The Plastic House (2019) is an exquisite piece of poetic filmmaking that is both intimate and disquieting. Primarily filmed inside a plastic-covered greenhouse on filmmaker Allison Chhorn’s parents’ farm, the project is a work of docufiction motivated by the hypothetical premise that Chhorn’s parents have died, and she has been left to continue with the task of planting and growing the family’s yearly crop of runner beans. Apart from some post-production sound mixing, Chhorn’s film is a solo project that chronicles the meditative sequence of everyday rituals required to grow the beans alongside and in response to the changing seasons. The Plastic House, which took two years to create, is inspired by the actual work Chhorn has done over time in her parents’ greenhouse and by her personal fears about their mortality. This dual premise, a combination of the mundane and the existential, sets in train an impressionistic narrative imbued with an awareness of all that remains unspoken and unresolved in our everyday lives and within our most intimate relationships. Informed by a pervading atmosphere of isolation, the utilitarian and functional plastic greenhouse becomes a permeable and liminal space haunted by the ghostly presence/absence of Chhorn’s parents. Composed of long takes, atmospheric interiors, a heightened soundscape and sparse dialogue, Chhorn’s film defamiliarises ordinary life, imbuing the routine activities carried out by its solitary subject with an uncanny unease.
A large plastic-covered commercial greenhouse seems the least likely setting for what emerges as a Gothic narrative, in which the unseen and unspoken are constant accompaniments to the documentary subject’s otherwise unremarkable actions and movements. A key element of Chhorn’s exploration of the spaces between the known and the unknown is her use of sound. She has commented that she ‘wanted to produce a feeling of anxiety and impending doom through the layers of collected sounds’Allison Chhorn, ‘The Plastic House: Director’s Statement’, Pure Shit: Australian Cinema, 16 November 2018, <http://www.pureshitauscinema.com/features/plastic_house.html>, accessed 15 August 2020. – the fearful apprehension that underpins so many Gothic texts. The Plastic House’s narrative begins with a black screen and a series of fragmentary sounds: a rumbling wind; crunching and echoing footsteps. The first glimpse of the greenhouse is as a disconnected, abstracted fragment infused with dramatic power and portent through the accompaniment of acousmatic sounds that signal an entire hidden world of meaning. Sound continues to be the dominant representational mode when Chhorn tentatively enters the frame as the autobiographical subject; the rasp of scissors on hair precedes her partial and provisional appearance on camera, a fractured identity signified by hacked-off chunks of hair and disembodied fingers clasping the scissors. Punctuated and accompanied by the insistent and dominant soundscape, these abstracted and disconnected opening images present grief as alienation, a rupture between the past and the present self and between the self and the outside world. Chhorn often – though not always – uses sound as a bridge between shots and settings, an effect that blurs the distinction between objective and subjective sound, between what can be heard in the surrounding environment and the discordant accompaniment to the autobiographical subject’s grieving and fearful inner life. Her isolation is existential as well as physical, and the overlapping soundscape channels and enacts this estrangement.
During the opening couple of minutes of the film, the viewer is suspended, like the grieving documentary subject, in a kind of atopia, or ‘no place’. With this displacement established, it is time for the journey to begin. A sustained point-of-view shot places the viewer inside Chhorn’s car, one of the three interior spaces that mark the claustrophobic parameters of her experience in the film. The car headlights illuminate the cyclone-wire gates at the entrance to a cemetery, a momentary detour explained in a simple white script: ‘Mum 1959–2015’. Reversing back onto the road, Chhorn enters the night-time world of Adelaide’s outer suburbs, travelling through a desolate landscape of featureless suburban shops, oncoming headlights and industrial warehouses, all the time accompanied by the machine-like rumble of her car on the road. Signalled by the rhythmic tick of the indicator, Chhorn pulls over to pay a moment’s homage at a roadside shrine. This time, the white script says: ‘Dad 1959–2016’. The narrative premise has been established: ‘A young woman constructs a solitary reality by imagining what life would be like after the passing of her parents.’ibid.
