Monday, 17 July 2017

MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Chilling Indie Thriller at Fantasia 2017

What we don't see is what's really terrifying.

Most Beautiful Island (2017)
Dir. Ana Asensio
Starring: Ana Asenio, Natasha Romanova, Larry Fessenden

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Illegal alien.

In America this is the disparaging term they like affixing to someone looking for a better life. Yes, they are foreigners. Yes, they have entered the country illegally. In the vast majority of cases, these are people seeking the American Dream - honest, hardworking folk escaping poverty and/or political persecution/upheaval. They look to America as their saviour. America doesn't want them.

The real question though, is this: should these people want America?

Luciana (Ana Asensio) is one such illegal alien. She lives on that Most Beautiful Island, Manhattan. She's there to escape a turbulent, tragic, mysterious past. Life might have been hard before, but it's harder now. She goes from one menial, low-paying job (all under the table) to the next. But then, salvation comes. Her fellow illegal, a Russian "model" (Natasha Romanova), tells her about a job that will pay $2000 for one night and comes with the bonus of more if "she does good".

Luciana will be a party hostess. Apparently, there are no sexual favours involved. She's given specific instructions. Attire is a black cocktail dress. She must bring nothing with her, save for a mysterious black purse with a lock on it (that she's provided in the basement of a Chinatown restaurant). Oh, and she absolutely must have no identification on her.

A good offer? Well, in America, all such offers are too good to be true.

What follows is one of the most terrifying extended sequences committed to film in some time. (And yes, on film - Asenio's picture is gorgeously shot on Super 16mm.) Luciana finds herself in a dank basement warehouse presided over by a mean-looking doorman (Larry Fessenden). The room is populated by several gorgeous young women, all attired in black cocktail dresses, standing in a circle under murky, soft lights. A door opens. A group of affluent, well-dressed reprobates of both sexes enter. They inspect the black-frocked illegal aliens and whisper amongst each other. Once they leave, the women continue standing. Eventually, one of them is summoned. She's led into the other room.

Something is going to happen and it takes a good long time.

Most Beautiful Island is a terrific debut feature. Writer-director-star Asensio captures the lonely, desperate lives of illegal aliens with an indelible sense of observation that borders on Neo-realism. The final half of the picture, once Luciana enters the secret, horrifying dangerous world where illegal aliens are used as pawns for the rich in a deadly game, is unbearably suspenseful. Asensio paces these sequences with a creepy-crawly slow burn and it's impossible to sit still. Squirming is the order of the day for anyone watching this section of the film.

One element that's with me still is being in that room with those women while, one by one, they are summoned. What goes on behind the closed doors is not known to us, nor to the women. All we know is that it's not going to be good, whatever it is. That said, I have to admit I experienced minor disappointment once we were allowed to enter the room of reckoning. What occurs certainly works on a purely visceral level - this cannot be denied. However, even though what's revealed is rooted in something that is based in reality, it felt like a comedown to actually see what it is.

You see, what's scary is what we don't see. Lord knows there is a grand tradition of this that goes back to the groundbreaking work of Val Lewton and a little part of me wishes it stayed that way. Alas, audiences these days are inquiring minds that need to know. What they get is genuinely horrific, But damn, I keep imagining a movie where the horror of what we didn't see was maintained.

But that's okay. Most Beautiful Island is plenty scary.


Most Beautiful Island enjoys its Canadian Premiere at Fantasia 2017.