Published Feb 01, 2002Six years after the release of "Ghost in the Shell," Mamoru Oshii's has made a departure from his meditative and intelligent animation work to direct "Avalon," a project that he waited and dreamt of making for a good decade before realising that vision. The world that unravels in front of Oshii's camera eye is sophisticated and demands a patience of its viewers that is a credit to its director.
Alluding to the kind of visual bleakness and sense of history that can only be found in the enclaves of Europe, Oshii chose to set the film in a near-future Poland. It is a future characterised by dreary routines and a landscape scattered with only the bare minimal requirements for a daily existence, if that at all. What provides respite is an illegal virtual reality war game called "Avalon" - itself an anachronistic trip as it seems to replicate the war-torn, rubble-filled streets of a derelict Europe in World War II rather than a futuristic escape hatch. It is also a future in which skilled players can make a living off of playing games and moving up the levels. But if they get lost in the virtual realm, they are categorised as "Unreturned" and are hospitalised, in a state of indefinite catatonia. Ash - the film's protagonist - is also a skilled Class A player. Previously a member of the legendary war group Wizard, she now leads a solitary life in both the "real" and "virtual" landscapes. When she hears of fellow player and Wizard member Murphy's disappearance into an ambiguous portion of Avalon, now deemed an "Unreturned" player, she ventures towards Class A Special with some others to find him.
Using this premise, Oshii has crafted a remarkably poignant and layered film. Kenji Kawai's ethereal score -orchestral and operatic rather than electronic-based - as well as Grzegorz Kedzierski's cinematography are key ingredients in the film's overall sense of cohesion. Kedzierski's visual efforts are especially fundamental in the narrative structure of the film and in the construction of various, often overlapping realities. The world of the war-filled game Avalon is awash in a yellowish-brown filter and the reality of combat is only shattered by the death sequences of the player's opponents who break apart and disappear like shards of glass when shot. Death is a bizarre mirage in a game that affords plenty of detachment from its "real-life" implications, in itself an interesting commentary on the nature of modern-day warfare. Alternately, Ash's real world is a sepia-toned, banal space of repetitive gestures. The eerie routine of her subway ride home, the walk to her apartment and solitude indoors is only interrupted by the love she shares with her pet dog. The sepia-tone and fuzzy imagery accentuate the static nature of a world in which she always sees the same people, occupying the same spaces wordlessly everywhere she goes. It is like she is walking through one photograph after another and one begins to get the feeling that in fact, it is simply another virtual reality, a kind of placebo to complement Avalon. Hints of some break in this reality are provided by tones of colour. Not coincidentally, her dog and the reserve of meat and fresh vegetables with which she makes his meals are colour-toned, thus locating the comfort of an unadulterated reality in nature.
Though Ash is a deft and stoic player in Avalon, evidently, she too wishes to reach Class A Special. When this process is initiated, she removes her virtual reality game helmet to discover herself in her room, which is now bricked in, a non-identifiable place. Class A Special, also known as Class Real, is revealed awash in the colour-filled streets of modern-day Poland, a reality just like ours. However, her search for Murphy reveals that even the pinnacle of reality symbolized by this other Avalon, is after all, only another juncture in the game. Deliberately hinting at the genre of film(s) in which femme fatale-like protagonists wearing black dresses and wielding a gun attempt to identify the good from the bad, Ash is suddenly transported into that film-like world. At first, one is given the impression that perhaps this other realm of Avalon, Class Real will be the perceived utopia players may anticipate. But Oshii thankfully avoids such a compromised gesture.
In a dissimilar instance, "The Matrix" had a nuanced premise and development, only to compromise itself by offering a neat solution. Oshii's contention with Hollywood's take on the virtual reality genre is that it always provides safe closure, a return to a better or "real" world. "Avalon" resolutely avoids this. It also exposes the illusory aspect of cinema in a deceptively simple but pointed final frame. Oshii has chosen to offer no definite reality as a safe haven therefore making an appropriately demanding gesture towards the audience.