Throughout this sequence, the pressure of the sound intensifies, becoming increasingly insistent and alienating before fading and transforming into the sound of rain on plastic. This precedes an abrupt and disjunctive visual transition, in which night becomes day and the makeshift roadside shrine gives way to a greenhouse full of dead bean plants. The desiccated leaves and stems of the climbing plants form an intricately woven brown curtain between Chhorn and the camera as she moves methodically along the rows stripping out the dead plants. This first shot inside the greenhouse establishes a visual rhythm in which long takes capture the regulated tempo of the routine work required across the seasons to grow and harvest the beans. Of her technique, Chhorn has commented, ‘I wanted to just focus more on action, on just the simple gestures, the simple work that the character does instead of a normal character study where you look at the actor’s face.’Allison Chhorn, quoted in Jessica Bassano, ‘Family, Identity and the Asian-Australian Experience in The Plastic House’, CityMag, 15 October 2019, <https://citymag.indaily.com.au/culture/adelaide-ozasia-film-festival-2019-alison-chhorn-the-plastic-house/>, accessed 15 August 2020.
In the scenario that Chhorn has set up, this simplicity and understatement assumes a power that communicates the ‘poetic, ecstatic truth’ identified by Werner Herzog in the ‘Minnesota Declaration’, his manifesto on achieving a documentary truth that moves beyond the superficial:‘It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.’Werner Herzog, ‘Minnesota Declaration’, 30 April 1999, available at <https://www.wernerherzog.com/complete-works-text.html#2>. Chhorn has referred to the influence of Herzog’s manifesto on The Plastic House; see ‘5 Questions with Allison Chhorn’, Liminal, 16 June 2020, <https://www.liminalmag.com/5-questions/allison-chhorn>, both accessed 15 August 2020. The Plastic House is motivated by a scenario in which memory is fused with imagination, and meaning accrues within the womb-like space of the greenhouse as time passes. The growth cycle of the simple crop merges with Chhorn’s singular and solitary focus as she works within the plastic house: ‘As if the process itself was a way to heal, or at least temporarily forget.’Chhorn, ‘The Plastic House: Director’s Statement’, op. cit. Chhorn’s physical presence within the visual landscape of the film is hesitant and indeterminate, and it is her labour and the results of her labour over time that attest to her existence and materiality – the work that she does in the greenhouse could be a way of resisting disappearing from the world altogether. Chhorn also shot much of her film in winter, when the plastic-swathed greenhouse would take on a misty, vaporous quality that contributes to the impression that the wraith-like Chhorn is hovering in a transitional space defined by loss and uncertainty.
The hypnotic and productive work Chhorn carries out inside the plastic house is about consolation, but it is underwritten both by an atmosphere of menace connected to the unremitting sounds emanating from the world outside and the solitary fragility of Chhorn’s physical presence inside the plastic dome where she works. From this perspective, the work is a set of rituals keeping destructive forces at bay, with the permeability and yielding malleability of the plastic that shrouds the greenhouse offering insufficient protection from a hostile world. The greenhouse may be a refuge, but one that is contingent on the strength of the plastic, a material that is defined by its disposability and impermanence. A constantly dripping leak and the sway of the plants in the wind are reminders that the protection the plastic provides against the physical forces of the elements is provisional. It is a precarious refuge for the bereaved and desolate Chhorn.
In an alternative version of this mourning ritual of planting and harvesting, the trajectory might be about seasonal renewal, represented through the stripping out of the dead bean plants and the plants’ growth over time until the moment of harvest. Instead, Chhorn’s meditation communicates a sense of the non-linear layering of time and the constant ghostly presence of the past:
The way the film is edited is based on my perception of time. Sometimes painstakingly stuck in the present. Sometimes projections of the future jump out at me. But always informed by the past and maybe too attached to personal memories. Like a non-linear Faulkner novel, the past, present and future can all be perceived [simultaneously].ibid.
