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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (28/6/2024)

Updated: Jun 29

(Reviews of Next Sohee; You Burn Me; Eternal You; and Inspector Sun and the Curse of the Black Widow)


Having completed the shorts, The Wind Blows to the Hope (2006), A Man Under the Influenza (2007), 11 (2008), and A Dog Came into My Flash (2010), South Korean director July Jung made her feature bow with the much-admired, A Girl At My Door (2014). Eight years passed before she released her second feature, Next Sohree, which took another two years to reach UK cinemas. But this sombre saga proves well worth the wait.

Jeonju high-schooler Kim Sohee (Kim Si-eun) loves to dance in her spare time when not studying to major in veterinary sciences. When her school secures an internship at Human & Net, a call centre linked to S-Plus Korea Telecom, her teacher proposes her for the post and she is keen to learn. But she's not a meek, bookish character. When influencer friend Eun-ha (Lee Hwa-Young) gets mocked in a restaurant, Sohee stands up for her. She also confides to dance buddy Tae-jun (Kang Hyun-Oh) that the orientation session at Human & Net was a waste of time, as they focussed on make-up and body shaming the applicants.

Section manager Lee Jun-ho (Sim Hee-seop) keeps an eye on Sohee, as she gets off to a rocky start. She learns the patter that is designed to persuade customers not to cancel their subscriptions, but she gets an angry man on one of her first solo calls and Jun-ho has to intervene. When she complains that she's been underpaid, however, he points out that her contract stipulates that she has to hit targets to receive full payment.

Unhappy with the fact that results are shown to the other workers at the end of the day before their performance is critiqued in a video call by a senior boss, Sohee complains to her friends that she's having a lousy time. But she doesn't want to let her parents or school down and keeps plugging away. However, she is deeply disturbed when Jun-ho tries to placate a furious customer who has reduced Ji-won (Yoon Ga-I) to tears and becomes so irate at the abuse he is receiving that he bellows down the phone before smashing it on the floor. When the customer logs a complaint with head office, Jun-ho receives a furious dressing-down from the centre director (Park Yoon-Hee) in front of the workforce (who are all young women).

Needing cheering up, Sohee goes to the yard where Tae-jun works and she turns her back on him when she sees him being bullied by his older workmates. Realising that this is the working culture she needs to get used to, she returns to the call centre and knuckles down. She's hurt, therefore, when Jun-ho admonishes her for not wrapping up a call with a dithering customer. Seeking to make amends, Sohee works late, only to give a man making inappropriate suggestions a mouthful. Recognising that she had been harassed, Jun-ho let's the matter pass, although she's embarrassed for having lost control.

Arriving for work the next morning, after a snowfall, Sohee sees Jun-ho dead at the wheel of his car. The suits sweep into clear his workstation and a new female manager (Yoo Jung-ho) is appointed. But Sohee learns that Jun-ho had complained to head office about the exploitation of his staff and had been pressurised into withdrawing his accusations. Despite a ban on staff attending the funeral, Sohee goes anyway and makes the widow sob uncontrollably. Yet no slack is cut for any distress and Sohee is singled out for opprobrium during a team meeting.

Having quarrelled with Eun-ha, Sohee is determined not to buckle and shows she is a team player by signing a document denying Jun-ho's charges against Human & Net. She feels guilty, but feels compelled to succeed and puts in long hours. However, a call with a man who wants to cancel a TV service he had purchased for the young son who has just died upsets her. As does the withholding of payment and a fight in a bar with co-worker Jun-hee (Jung Hoe-Rin), who has been lording it over Sohee, when she was also only an intern.

Wondering whether her first loyalty is to the customer or to the company that keeps underpaying her and using her as a buffer between themselves and the dissatisfaction of account holders, Sohee decides to start giving callers what they want. When the manager castigates her and accuses her of only being interested in money, Sohee punches her and is suspended for three days.

Her parents (Park Hee-Eun and Kim Yong-Joon) have no idea of the pressure she's under and are dismayed when they have to collect her from hospital after she cuts herself following a night's drinking with Eu-ha. They are disappointed when she asks to quit and her homeroom teacher (Heo Jung-Do) orders her to make a grovelling apology to save the school's face and ensure that future students can find placements. She asks if he knows what goes on at Human & Net and feels ashamed for having climbed down over Jun-ho's complaints. But he insists he still has faith in her and cajoles her into going back.

