Swallow (Taiwan/Japan, 2021)

One woman’s greedy pursuit of movie stardom leads to a sticky end in Swallow, a 22-minute short from Mai Nakanishi. Winner of a Special Mention at the Generation XYZ competition at Tampere Film Festival 2022, Nakanishi’s film offers a grisly and gorgeous story that delivers a bite of body horror, a scintillating sequence of surreal imagery, and some ideas about our beauty-obsessed culture to digest. For such a short film, there is a lot on offer to delight the senses and intellect.

Swallow is the Taiwan-set sophomore short from Nakanishi and it sees her return to horror of a female fashion following Hana (2018), her tale of a babysitter facing the supernatural in Busan. At the heart of that expertly executed minimalist-style fright fest was a tragic story of the collision between motherhood and career. For Swallow, Nakanishi skilfully wraps the pressures women face to be young and beautiful into a satirical story that becomes more visually elaborate as the players become more desperate to achieve perfection. In doing so, it channels a grisly interpretation of the phrase “you are what you eat” in unexpected ways.

Set in the highly competitive world of acting, we enter the story with the reunion of Mimi (Han Ning) and Xue Lan (Liu Dai-Ying) at the posh hotel where they are based for a new project. While the former is demure in a simple black dress and with quiet manners, the latter is more the embodiment of gaudiness with her loud voice, energetic behaviour, eye-catching makeup, and elaborately patterned cheongsam. Perhaps this liveliness is why Xue-Lan has the lead part in the production while Mimi is relegated to support.

During a celebratory meal, carefully controlled camerawork and Nakanishi’s deftly-written dialogue delivers the meaty drama of the actresses’ decade-long careers, from hints of one using the casting couch, to fighting over roles, and staying in shape. This engaging conversation hides a subtext where the youth and beauty of a woman dictates her value. Since the film is set in the world of acting, a place where these attributes enhance a woman’s worth as a commodity, it neatly sets up character motivations that maintain the trajectory of the story’s development.

This development happens when Xue-Lan realizes that Mimi looks as if she hasn’t physically aged in the years that have elapsed. Xue-Lan, actress on the make, is intrigued. When she discovers that it isn’t plastic surgery that has sustained Mimi’s youthful looks, but the midnight meetings of a secret “gourmet club” who eat a special foodstuff, the lead actress naturally becomes desperate to join in. Horror fans will be primed for a film where food comes with a nasty twist following Fruit Chan’s 2004 short Dumplings and so it goes in Swallow, but in an unexpected way.

Having established the psychodrama of the actresses, the film slowly enters the territory of Grand Guignol as the setting segues from a chic hotel to an ornate banqueting hall empty of people save a servant and three women clad in black. Introduced as fellow actresses, the women have the appearances of a witches coven and the white cheongsam of Xue-Lan marks her as an outsider, a potential victim for something horrible waiting in the wings. Once seated for the meal, Nakanishi and her DP Tzu-Yang Wei utilise cinematic elements like kinetic editing, bold use of colour in a Suspiria-like way, image overlays, and camera techniques like focus pulls a la Jaws (1975) to expertly unleash a visual tour de force that culminates in a twist that will knock viewers flat. The ingredients of said banquet, which I won’t divulge, almost pitch the film into horror territory but it is how the situation unfolds and twists that has the impact as the atmosphere explodes with visual fireworks and filmic references.

As Xue-Lan finds out how far her greed will take her, Nakanishi throws in shades of body horror that are a stomach-churning final glint of horror that reveals that while Xue-Lan may be the big actress, Mimi has ambitions that lead to a twist ending that I won’t ruin.

Overall, this short has expertly-crafted horror atmospherics. The banquet scene is like the drop in a roller-coaster ride, one built up to perfect by the cast essaying their roles perfectly and a screenplay steadily giving commentary about how people covet youth and beauty and how unnatural demands put upon people place them into competition with one another. Here, it is women being pitted against women and the horror that emerges organically from it is excellently delivered as Nakanishi shows how this desire can turn us into monsters. She provides another wonderfully cinematic experience that trades on thrills and intelligence and further marks her out as a talented voice operating in the film world.

Swallow plays at the Skip City D-Cinema Festival, both online and also on site at Convention Hall (7/18, 13:50) and the Audio Visual Hall (7/22, 11:00).