Early shots of Allison Chhorn’s The Plastic House (2019) tell a grim story. It’s dark. Headlights make a cemetery almost visible through a rained-on windshield. We (she) are definitely in this car alone. Windscreen wipers and gear changes are the only sound as we drive towards another site: plastic flowers strapped to a tree on the side of the road. Both parents dead a year apart, but a while ago – 2015 then 2016. This matter-of-fact telling makes clear that we’re not going to be taken through the bright, searing and shocking early stages of loss. We have landed in that other place; that dank, blank, hard space where the real work begins and where a functional disembodiment saves us from completely falling apart. The work of grief and that slog’s peculiar effect on time are two ideas that loop and knot throughout the film.
I’m not sure anyone that has lost someone would be able to separate their grief from the loss drawn so carefully in this film. I’m finding it hard not to refer to the death of my mother. She died in a car accident ten years ago. The film feels both universal and highly specific: a gift to those that have lost and a peek into an incredibly private, lonely experience.
Every shot and sound inside the greenhouse (plastic house) are rooted in reality thanks to some first-rate sound design, yet it’s a near impossible scene. We spend much of the film’s 45 minutes in the title location, following a young woman methodically work her parents bean field alone; ripping, pulling, digging, planting, digging, on and on. Long takes show the clearing of dead vines, then new shoots, then lush growth. This could be a dream, a journal entry or just pure metaphor, but it’s also very real. It’s the director’s family farm in South Australia, shot over four years (something I learned later). The familiarity is palpable and so the grief expressed feels familiar, too. I have no idea if Chhorn’s parents are actually dead, or if this is an expression of love and loss interlocked, and I didn’t try to find out. Deciphering between the ‘real’ or imaginary is pointless. To do so would be to wander too far from the emotional centre of the work. This essay runs on poetry.
Two spaces frame the film. The plastic greenhouse and its worker’s bedroom. Both are closed systems caught up in the loop of the protagonist’s imaginary – work then rest, then work again. Both spaces are given timelessness by a permanence of colour palette. Muted browns and yellows for the bedroom, muted greys and blues for Outside. Both are spaces for hiding, but the cracks in each ceiling mean neither can guarantee her safety. A pot catches the drips on her bedroom floor, a menacing wind threatens to tear through the flimsy plastic protecting her parents’ small field. In her bedroom, she sleeps under a quilt covered in a faint, blue print depicting scenes of a generic ‘Asian’ waterscape, forming a delicate reference to second generation immigrant experience; a familial nostalgia for something she may only have seen on screen or in books.
Contrast to these dreamy, gloomy scenes comes from extended splices of home video of her parents working the same field. Chatting in a mix of English and Khmer, observations about Australians, cooking tips, messages from home. Sound, again, plays a key part – this time the contrast of the video’s happy chatter feels warm and dry (safe), yet comparatively muffled, distanced, and ultimately unreachable. There is one lingering shot of her father’s hand through the plastic as he works on the roof. So simple yet the most impactful in a film full of eloquent imagery. She takes this shot home and watches it in her bed through her camera viewfinder as the low battery blinks a warning and my heart breaks again. These memories also have a shelf-life.
It all felt so familiar. Curled up in a ball in my rented apartment, long after the world had stopped thinking about mum’s sudden and terrible death. Rainy Melbourne. Hours, days, months past. It was the loneliest period of my life. I wanted to pin a sign on my chest to signify the grief that I carried around so that I didn’t have to explain or pretend I wasn’t walking around without a heart, with horrific images of the accident running in loops in the back of my head. I got up, showered, dressed, went to work again. Push, sleep, work, push, sleep, work, until one day, years later, I felt like myself again.
Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) came to mind again and again while watching The Plastic House. There was nothing derivative in it – but both are films in which the endless rain, dark velvety interiors and repeated gestures make the memory of something (or someone) so huge and marvellous that catharsis would be a cheap and shallow fix. Both Tsai and Chhorn know that this kind of loss is a weight that is there forever. They bear witness to the particular and familiar greatness of the mourned.