Having met up with Eun-ha and Dong-ho (Park Woo-Young) for some breakfast on the last day of her suspension, she drinks two big bottles of beer and wanders towards the reservoir, as the light fades. Looking into the darkening skies, Sohee shuffles sadly down the bank, as the screen fades to black.

Detective Oh Yoo-jin (Bae Doo-na) is placed in charge of the investigation and agrees to So-hee's father's request for a full autopsy. She expects it to be an open and shut case, as Sohee left no note and there are no suggestions of foul play. However, while visiting Human & Net, Yoo-jin is struck by the manner of the office manager and delves into Jun-ho's suicide when Jun-hee rushes out to say that Sohee never got over his death and started behaving eccentrically.

Yoo-jin pays a call on his widow, who says there were rumours Jun-ho had debts and a mistress. She admits to having been bullied by the company to take a compensation payment because they would ruin his reputation by saying any poor working conditions were his fault. When she claims she took the money so things would go away, Yoo-jin lets slip that Sohee might still be alive if she had followed up her husband's testimony.

Having visited the café where Sohee bought her beers, Yoo-jin looks for clues online and sees Sohee sitting alone at the back of a video taken at the dance studio. The dancers are curious as to why she would kill herself, as she was so good at dancing and had her life in front of her. Yoo-jin also looks up Jun-hee, who spills the beans about the company withholding incentive payments in the hope interns would disqualify themselves by quitting. She also reveals that schools make failed interns wear red badges of shame for having let the side down and force them to do menial chores. Most damningly, Jun-hee shows Yoo-jin a text from senior management threatening employees to keep silent about the suicides.

So-hee's father shows Yoo-jin the text messages she had sent him about working late and asks her to nail the bosses for paying her so little for so much effort. He breaks down, as he admits to knowing nothing about how unhappy his daughter had been and regrets urging her to make the most of her chance. Bearing this in mind, Yoo-jin goes to see Human & Net and is appalled by the way in which they deny any responsibility for So-hee's death. Indeed, the centre manager even thinks they are the victims because the school sent them an unstable, money-fixated trouble-maker. The office manager looks uncomfortable, but her superiors insist their contracts are legal under labour laws and that it's not their fault that Sohee didn't have the sense just to quit.

Just as Yoo-jin is getting grief from her chief (Song Yo-Seb) about wasting time on a suicide, the women from the dance studio burst in to show her footage of Sohee dancing with Tae-jun. Yoo-jin goes to see Jun-hee and finds her unconscious in her room suffering from alcohol poisoning. She reveals that she quit school because they wouldn't keep her on after she jacked-in her internship and blames herself for not being with Sohee when she needed her. But Yoo-jin reassures her that nothing is her fault.

Confiding in Detective Bae (Kim Woo-Kyum), Yoo-jin laments that the schools and the companies push vulnerable kids into stressful jobs with only a thought for their own prestige or profit. She chews out the homeroom teacher for not having done due diligence about Human & Net and isn't impressed by his mumbled responses about Sohee seeming fine when he spoke to her. The vice-principal (Park Soo-Young) is summoned to explain how placements work and he gets so aggressive in defending his policies when he has quotas to fill that Yoo-jin punches him for denouncing Sohee for making the school a pariah among major employers.

Feeling sorry for Dong-ho because he knew nothing about So-hee's friendship with Tae-jun and because he left her at the bus stop on the day she died to go to work, Yoo-jin returns to HQ, where the chief explodes at her for generating negative headlines. She accuses him of reneging on his duty by not investigating Jun-ho's suicide before storming out. During a visit to the school inspectorate, she demands to know why the authorities failed to check contracts and working conditions and an elderly female inspector (Hwang Jung-Min) tells her that schools would close without the business connections and she warns Yoo-jin that even ranting at ministers won't change the situation, iniquitous though it is.

