If you’re thirsting for an Asian horror-inspired, stylized roller coaster ride with buckets of tension, look no further than Richard Shepard’s The Perfection.
Charlotte (Allison Williams, Girls, Get Out) is a musical prodigy. Enrolled in the elite Bachoff Academy where students are hand-picked for their talent, she is destined to become a legendary cellist. Family obligations put her career on hold and 10 years later, Charlotte is ready to reclaim her life. She reconnects with the school dean Anton (Steven Weber, Channel Zero), and is invited to Shanghai to judge a competition along with the school’s newest star, Lizzie (Logan Browning, Dear White People). The two women soon learn they are fans of each other’s work and become inseparable. When Lizzie falls mysteriously ill, both their worlds change forever.
There’s a fine line you walk when reviewing The Perfection because it presents a unique timeline that catches you off guard, making it difficult to navigate around many a spoiler. What I can say is that the film is exactly what a fan of Asian extreme cinema would enjoy, and Shepard parlays the themes, style and body horror of Asian extremity in an exciting way for North American audiences. He does so not because the film sets the scene in Shanghai or because there are Asian actors, but by using the tone and beats so often used in Asian extreme cinema. Shepard has mentioned in interviews The Handmaiden and Oldboy by Park Chan-wook as inspirations, and I also get a Sion Sono or Takashi Miike vibe as well. The story starts subtly, lulling the audience with romance and kinship that’s sexy and not gratuitous, then landing an unexpected roundhouse kick to our plot expectations. We’re sent reeling just enough to collect ourselves and follow along for the ride.
Both women were made for the all-American girl role; Williams, who played the awful Rose in Get Out, is perfect as Charlotte with her fresh looks and innocence versus Browning’s appeal as the more worldly and tougher of the two. It works well, especially since they’ll need to draw on their opposite bad girl/vulnerable selves later. They both reportedly learned how to play the cello as well, to make their performances believable, and their chemistry is undeniable.
The haunting music was composed by Paul Haslinger, former member of Tangerine Dream, the band so beloved for their numerous film scores, so there’s some major musical street cred involved. I also love that Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo who both mastered complicated plots for the TV series Supernatural, were on the writing team. Their skill at dealing with intertwining plot threads is well used here.
Shepard’s The Perfection ultimately captures the intricate web women must navigate for success, the weight of societal expectations, and what women have endured to achieve it minus the male gaze-y tropes. Be prepared for abuse, full-on gore and a whole lot of twists and turns. It’s mandatory to endure all of it for one of the most bizarre, violent and satisfying finales I’ve seen in a long time.
The Perfection is streaming
now on Netflix. Let it be the salve for
you jaded horror fans out there.
The wait is finally over. Part 2 of The OA will air on Netflix March 22nd and I couldn’t be happier. This strange show left us hanging with a dramatic ending and lots of questions, and I’ve been obsessed with a theory about it for a long time, so my hope is for answers and more intrigue in a few weeks.
There’s been lots of speculation on The OA. Created by Brit Marling, who plays the protagonist Prairie/The OA, and her director Al Batmanglij, it tells the story of a woman who comes back to her family after a lengthily disappearance, once blind and now with her vision restored as well as an unbelievable tale to tell. There have been countless theories (even ones comparing it to Stranger Things which is a stretch in my opinion), including obvious references to the classics like Homer blatantly pointed out in the series, and religious overtones-The OA stands for Original Angel-but I feel the show is connected to Peter Pan. It may sound absurd, but many instances in the narrative echo the classic story of a boy who never grows up and his many adventures in Neverland. While the similarities aren’t obvious or linear, shadows of this classic book and play with Pan typically portrayed by a woman, take Prairie from an innocent to a captive; then to a lost soul, and finally a powerhouse of belief and faith, a theme that also runs through Peter Pan.
The show starts in Russia with Nina, a girl raised by her wealthy and doting gangster father who teaches her important life lessons about survival and trust. When she is a victim in a terrible bus accident, she experiences a near death experience and meets a mysterious entity, Khatun (Hiam Abbass), who gives her a choice of living beyond the earth or going blind so she can stay with her father in the mortal world. She chooses the later because she loves her father dearly and can’t imagine being separated from him. When she is well enough, he sends her to the U.S. to keep her from his shady lifestyle and also to attend a prestigious boarding school for the blind. After her father is reported dead, his sister-in-law takes in Nina, but it isn’t an easy life for the little girl as her aunt is involved in prostitution and baby trafficking.
An older couple, Abel and Nancy (Scott Wilson and Alice Krige), intent on adopting an infant boy from Nina’s aunt see Nina and fall instantly in love with her, taking her home instead. She lives a good life with them until she starts to have premonitions and episodes that doctors feel require medication. As Nina, now called Prairie, gets older, she still has premonitions that lead her to believe her father is still alive. On her 21st birthday, she decides to leave her parents to search for him. It is on this journey she meets a Dr. Hap (Jason Isaacs) who holds a sinister purpose for her. He befriends her and takes her to his secluded, underground laboratory where she and his other handpicked captives are forced to physically die in order to document the “other side” or a life after death dimension for him. She is released 7 years later by Dr. Hap, and returns home to her adoptive parents with her vision intact. Determined to find her fellow captives and rescue them from Dr. Hap, she enlists an unlikely group of high school misfits and their teacher to help her. She must get them to believe her story of captivity and travel to other dimensions, as well as teach them five “movements” that will transport her so she can rescue her captive friends.
