A young, slender actress, Mimi, approaches a high-end hotel with gift in hand. She arrives at the room of fellow actress Xue-Lan who at first seems put out by the visitor at her door until she acknowledges Mimi and her expression changes to a well-practiced smile before welcoming Mimi in. They retire to the veranda where they sit wordlessly. Xue-Lan is focused on her smart phone as Mimi waits. The battlements of their superficial friendship is practically visible. Mimi pours two glasses of wine and Xue-Lan offers a toast to both of their casting in the same movie though it’s obvious Xue-Lan has landed the starring role. She self-confidently lords this over Mimi when she interrupts their room service lunch by taking a call from the movie’s producer and bleating about the burdens of being the lead actress. That is when Mimi plays her card, recalling when they first met at an audition 10 years ago then fishing up a photo from that time on her phone. When Xue-Lan looks at the photo, she comments that Mimi hasn’t aged at all. She casually asks what Mimi’s beauty secret is, and Mimi responds: “You are what you eat.” Xue-Lan pauses but is unable to resist asking Mimi to teach her how she stays so youthful. And thus the bait is taken.
What better place for director Nakanishi Mai to set her latest sinister tale than the shark infested waters of the entertainment industry where rivalries, grudges, and hostility lurk just beneath the glamor and celebrity. There is a thin veneer of civility between Mimi and Xue-Lan who have been auditioning for similar roles through most of their careers. They’ve struggled with landing only minor roles which has given them something in common, but with Xue-Lan scoring a lead role, suddenly a shift in the balance of their “friendship” occurs with Xue-Lan believing herself to have vaulted to a grander stage than Mimi. Their dynamic from the very onset throws into relief the dearth of roles for women and the fierce competition for them. Nakanishi is certainly conscious of an industry, particularly in Asia, that tends to favor young, up-and-coming starlets who are cast for their appearance and popularity rather than their actual skill as performers. Simultaneously, older and experienced actresses are left by the wayside, some of whom may have started out in a similar fashion. Nowhere is this more apparent than the scene when Xue-Lan and Mimi arrive at the supper club. Xue-Lan does not recognize the women to whom she’s introduced. It’s no wonder they’re so eager for Xue-Lan to get her just desserts (pun intended). And they lure her in with the promise of eternal beauty. They know even Xue-Lan is aware that the stardom she is about to grasp is dependent on how youthful looking she can remain. Plastic surgery is commonplace, but uncertified medicines and perhaps even folk rituals are also fair game when hoping to remain in the spotlight. And in real life horror stories do exist about the lengths some have gone through to accomplish just that.
The short was shot entirely in Taiwan and stars veteran actress Vera Chen while Mimi and Xue-Lan are respectively played by Han Ning and Liu Dai-Ying. Employing her trademark atmospherics and minimal style, Nakanishi effectively taps into her characters’ professional cattiness and steers it toward a deliciously (pun intended) wicked piece of folk horror. In fact, that may be a bit of a misnomer as Swallow‘s examination of the darker side human ambition and the lengths people will go to realize that ambition somewhat resembles film noir. Nakanishi has inventively tapped both storytelling styles to infuse Swallow with its particular sense of dread and reinforces this with her visual language. Furthermore, her script allows for the soapy qualities of such rivalries as a release yet never lets up on crafting a distinct feeling something is amiss. And she accomplishes this with minimal dialogue, choosing to show rather than tell her characters’ persona and motives. Han Ning notably plays her part to perfection. As Nakanishi mentioned in our short interview regarding the movie’s making, Han Ning is a relatively newcomer herself, and perhaps this aided her with connecting to Mimi the actress, but she also taps into something within herself which sublimely brings to life Mimi’s enigmatic quality just beneath the surface of the very youthful beauty at the core of the movie.
Swallow world premiered at the 2022 Kaohsiung Film Festival, and and won a Special Mention at the 52nd Tampere Film Festival. It has recently screened at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival as well as the SKIP CITY INTERNATIONAL D-Cinema FESTIVAL in Japan where it missed winning a prize, but was given special attention specifically at the festival’s closing ceremony by jury member Tsuruta Norio, the director known as the “father of J-Horror”. With such encouragement, Nakanishi has surely been given newfound motivation to make more movies, perhaps even a follow-up to this amuse bouche which should make genre fans happy.