“Shen” is a must-watch, 20-minute thriller from two Stanford students. The plot — tracking a young black woman, her white boyfriend and her schizophrenic episodes in a “Rosemary’s Baby” apartment — is the brainchild of Jace Alexander Casey ’17 and Abigail Flowers ’17. Flowers writes, Casey directs, edits and composes music and both produce. Casey uses the techniques of several of cinema’s best thriller-makers (Roman Polanski, David Lynch, John Carpenter) to tell a surrealist story from a unique cinematic angle: the black American woman’s perspective.
The densely packed symbolism of “Shen” — never overbearing, heavy, or obvious — means that several rewatches are necessary in order to unspool its mystery. All I will say is that there is a black woman named Shen (Caitlyn O’Grady). She has a white boyfriend named Scott (Blake Robert Ward). Shen and Scott have bought an apartment. And Shen is followed by a mysterious French-looking artist (Matthieu Montagiu). Saying anything further is a spoilsport’s way of giving away the crucial plot turns.
“Shen” takes a novel approach to representing a female perspective of mental illness. In film history, hysteria has traditionally been shown as this wild, violent, loud thing, with the intensity of a hurricane. From Lillian Gish pulling her hair out from inside a locked closet in “Broken Blossoms” (1919), there has been an unhealthy attraction to depicting frail women in the throes of increasingly dramatic, bombastic breakdowns. Flowers’ scenario shies away from the clichéd trappings of such breakdown films, approaching something similar to Elisabeth Moss’s subdued mental collapse in “Queen of Earth” (2015), or Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek pulling the ol’ “Persona” switcheroo in Altman’s feminist “3 Women” (1977). Judging from O’Grady’s calming presence, you wouldn’t necessarily think anything was wrong with her character until the second or third viewing. Flowers and Casey do not depict breakdown as a dramatic spectacle, but rather as a quiet, steady buildup—to what? We shan’t say here.
You could say that the tensions of “Shen” come down to a study of acting opposites: the grounded female and the insecure male. From the beginning to the end, it is Shen’s story. Casey’s camera takes on her spiritual perspective, even if never literally. In Shen’s world, she’s never given the full opportunity to really say what she wants to say. Like Shen herself, the film seems to drift in and out of a hazy consciousness. Nothing seems finished: Sentences are half-swallowed, the lazy new apartment never looks comfortably inhabited or lived-in. Casey crowds his frames with unopened moving boxes and beds with the plastic still on them. It gives the setting a sketchy, unfinished quality — which allows the ambiguities of Shen’s story to flourish. Because the filmmakers are so locked into Shen’s POV, the film leaves the viewer hungry for some answers. Thankfully, neither Casey nor Flowers provide anything concrete.
Yes, the whole film is (here’s a cliché) like a dream, but how so? The images are loose, falling upon the next scene’s coattails as if they were shot from the depths of a Shen-dreamed REM cycle where everything is recalled, at a later time, as a jumbled mess. There’s no connection, no glue between consecutive bits of film. Everything seems haunted with meaning that refuses to make itself clear. A beginning skit of a French artist sketching Shen is chilling if you don’t think about what it may mean. The questions that spring up — “Where is this sea? Where is their apartment? What’s this dude’s problem?” — are all consciously disorienting decisions made by Flowers and Casey to get the viewer in a state of Polanski-esque paranoia. Casey and Flowers succeed in giving us a puzzle film that works as a mystery unto itself, regardless of whether you’re able to solve the puzzle.
The presence of a paranoid boyfriend (Ward) makes “Shen” a riveting study into romantic jealousy, when one partner is not who they are on the surface. At one point, the boyfriend asks Shen, “Where have you been?” with fluctuating decibel levels and cartooned expressions taken from Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” The boyfriend is almost always awkwardly framed by the camera, making him look ill at ease in any given couch-shower-bed position. He’s most frightening in vertical compositions, where he looms over his girlfriend not as a partner but as a dictator. She has a coolness that makes her acting style calm and believable, while her Mr. White Shirt stretches all over the place. “What about ME?!” he yells in a self-pitying cry, as he pulls her violently down her bed like a little boy playing with an action figure. He never seems to properly communicate with Shen on any level: verbal, sexual or emotional. He even seems to act a different person in each take. The most unforgettable shot of Mr. White Shirt is after the pull-down, when he towers over Shen, his white “wife-beater” matching the blindingly cream-colored walls of the new apartment. Within a single shot, Casey creates a whole network of condescension and disturbing white-male superiority.
It is not Shen who acts out; it is the boyfriend. Because we’re in her perspective, everything seems normal and in place except her. There’s an interesting double-exposure effect that comes out of this: subverting a movie cliché (unhysterical woman) through a depiction of a classic movie story (“A Woman Under the Influence”).
Nothing about the way Casey uses these dream-images seems trite in the slightest. Even a swimming sequence (always used by filmmakers to indicate a feeling of helplessness and “drowning inside”) avoids an easy message with its bizarrely erotic, underwater foreplay between the Mephistophelian Frenchie and the completely sexually free Shen. As the actors move like they’re being downloaded illegally, the pool-world seems sluggish, swimming through a WKW/Christopher Doyle delay effect. A series of ritualized nuptials are staged for the stumped viewer: The French artist sketches Shen underwater, against a column of pool stairs resembling a wedding cake, then slips off her ring like a used condom. (Pretty strange.) The dream images always land with a disturbingly erotic zest.
Much is left up in the air. Are they married? Do they have kids? Are they expecting? Is the scar on her stomach indicative of a pregnancy gone bad? The dancing between specificity (Casey: “It is very easy for me to locate ‘Shen’ within a larger history of white men abusing Black women sexually, physically, mentally.”) and ambiguity (Where did she come from? Where is she going?) is one of the film’s strongest points. In fact, it’s possible to think about this movie as a nightmare the Shen character has during her first night in the apartment. From dreams and nightmares come spilling the desires we keep pent up during our waking life. Her fear and oppression, then, results in the nightmarish surrealism seen in “Shen.”
What’s good about this student film is that it doesn’t have the “let’s-make-do-with-what-we’ve-got” mentality. Rather, its aim is high, because it wants to tell a highly unique story. Its professional look — courtesy of Eva Ye — is clean, elegant. And yes, there are technical flaws. Sound is tinny and scrunched-up, there’s very little flow of acting between several crucial shots near the end, etc. But you don’t really dwell on these for too long. Casey powers through, chatting at a roundtable with some of cinema’s high-speed thriller thinkers: Polanski and his apartments, Lynch and his soundscapes, Carpenter and his lean bursts of violence. Casey and Flowers’ film has a thrill-filled yarn to tell, and it tells it in a coolly confident fashion.
Look out for a notice of a “Shen” screening on campus. “Shen” has already played at the 2016 Harlem International Film Festival in New York, where it received the Top Shorts award, and will play at the Velvet Rope Film Festival in Sacramento and the Laughlin International Film Festival in Nevada.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.