It’s an image stolen, if not from one man’s dreams, then one man’s fevered hallucinations. A cranky sexagenarian, his long hair as white as his tiger-print poncho, neatly sits in a rowboat suspended by two wheeled beams above a train track. Behind him, a man dressed in black impales the ground with a long pole, pushing and pulling as if he was on the water. Ever so slowly the wheeled boat rolls ahead on the train-tracks, the old man plucking at his ukulele.
“Your A-string is out of tune,” the rower grumbles.
“Quiet! My art requires concentration,” the old man snarls as his music floods the verdant mountainside by the ocean.
Such images are the currency of the Surrealist masters and restless filmmakers like Werner Herzog and Alejandro Jodorowsky whose films run more on a need for cruel, unimaginable images than for coherent plots. It’s one of the first images we see in filmmaking duo Forest Ian Etsler and Sébastien Simon’s The Troubled Troubadour (2016), and it’s a fitting portent for one of the most dazzlingly original and visually hypnotic films in recent memory. Never mind that it clocks in at only 23 minutes. Of the 200+ original films released in 2016 that I saw, this is one of the few that will remain in my mind in the years to come. Never mind that it’s occasionally incoherent and unapologetically esoteric in its references to disparate religious and cultural traditions. This is a film you must experience on its own bizarre terms.
If the film can be said to have any plot, it’s that it follows its eponymous troubadour played by Hachi Kasuga, an embittered Japanese musician who seems to have spontaneously materialized in rural South Korea, as he confronts his death. Much like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), the film communicates his oneiric journey towards his extinction through encounters with bizarre locals and even more bizarre characters. But wheres Dead Man borrowed from the work of prophetic British poet William Blake and America’s mythology of the Old West, The Troubled Troubadour treats its audience to a smorgasbord of ethnographic imagery and situations borrowed from world mythology. From Korean shamanism, a group of stone-masked children declaring the musician the Mountain God. From Greek mythology, the River Styx and its ferryman Charon represented as the railroad and the musician’s driver. From Norse mythology, boats coffins. And from American folklore, the mystically gifted musician whose soul gets collected by the devil.
Directors Etsler and Simon claim the film can be divided into three parts that each reflect on a different theme: going nowhere; having no-one; being nothing. And while close inspection proves this division, one must be careful not to read too academically into The Troubled Troubadour. To do so would strip it of its effervescent strangeness. Let the film be, and approach it as the odd, maddening, beautiful surprise it is. Embrace its confusion and you will be rewarded.