“Mother, they cannot silence my tongue”. Such are the opening words of a young Muslim-Australian poet Ameena at a Western Sydney slam poetry reading. This is the starting point for Partho Sen-Gupta’s engaging drama-thriller. Ameena (Danielle Horvat), is a talented young woman driven by her passion and by her anger at marginalisation and non-acceptance.
When she suddenly disappears, this drags her whole family and community into a state of defensive anxiety. In particular, it affects her older brother Ricky (previously known as Tariq, played by Adam Bakri). He has an ‘Anglo’ wife Sally (Rebecca Breeds), and he seems to have settled for an identity compromise and a sometimes-reluctant decision to blend in. Like all good immigrants, he translates between the two worlds and tries his best to reassure his devastated mother.
Also drawn into the action is policewoman Joanne Hendricks (Rachael Blake) who carries a certain sadness from the loss of a close family member and who can identify, perhaps too much, with Ricky’s situation. Sen-Gupta doesn’t want to concentrate upon the crime and thriller elements, although the film is occasionally slowed down by scenes that are police-procedural. More central is the characters’ sense of rootlessness and longing and displacement.
The events of Ameena’s disappearance and the grinding lack of any real progress (all played out against the somewhat relentlessly-flagged Islamophobic media background) frays Ricky’s marriage. He begins to doubt whether social acceptance and harmony will ever return. At one point, a character tells him that he should be grateful because “Australia has been good to you”, but we can see this is an ambivalent truth, if not actually an insensitive accusation.
As with the director’s previous film, Sunrise (2014), the hero’s journey is a tormented one. We cannot but feel for Ricky’s plight, but it is not always easy to be in his company. Bakri (who was so good in the arthouse hit Omar (2013)) doesn’t have that much dialogue and is here required to communicate his character’s narrative mostly through his facial expressions. Still, the message that ethnocentrism blights aspects of contemporary Australia comes across loud and clear.
In this drama from filmmaker John Fraser – marking his feature-length debut – we follow a lonely photographer down the dark alleys of Melbourne and through the glitzy world of the media. That photographer is Eugene (Peter Flaherty); a nondescript man who you could quickly lose in a crowd. Something which seems to work in his favour as Eugene likes to take pictures of the social decay he sees daily while looking after his invalid father (Roger Ward).
Drug taking, crime and prostitution all feature heavily in his work. It’s a turn off to the magazines he sends them to, but Eugene believes everything he shoots is in the public interest. When he witnesses 15-year-old sex worker, Josephine (Sarah Timm), being assaulted by her pimp, the mild-mannered photographer decides to intervene. And in doing so, puts both of their lives in danger.
Like a certain Todd Phillips’ comic book joint that came out recently, Choir Girl feels somewhat indebted to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. As Travis Bickle became obsessed with the adolescent Iris, so too does Eugene with Josephine. It’s an uneasy relationship to watch develop. Sure, Eugene wants to help her out of her current situation, but is he doing it because he can get more photos out of her? The waters are muddied by the introduction of Josephine’s pimp, Daddy (Jack Campbell) and Eugene’s magazine editor, Polly (Krista Vendy). To toss out a cliché, both characters are fundamentally different sides of the same coin; encouraging Eugene and Josephine to plunge further into the depths than they had been initially.
Shot in beautiful black and white, this is by no means a jovial film, and you’ll taste every bit of grit it force-feeds you in the first act, but once Daddy offers Eugene the opportunity to buy Josephine off him it all becomes tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Eugene effectively becomes the young girl’s pimp, protecting her from clients as she continues the trade that he’s been trying to save her from. Meanwhile, while Polly appears to be concerned for everyone’s welfare, it’s hard not to see the dollar signs in her eyes. And that’s where Choir Girl starts its bumpy road towards denouement, despite some excellent performances. Flaherty, in particular, does a lot of heavy lifting.
Films like Nil By Mouth or Romper Stomper show that tales of redemption don’t need to be as clean-cut as we’d like, or even have a happy ending. Choir Girl makes good on that philosophy and then some. This is a brutal film to watch, and Fraser has no intentions of making you comfortable throughout its duration. There will undoubtedly be some who find all its nihilism more numbing than shocking. Like exploitation, Choir Girl piles on the tragedy until you’re almost drowning in it and a highly aggressive sexual assault in the final act will undoubtedly put a nail in the coffin for many.
There’s no doubt about it, Choir Girl pulls no punches, and its arms must be heavy from holding up a mirror to modern society for so long, but in doing so, it does itself the disservice of potentially alienating the audience.
There’s a lot to be said for ambition. Writer/director Tony D’Aquino clearly has it in spades, as demonstrated in the low-budget Aussie horror flick, The Furies. Although not exactly original in its set up, the film soon forges its own weird identity, replete with striking imagery, plot twists and copious graphic gore.
The Furies opens with two friends, Kayla (Airlie Dodds) and Maddie (Ebony Vagulans) being kidnapped by persons unknown. Kayla wakes up in what looks like a coffin, escaping it to find herself trapped in the middle of nowhere and being stalked by hulking masked figures with names like RotFace, PigFace and Skincrow. Kayla must brave the Australian bush, try to forge relationships with her fellow hunted and track down Maddie, all while staying alive.
What The Furies lacks in originality it makes up for with a gleeful commitment to gore. An early kill has a lady cop an axe to the bonce – where it gets stuck – and the killer extracts the axe, popping her screaming face off like a scab in the process. It’s not entirely convincing (and anatomically extremely dubious) but it’s done with such cheerfully sadistic relish it’s weirdly charming. If you’re a gorehound, that is. Those of a more delicate disposition should stay well, well away because this one is blood splattered for the duration.
Plot-wise The Furies features some unexpected, and occasionally unintentionally hilarious, twists in the back half. And while they can skew silly, there’s something admirable in the director’s singular commitment to this lunatic vision. This could have so easily been a straight slasher film, but we eventually end up with weird conspiracies, biomechanical implants and an oddly convoluted but ambitious mythology.
The Furies isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a solid contender for ‘second or third movie of the night’ status in a boozed-up horror marathon, when critical faculties have been pleasantly impaired and the heart’s desire is purely for weirdness and gore.