“Unidentified” offers a unique perspective on the concept of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ [Fantastic Fest]

During Fantastic Fest 2022, there is a segment of films the festival placed under a section titled “Burnt Ends.” To paraphrase the section description, it includes a selection of films that may have been made on a shoe-string budget, they may be boundary pushing or audience challenging, and they may be just a little wild in their art or artistry. Having its world premiere within the Burnt Ends section is writer/director Jude Chun’s 80-minute rumination on nature, humanity, and alienation (in the literal and figurative sense) in Unidentified, a science fiction drama that asks “what if we’re not alone in the universe?” from a very different and distinct perspective.

In 1993, a giant spherical UFO appeared in the sky above several cities on Earth. 29 years later, they remain as idle as when they first appeared, yet there is a growing sense that the occupants are now living among us. With the rising uncertainty comes feelings of isolation and belonging at war with each other. In both instances, the battleground and the stakes are the same: Earth.

Burnt Ends

Fantastic Fest Burnt Ends logo.

There’s scant information on the film available and searches for Chun lead to very little, so it’s difficult to craft any sense of Chun’s perspective or feelings toward this project. Sometimes that’s helpful when reviewing a film as intention is often a major part as to whether a film succeeds in accomplishing its goal. In this case, however, building one’s own interpretation of intent may be just as valid as seeking to understand Chun’s given the intentional vignette-styled structure and not totally connected nature of the film. In conjunction with frequent esoteric moments, one might feel as though the film is without an anchor, yet there’s a persistence to each portion, each story, each interaction that conveys a greater message regarding current perceptions as they relate to “the other” and the ways in which individuals seek connection.

So let’s break this down into more easily examinable portions.

There’s a perceived threat in just about every country that a group from outside their borders is going to come in and disrupt things, even take over. The notion is that if enough people arrive from elsewhere, the country itself will lose what makes it itself. This is potentially true, but all things evolve. All things change. Sometimes what was is remembered and sometimes not, but, all of this is entirely driven by fear, not love or hope. Fear makes everyone and everything that’s different a threat and therefore bad. It’s the reason that, especially after COVID-19 appeared, there was an uptick in violent incidents against Asian immigrants living in the United States and abroad. But let’s keep things focused in the U.S. for a moment, as there are countless videos of Caucasian Americans shouting at or physically assaulting anyone foreign-looking, often while telling them to “go home.” After a few sections of Unidentified, there’s an attack presented, with the cop who speaks to the victim after telling her that there’s been a rise of these incidents. Why was she, a waitress serving food, attacked by a patron? The patron didn’t like her attitude and, upon learning she’s young than 29, immediately took to violence, accusing her of being an alien. Considering the film opens with a voice narrating how her parents met on the day the UFOs arrived and her birth nine months to the day later, Chun begins with the presumption that babies were born as a result of the incident. (As an American-born individual raised by two Baby Boomers, well — there’s a reason that generation is called Boomer — and Chun weaponizes it to explore xenophobia.) Anyone below the age of 29 is immediately suspect and once this sequence takes place, the undercurrent of who is an alien and who isn’t grows a little louder and the intention of this question becomes a little more pronounced.

Despite this attack and what it comes to represent throughout the film, Unidentified doesn’t seem to be coming down on the side of xenophobia and what an infiltration of extraterrestrials could mean. Before the sequence with the attack, there’s one of an office with workers lined up at their desks working on data entry. One worker, clearly zoned out, starts playing with the directional keys, making the highlighted sector move as if dancing. His co-worker sees this and jumps into his doc, turning the solo digital dance into a partner exercise. Soon after, when it’s time to clock out, the scene turns into an extended dance sequence as the worker plugs in and dances his way to his destination. Who among us hasn’t gotten so engrossed in their music that they —  at work, at home, in their car — started moving to the beats, allowing the rhythms to flow through you. The scene itself doesn’t speak to the “otherness” as some of the other sequences and it doesn’t have to. It’s just pure delight to watch the actor, Jubin Kim (also the choreographer for the film), move through the streets and alleyways as he conveys, without self-conscious thought, what he’s feeling. Human or alien, who gives a damn when something is just so joyful. Later, in a much larger and extended choreographed dance number, the audience is once again asked if their heritage matters, but, in this instance, the dance is far more specific, as though we’re watching a cultural event or celebration occur before us. The sounds and movements, the attire of the dancers, all of it speaks to any number of Indigenous communities around the globe, our Earth, implying a connectedness to nature that supersedes our own. If they are alien, does this make them as or more connected to their new home? If they are human, does it illustrate their ownership? As structured, from vignette to vignette, one might presume a disconnection between the solo dancer to the group, yet it almost asks the same question regarding humanity and the perception that if one comes from somewhere else, they must be a threat to be expunged rather than someone to welcome and share with.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the film is the way that Chun chose to shoot the film, as if it’s some kind of documentary, shifting between seemingly disconnected character interactions, talking head interviews about people’s experiences with extraterrestrials, as well as shots of one of the spheres as it floats above Korea. This is an instance where the audience needs to be open to the experience as, at first, the vignettes and directorial style don’t seem to be telling one story. By the end, however, it becomes clear that the design is all purposeful, that the message (as I read it) is one of inclusion and learning, and that the audience should end Unidentified with a sense of awe and wonder about the world around them. Particularly as the film does address humankind’s cruelty to nature as absentminded and unconcerning, yet are terribly worried that ::gasp:: someone from another country might come live in their neighborhood, there’s a sense that, perhaps, humanity is concerned about the wrong things entirely.

Unidentified image 1

A scene from UNIDENTIFIED.

There’s quite a bit that’ll feel unconventional about Unidentified. Aspect ratios shift depending on whether it’s a vignette or a more documentary-like sequence. The score from Noe Gonzalez both haunts and uplifts. The performances move between stilted and natural, possibly to convey social awkwardness or something more alien. If one were to judge the totality of the film based on its individual parts, then, yes, it would be very difficult to connect with the story Chun is telling. But if you allow yourself to open up, to move your perception out, what’s Unidentified will come into clear view.

Screening during Fantastic Fest 2022.

For more information, head to the official Burnt Ends Fantastic Fest webpage.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

Categories: Films To Watch, In Theaters, Recommendation, Reviews

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