At the recent Chattanooga Film Festival, one film stood out above the rest, fascinating me with its unique storytelling and unnerving themes. New Religion written, directed, and edited by Keishi Kondo, marks an impressive debut that explores the depths of grief through the lens of a neo-noir dreamscape. Kondo's film, drawing inspiration from the likes of David & Brandon Cronenberg as well as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, boldly and uniquely contributes to the subgenre of soul horror. Through its exploration of identity, spirituality, and the essence of humanity, it emerges as a captivating arthouse work.
The film centers around Miyabi (Kaho Seto), a divorced woman working as a call girl after the tragic death of her daughter. An encounter with a peculiar client leads Miyabi on a haunting journey, where each photograph taken of her body brings her deceased daughter's spirit closer. As the eerie progression continues, the narrative becomes unraveled as Miyabi transforms into something new.
Through the enigmatic character of Oka (Satoshi Oka), Kondo skillfully weaves a sense of dread throughout the film, reminiscent of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's antagonist in Cure. Drawing inspiration from the superstition that photographs can steal one's soul, New Religion explores the theme of metamorphosis. The visual language of the film highlights this transformation, with contrasting color schemes that set the foundation for the neo-noir atmosphere. Throughout the film, Miyabi's normal life is presented in subdued colors and overexposed whites, while her nighttime persona is adorned with darker, sexier attire, exuding confidence and awareness while draped in the drastic color choices. These choices help tell a striking visual narrative as well as guide the viewer through a range of emotional and physiological progressions.
New Religion captivates not only through its striking visuals but also its haunting soundscapes. Ethereal synthwave songs compliment the emotional color palettes, enhancing the film's atmosphere. The carefully crafted sound design, especially the iconic voice of Oka, adds an extra layer of dread to the narrative. Together, the visuals and sounds merge to create an entrancing and visceral experience for viewers.
Clocking in at around 100 minutes, New Religion’s biggest obstacle with audiences might be its overall pacing. The film embraces a slow and methodical pace, allowing audiences to dwell in the quiet moments of Miyabi's world and uses its runtime to delve into the nuances of Miyabi's life. Kondo patiently explores the intricate facets of Miyabi’s grief, her relationship with her boyfriend, and the dichotomy of living a life as a call girl.
Keishi Kondo's directorial debut is an impressive visual and auditory feast, casting a hypnotic spell on its audience. With New Religion, Kondo establishes himself as a filmmaker to watch, pushing the boundaries of soul horror and helping to expand the subgenre. This standout film from the Chattanooga Film Festival is poised to become one of my favorite horror offerings of 2023, leaving me eagerly anticipating Kondo's future endeavors.