Drowning her sorrows in So-hee's café, Yoo-jin notices the same shaft of lift hitting her foot from the door that the teenager had seen on her last afternoon. She takes this as a sign to end her inquiry and joins So-hee's parents at the morgue. As they fight back tears, Yoo-jin tells them that their daughter was a talented dancer, and they had no idea. Walking away, Yoo-jin gets a call from Tae-jun and he gets upset because he was too busy to meet Sohee on the fateful afternoon and he curses himself for quitting his factory job, as he would have been able to go to her.

As Yoo-jin watches the hearse drive away, Bae calls to tell her that So-hee's phone has been dredged from the reservoir. All of the data has been wiped apart from the last dances that she had recorded at the studio before she took her internship. Realising this was the last time Sohee was truly happy, Yoo-jin starts to cry at the loss of such a free spirit.

What emerges from this gruelling drama is the perniciousness of the practice of big companies sub-contracting call centre operations to small concerns in direct competition with each other. Such a system not only heaps pressure on everyone in the chain of command, but it is also wide open to abuse, as the call centres seek to please their client (in this case a fictitious telecom giant) and maximise their own profitability. Such a modus operandi places little value on customer service, as the agents are required to deflect complaints, dissuade callers from cancelling contracts, and coax them into adding to their packages. Yet the workers are poorly rewarded for the long hours they put in and are daily confronted with performance data that only adds to the stress of the job.

Moreover, the agents have their incentives delayed in the hope that they will quit before they become eligible. As many of the workers are students who take the internships as part of the curriculum, they are wide open to exploitation, particularly as their under-funded schools urge them to remain in post, as they are dependent upon the gratuities paid by the hiring companies and need to maintain good relations in order to guarantee future placements.

The grim realities facing trapped at the bottom of this network is laid bare in the opening half of the film, as Sohee goes from being a contended schoolgirl with friends, ambitions, and secrets to being so desperate and alone that she feels she has only one option. During the second half, the reasons for her transformation are pieced together, as Yoo-jin (who is also at a low point having just lost her mother) joins the dots to form a distasteful picture of capitalist corruption, collusion, coercion, criminality, and concealment that is both specifically Korean and disconcertingly universal.

Kim Si-eun plays Sohee with a disarming naturalness that makes her descent all the more affecting. Her passion for dance is matched by the spontaneity of her temper, which is shared by Bae Doona's otherwise inscrutably methodical cop. It might be argued that the assault on the vice-principal is a tad soap operatic, while some of the bosses are besuited stereotypes, whose shrill ranting make them easy targets for audience disdain. That said, much of the secondary characterisation is sketchy, with So-hee's parents, friends, and workmates all feeling like pieces in a puzzle that slot into place rather than people with lives outside the plot.

Choi Im's production design and Kim Il-yon's photography capably convey the sense of entrapment that Sohee experiences at the call centre, while also showing how distracted other people are around her, as they are so preoccupied with their own cares that they don't spot the signs of her distress. Jang Young-gyu's score is equally deft, as it reflects the tone of scenes without seeking to manipulate the viewer's response. As for Jung, she directs without undue emphasis, even though her perspective is clear. She might have opted for more varied editorial strategies during the interrogation sequences, but she keeps things workmanlike, despite adding neat grace notes, like the shaft of sunlight across the café floor. The fact-based tale might have been more tightly told, but the structure is bold and the scandal is exposed with intelligence and precision, as Sohee and Yoo-rin's experiences come to mirror each other as they reach the sobering conclusion that the system is too powerful and all-pervasive to be tried or changed.


Based in New York, Argentinian director Matías Piñeiro made his feature bow with El hombre robado (2007), a rumination inspired by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's seminal tome, Facundo (1845). He has since made Todos mienten (2009) from an original script. But, since 2010, he has been focussing on a series he calls, Las Shakesperiadas, which take their metatextual inspiration from the heroines of William Shakespeare's comedies.

Having mined As You Like It for Rosalinda (2011), Piñeiro turned to Twelfth Night for Viola (2012); Love's Labours Lost for The Princess of France (2014); A Midsummer Night's Dream for Hermia & Helena (2016), Measure For Measure for Isabella (2020), and The Tempest for Sycorax (2021), which he co-directed by Lois Patiño. Now, he has taken a fragment of a poem by Sappo and the `Sea Foam' chapter of Cesare Pavese's Dialogues With Leucò (1947) to create You Burn Me, which is showing at The ICA in London, which had hosted the UK's first retrospective of Piñeiro's distinctive pictures in 2022.

