As part of Odyssey 2023’s programme, an unusual film title was included to spark conversation about what Chinese investors, producers and actors can get involved in the international landscape beyond Chinese cinema. A special screening took place on 27 May at The Prince Charles Cinema with Josie Ho attended a live Q&A in person.
A wide, bold-faced title card, evoking the refreshingly imprecise attention paid to those of B-movies like Hard Ticket to Hawaii, opens Janell Shirtcliff’s Habit, a film that draws from the aforementioned low-budget genre escapades in more ways than just graphic design. The blindingly bright pink pastel hues and Jesus figurines immediately establish a departure from such facile and suffocating critical notions such as “taste” or “subtlety”, instead grounding the film firmly in the realm of somewhat lurid fantasy.
The international cut of Shirtcliff’s debut feature- edited by none other than William Chang Suk-ping, oftentimes collaborator of Wong Kar-wai on art direction, costuming and cutting- foregoes narrative and even thematic veracity, choosing instead to communicate in delightfully on-the-nose pastiche and performances that express a specificity of emotion with the broadest possible brush.
Perhaps it’s because the film is set in a cine-literate approximation of Los Angeles, using the existing foundation of trafficking in surface-deep images and magenta-hued sunsets to establish a palette where the many tropes it employs are enforced in service of euphoria. The very same desire for short-lived ecstasy is shared by the ragtag band of young LA emigres that the film follows, whose arbiter and mouthpiece takes the form of Mads (Bella Thorne). Thorne’s performance as the archetypal church-girl-gone-bad seems rooted in the same subversion of innocence that accompanied Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which similarly placed Disney Channel veterans in the context of the postmodern heist flick. Here, however, it is with less sincerity than it is with knowing amusement that Shirtcliff’s film plays out its various encounters with soft-spoken drug dealers and hitmen with Southern drawls, running through rudimentary genre motions as a means to provide its performers to engage in ornate tableaus of camp.
This tonal commitment to maintenance of absurdity is exemplified by Josie Ho’s parodic rendition of a drug lord in Queenie, whose introduction in a slightly run-down restaurant in Hong Kong sets the ground for the delicate tonal balance the film operates in- whilst Ho is given ample opportunity to vamp (something she clearly relishes) as a sadist with an Elvira hairdo, there’s also a consistent weight to the violence on display that prevents it from suspension into absolute levity. Take the choreography of the various killings in the film, which are less centred on geography of action than they are on emphasizing cathartic release and bravado- a sequence set in a church towards the end of the film takes particular delight in showcasing the methodical separation of neck tissue from a head.
In a similar vein, the film draws heavily upon calculatedly heavy-handed satires of sexuality (Showgirls and Cruel Intentions come to mind) as a conduit for exploring its admittedly thinly-sketched but vibrant characters. At the centre of this exploration is the alluded-to presence of divinity which, as with virtually everything else in the film, is less played straight than it is satirized. Yet, as barebones as its dramatic structure is, it is precisely the film’s engagement with the age-old trope of naivety being unceremoniously subsumed by transactionalism that lends its pastiche a degree of emotional earnestness all its own. Its characters are archetypes entrapped within the roteness of genre, and who therefore attempt to escape from said constraints through leaning into the absurdity of these situations.
Josie Ho’s maniacal drug lord is particularly revealing in this instance, in that for all the glee her character takes in enacting wanton laceration upon just about anyone who comes in her way, she is afforded (in equal terms) a degree of vulnerability that is reflective of her work in the films of Johnnie To, particularly exiled. The rapid pace of the cuts, which often focus on sensations or surfaces as opposed to discernible images, therefore appears to be intentionally at odds with the personal strife of the characters within the frame, propelling them into uncertain futures that they are clearly not equipped to handle.
Though its employing of comically overused Duran and Billy Joel tracks as needledrops often toes the line with regards to disrupting a delicate tonal balance, Habit, for the most part, a work of conscious pastiche that seems elated with the ludicrousness of its existence as a film where a winner of multiple Hong Kong film awards and an ex-Disney star can share the same space onscreen. Taking what could very easily become a mind-numbingly dull retreading of gonzo genre fare, Shirtcliff and company manage to wring a work genuine, unsullied camp, which takes as much delight in giving its performers a palette to vogue in charmingly anachronistic costumes whilst extracting all the requisite frenzied momentum offered by the simple structure of a drug deal gone wrong.