By Jana Rankov
In Karen Lam’s The Curse of Willow Song, Vancouver is stripped of the high production values that usually disguises it in the latest Netflix or CW speculative drama. The nondescript gloss, which most productions liberally apply to reduce the city to but a backdrop for international audiences (think of Riverdale’s use of popular pink and blue neon lighting schemes), is replaced by purposefully employed black and white. Cinematographer Thomas Billingsley casts ubiquitous alleyways and Vancouver landmarks in a familiar grey, immediately establishing that this is a film shaped by the city in which it was made. Through this local lens, the film reveals the horrors of our city; its housing crisis, the inequality in wealth and who has access to it, and the racism that shuts people out. Willow Song’s Vancouver is situated firmly in the Downtown Eastside and founded in deep inequality that’s strong enough to become a catalyst for supernatural metamorphosis.
We meet Willow (played by Valerie Tian) after she’s taken the fall for her brother’s crimes, battled through addiction, and commenced a precarious new life in ‘the system’. Willow’s physical unease is accentuated by her oversized hoodie and the dingy shelter where she lives amidst mold and low ceilings. She is frequently framed off-centre and filmed with a handheld camera, establishing her as the embodiment of the discomfort that permeates the film. In turn, the structures, institutions and systems that she bristles at seem equally uncomfortable with her presence.
This mutually antagonistic dynamic is exemplified in a scene that finds Willow’s probation officer (Amanda Burke) answering charges of ignorance with offhandedly racist remarks. Like much of the racism woven into the film’s exploration of disenfranchisement within the city, this interaction is taken directly from writer-director Karen Lam’s life. (Albeit in Lam’s case, the exchange occurred during a NEXUS interview.) Willow’s only friend Flea (Ingrid Nilson) is not a source of comfort either, constantly insisting that their world is one of exploitation. When Willow’s boss suddenly leaves her without work, Flea is proven right. ‘The system’ cracks open and she tumbles back onto the street where her perilous old life awaits. When Wolf (Adam Lolacher) comes looking for money he thinks he’s owed, Willow narrowly escapes with the help of Dani (Elfina Luk), her brother’s girlfriend. When Dani arranges for her to live in a large, abandoned warehouse in Surrey, her past takes an even tighter grip on her.
Though the realities of Willow’s life are beyond her control, it soon becomes apparent that she is far from powerless. Inspired by visual compositions of manga, Lam paints the empty space around Willow in darkness – she is again framed off-centre, underscoring her continuing unease. Left alone in the vast recesses of the warehouse, something begins to fester. In a state suspended between dream and reality, she glides across the halls of the warehouse on her first night. After another day of fruitlessly looking for work while facing racism and distrust, her nightly wanderings repeat themselves, with the addition of a black substance that oozes out of the pores of the wall behind her. From here, the film eases its audience into an ambiguous realm steeped in supernatural suspense. A pattern emerges in which her daytime vulnerability is sharply contrasted with her dark transformation at night. As the nighttime sequences increase in duration, an untethered camera floats around Willow ethereally and an ominous black shape grows like a storm cloud, resulting in a complex visual metaphor for the disenfranchised of Vancouver.
The warehouse is one of many empty spaces that haunt the city. The vacant houses, apartments, and storefronts are a constant reminder of the inequality and greed that has left many residents facing housing insecurity. This absurdity does not go without comment in the film. When introducing the warehouse, Dani surmises, “The thing about this city? You leave an empty space and next thing you know, you got squatters”. Having been repeatedly refused conventional means of sustaining herself, Willow has no choice but to yield to a different power through her symbiosis with the warehouse. Her anxiety and alienation are amplified in the space that represents them, manifesting as psychokinetic abilities. The black and white cinematography further enhances this connection: just as it’s uniquely suited to depicting Vancouver’s grey palette, it creates an unsettling tone for Willow’s transformation, suggesting that her psychokinetic powers are an extension of the city.
Whether Willow has any control over her metamorphosis is unclear, leaving the viewer to interpret the true nature of her powers. Could these abilities have been harnessed or channelled constructively had Willow not been so mistreated? Was she always doomed to be monstrous? Slowly, the warehouse itself becomes a character, offering Willow a sense of support she’s otherwise lacking and resources and distractions – chairs in need of restoring – that provide rare moments of peace. However, this moment of solace isn’t a harbinger of the future that awaits. Rather, it serves to taunt both Willow and the audience with a reality that the system has made unattainable.
By the climax, Willow has been betrayed and extorted, but is far from helpless. Willow and the warehouse have become one, with her psychokinetic abilities a particularly wicked manifestation of her newfound ability to protect herself. Having assumed the form of a whirling, menacing black expanse, she dispatches those who would cause her harm or threaten her peace. The film’s last frame, Willow’s transformed face further distorted by a horrifying and horrified scream, is both a testament to her newfound powers and the entrenched circumstances that spawned them.
The Curse of Willow Song is currently available on the VIFF Connect streaming platform.