There’s unfulfilled artistic pretense in every frame and troublingly racist images and themes.
A film that does not have any secrets, Gavagai flaunts its intentions, influences and thesis for any viewer to see. Namely, it is a slow-cinema investigation of grief and regret through the prism of art done with the cinematic grandeur of Terrence Malick. It is not the lack of mystery, however, that makes it a waste of time. The movie is SLOW, has unfulfilled artistic pretense in every frame and has troublingly racist images and themes.
The film is initially about Carsten Neuer (Andreas Lust), a recently-widowed German man who arrives in a small village in rural Norway in the film’s opening scene. In a sign of the eye rolls to come, this opening scene features a silent-film sight gag that stopped being funny 100 years ago. Carsten hires Niko (Mikkel Gaup) to serve as his driver. Together, the two of them travel to several obscure locations whose significance is clear only to Carsten. Over the course of the film, their relationship softens and by the end, they are almost what could be called friends. By the second half of Gavagai, Niko is much more the protagonist than Carsten, but it is not clear whether the film knows this or not. Carsten is a stammering cipher clutching the urn holding his wife’s ashes, while at least Niko is attempting to do things and change his life.
Even with the shift in protagonist, there is not much happening here. Director Rob Tregenza clearly wants to imitate Malick, with long takes, abstract voiceovers and some sweeping panoramic shots. But not everyone (hell, probably not anyone) can do what Malick does. This is the worst possible type of slow cinema, one that demands that the viewer fill the screen, story and characters with meaning that she herself came up with, rather than the film or the director providing any meaning whatsoever. Surely some viewers will leave their screening virtue-signaling their own sophistication that they “got it”; the problem is, however, that there is nothing here to get. Gavagai is not Akerman, Weerasethakul or Hou Hsiao-Hsien; it is just bloated, empty wannabe art-cinema.
If the viewer is not turned away by the incessant slow-motion sequences of nothing or the constant slow sideways camera moves that crop up in every scene—often more than once and often showing something as scenic as a refrigerator case of Pepsi in a grocery store—than the film’s Orientalist racism will finish off the job of chasing them away. As if it needed something more to indicate that it thinks of itself is an important artistic film, Gavagai’s plot is wrapped up in poetry translation. Apparently, Carsten’s recently-deceased wife was translating the work of a Norwegian poet into Chinese. She died before she finished the project and Carsten brought her in-progress work with him: handwritten in a bound notebook, of course, because that is how twenty-first century humans work on books.
So far, none of this is Orientalist or racist. But, Carsten is haunted by a specter. The specter is nominally his wife, but actually manifests itself as a European woman dressed in formal imperial Chinese clothing with the ornate white face makeup that was popular in early modern China. She is supposed to look Chinese. The specter never speaks, perhaps because the film recycled its third and final cast member, Anni-Kristiina Juuso, who in other scenes plays Niko’s estranged wife/girlfriend, to also play the ghost-specter of Carsten’s wife. If it sounds confusing, it is because it is. The entire film, particularly the scenes shared by Carsten and his specter, oozes with a fetishization of East Asian women and culture; it is one of the uglier and more overt “yellow fever” cultural works in a long time. It is not just a matter of costume, either, as in one scene the specter overtly mimics initiating oral sex. Compounding this troubling aspect, there is nothing Asian or Chinese inherent to the story: it features a German man speaking English in Norway; why is Chinese culture so heavily featured? Tregenza could have at least cast a Chinese actress to play the role.
With its unearned pretensions to art-house slow cinema, uncomfortable sexualization of Chinese women and lack of understanding of who the protagonist is, Gavagai is one to skip.