Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Michael Cody’s latest work, Ruin is a film situated in a highly divisive filmic environment. The movie breaks a lot of audience expectations, falling heavily into a broadly arthouse cinematic mould. Without a desire for a slow burning, subtle work that serves as more of a thematic snapshot than a film, it’s difficult to recommend seeing something like Ruin. At the same time, Courtin-Wilson and Cody’s film sets out precisely to fall into such a mould and it largely succeeds in doing so; it isn’t a film for everyone, but it does manage to satisfy the audience it targets. Ruin is a work that traces a map of trauma, playing with a tolerance for violence and expectations of what material this should exist in proximity to. All of this is underpinned by an ominous serenity throughout the film as it almost aggressively moves between dreamlike moments of abject calm to intensely violent and painful scenes of deep contrast.
The lighting of the film is minimal, often using desk lamps or torches in a way that says a lot about the film itself; it doesn’t try and reconstruct reality in a way that lends itself to artifice, yet it doesn’t embrace a completely surreal approach to cinema at the same time. What results is something simultaneously discomforting and disorienting that can both soothe and upset the audience; as polaric reactions throughout and after the film demonstrated. In some cases, it can provoke both responses at the same time. In doing this, Ruin is amongst a rare group of films that are able to cultivate a particularly unsettling atmosphere of dissonance that is far more difficult to articulate than experience.
This is further assisted by Courtin-Wilson and Cody’s camerawork, drifting in and out of focus in a way that can have two distinct effects on the audience. It can draw them further into the film, emulating the increasingly distant relationship with consciousness that both of the protagonists in Ruin possess. On the other hand, it can be excessively compulsive at times and this can be a wholly unpleasant experience – something that does create empathy, but an empathy with a negative feeling, one that not all audience members wish to experience in a film. These contrasts flow throughout, where the film defines itself as something that will give back what the viewer wants to put in. At its core, Ruin is a violent fairytale, and a surrender to often absurd fantasy punctuated by brutal realism is a contrast that needs to be accepted as a key premise of the film to appreciate its intricacies – as well as its flaws.
Contrasts between the idealism and surrealism are what make Ruin a powerful, yet ambient and drifting film. The soundtrack remains one of the strongest features and removing it from consideration removes a fundamental part of the film; Steve Benwell – reprising his role as a musical contributor after Hail – creates a collage of pulsating ambient drones, looped reverberating piano lines and extensive echoed delayed instrumentals throughout the soundtrack – constituting as much of the mood, dialogue and ambient atmosphere as anything else in the film; and allowing Courtin-Wilson and Cody to experiment even further with the idea of beauty in contrast.
Phirun is thrown into the film as the only figure in the film that doesn’t torment Sovanna, and whilst this set-up is initially questionable; over the course of the film he asserts the role of the surreal, and drags the film back into its dreamlike territory whenever it wonders too far into reality. At its heart, this dissonance prevents Ruin from being anywhere near a perfect film, yet as a markedly mysterious and often chaotic film – that frequently bridges between something slow, and indiscernibly fast – Ruin remains something beautifully meditative and humanist, amid the ugly and violent scenes littered throughout the film in an attempt to create a fierce juxtaposition. Whilst it creates the dissonance that brings the film down, this permanent discomfort is also the films strongest asset. This is most palpably expressed in a scene by a fire wherein a cathartic close up of the Phirun eating a piece of meat is thrown against the traumatised Sovanna vomiting. In the scene, he has escaped a briefly violent encounter in the brief thriller context of the film, but her pain is framed by the directors as something constructed as something far deeper and perennial than Phirun’s. There are particularly visceral scenes in the film that re-contexualise something as simple as the repeated barking of a dog in the background of one of the scenes that follow it, and Courtin-Wilson and Cody’s ability to cultivate such disgust is an important factor of the film.
Courtin-Wilson and Cody’s presentation of Sovanna at times feels questionable; over the course of the film she is permanently in the position of a victim and rarely given moments to define the implied intricacies of her character. Both of the characters in the film are characterised by a sense of anonymity, however, placing the lead male character as a saintlike figure and the lead female as a ceaseless victim often perpetuates a fairly negative view of women in Cambodia. At the same time, this never feels like a sinister move on the part of the director, and the presence of Sovanna’s pain can be viewed and analysed in many ways that don’t reach these conclusions. Considering the nature of Western cinema’s use of characterisation in such countries in the past, however, it feels appropriate to keep questioning the way in which these presentations are made.
Courtin-Wilson and Cody avoid the cliche of a foreigner framing a country as the exotic through the process of consultation that informed the movie. Ruin emerged as a result of both directors intending to make a collaborative project, and whilst there are still questions to be asked about whether the film still falls into tired perspectives of the developing world, there isn’t a sense that the cast have been exploited, nor the country of shooting; the questions should be asked, but there is a strong sense of collaboration, consolation and delegation that makes the film as much a Cambodian movie as an Australian movie in Cambodia.
Ruin is both detached from any form of a conventional reality or narrative but still starkly defined by it at the same time. The film shows a dream punctuated by moments of horror that reflect the stark nature of reality in the lives of many Cambodians – those with whom the film was composed as a collaborative project.The film doesn’t make excessive political commentary on Cambodia, and when it does, it falls short and distracts from the film as a surreal and poetic piece at its core. When Ruin attempts to make a political message on an issue in Cambodia it often remains underdeveloped and shows the key flaws of the film as a 90 minutes piece trying to go beyond its limits.
Where the film soars in imagery and sound manipulation, it falls short in its use of dialogue, often feeling predictable, unnecessary and failing to enhance the progression of the film where the potential arises. “What did you see in your dream last night?” Phirun asks before Sovanna responds, “I saw that I died”; instantly regurgitating a hundred cliched film lines from a hundred other pseudo-meditative moments. These scenes of dialogue often bring the film down in what feels like an attempt to placate an audience – it’s a film that could easily have rejected such banter, to embracing its ambience, mystery and the surreality that it achieves to a brilliant extent in its cinematography and score. Ruin has a rare sense of ominous beauty expressed with a rare intimacy in scenes with characters brushing their teeth in bed, paradoxically opposed to the mood that the rest of the film is enveloped in. These rare reprieves demonstrate the other key asset the film has – simply, the strength of its two leads. Sang Malen and Rous Mony carry the film with performances enamoured in a stark pain, exhaustion and hopelessness. Without ever relying on the fairly redundant dialogue in the film, Malen and Mony own the desperation and fear that punctuates the lives of the characters they play and drive the movie forward; often at an alarming pace; often entirely on their own.
A lot of Ruin’s strongest points come from the circumstances in which it was made. The majority of the film was shot in16-20 hours a day over 21 days with 4 cinematographers creating the film as something holistically a collaborative process with over 70 hours of initial material. The film is also a product of spontaneity going from nothing bar the location – “no script, no cast, no financing” as Courtin-Wilson mentions – to having a cast, inspiration and raw footage in just over a month. Ruin is not a perfect movie by any measure; it is sure to rank amongst the most divisive films of the festival and is bound to alienate as many as it charms. That said, it is a film that should be experienced as it does have a lot to give to the – albeit small – audience it targets.
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