Striking the precarious balance between the potential expressive power of metaphor and the value of the more straightforward narrative logic native to film form must, presumably, be a key concern for filmmakers working within low-budget arthouse circuits – likely more so than usual for those making the kinds of pieces which appear at SUFF. Meeting this challenge is in itself, then, an achievement worthy of a recommendation; and Platon Theodoris’ debut Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites fits the bill nicely, a sideways take on modern alienation that uses its quirkiness to drive its study of character, rather than the reverse. While often somewhat slight, and with some of its more out-there ideas more speculative than revealing, the film is small enough in scale that it would never be totally successful in emulating the Kaufman-Jonze style it imitates – however, its careful use of visual motifs, compelling central characterisation, and ability to pose mysteries which remain interesting after its credits roll easily make Alvin a rewarding film.
That central characterisation comes more or less entirely in the form of Alvin Ng, the protagonist (Teik Kim Pok) – quite deliberately, the film’s other speaking roles are reduced to one-scene factotum appearances or purposeful caricature. Alvin, a Japanese translator who has not left his apartment in a year and a half, is confronted by the outside world only via unwelcome visits from his spittle-flecked neighbour Virginia (Vashti Hughes), a foul-mouthed and aggressive woman obsessed with the supposed uncleanliness of the unit and its other inhabitants. Similarly, the people Alvin interacts with remotely via his PC include Vijay, a friend whose delivery of an anecdote about his dislike of supermarkets serves to highlight the stilted and unnatural nature of Alvin’s relationships, as well as a client who is fooled – by his dressing waist-up in business clothes and pulling a fake office backdrop from the ceiling – into thinking he is an outgoing professional. Indeed, the woman living downstairs on whom Alvin occasionally spies is introduced quite typically as the object of his affections, but then is never introduced into the film properly, as the film instead takes a schizophrenic turn.
Throughout the film, we are given visual clues, hidden smartly around the apartment, about Alvin’s inherent lack of readiness to engage with rest of society. A poster for the doomed Ansett Airlines, the strange hobby of ordering vintage kitchenware from eBay, and the several Charles & Diana commemorative items he owns could easily come off as poor attempts at zaniness, but actually work to imply that Alvin is most at home among the outmoded, unloved, and anachronistic – we’re left wondering if his obsession with all things panda-related may, too, reflect his inner mental state, probably a kind of depressive loneliness easy to equate to that animal’s solitariness. Indeed, how Theodoris approaches the relationship between the film’s overtly fantastic elements and the real life we observe Alvin living is its strongest point: even as the final third delves into an alternate world in the flat’s attic, involving a disabled Indonesian peasant, a funfair, and a vast empty desert, there’s never a sense that this is all weirdness for weirdness’ sake. The intimations that Alvin is interested in meditation and the pressure he feels to change his all-too-comfortable life – conveyed extremely well by Teik – effectively suggest that the film is interested in honestly depicting its lead’s experience, rather than easy obfuscation.
In the final analysis, a film like Alvin works for the same reasons that many others don’t: in the context of an unashamedly offbeat narrative, it bubbles with ideas and provokes difficult mysteries in a way which would be disappointing in either a less grounded film or a more typical one. The tight pacing (at 73 minutes, it doesn’t feel unnecessarily short) makes a light story feel robust, expert editing and blocking economically animate the apartment space where we spend most of the film, and recurrent Wes Anderson-style cutaway shots to various items of interest imbue it with a note of humour which cuts through Alvin’s morose characterisation. The ‘harmonious world of opposites’ he inhabits is the same black-and-white system of inclusion and exclusion experienced by us all. By paring back the experience of society to include only the perception of one eccentric mind, the film does ultimately express the paradox that frustrates Alvin – the universalism of some subjective experiences is at odds with the compartmentalisation of modern life. That’s why he climbs into the attic and just goes somewhere else.
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