TOWER. A BRIGHT DAY
Directed by Jagoda Szelc
2018 | 106 mins
Having been born and raised in a Catholic country like the Philippines, I grew up with strange superstitions. In addition to deep religious beliefs, the country also has its own set of folklore that, as a child, got under my skin. So much so that I still believe them as an adult. I still remember when my mother ran into the house screaming as she was taking down the laundry late at night. She claimed she saw a “kapres” outside. A large dark-skinned creature who lives on trees and was always seen smoking. The local authorities were called and the whole family was convinced it was definitely that creature and not just some intruder. At around age 8 I saw a young woman dragged into a neighbour’s house kicking and screaming, her face paper-white and her eyes looking like they were staring at an unholy vision. The neighbourhood confirmed it was a demonic possession.
I couldn’t help but remember these unnerving supernatural occurrences as I watched the odd, unnatural happenings in what is otherwise a normal family reunion in TOWER. A BRIGHT DAY. Kaja (Malgorzata Szczerbowska) hasn’t seen her family for six years and she returns home and greets her sister Mula (Anna Krotoska) with an abnormally long wordless hug that suggests that perhaps something separated them for all these years that was beyond their human control. The chilly wind blows through and already there’s a feeling of the mystical in the air. This is conjured up by the cinematography - making the darkness just a little too dark and the brightness just a little too bright - and the hypnotically strong performances as the actors turn every glance and every smile looking like they were putting each other under an unspoken curse.
We later learn that the little girl Nina (Laila Hennessy) that Mula has been raising isn’t her biological daughter at all but Kaja’s. Mula grabs Kaja away from everyone else to make sure she doesn’t reveal to anyone the family secret. This is the only specific detail we learn. Everything else remains eerily enigmatic until the glorious final few minutes which answers many questions that were raised during the movie but in itself raises a hundred more. Kaja is coming home to be with her family in time for Nina’s first Holy Communion, a genius piece of narrative detail that hangs over the film as the strange incidents like the family dog going missing and sounds being hears inside the walls of the house, become more and more unsettling.
Shot like an intimate family drama with handheld pans and occasional zooms, it recalls the style of Dogme 95. It feels like you are watching a Lars von Trier film but instead of testing the limits of the audience through shock and provocations we get a dreamier approach. While von Trier excavates through the darkest depths of the human psyche, Polish director Jagoda Szelc is more fascinated by something beyond human. She turns her camera towards what is unknown and probably unknowable to us. Interspersed through this family portrayal are little scenes of characters performing unknown gestures and the natural world being unnatural - think of an image of a fireless tree blanketed with a cloud of smoke. You get the sense that Kaja’s arrival has changed the tenuous balance of their environment. As normality gradually fades what else are you left to grasp on to but superstitions and lore?