Sunday, November 15, 2015

Ithaca Fantastic ’15: Polder

The grandly hyped “Red Book” would sound a little alarming, even if the Neuroo-X gaming corporation were not partly based in China. Supposedly, the immersive virtual reality device makes in-game time feel subjectively longer. In theory, this should prevent gamers from missing out on the real world around them. As is often the case, practical reality is a different matter. That is probably why the company’s nebbish founder halted his work on the Red Book project right before his untimely death. His Japanese widow will try to follow the clues he left behind in Julian M. Grunthal & Samuel Schwarz’s Polder (trailer here), which screened at the 2015 Ithaca International Fantastic Film Festival.

You have to give credit to any film that starts with a John Clute quote: “Polder: an enclave of compressed reality demarcated by boundaries from the surrounding world.” It also serves as a handy explanation of the inelegant looking title. As the film opens, we meet Marcus through a digital imprint of his personality, which also introduces us to the key figures in his life: the childhood friends he cofounded Neuroo-X with, as well as his widow Ryuko and son Walterli.

After the accident, Ryuko become something of a basket case, neglecting Walterli while she obsesses over the heavily encrypted laptop that presumably holds the secret to everything. It turns out the code to crack is of a somewhat different nature. Regardless, Marcus will reveal much to her from beyond the grave. Unfortunately, due to the nature of Neuroo-X technology, virtual threats have very real world ramifications. Following an attack by a mythical Japanese witch on Walterli, Ryuko will place him in a specially protected polder to recuperate. Of course, there are plenty more revelations to come regarding the nature of the game and ostensible reality.

Films have been diving into video games and coming out the other side of normalcy ever since the original Tron. As a result, a lot of Polder’s big twists are practically mandated conventions. However, there are a number of widely inventive scenes along the way. Grunthal & Schwarz’s aesthetic choices are also unusually daring. Frankly the initial twenty-minutes or so are deliberately hard to follow. However, once they shift focus from Marcus to Ryuko, Polder really starts to click. In fact, an observer character within the film essentially acknowledges as much.

The Danish-Japanese Nina Fog has by far the most substantial and complex role in the film, but she makes the most of it. As outlandish as the narrative is, she makes Ryuko’s arc of empowerment quite powerful to behold. Somehow she perfectly reconciles the protective mother and grieving wife side of her persona with an existential action figure. She commands the film, but young Pascal Roelofse is also quite winning as Walterli.

Polder represents a new look for cyberpunk, but it works. The hills are definitely not alive with the sound of music. Nor is the fact that the Swiss-German company also operates in China an insignificant detail. Indeed, when we peak into that side of the business, it is quite consistent with what we know of human rights in the socialist state. It is a strange film, but the work of Fog and production designer Gerald Damovsky really sell it. Recommended for fans of cyber-based science fiction, Polder should have more stops ahead on the genre fest circuit after its screening at this year’s Ithaca International Fantastic Film Festival.