By now, I imagine you’re scratching your head over the Peter Pan connection, but stay with me.
Peter Pan first comes to us in a book written by J.M. Barrie in 1911. This well-known character is a boy who flies away from his parents when he discovers he is part bird, going on many adventures. When he returns home, his parents have another child, and feeling unwanted, he flies away for good. He is the boy who never grows up and after his many travels and adventures, he loses his shadow in the home of Wendy, Michael and John Darling, three siblings whom Peter befriends. He wants a mother for his band of Lost Boys, and when he sees Wendy, takes her and her brothers to Neverland where he and his clan lives. It’s there that Wendy becomes a mother figure for the wayward boys and goes through many a trial and tribulation, from almost dying to being captured by the nasty Captain Hook. When she decides that she should bring herself and her brothers home, Peter Pan is against it, but seeing how sad Wendy’s mother has become without her children, reluctantly opens the very bedroom window he first flew through so they can all return home, including their newly found family the Lost Boys.
Now for the connections. My first clue was the fact that The OA, or Prairie, required her group of misfits to keep their doors open when she met with them for her nightly sessions to tell her tale, just like Peter Pan needed an open window to visit at night. The five people she gathers for her rescue mission are indeed a mixed bag, a set of lost souls that would fit right in with Pan’s Lost Boys. They each search for a purpose, and like the Lost Boys, they are either forgotten or misunderstood, trying to find something to believe in such a bleak environment.
The second clue comes with Prairie/The OA’s disappearance. While she is not a child like Peter Pan when he disappears, she still returns feeling like an alien in her old world. She comes back as The OA with some childlike qualities, as if she has never grown up, and like Peter Pan, they no longer fit in the “real world”. Her spirit guide, Khatun, gives her a bird to swallow, imparting special powers to Prairie/The OA in order to help the other captives. When she returns from Khatun with this new power, there is a world-weariness to her that resembles maturity more familiar with Wendy than Peter Pan. She tells her five cohorts stories about her captivity and her life, much like Wendy tells stories to the Lost Boys and mothers them. She feels an obligation to find her fellow captives so they can escape Dr. Hap, who is her Captain Hook. But soon, the Wendy role is taken on by another character, Betty Broderick Allen (Phyllis Smith), the eldest of Prairie/The OA’s crew and teacher at the school the young misfits attend. She reluctantly tends to them when they aren’t with Prairie/The OA, offering advice when she isn’t dealing with her own issues and heartbreak.
My third clue lies in the fact that Prairie/The OA avoids being touched and can “fly” between dimensions just like Peter Pan. She can also be just as disruptive much like the traditionally mischievous and arrogant figure of Peter Pan, finding herself in dilemmas by trying to help her band of misfits, like an attempt to stop one of her five cohorts from being expelled. She can be seen as leading the younger participants astray as she recounts her adventures and teaches them the mysterious movements to return to the lab and the afterlife.
Clue number four? The show is filled with psychopomps. A psychopomp is a guide for the dead to reach their destination, found in many a mythology and religion like the Egyptian god Anubis, and the Archangel Michael. In The OA, we have Khatun, Prairie/The OA’s guide, who could also be Tinkerbell; Prairie/The OA herself, and the five captives of Dr. Hap as they make their way in the afterlife or Neverland. Peter Pan is also known as a psychopomp since he was believed to guide dead children to heaven. If psychopomps are guides, then they can also open doors. Both Peter Pan and Prairie/ The OA represent death and an entryway into another dimension. It is mentioned that Pan can “imagine things into existence and create windows and doors” just like Prairie/The OA perfects the five movements in order to transport herself to help her captive friends. It’s interesting to note too that each one of Dr. Hap’s captives sees a different afterlife. Neverland is also different according to the person who experiences it. Furthermore, if the lab is the place or vehicle to access Neverland, then Dr. Hap is most certainly Captain Hook, with his obsession to find the truth of life after death. Are the other dimensions like Captain Hook’s crocodile, elusive and dangerous; an unseen menace just out of reach in Dr. Hap’s research of the afterlife?
The final clue lies in the finale. Peter Pan is all about the power of belief, from the moment he leads the children away to Neverland, to that pivotal moment when he calls on the dreamers of Neverland to revive Tinkerbell. Without giving away spoilers, the last episode of The OA spoke to me as I saw the five teens connect on faith alone to help Prairie/The OA realize a premonition. I felt a wave of emotion, actually moved to tears because in that moment I saw that we are all looking for our purpose; to believe in something that fuels our will to live, create, and love.
My Peter Pan obsession is just one of many theories floating around out there, and I might be way off base, but I really love how this strange and very different show makes us think outside the box. So, while we try to figure out the mysteries of The OA, the next chapter nears, bittersweet because last October we lost the brilliant Scott Wilson who played Prairie/The OA’s father Abel. It would be a comfort to know he is at peace in the afterlife as I sit, with my window open, for the next leg of Prairie/The OA’s quest to find her lost companions in Dr. Hap’s ominous Neverland.