J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: The Ningyo (pilot)

According to legend, the ningyo is sort of like a Japanese mermaid, but if true, the lore surrounding the mythical beast holds much more dramatic implications. Supposedly, those who eat ningyo flesh will extend their longevity by centuries. However, the death of a ningyo will raise great storms and natural disasters to plague the nation of Japan. Therefore, it logically follows some people will be desperately looking for the ningyo, while others are determined to keep them undiscovered. A crypto-zoologist finds himself caught between two such factions in Miguel Ortega & Tran Ma’s independent pilot, The Ningyo (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

In this steampunky alternate 1911, Prof. C. Marlowe discovered the okapi in Africa, but his obsessive quest for the ningyo does not sit well with his museum or their donors. Even though the ancient map he recovered could be considered evidence, they just want Marlowe to shut up and go away. Yet, that map must be legit, because both the Bikuni clan and the shadowy H. Prestor Sealous want it, for very different reasons. Spurned by his colleagues, Marlowe agrees to a face-to-face with the latter, but there is no guarantee he will survive the trek to the creature-collector’s subterranean lair.

It is really amazing how fully Ortega and Ma realize the feeling and texture of a steampunk world, relying more on inspiration and creativity than things like cash. In contrast, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on films like The Wild, Wild West and The Golden Compass that look flat and pale in comparison.

Ortega and Ma also clearly know their ningyo lore, as well as their late Nineteenth Century/early Twentieth Century science fiction and adventure literature, visual allusions to which are sprinkled throughout the pilot/proof-of-concept short. Yet, we feel safe in assuming their first love is creating creatures, because there are a bunch of them in The Ningyo. Arguably, Sealous’s secret showroom ranks up there with Mos Eisley in the original Star Wars for the high number of invented species per capita.

As if that were not enough, cult film and television fans will definitely dig the cast, which includes Tamlyn Tomita (from The Karate Kid II and Awesome Asian Bad Guys) lending her elegant gravitas to the project as mysterious matriarch Kiyohime Bikuni, Louis Ozawa Changchien (recurring on The Man in the High Castle) personifying steeliness as the enforcer, Hatori Bikuni, and Jerry Lacy (from the original Dark Shadows) reveling in villainy as the evil Sealous. As Marlowe, Rodrigo Lopresti (a.k.a. The Hermit) also has a firm handle on brooding and scientific mumbo jumbo.

The Ningyo looks amazing and it is wildly fun to watch. However, since Marlowe is essentially a Gilded Age Indiana Jones, it should come as no surprise the pilot ends with a cliffhanger. Presumably, that will be true for all subsequent episodes, which just feels right for this kind of steampunk adventure genre. Anyone who sees the Ningyo pilot will hope to see the full series get produced soon. (Is anyone from Netflix or Amazon Studios free Sunday morning?) Regardless, it is just invigorating for genre fans to dive into such a richly crafted world. Very highly recommended, The Ningyo screens this Sunday (5/28) at the Soho Playhouse, as part of the Philip K. Dick Film Festival’s Fantasy and the Fantastic shorts block.

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