Ode to Nothing Review

What would it take to creep out an undertaker? Dwein Ruedas Baltazar’s third feature is a slow-burning, deeply unsettling art-horror hybrid. Sonya (Filipino superstar Marietta Subong), the protagonist of Ode to Nothing, is a mortician at a struggling funeral home in a small town in the Philippines. She lives with her father, who takes little interest in her or the business.  When bodies are brought in by their sobbing, sometimes wailing, loved ones, Sonya appears colder than the corpses as she sets to work on them. She tries upselling flower arrangements (or a plush coffin perhaps?), but living in such poverty means even the most devoted (and, of course, religious) families can barely afford the gravestone. Towards the beginning of the film, a middle aged woman brings her two dead parents in and requests a 2-for-1 deal on the flowers: “We have two dead people, that’s good for business.” 

The paradox of running a funeral home is that you’re providing a service that everyone eventually will require, and yet, you can’t do much else but wait for the bodies to come to you, and Sonya is left fighting to make ends meet. Her landlord takes the furniture out of her apartment as collateral until she pays her dues in full with interest. Late one night, a couple of men knock on her door and bring her the dead body of a woman that they ran over. Avoiding the police, they reckon that if anyone is looking for this old woman, they’ll stop by the funeral home at some point to claim her. They slip Sonya some cash in exchange for her silence, leaving the old woman’s remains with her. Sonya embalms the body and waits, hoping that the woman’s family will come knocking. Meanwhile, Sonya starts her work on the cadavre. In a stage of rigor mortis, she (or it?) stiffens her arm out, hitting Sonya over the head. ”Are you trying to scare the shit out of me?” she yells.

And so begins a bizarre, unexpectedly touching relationship. The body becomes a part of the family, a sounding board for all of Sonya’s secret desires and thoughts. Sonya goes so far as to bring the corpse into her bedroom to sleep next to her. She ties her up on a makeshift wooden plank with cotton shirts and scarves. These scenes are rich with morbid humour, like a somber Weekend at Bernie’s. Sonya begins to believe that the old woman is a good luck charm, as the dead bodies start rolling in. Suddenly, the wedge standing between Sonya and her father is pulled out. Business is booming. Even Sonya’s love life is picking up after she meets a handsome taho vendor.

None of this good fortune lasts, of course, and as Sonya’s luck peters out she blames the body. Her father moderates the one-way squabbles between his daughter and her silent mother-figure. “Are you two fighting?” he asks Sonya. She answers like a moody child:  “Ask her.” Their relationship starts to rot, literally. The film reminds us of cinema’s difficulty in representing smell. Only when her landlord storms in, gagging and pinching his nostrils do we realize Sonya and her father’s inoculation to the olfactory side-effects of decay. The lonely among us will put up with anything if we believe that it can cure that loneliness. Solitude is felt in every shot, with characters often framed by doorways and windows. There is little music, save for a chinese folk song called “Mo Li Hua”, which Sonya listens to over and over again on her portable cassette player, clinging to it in bed. Ode to Nothing beautifully captures the pain of being alone. Desperate to fill the hole her deceased mother left behind, Sonya finds in the lifeless presence a reason to live. 

Would it be safe to call the film a zombie flick? The body is very much dead, but Sonya’s desperate need for connection brings it back to life. It may not be hungry for human flesh, its presence is instead a force guiding and influencing the lives of those around it. It cannot change, but it still manages to change others.

Recalling A Ghost Story, Ode to Nothing uses death as an event from which springs inevitable grief and the insatiable need for connection. It surprises with its peculiar brand of morbid humour. It’s a meditative, hypnotic film, thanks in part to its languid pace. In the opening shot, the camera lingers on an exposed lightbulb swarmed by moths and flies, as “Mo Li Hua” plays. It’s a beautiful, textured image that encapsulates the film’s fascination with desire and the loneliness that follows death. We’re all just buzzing around a light, hoping it will turn its beam onto us. 

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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