We all have secrets, but what would you do if you discovered something terrible about the person you love? Insomnia is a violently feverish new queer short film from Taiwan, that explores the fear and paranoia that hide at the heart of a relationship. Brandon Kemp reviews for CINEMQ.
What do you most fear in a relationship? Infidelity? That you’re unlovable, perhaps? That all is not as it seems? Director Aurélien Jégou’s short film Insomnia (2018) is ostensibly about a crime, a couple, and a secret that eats away at them. It lurches violently, sometimes beautifully, between the magical and the mundane. But overflowing with sensual imagery, with the magnetic Yang Qi-Yin at its center, the film is ultimately a dreamlike exploration of queer intimacy and anxiety.
The drama unfolds around an object at once concrete and elusive, a black box that Yang’s character is forbidden from opening by his lover (played by Jégou). Since every relationship has its dark secrets, Insomnia invites audiences to bring their own experiences to bear on its symbols. By design, in other words, everyone’s black box will contain something different. “Even Qi-Yin, the actor, doesn’t know what’s in it concretely for me,” Jégou tells me, “and I don’t know what’s in it for him.”
The film is the first installment in an ongoing project by the director exploring these themes. Jégou hopes to complete two additional shorts, united by the motif of reincarnation, and ultimately plans to combine the triptych into a longer feature. “Love stories nowadays are shorter and shorter,” he observes. “We’re more and more bound to have several relationships or commitments in our lives, and this made me want to see it on a larger scale and draw parallels between the cycle of life and the cycle of love.”
While Insomnia most vividly affirms the startling precariousness of both love and life, the director’s larger project aims to gesture beyond their sometimes-messy endings, and the dizzying emotional states that often accompany their breakdown, to the decidedly cheerier possibility of romantic rebirth and the continual renewal of life. Still, given his knack for teasing out the dark, dreamlike nature of contemporary romance, it’s (thankfully) difficult to imagine a dramatic change in tone. More likely, the follow-up films will act as similarly tinted prisms, each refracting off and reinterpreting the others.
Jégou’s previous work bears this out. His 2016 short film The Mermaid and the Whale was a strange and subversive piece following a gay man who discovers that he is pregnant. In an interview with New Bloom Magazine, he describes the difficulty he faced in getting audiences to approach the story with an open mind. “I discovered that the situation of a pregnant man was by essence comical to most of the audience.... That’s also why I decided on a second editing to make it a bit darker. I wanted the audience to consider this situation seriously.”
Stylistically, Jégou’s most recent work is partly indebted to 90s Taiwanese New Wave cinema but also to the director’s own experiences navigating his new life in Taiwan. “I wanted to catch atmospheres, a certain pace unique to Taipei,” he says, adding that the experience of being an outsider in his adopted culture prompts him to try to document his surroundings carefully. The director is not one for interiority, instead lingering over rich, gorgeously lit textures and allowing emotions to bubble to the surface, often in visually striking ways, as in the scene where Yang’s character suddenly finds himself awash in blood as he showers (whether this signifies a guilty conscience or a surreal foreshadowing of his own fate is not clear).
But while this attention to place and pace might at times bear the tiniest trace of forbearers like Tsai Ming-liang, Jégou’s jumpier, more cyclical temporality and deeply atmospheric visuals ultimately lend his work an experimental, borderline magical realist quality all of its own. In Insomnia, characters swap places; time rolls forward and back. Regarding his nonlinear approach to storytelling, Jégou explains that he “tried to conceive the story as a medium to transcribe a state of mind at a precise moment in time, tearing apart the chronology and the narrative lines.” If this commitment to evoking emotional states like fear and betrayal makes a Gordian knot of the plot, it’s also what gives Insomnia’s wonderfully weird images and scenarios their staying power. Like a fever dream in film form, its images will haunt you.
Translation: Annabel Lee & Will Dai
Originally written in English. Images are form the film.
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