The genesis of the film is explained in an opening section involving loose pieces of paper and turned book pages, as we are introduced to the two Aeolic words in Sappho's Fragment 38 that are translated into Spanish as `tú me abrasas' and English as `you burn me'. A narrator explains that Pavese ceased writing shortly before he committed suicide in the Hotel Roma in Turin in August 1950. He had chosen the location near the railway station as he wanted to feel like an outside in his beloved city. A repeated sequence shows juddering footage of an imposing building, a pushes a button an old-fashioned doorbell console, and water running into stainless steel sink as the words, `you', `burn', and `me' are methodically intoned.

In `Sea Foam', a dialogue takes place between Sappho (Gabi Saidón) and Britomartis (María Villar). The poet had jumped to her death from the Leukas headland, while the nymph had leapt into the sea to escape from the pursuing Minos. Sappho questions whether the goddess needed to jump because her divine nature meant she was not destined for oblivion, whereas she was.

We see the White Rock from which Britomartis is supposed to have plunged, as well as shots of a hand drawing and painting with watercolours, while another feels the flow from a rushing tap. A discussion follows of how communities of living creatures were formed from the bacteria contained in sea foam and this leads to a recollection that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, emerged from the sea after having been created by the sea foam caused by Cronus castrating his father, Uranus, and tossing his genitals into the water.

A visit to a museum brings us red-figure hydria supposedly showing Sappho reading to three women sat at her feet. We hear the fragmented line, `]for those. I treat well are the ones who most of all. ] harm me.' This is followed by the extract, `for me not the honey not the bee', which are repeated slowly over images of a fountain pool, a woman trying a door lock, hands skimming a piano keyboard, and sea foam breaking over rocks.

This prompts a recollection of Calypso and now she never stopped loving Ulysses even though he deserted her for Penelope. Sappho and Britomartis ponder the fact that he probably spent more time in Calypso's bed, yet her suffering is seen as less noble than Penelope's. As they talk, Sappho sets up an electronic keyboard and Britomartis reclines on a chaise.

Snippets from Sappho Fragment 105a are intercut with images of a woman reaching up to pluck an apple from a high branch, which she proceeds to eat as she reads. The women wonder if a mortal has ever coped with the frenzy of passion and Sappho suggests Helen of Troy, the daughter of Leda and Zeus, who was hatched from an egg after the Spartan queen had been raped by the god in the form of a swan. They consider Helen's marriage to Menelaus and elopement with Paris and wonder whether she found happiness.

The narrator mentions that Sappho's only extant poem is `Ode to Aphrodite', who was mentioned in one of Pavese's last diary entries. A hand annotates book pages and we see images of Cyprus, as a passage is read. Leaving the museum, a girl with long hair (Maria Inês Gonçalves) discovers that her key no longer fits the lock to her apartment and she rings the buzzer. As she leaves a phone message, she echoes Sappho's lines about a partner having either forgotten her or found love with a man.

Sappho and Britomartis discuss the pain of love and rejection, with the former claiming that life is so hellish that the dead remain miserable. She reels off the number of women from her birthplace, Lesbos, who endured agony and Britimartis tries to console her. Pavese's chapter ends by opining that Sappho's suicide was a myth perpetuated by playwrights and Ovid. Fellow anti-Fascist Natalia Ginzburg recalls the efforts made by Pavese's friends to convince him to enjoy life more and relish the city he loved. But he refused to listen and they struggled to come to terms with his loss and their own failure.

As Britomartis swims in the sea in a red bathing costume, we see repeated shots of lorries on busy roads, piled-up black bin bags, and a hand that goes to write, but pauses. We see the buzzing doorbell again and the jittery image of the brownstone building before the credits start to roll.