The film thus jumps forward from seedlings to harvest around the twelve-minute mark. For this scene, the viewer is transported from Chhorn’s bedroom to the greenhouse via a match cut of a blue sheet (representing another sleepless night) and Chhorn’s blue work shirt. When Chhorn bends down and moves out of the shot, she reveals a row of beans at their peak. However, framed within a one-point perspective shot, this towering avenue of lush and productive greenery is as much a claustrophobic tunnel as a symbol of renewal and abundance. As ever, it is the sound that dominates and determines the mood; the drone of the planes from a nearby air base is constant and, in this scene, is overlaid by the rustle and crackle of Chhorn’s movements. As she snaps the beans from the plants and tears away unwanted leaves, the process of picking the beans appears machine-like rather than life-affirming. The sounds within the greenhouse intensify, becoming increasingly menacing and mechanical until the pressure is released and Chhorn’s memories of her parents bubble up to the surface. Represented through the grainy visual texture of home-video footage and the aural intimacy of her mother’s cheery phone conversation, these memories reanimate the past in a way that attests to what has been lost; as critic Louise Sheedy puts it, ‘The video’s happy chatter feels warm and dry (safe), yet comparatively muffled, distanced, and ultimately unreachable.’Louise Sheedy, ‘Pictures of You: Allison Chhorn’s The Plastic House’, Senses of Cinema, issue 95, July 2020, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2020/feature-articles/pictures-of-you-allison-chhorns-the-plastic-house/>, accessed 17 August 2020. The present, as experienced by Chhorn, has none of the liveliness communicated in the cheery and mundane sociability that emerges in her memories of her parents. Each time these memories irrupt, they highlight the power of Chhorn’s connection to the past in contrast to her more tentative hold on the present. When exploring the literary evocation of the uncanny, Sigmund Freud famously described it as ‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’,Sigmund Freud, ‘The “Uncanny”’, in Freud, Studies in Parapsychology, trans. Philip Rieff, Collier Books, New York, 1963, p. 20. and in The Plastic House the ghostly familiarity of Chhorn’s parents contrasts with her own estrangement and haunting.
Through her steady and methodical work in the greenhouse, Chhorn attempts to hold herself together, but when she returns to her cramped, dimly lit, box-like bedroom, her disconnection from the world and from her life takes over. Her room is revealed in a series of fragmentary tight shots, and has the temporary look of a student’s room in a sharehouse, sparsely furnished and with DVDs piled on the floor, while also bearing some of the austerity of a cell. Poignantly, the one decorative feature is the Chinoiserie design on the quilt under which she tosses and turns each night. As her insomnia builds, so too does the threat of annihilation that comes from the crack in the cream plasterboard in her bedroom. Referencing Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and drawing on Gothic motifs such as thunder and lightning, the crack in her room is connected to the loss of identity brought about by loss and grief while also becoming the focus of her apprehension, her fear of what might happen if she did nothing to resist the decay and disorder that threatens to take over. As the impressionistic narrative progresses and plays out, Chhorn’s room and the plastic house merge, with the threat posed by the cracks in the room extending to tears in the plastic fabric of the greenhouse.
When conceiving of The Plastic House project as a way to confront her fears around the loss of her parents, Chhorn connected this existential fear with anxieties around not only the stability of her house, but also her own capacity for action.
The other fear is the roof of my house collapsing on me. Seemingly irrational, but the signs of cracks and pieces of ceiling that have fallen have made this possibility all too real. What if I didn’t do anything to fix it, but rather let it happen and carried on with what I knew?Chhorn, ‘The Plastic House: Director’s Statement’, op. cit.
