Taka Tsubota first impressed audiences with his first feature-film Stolen (2019), a dramatic narrative that explored the largely over-looked phenomenon of abduction of Japanese citizens by North-Korean Agents. While Stolen dealt with the ‘joyous’ dynamic of online-bullying, he explores, in his latest short, the dynamic of adolescent bullying in a post-apocalyptic setting.
Not long after a group of friends, Nev (Andrew Hayden Kang), Enoch (Thaddeus Newman), Ignacio (Matthew Mitchell Espinosa), and George (Kiyoshi Shishido) and his cousin Alan (Barron Leung), start their holiday in a cabin in the Southern Californian woods, a plague of destructive metal spiders breaks out.
Ever since George left the cabin to look for help, Alan has been subjected to the bullying of the others. One night, the bullying gets so bad and vile that Alan confronts himself with a difficult decision: stay or escape.
The post-apocalyptic tale of Canary deals with the theme of bullying with a fresh twist. In the mere span of 17 minutes, Taka Tsubota dissects the dynamic of bullying in such a way that the spectator can fully grasp the intertwining aims of the act of exploiting another subject.
It does not take long for the spectator to realize that the interactions between the boys in the cabin are guided by a thirst for imaginary pleasure. The field of interactions is not utilized to forge inter-subjective bonds, but to establish superficial connections that allow the subject to enjoy the act of speaking – i.e. the pleasure attained by using foul and sexual signifiers – and use the signifier to fleetingly appease one’s phantasmatic ideal of maleness.
Yet, the post-apocalyptic setting of Canary enables the true aim of using of the signifier to inject a surge of pleasure into one’s subject to come to the fore. As the presence of a deathly threat outside the safe confines of the shelter radically challenges the phantasmatic ideal of maleness. Our boys are not only isolated, but surrounded by a field marked by radical castration. The exploitation of Alan for some pleasure is thus not merely to appease the need to feel masculine, but to keep, by investing in this frail fantasy of masculinity, one’s castration at bay. What Canary ultimately shows is that the repetitive act of phallic bullying is grounded in the subject’s inability to live in harmony with his lack-of-being, with his symbolic castration.
When Alan is confronted with the choice to remain either inside the claustrophobic cabin or venture outside, he actually needs to choose between staying around phallic monsters, men who utter castrating words to feel masculine phantasmatically, or Real monster who’ll violently erase the subject and turn him/her into a Real lack. Will he accept his position of castrated object or will he escape and put his entire existence on the line? Symbolic torture or suicidal escape? What would you choose?
The artistic sense of Tsubota is evident in his composition. He did not only create a composition with an engaging rhythm, but also one with appealing imagery. The effective nature of his composition is not only due to the pleasant pace by which he concatenates shots, but also by finding the perfect pace for the dynamic moments. The latter, together with the speech that accompanies these moments, engenders evokes a sense of post-apocalyptic mystery in the opening of the narrative that pulls the spectator right into the narrative. As the narrative progresses and the mystery ebbs away, the dynamism becomes utilized to infuse and reverberate tension into the fabric of Alan’s story.
The visual pleasure of his composition is function of two different but often interacting elements: the colour- and lightning-design and the well-created compositional tensions. The former ensures that the imagery is visually appealing throughout the narrative, while the latter fleetingly heightens the impact of certain visual moments. Tsubota creates effective compositional tensions by thoughtfully exploiting the dimension of geometry and by emphasizing his composed geometrical tensions by contrasting colours.
With Canary, Taka Tsubota confirms his talent as director. He does not impress with a visually appealing composition, but with a narrative structure that lays bare the inherent dynamics of ‘phallic’ bullying in a precise manner. While Tsubota’s short will satisfy the spectator, he’ll also feel hungry for more, proving the story’s unexcavated potential – a potentiality best explored in a full-feature sci-fi film. Highly recommended.