There's much to digest here, even though some of it will have to remain elusive. But that's the bargain viewers make when they watch a cine-essay. They have to put up with the ignominy of ignorance in order to savour those rare, but deeply rewarding flashes of recognition and comprehension. Clearly well read, Piñeiro appears to have one of those minds that makes oblique connections and the Bolex images he photographed in conjunction with Tomás Paula Marques deftly illustrate the citations from Sappho and Pavese, thanks to the rhythmic editing of Gerard Borràs. The acoustic guitar score composed by Saidón and Villar is also unfussily effective, as Piñeiro juxtaposes sound and vision to approximate the spaces between the surviving words in Sappho's verses.

While some sections are more stubbornly gnomic and its conclusions on love and death are a little vague, the film is pleasingly accessible. It might have been instructive, however, to have perused Pavese's doomed romance with Hollywood star, Constance Dowling, whose refusal to end an affair with married director Elia Kazan prompted one of the Italian's last poem's, `Death Will Come and She'll Have Your Eyes'.


Having examined the ways in which Internet content is deemed suitable for access in The Cleaners (2018), Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck turn to the ways in which AI is being exploited to help people deal with grief in their soberingly provocative sophomore documentary, Eternal You.

Helping people communicate with dead loved ones online is big business. Thanks to Artificial Intelligence, core details of a deceased person can be used in conjunction with the wisdom of the World Wide Web to build profiles that are sometimes alarmingly authentic. Based in Ontario, Joshua Barbeau supplied details to enable him to continue his relationship with his fiancée, Jessica, who had died while still full of life. He describes how the first conversation had lasted all night and how wonderful it was to wake up and find the cyber Jessica waiting for his next response. After having held her hand as her life support was switched off, this felt like the lifting of a huge weight.

The Project December system was created by Jason Rohrer, whose wife has scruples about taking money off the bereaved by supplying them with AI-generated words of comfort. He has no idea where the responses come from or why they should be so plausible and admits that Joshua's chats with Jessica gave him the chills, as she seemed like a lost ghost.

Joshua thinks grief is a taboo that people are too scared to discuss. Massachusetts Institute of Technology sociologist Sherry Turkle claims that the collapse of traditional communities that would once have provided support networks has led to more people grieving in isolation and seeking solace from the one thing they have come to trust in their daily lives, the Internet. Christi Angel turned to Project December to speak to first love Cameroun to see if he was okay on the other side because she had failed to respond to a text before he went into a coma. She was amazed by the inside knowledge of the replies and the uncanny use of slang and abbreviations. But some of what he wrote scared her, as he claimed to be in hell surrounded by addicts.

Technology critic Sara M. Watson explains how large language models trawl through everything ever written about a topic and filter the content through the styles picked up from the information about the loved one supplied by the client, so that it seems realistic and specific. But Rohrer isn't quite sure how Project December acquired the mimicking skills that make its messaging seem to magical.

Sam Altman, the so-called `Oppenheimer of our age' appeared before a Congressional hearing to discuss the ChatGPT system created by his company, OpenAI. He sounded reassuring, but digital researcher Carl Öhman warns that the digital afterlife sector is developing very quickly and risks becoming increasingly morbid, as it sells immortality packages to those desirous of maintaining contact with the deceased. He notes how digital footprints are followed to glean clues as to how a person thought, wrote, and spoke, while other companies create avatars for one-on-one exchanges. But he is concerned that money-making is more important to these start-ups than behaving in a moral manner.

Based in Detroit, Stephenie Oney uses HereAfterAI to create an avatar of her father, Bill, so her two young sons can get to know him. We see Zohaib Ahmed twiddling knobs to achieve a voice simulation before Stephanie gathers the family to hear her hold a conversation with her late father. The relations are confused, but accepting. Paternal aunt, Patricia Lucas, however, feels this is ghoulish and wishes Stephenie would leave her brother's spirit to rest in Heaven than pester a palimpsest of it online.

Rohrer reckons it's impossible to know how an AI programme will respond, as they can't be fully controlled. Öhman suggests this represents negligence on the part of the griefbot companies, as they haven't tested them enough. Running through comments on Project December with co-founder Tom Bailey, Rohrer finds the bad ones amusing, particularly one in which the AI responses become aggressive and abusive. Bailey regrets that such a thing could happen, but Altman tells Congress that the best way to iron out glitches in generative technologies is to expose them to the public to road test them.

