There’s a scene in The Passage in which Philip Burgers’s (a.k.a. Dr. Brown) character is being flogged by a Korean spa patron in a private room of a men’s bathhouse. At least I think it’s a Korean bathhouse. Director Kitao Sakurai (The Eric Andre Show) never gives us the crutch of English subtitles for any of the myriad languages spoken over the course of his 22-minute film. We’ve got to subsist on Burgers’s special brand of physical comedy, a dreamlike palette masterfully created by Sakurai, and the promise that a TBS-funded Super Deluxe–Abso Lutely Productions co-production will be worth the watch.
And it is, in the way that being flogged by a bundle of leaves might deliver self-actualization, some kind of masochistic oneness, catharsis … after you get past the fact that it really fucking hurts.
A modern, A24-y take on a silent movie, The Passage follows a happy wanderer as he narrowly escapes a pair of bumbling assailants by accepting one helpful stranger’s invitation after another. It premiered at Sundance earlier this year and went on to win the Best Short Fiction prize at the L.A. Film Festival, Best Comedy at Aspen Shortsfest, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Nashville Film Festival. Laurels be damned, at no point during my living-room screening did I want to keep watching. I didn’t enjoy, I persevered.
The film is great. Beautiful. Poignant, but I didn’t understand it. Literally. As Burgers shuffled from one world to another — always in soul-crushingly innovative cinematic fashion — the lack of any language I could process made for a lack of narrative clarity. That lack of clarity forced me to do the thing I hate most in the world: going with the flow. I had nothing to hold on to, no familiar rhythm to facilitate my viewing two-step, so I had to trust in the short’s message, if only I could figure out what the hell it was.
Like our protagonist, I was just another white man flailing between culturally rich worlds that welcomed me one after the other, eager to show me how they did things, what they offered. Except our hero looked like he was having a hell of a lot more fun than I was, even when he was being flogged, or stranded on the high seas, or witnessing a Nordic fishing-boat murder. Even as he is being chased by two henchmen out for his blood — the motor in The Passage’s Rorschach-inkblot of a story engine — Burgers’s wanderer is able to enjoy the ride. He is able to suspend fear and insecurity and alienation and listen, feel, speak, even though he can’t exchange a word.
Why couldn’t I enjoy things the way he did? Why couldn’t I grasp the fact that I wasn’t meant to understand? At least not in the way I thought one should.
Not until the credits did I realize that The Passage had accomplished exactly what it was out to accomplish in making me uncomfortable. In charting a cinematic journey different from one I’ve ever taken or wished to take, it forced me out of myself and on a journey of my own. How many films do that? I couldn’t viscerally appreciate any part of the work without understanding and reflecting on it as a whole.
It’s sad to see Super Deluxe go, but taking in The Passage is a wonderful way to say goodbye.