CFF 2023: NEW RELIGION is a Surreal Exploration of Grief, Death, and Hope?

If you’ve ever wondered what a J-Horror film directed by a Blue Velvet era David Lynch would be like, New Religion, which just screened at the Chattanooga Film Fest, is your answer. The surreal thriller opens with the accidental death of Miyabi’s (Kaho Seto) young daughter, who jumps off the balcony while her mother reads at the kitchen table. We then flash a few years later as Miyabi is now divorced, still living in the same apartment, and working as a call girl to support her and her DJ boyfriend (Saionji Ryuseigun).

Soon she inherits an odd client from one of her former colleagues. The moth-obsessed man who lost his voice box to cancer, eerily speaks through the speakers in the pitch black apartment. Rather than sex, he simply wants to take Polaroids of the young woman’s various body parts. As she begins entertaining the strange man’s wishes, she begins to hear her daughter’s voice and begins to feel her presence more and more in her apartment with every twisted photo session. 

Moths in Japanese culture symbolize dreams, and can also represent death and rebirth. It’s these themes that all coalesce to great effect in New Religion as the film’s narrative is propelled by a Lynchian dream-like logic. Miyabi moves through her world shuttled from client to client an empty shell of a woman stuck in her cocoon, that is until she meets the man who can give her daughter, and life back to her. But at what cost? While this strange behavior begins to escalate, she’s warned of her co-worker who experienced something similar with her dead father, before she snapped went on a killing spree and vanished. 

It’s these threads of dreams, life and death that director Keishi Kondo masterfully weaves together through striking cinematography punctuated by moments of surreal giallo-infused imagery. It works to perfectly illustrate Miyabi’s melancholic existence, that has her unable to love after that tragic moment and forever looking to re-attain it. Kaho Seto as Miyabi is a revelation here, as the woman who is just raw nerve on screen just filled with sadness and regret, while also still somehow hanging on to hope with an unhinged desperation.

New Religion is a compelling and assured debut that makes me more than curious what this young director has planned next. Infused with mythology, thematic puzzles and metaphorical rabbit holes, New Religion is the nihilistic search for the ultimate truths and what can happen to those that search for them. The film also shows how terrifying hope can be, and the lengths it can drive some. The symbolism in this film, coupled with its surreal imagery delivers a rich cinematic journey that will both delight and horrify those that choose to seek it out.

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