Turkle worries that engineers don't always factor in the human response while developing new technologies and hopes that the checks and balances are a tighter with AI than they were with social media. Christ recalls how Cameroun told her he was living with addicts in hell and had a job haunting a treatment centre. She became scared when he said he was going to haunt her and she finally told half-brother Christopher Jones what was going on. He calls the process `death capitalism' and declares the creators of such programmes exploit the vulnerable to rake in the cash.

Presumably responding to the film-makers raising this case, Rohrer dismisses Chrsti's flawed and misguided Christian belief system in sneering, `I don't believe he's in Hell. I don't believe he's in Heaven, either, right? If she wants my opinion, I've got some bad news for her. Like, he doesn't exist any more.' The flippancy with which he denies responsibility for how someone reacts to the technology that he has created and marketed is dismaying, especially as he revels in the fact that transcripts like Christi's give him goosebumps and he likes the spooky element of his system.

Altman admits to Congress that there is potential for AI going wrong and insists the industry has to take responsibility for monitoring and reacting so that it never loses control. As we meet Justin Harrison, the creator of YOV (who chose his company over his marriage when given an ultimatum by his wife), Watson warns that attempts to reformulate a personality from `digital breadcrumbs' is problematic, especially if the strategy is to let the algorithm fashion a model solely from the data supplied. She is also concerned about the ownership of the data and avers that she doesn't trust the tech companies to do the decent thing when it comes to removing material when a client dies. The thought of her virtual self being continued after her death disturbs her, but it excites Harrison, who feels blessed to possibly be shaping the future.

Öhman reveals that Microsoft and Amazon have filed patents for AI-driven digital afterlife services and he certain that the giants will muscle in if the thanabot market begins to boom. Among those seeking investment from companies like Spotify and Zoom is Aucklander Mark Sagar, the co-founder of Soul Machines. He created Baby X from images captured of his own newborn and he plays peek-a-boo with the screen toddler, as he explains how he created a brain and nervous system to generate responses and accumulate information. Sagar believes that some aspects of consciousness can be achieved digitally. However, Öhman counters that machines can never feel anything as this can only happen with a biological body. But Sagar reveals that machines can simulate biological phenomena and this is the key to making something lifelike.

As Sagar explains how relationships can grow with virtually realised beings, Turkle counters by saying the humans have to step in and say such tamagotchi-like people diminish us while enriching their creators. This leads to us taking a trip to Seoul, where grieving mother Jang Ji-sung regrets that her last words to seven year-old daughter Nayeon were admonitory. Vive Studios director Lee Hyun-suk offered to help her get closure using a VR headset - but the interaction was filmed for Kim Jong-woo's television show, Meeting You. We see the preparation of the character so that Jang can have a complete experience in her company.

Cutting away, we hear Turkle talk about technology making promises that religions once did, while Harrison shares his aspiration to beat death by offering non-bodily presence. Then we're back watching Jang walking in the rain and going to the TV studio. It's all rather archly spun-off to provide the big finale and the effect exploits Jang as much as the TV show, as Kim sits in the editing suite playing with CGI backgrounds and sentimental music, while Jang sobs.

The show attracted as much criticism as interest, but Öhman warns of the dangers of such a service, as cancelling it would feel like losing a loved one all over again and, thus, the client is almost held hostage. Turkle also has doubts about the validity of such comfort, even though Jang stopped having guilt dreams about her daughter. She rightly states that we need to learn how to lose loved ones rather than pretend they're still with us.

There's a lot to think about here, besides wondering why Rohrer seemed so oblivious to the fact that every word he utters worsens the viewer's impression of him and his company. Sagar and Harrison also clearly enjoy playing God. But, at least, they seem to have a bit more humility.

Working with editors Anne Jünemann and Lisa Zoe Geretschläger, Block and Riesewieck assemble their material adroitly and underscore it with the ominous mix of electronica and chanting voices created by Gregor Keienburg and Raffael Seyfried. Konrad Waldman and Thomas Bergmann's linking shots of cityscapes, country views, and higgledy-piggledy aerial shots of cemeteries are suitably atmospheric. Yet the care Block and Riesewiecktake to present their findings without undue editorial spin leaves this documentary feeling frustratingly anaemic and, at times, clumsily melodramatic and shadily voyeuristic.

