Short Film Review: The Ningyo
Visually striking and conceptually intriguing, The Ningyo provides a satisfying story despite its short run time.
Usually I find “Proof of Concept” shorts to be self indulgent, overblown tech demos. The Ningyo from Miguel Ortega and Tran Ma blows that conception out of the water, telling an interesting story in a beautiful manner. The visuals are crisp yet evocative, like a HD remastering of a sepia-toned photograph. The acting is competent and compelling, and the cinematography aids the writing in manner reminiscent of adventure games like MYST. I liked the film, even though at its heart it’s about Psuedoscience, and I HATE Psuedoscience.
The Ningyo (2017)
Dr. Marlowe is a cryptozoologist: an explorer in search of mythical creatures. After securing tenure at a University for his discovery of a rare creature described by locals as a unicorn, Marlowe sets his sights on a creature from Japanese folklore, the Ningyo. It is a mermaid-like creature with a tragic history, one that the Bikuni family is all too familiar with. When Marlowe seeks funding for a an expedition by revealing that he has found a map to the creatures home, the Bikuni family seeks to obtain the map by any means necessary.
The Ningyo is based on a real Japanese folk story, the Yao (or Hapyaku) Bikuni. The origin of the creature is taken almost directly from it’s historical telling, with a twist. This twist allows the movie to imagine the creature in a new setting and time. This time is the early 1900’s, when life was accelerating thanks to science and technology.
It’s an effective update, and the time setting is perfect for a story about a mythical curiosity existing alongside modern science. Science was hurtling along at a furious pace. Ideas were being created faster than they could be vetted (and often, debunked), and the world still had unexplored expanses hiding new wonders. That Marlowe is a crank that is moving forward due having made a legitimate discovery might seem novel to us, but it was par for the course back then.
In fact, it kind of reminds me of another famous film explorer.
Paging Dr. Jones!
This film reminded me of some of the best aspects of the Indiana Jones movies. While Jones was in a slightly more respectable field (archeology), he certainly liked to chase after the supernatural. His dual life as an academic and a daring field explorer has been condensed into it’s purest form in The Ningyo. Marlowe may be a little less dashing, and I didn’t seen a single Nazi get decked, but the film captures that sense of wonder, the thrill of seeking out the novel and the strange.
The visuals in The Ningyo are excellent. The sense of time and place are wonderful: the film feels both very new and extremely old. The camera work also acts as a helping hand; it allows the 26 minute run time to have extra depth by cueing the audience’s eye so as to drop information efficiently. The pacing works very well in this film, and it’s not an insult to say that this film felt longer than it actually is. The film feels full without the viewer feeling force fed.
This film works well as both a trip through time and an expedition into the unknown. If you liked the “creature of the week” episodes of the X-files, or let your attention linger longer than you should on one of the History Channel’s cryptozoology shows, The Ningyo will satisfy. If you like period pieces, seeing the 1900’s in glorious HD is also worth the asking price.
BTW, the asking price is free. The Ningyo is available on Vimeo, and I found it through Short of the Week, a site that curates short films. Get your fishing net, your compass, and your shaky theories about phlogiston out and join the search for the Ningyo.
Also, if you’d like, the creators of this short film are looking to expand it into a full feature length film, and their kickstarter is available here.