Credit: NYFF
by Daniel Gorman Film

The Plastic House | Allison Chhorn

October 3, 2020

It’s hard to know what to make of Allison Chhorn’s new film The Plastic House, which plays equally like an experimental documentary and an obscurantist diary film. It’s neither fish nor fowl, which may certainly be by design, but it’s so insular that it leaves the viewer adrift, with no clear structure to hold on to. Chhorn begins the film with two title cards, “Mum 1959 – 2015” and then “Dad 1959 – 2016.” This is the only non-visual information we are given throughout the 45-minute film, and its purposeful placement gives the proceedings a mournful, elegiac tone. Next, we see a dilapidated husk of a greenhouse as (presumably) the filmmaker clears away desiccated husks of dead plants. There follows tilling and digging and the planting of new seeds. In the span of one edit, the greenhouse is suddenly green and verdant once again. Scenes of tending to the greenhouse are intercut with scenes of Chhorn alone in her apartment, along with brief, recurring shots of rustling bed sheets and the billowing plastic walls and roof of the greenhouse. What we have here is a series of strategies — extreme closeups of hands and objects, montage sequences of vibrant greenery, recurring shots through car windshields, virtually no non-diegetic sound or music, Chhorn’s steadfast refusal to clearly show her own face on screen, instead shooting herself from behind or from obscured angles — that don’t seem to add up to anything particularly meaningful. The film seems to be about cycles of death and rebirth, but it’s also kind of about the director’s solitude. Chhorn complicates her visual schema by introducing brief snippets of what sound like recordings of conversations between herself and a family member, as well as low-res camcorder footage of the greenhouse that contrasts with the precise, HD video that the rest of the film is shot on, but this seems to obfuscate more than illuminate any deeper meaning. There are also some fairly banal passages: a sequence where an excerpt from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying flashes up on screen (“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep… I dont [sic] know what I am”) and then cuts to Chhorn restless in bed; or scenes of her listening to drone-y synth music that then periodically pops up over other sections of the film. There are intimations of symbolic rebirth as the film ends with the greenhouse’s destruction (water imagery indicates the influence of Tsai Ming-liang) and Chhorn marching into a foggy field with shovel in hand, presumably to begin again. It’s quite surprising, then, to find that her parents are actually alive and that The Plastic House is in fact a speculative account of imaginary isolation. Chhorn is of course free to fictionalize in any way she sees fit, but this knowledge does alter one’s understanding of the emotional tenor of the film. In fabricating her parents’ premature demise, and using that as a lens through which to view the rest of the film, she replaces one fairly universal experience  — the loss of loved ones — with a purposeful, predetermined act that smacks of solipsism. Chhorn clearly has some formal chops, and The Plastic House has an agreeably homemade feel, but the film is ultimately too opaque to confer anything beyond a moody sensibility.

Published as part of NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 4.