Equating transgender body alteration with tattooing within the story of a filmmaker consumed by her project on the pleasure-pain principle, “Skin Deep” undeniably stalks fresh territory. But psychologically, Toronto-based Midi Onodera’s misconceived first feature shares a regrettable kinship with its title. Dramatically, it’s only marginally more successful, but the relatively limited number of lesbian-themed pix should ensure a tour of the gay fest circuit, with perhaps some specialized vid sales to follow.
Promisingly moody opening-titles sequence scans a run of ornately etched bodies while Kathryn Moses’ furious drum-and-percussion music throbs on the soundtrack. Despite some idle talk about ancient Japanese traditions in the art, film’s focus on the tattooing phenomenon never feels like much more than a fashion statement. More commitment goes into the attempt to break down preconceived notions of sexuality and gender.
Also central is the dissection of artistic ambition that comes via filmmaker Alex (Natsuko Ohama), a fixture of the alternative art world preparing to shoot a feature film. In response to her advertisement, Alex gets a letter extolling the sexual pleasure to be had from the tattooer’s needle. She hires its author, Chris (Keram Malicki Sanchez), a woman passing as a man, ostensibly as a production assistant but in truth for what she might contribute to the film.
Ignoring warnings from her lover (Melanie Nicholls-King) about Chris’ volatile emotional state, Alex allows the latter’s infatuation with her to spiral out of hand, spelling disaster all round.
Though the script offers only the wobbliest of views on most of the issues Onodera approaches, pic’s main message, advocating compassion, comes across clearly. But the point is somewhat unnecessarily hammered home in a rather didactic speech from a woman posing as a male drag queen (Dana Brooks) who’s mourning her dead lover. The character does, however, reinforce the film’s attempt to take gender-bending to its extremes.
Production values are clean if not overly distinctive. Performances are inconsistent, especially from Ohama, whose expressionless voice only highlights the dialogue’s more fatuous passages.