Sea of Mirrors (Macao/Japan, 2019)

Singaporean filmmaker Thomas Lim’s latest feature is a veritable transnational and translocal work: set between Macau and Los Angeles and involving a multilingual cast, it presents a neo-noir tale that, on the surface, concerns a kidnapping mystery revolving around a Japanese actress, a Chinese entrepreneur, and possibly the Macau Triad. Lim does triple duty as the film’s director and editor while playing the supporting role of a Macau-based detective. Nodding to the noir-soaked history that the name of Los Angeles alone conjures as well as tapping into the intrigue that Macau prompts with its own distinct hybridisation of cultures, Sea of Mirrors fancifully and rather effectively plays with point of view and temporality. Furthermore, in keeping with the noir tradition of duplicity and dichotomy of surface/underneath, the kidnapping case ultimately evolves into a meditation on the destructive qualities of desire.

The story itself is admittedly compelling: Japanese actress Riri Kondo (Kieko Suzuki) is now a has-been who decides to transplant herself — along with her young daughter Nana (Adora Wong) — to Macau to see if she can revive a semblance of a career there, which is a hop, skip, and a jump away from the huge and tantalising mainland Chinese market. Nana, however, is kidnapped. In desperate pursuit of Nana as well as acting opportunities, Riri plunges into the nocturnal world of Macau’s casinos, detectives, and escort work. Along the way, she befriends Macau-based Korean detective Jang (Jay Lim) who poses as a candidate for romance; rooms with Isabel (Sally Victoria Benson) who introduces her to escort work and also functions as a kind of ego to Riri’s id-superego conflict; and finds in Lee (Po-chung Kiu) the admiring patron who could give her the new acting breaks for which she so desperately longs. Perhaps even more so than finding her daughter?

Correction: stories. For framing Riri’s story is that of Nat (Toru Uchikado), a Japanese actor who travels to Los Angeles to pitch his story of Riri to American actress Isabel (Kendra Munger) as a potential project for her. The film thus goes back and forth between Riri’s story, which encompasses an ambiguous period of time in Macau, and Nat’s telling of it to Isabel, which occurs over the course of twenty-four hours out on Isabel’s balcony in La La Land.

Dream-like and filled with shadows and oblique angles of faces against spaces, and buoyed by Lim’s fragmentary editing style, visually the film is quite striking throughout as the two narrative threads grow and intertwine. Scenes are generally composed of tight framing, lending them a psychological charge to conversations and interactions; particularly so regarding Riri, whose desire to get back her daughter is increasingly overshadowed by her desire to get back her acting career. Most notably, the editing simultaneously develops Riri’s torn and unraveling state and the sense of chronological time ebbing within the overall narrative, with certain scenes even recurring (though with slight differences) and Los Angeles Isabel at times tweaking Nat’s story according to her own perspective/preferences. As Riri’s state of mind seemingly becomes unhinged, more questions than answers surface. One is left feeling as if caught in a time-loop. And, also in keeping with the noir tradition, one begins to question the reality, perspective, and/or events presented in the film…

Is Riri sincere in her plea to Detective Jang to help her find Nana or is she engaging in her own game of attention-getting? Is Riri’s story based on someone whom Nat once knew or is it in fact an autobiographical working-through of his own story, about which little is shared by him or the film itself? The film plays with point of view just enough to avoid lapsing into utter confusion or indifference.*

As intriguing as the intertwined stories and shots are, particularly of Macau, unfortunately hampering clarity and interest is the rough ensemble acting, especially when switching from one language to another. What is more, perhaps due to shooting with a cellphone (iPhone), the sound quality is uneven; or rather, synchronicity is uneven. Frankly, less dialogue would have greatly enriched the film’s mood, for in terms of one’s look everyone fits his/her role perfectly. Moreover, Nat’s telling of Riri’s story provides substantial voiceover narration that occasionally makes the dialogue superfluous.

Faulty in execution, yes, at the level of performance. But the aptly titled Sea of Mirrors possesses enough notable narrative and visual moments to warrant a viewing (or even two).

*The exception is the point of view of Nat’s pitch, which begins as that of Isabel’s assistant, a man who speaks from behind the cellphone but never appears before the lens. The conceit is that he captures Nat’s entire pitch, but nothing is really made of it.