Review: ‘The Cloud Of Unknowing’

Photographer Richard Sylvarnes' debut feature joins a strong narrative through-line to a full experimental video palette. Pic boasts not a single "normal" frame, bending time and space with fragmented, color-saturated images, sound distorted or blurred. In service of an eerie Japanese ghost story, the spooky atmospherics prove surprisingly compelling.

Photographer Richard Sylvarnes’ debut feature joins a strong narrative through-line to a full experimental video palette. Pic boasts not a single “normal” frame, bending time and space with fragmented, color-saturated images, sound distorted or blurred. In service of an eerie Japanese ghost story, the spooky atmospherics prove surprisingly compelling. Theatrical life seems unlikely, but pic could well find a niche on cable.

A dead Japanese wife comes back from the grave to reclaim the husband who unwillingly left her to drown. Similar to contempo Japanese horror flicks in subject matter, film stylistically may remind American auds of the loopier moments of “Mulholland Drive,” though spiritually it owns a far closer kinship to the no-budget 1962 black-and-white cult classic “Carnival of Souls.”

Dutch tilts abound, as do madly foregrounded objects and extreme closeups of faces in startlingly assertive compositions. People barely speak, only occasionally conversing in awkward spurts. Meanwhile, rooms whisper in tongues or else remain dead silent, devoid of audio. Characters are wont to enter and exit focus, appear and disappear in nimbi of light, move in slow or stop-start motion, but always in a blur, for all recorded action leaves telltale smears of color. Indeed, the whole film almost feels like it takes place underwater.

Actors acquit themselves of their semi-somnambulistic lines and movements with appropriate solemnity, with Miho Nikaido’s wraith-like figure gracefully slipping in and out of otherworldliness, and with only Thomas Jay Ryan, as a phony psychic, allowed the latitude of personality. Tech credits reflect Sylvarnes’ one-man-band approach.

The Cloud Of Unknowing

Production

A Possible Films production. Produced by Hal Hartley. Directed, written, edited by Richard Sylvarnes.

Crew

Camera (mini DV-to-DigiBeta), Sylvarnes; music, Sylvarnes; sound, Peter Fonda; sound designer, Andy Russ; associate producers, Jerome Brownstein, Andy Russ, Susan Leber; assistant director, Sol Tryon. Reviewed at the Tribeca Film Center, N.Y., April 24, 2002 (in Tribeca Film Festival). Running time: 83 MIN.

With

Miho Nikaido, DJ Mendel, Thomas Jay Ryan, Lisa Walter, Dave Simonds.
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