Critics – whether seated at Cannes or in front of their TV set – are always looking for ways to meaningfully connect what are usually very diverse films. From my viewing of three American movies of mid 2019 on Netflix – the horror-thriller The Perfection, the kids sci-fi action comedy Rim of the World and the spirited teen movie Booksmart – I was struck by one particularly odd sign o’ the times.
The Perfection has a section set in China, and one of its main characters speaks a little Mandarin; Rim of the World features a Chinese girl who vows love to her uncomprehending American pal in Mandarin; and, completely out of the blue in Booksmart, the two teen heroines decide that the best way to hide their private conversation from their school Principal to is to fluently converse, for a few moments, in Mandarin (rather than Spanish, which they also know).
I shall leave it to the sociologically inclined among us to speculate on why Netflix feels it is so pressingly necessary to pay homage to the economic super-power of China in this manner, and at this exact moment in global history.
In fact, China may not be terribly happy about its depiction in The Perfection. After a vision of Shanghai’s metropolitan splendour, with our central characters Charlotte (Allison Williams from Girls) and Lizzie (Logan Browning) participating in an event promoting a prestigious music school, we are plunged into the country’s rural wasteland. Or so it seems, in the classically paranoiac Midnight Express (1978) style: as Lizzie gets sick – extremely sick – on a cheap, cross-country bus ride, the driver scowls, the locals shun her, and the one guy who can speak English informs her there is likely to be no medical assistance available for many kilometres.
But, beyond this roughly 15 minute section, The Perfection mainly stays within the US base of its musical institution’s operations. In this elite, privately funded retreat, young people – all of them girls, it seems – are removed from their families and assiduously groomed for artistic “perfection”.
As I began to watch this film, I mused to myself that it is perhaps only in the still romanticised and exotic world of classical music education that we, as viewers, will put up with sadistic master/pupil rituals worthy of the ballet training in The Red Shoes (1948) – the woeful Suspiria remake of 2018 also revisits this steamy S&M cauldron.
But no, as it turns out, The Perfection is very much attune to its post-Harvey Weinstein, “Me Too” moment – perhaps defensively so, given that it is, in part, a Miramax production.
This is one of those movies that renders itself almost impossible to review, in that, after its initial set-up, it’s all crazy twists and revelations – and so to talk about it in any depth is to automatically spoil what little fun it gives. Suffice to say, the type of genre-hopping in which it indulges – from sleek thriller to gory body-horror, mixed with an almost Michael Haneke-style self-critique of High Art – is rapidly emerging as the chief hallmark of the Netflix Film, if we can give it that genre tag. All that, plus a dash of Mandarin, of course.
Director Richard Shepard, apart from stints on Girls, Ugly Betty and a handful of other TV series, has nine features to his credit since debuting in 1990 – and he’s the type of do-everything, shape-shifting showman ideally suited for a slice-and-dice confection like The Perfection.
© Adrian Martin May 2019