The Sacrament (Japan, 2017)

In a time when self-referentiality is no longer a theoretical symptom of the time, but its actual mode of existence, it is hard to convince one’s self of any more grand mythologies if one’s not in a mode of nostalgia. Which is why it is not hard for any cultural material of contemporary times to be nostalgic. But its nostalgia does not serve a reimagination of a certain collective and historical experience, but rather a reproduction based on an isolated experience of old mythologies and mystifications. This kind of nostalgia tends to be haunted rather than haunting – it tends to be more of a presentation, a spectacle of the spectre, rather than an inclusive experience of the spectre. Isola Iwakiri’s The Sacrament crosses these paths and attempts to resolve its very own contradictions. The film tries to reach for a myth while being self-referential in form.

The Sacrament opens with a grainy image of a short haired woman looking at the moon from a terrace, who then talks to the camera about the possibility of dying from a fall. Later on, the film cuts to a shot of a colorful rug, marked with the date of March 31, then proceeds with a scene straight out of a young-adult manga: a first person POV shot looking at a big-breasted woman reading a comic book, talking to the camera. She later walks to the camera, filling the frame with her bosoms. These two sequences mark the myths that the film follows over the course of its running time and demonstrate the attitude it has for the medium that it aims to explore.

The film is haunted by something. Firstly, by its very premise: the man behind the camera is introduced as Isola (also the film’s director) who has been asked by his University Film Club senior Tachibana (Agata Gouki) to find a female actress for his film. After a failed series of attempts to recruit an actress, Isola learns through a friend about a mysterious girl who appears every four years since the foundation of their Film Club and can make a film project a success if she’s found and her three demands are fulfilled. Isola takes this incomplete story to heart, then later meets Minami (Mio Minami), a beautiful yet mysteriously quiet girl, who he asks to star in their film. His second haunting occurs in their club’s activity.

The Sacrament is less about the pursuit of the muse than it is a questioning of the art of filmmaking. The film that Isola is creating, rather cinema itself, is the second thing which haunts the film. It can even be said that cinema haunts the film through Minami, too. What Isola is searching for is what is left of cinema within his generation. We are faced with two responses. First, the group of people which actively rejected Isola, with one even mistaking him for being a YouTubers, but this rejection is not a violent one, they are simply not interested in cinema. Secondly, the ghost-like figure of the pale-skinned yet mole-stained face of Minami. Ogami (Sara Ogami), the short haired girl from the opening sequence who is later revealed as Isola’s senior from the club, mediates between Minami’s and Isola’s film’s haunting. She heads the group which helps Isola finish his film. But like the people Isola invited at the school fair to join their club, Ogami and her crew are not that interested in what Isola is doing.

The discussion of cinema has moved forward from where The Kirishima Thing (2012) and Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013) left off. The question pressing in cinema for this film is no longer the question of celluloid versus video filmmaking, but more ontological. It questions cinema itself as a form of human activity. Is cinema even worth the effort? What even is cinema in the time of YouTube? It is clear that Isola’s pursuit of his muse is also his persistence for cinema, both of which are mythologies he’s been believing in, of which other people around him have already moved on from.

Isola’s mission is faced with the films’ largest contradiction in its form: the excessive use of first-person point of view practices, initially used in “found footage” filmmaking, but later for video-blogging. It’s a contradiction because “found footage” filmmaking has always been the pretext of the coming of the postcinematic condition. But the techniques’ self-referentiality opened a room for discourse between cinema as past referent to its present conditions: it does not leave cinema hanging in empty nostalgia, but places it against the new realities of the contemporary time. Cinema in The Sacrament is the holy thing (direct translation of the film’s Japanese title, Seinaru Mono) which now faces the domain of YouTube video productions as its adversarial counterpart.

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