{Movie Review} Undergods (2021)- A Bleak Joy

When Undergods opens with body collectors roaming the streets of a decayed cityscape, you know things are going to get gloomy.

With Undergods, first-time filmmaker Chino Moya invites us into a realm that oozes with heavy smog and the trapped despondency of its denizens. A seemingly post-apocalyptic “underworld” exists adjacent to an uncomfortably familiar, yet no less oppressive, dimension. Several linked vignettes give us a glimpse of these worlds connecting. Maybe brushing up against each other in a way that makes real connections noticeably sparse.

An abusive husband and his meek wife help a neighbor in need. But who have they really let into their home and lives? Is he there to right wrongs or to sow further misery?

A wealthy merchant attempts to pull off his biggest deal yet, but in the process might lose the only thing he loves. What price will he ultimately pay after a lifetime of profiting off others?

A man randomly gets a second chance at life. But what will that mean for the wife who thought he was dead? Will he really be any freer now than before?

Photo Courtesy of Velvet Films

Mild spoilers ahead…

The vignettes on their own could be seen as somewhat banal. They’re about unlikeable individuals barely surviving materially and mentally. But deceptively simple parts make up a poignant whole. From the start, our two body dealers set the stage for the storytelling to come; they’re the thread that keeps your attention throughout what, at first glance, are just assorted tales of modern misery. You’ll also find yourself wondering just how much the actions of these two influence the fates of other characters. The duo gives us some subtle exposition, but don’t expect everything to be handily explained.

Undergods is an atmospheric wonder. It’s world easily sucks you in and holds you. One dimension has a dismal grey color palette, and the other isn’t much cheerier. Exteriors are barren and interiors claustrophobic. Daylight is dimmed and firelight doesn’t so much give warmth as it does a background flicker. The soundtrack keeps a hypnotically energizing synth pulse throughout while subtle changes in musical themes keep things on target with the mood of each vignette.

The film’s odd-part-out is its middle segment, a vignette that has quite a different feel than its bookends. It does give some clues as to the real relationship between the familiar and unfamiliar dimensions, and serves as a link between stories. But it also somewhat detracts from the movie’s flow. The actors have less to do regarding emotion and expression then in other parts. The acting is generally excellent throughout the film, however. Ned Dennehy in particular brings a mix of benign normalcy and barely concealed cruelty that really ratchets up the tension of his claustrophobic vignette. The final segment of the film has some convincing, explosive moments from Kate Dickey and Adrian Rawlins.

Photo Courtesy of Velvet Films

That final vignette is not only where Undergods reaches its emotional peak, but also where the film’s themes come together. We get a better look at how things work in the film’s world, and naturally, are compelled to think about how these apply to our own reality. (Not to mention the satisfaction of seeing one character finally commit an act we’ve all fantasized about, whether we’d admit it or not.) Questions of agency, accountability, and why we operate the way we do in so-called normal society, will make for interesting post-view discussions. Leaving Undergods to re-enter the real will make you look at things a bit differently. You might find yourself wanting to have those discussions in a particularly well lit pub with plenty of food and friends.

Storytelling, visuals, and soundscapes come together in an engaging, thought-provoking experience. It does so with a quiet determination The point that the daily grind of western society is only a step away from mindless enslavement has been covered in a variety of genres, but here it hits home in new ways. The ending leaves you pondering the nature of freedom and whether it was ever an option. All in all, Undergods is a strong first feature, and Chino Moya is a cinematic voice to watch for in the future.

Photo Courtesy of Velvet Films

Undergods is out now on most digital platforms.