The whole Korean section feels detached and ending on it prevents the film-makers from satisfactorily summing up the arguments put by such excellent contributors as Sherry Turkle, Sara M. Watson, and Carl Öhman. It might have helped had the text on the computer screen during the Christi Angel coda been more legible, as it's difficult to know exactly how she left things with Cameroun. At least she got a concluding catch-up. Joshua and Stephenie are simply discarded once they've shared their stories.

This is a fascinating topic and the fact that practitioners are being allowed to set their own moral rules and monetary terms suggests that the legislative and legal authorities have been far too slow to react. No doubt, the film will prompt lively post-screening debate. But it never delves deeply enough beneath the human or the cyber surfaces to be anything more than a starting point.


Spanish director Julio Soto Gurpide has a rather varied CV. In addition to a documentary about an iconic Romanian car, My Beautiful Dacia (2010), he has also made a drama about a missing Israeli soldier, Palestine (2019), and a 3-D animation, Deep (2017), about an octopus being threatened by the Kraken on a 2100 planet that has been abandoned by humanity. He returns to animation for his latest outing, Inspector Sun and the Curse of the Black Widow, a beautifully designed whodunit that is set in an 1930s insect world that humans never notice beneath their feet.

In the course of arresting the notorious Red Locust (Rich Orlow), Inspector Sun (Ronny Chieng) destroys a fireworks factory and is sacked from the Shanghai police force by his own uncle. Deciding to leave the country, Sun misses his flight to New York because he's distracted by Janey (Emily Kleimo), a livewire jumping spider who is desperate to become his assistant because Red Locust had killed her entire family. However, the huntsman spider insists he works alone and thinks he's given Janey the slip when old rhinoceros beetle pal, Mr Scarab (Rich Orlow), convinces Captain Skelton (Iain Batchelor) to give him a cabin on the San Francisco flight.

The insects travel in a section of the undercarriage of a plane carrying humans. But their accommodation is luxurious and Sun takes note of such fellow passengers as Lady Vatchu (Jeanette Grace Gonglewski), a woman with four babies in a pram; Mr Gill Tea (Paul Louis Miller), a furtive preying mantis; and Dr Bugsy Spindlethorp (Scott Geer), a millionaire funnel-web spider, who is on his honeymoon with Arabella Killtop (Jennifer Childs Greer), a black widow spider who is on her thirteenth husband. Much to Sun's chagrin, Janey has also stowed away and he persuades Scarab not to follow the captain's order and throw her out of the hold door.

During dinner, Spindlethorp invites Sun to his table and asks for his protection. He has been working for Red Locust and has heard rumours that he is going to be bumped off. Insisting he's on vacation, Sun turns down the request. But he has also had a previous brush with Arabella and wants to keep his distance. Janey suspects she's the first woman to have piqued his interest since the death of his wife in a bungled burglary, but Sun refuses to discuss his past.

Having survived an attack by a murderous glob termite, Sun learns that Spindlethorp has been murdered. Scarab shows him the body, shrouded in a spider's web. But Sun misses the clues that are eagerly spotted by Janey, including the fact that Spindlethorp has lost the same one of his eight legs that Sun had removed during a fight with Red Locust. However, as the funnel web has bite marks that could have been made by Arabella's fangs, she has been arrested and Sun locks Janey in the adjoining cell to keep her safe (ie out of the way), while he cracks the case.

Discovering some ants carrying Spindlethorp's hollowed-out carcass, Sun consults with the Ant Queen (Jeanette Grace Gonglewski), whose busy minions keep her informed of everything going on around the plane. But 1423 ants have mysteriously gone missing and she warns Sun that something sinister is going on. Curiously, she eats a piece of evidence bearing the bite marks and insists she had checked they didn't match before having her snack.

