refer to similar experiences, Hashi’s family situation would benefit from a little clarification. However, Okita has a real feel for party scenes where teenagers seek to escape from ennui through random conversation, music, and drug use, but festering frustrations prompt sudden outbursts which rupture the late-night vibe.
Okita fights teen clichés every step of the way but gives in towards the end as he pushes Hashi to breaking point. Likewise, cinematographer Jackson Parrell keeps his palette as crisp as the winter weather only for his blurry cityscape images lit by the orange glow of streetlights to slip into Instagram-friendly sterility. There’s plenty of promise here, though, and The Lockpicker is certainly worth seeing for the rawness of Tang’s performance.
The Lockpicker was shown on November 16 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.