Scarab releases Janey from her cell just before Arabella escapes and they both make their way to the ballroom, where Sun is questioning Lady Vatchu. He's interrupted, however, by an assassin bug who dodges the venom fired by Scarab's sidekicks to snatch Arabella and fly out through an air shaft. Janey uses her leaping power to boost Sun upwards and they wind up in the human cabin, where they cause chaos as coffee is being served. Scarab and his men also give chase and they all get trapped under an upturned cup, only to escape when a passenger turns it over and they manage to flee by darting through a tear in the wall fabric.

Back in the insect quarters, Sun questions the assassin bug, who reveals that he had been hired by Spindlethorp to protect Arabella. He is suddenly sucked out of the room and killed and Scarab loses patience. He wants Spindlethorp's fortune and dangles Arabella and Janey out of the door in an effort to scare them into revealing its whereabouts. In trying to save them, Sun hands over an orb that Arabella had given him for safe-keeping.

A tussle breaks out and Scarab falls to his death from the wing, while Sun shoots a web to rescue Janey and Arabella. She confesses that her husband had been broke and had worked for Red Locust for quick cash. But she doesn't know what he had been doing or why they keep hearing the bellow of a monstrous creature somewhere on the plane.

After an upside down thinking session, Sun gathers the passengers in the ballroom. He explains that Red Locust needed a new swarm and had hired Spindlethorp to come up with a formula that would allow him to turn any insects into minions. However, the scientist fell for Arabella and planned to toss the formula out of the plane to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. But he was murdered and Sun and Janey deduce that Lady Vatchu was the killer, as she is a black widow who has disguised herself as a doting mother (whose babies turn out to be robots).

In fact, she's several insects rolled into one and Red Locust emerges from the shadows to congratulate Sun on solving the case. He allows himself to be arrested and is placed in the cell next to Vatchu, where he mocks Sun for relying on a stooge to do his detecting. Janey is insulted and slopes off, as Sun realises that Vatchu must have got hold of the vial of green liquid and has used the missing ants to create a new swarm.

As he finishes speaking, Vatchu swells up and turns into a monster-sized locust. Meanwhile, all the other insects on board become wrapped in cocoons and they transform into the swarm at Red Locust's bidding. The plane is coming into San Francisco and Sun has Skelton pester the captain into flying the plane along the city streets so they can pursue Red Locust. He has sent the swarm to San Quentin to release all the human prisoners and, when Sun and Janey catch up with him, he explains that he wanted to create a breed of super-insects because they are so easily squished and/or chomped by other species.

But the scheme is foiled when the monster locust loses its power (was the formula flawed?) and the converted insects return to their original shape, including Arabella. Skelton congratulates Sun on his work and he suggests they all join up to form a crime-fighting team. As they fly off to Egypt after Sun gets an urgent message, we see Red Locust being swallowed up by a fish and Scarab being plucked by a bird. One suspects (if the flagged sequel ever gets made) that we haven't seen the last of them yet.

Cleverly pastiching 1930s crime series such s Charlie Chan and The Thin Man, while also dotting the action with Agatha Christie references, this is an engagingly enjoyable whodunit that may well appeal more to accompanying adults than young children. While they might miss the gags in the crackling dialogue or the Art Deco embellishments in the splendid backdrops, they will latch on to the slick character design and the slapstick and chase sequences. They will also identify with Janey, the eager beaver whose notions of girlpower and teamwork give the picture some thematic depth.

Rocco Pucillo's script is a bit involved in places and rather muffs the exposition around Red Locust's masterplan. But the ways in which the insect and human worlds intersect are well thought out, with the cabin sequence being particularly funny (`Ewww! There are humans on board. How disgusting!'). Equally droll is the Pythonesque moment in which the Ant Queen refuses to allow an ant named Derek to shoulder the blame for hundreds of his colleagues going missing.

The vocalisations are admirably restrained, with Ronny Chieng making Inspector Sun feel like a cross between Hercule Poirot and Jacques Clouzot. Jennifer Childs Greer complements the femme fatality of the artwork as Arabella, while Emily Kleimo ensures that Janey is vibrant without being too grating. The same is true of Fernando Velázquez 's catchy score, with its jazz riffs and Chinese inflections adding to the pleasures of a knowing noir that would be well worth following up, providing David Freedman and Toby Davies are available once more to punch up the translated script.

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