The state of inertia that plays out in the little bedroom is a gradual submission to entropy – a saucepan catches the water that drips down from the ceiling and a crumpled plastic sheet is placed over her pile of DVDs, until, finally, she entombs herself in a plastic shroud. The tension builds as the Gothic sensibility takes over. The house surrenders to the elemental forces of the thunder, lightning, wind and rain, while the crack in the plaster becomes increasingly menacing. The discordant sounds build towards a climax, in which a black screen gives way to a series of expressionistic and abstracted images that reveal Chhorn can no longer hold her grief at bay.
This brief but climactic montage sequence leads into a dramatic scene of devastation: the greenhouse has been destroyed. The metal frame stands exposed and unprotected, and the plastic hangs limply in dirt-covered tendrils that recall the disposable plastic glove that Chhorn slowly peels off after planting seeds in an earlier scene. In keeping with the film’s Gothic register, the greenhouse is revisited in a dramatic wide shot as an abandoned ruin (this is shot from the same position as the earlier one-point perspective shot between the rows of beans). As Chhorn picks her way through the weeds and walks across the flattened dirt, there is a very strong sense of time passing, and of both Chhorn and her parents’ work having been swallowed up by the past (Chhorn used shots she filmed in the aftermath of a storm that did, in fact, destroy the plastic that was covering the greenhouse‘5 Questions with Allison Chhorn’, op. cit.).
One of the longest sequences in The Plastic House emerges from the film’s past, an extended ‘home video’ of Chhorn’s father and a companion swathing the immense metal frame of the greenhouse in the huge sheets of plastic that will assume such significance in the film’s present. This process, as with so much of the human activity in the film, involves a struggle against the elements, in this case the wind. The men work doggedly and patiently to fix the immense plastic sheet in place. Their concentration and determination is impressive, and the final outcome is neat and effective. However, the process of construction is also a form of deconstruction, in the way it emphasises how insubstantial and makeshift the greenhouse is, with the flapping plastic fixed in place with simple coils of wire. There is a beautiful and doomed optimism in the workers’ faith in the capacity of the plastic to provide protection. This motivates an extended visual metaphor in which Chhorn’s family become associated with the insubstantiality of the plastic. Filmed from the other side of the plastic membrane, the men working outside dematerialise and become shadowy ghosts. This is followed by a similar shot in the film’s present of Chhorn walking in her father’s shadowy footsteps.
The fear and grief that permeate The Plastic House are intimately connected to Chhorn’s experience as the child of Cambodian migrants and ‘the language barrier between parents who speak one language (Khmer) and children who speak another (English)’.Allison Chhorn, quoted in Walter Marsh, ‘Filmmaker Allison Chhorn Gives Voice to the “Ghosts and Traumas” of the Cambodian Diaspora’, The Adelaide Review, 17 January 2020, <https://www.adelaidereview.com.au/arts/cinema/2020/01/17/allison-chhorn-after-years/>, accessed 15 August 2020. It can be imagined that this cultural in-betweenness has contributed to Chhorn’s evocation in The Plastic House of Gothic displacement and the atopia of being suspended between two worlds. Chhorn and her parents’ personal history is also connected to a wider history haunted by loss and suffering. Chhorn’s parents are survivors of the 1975–1979 rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, a regime so brutal, traumatic and all-encompassing that it has been shrouded in a form of collective forgetting and willed silence, exacerbated by the active destruction of culture and history during this period. Within Chhorn’s family, this collective repression exists as an unsettling – uncanny – ‘sense of absence, even though I’ve never lost anything in my own life as big as what my parents may have lost – just a feeling that something has been missing but [not] knowing who or what’.ibid. The Plastic House operates in this register of unexpressed loss, while also acknowledging the healing properties of work and the courageous optimism of lives lived modestly and productively. This relates not just to the everyday rituals performed in the greenhouse within the diegesis, but also to Chhorn’s conception of The Plastic House as a solitary DIY project. As a testament to her parents’ capacity ‘to make something out of nothing’, she used only equipment that she already had, and, because she was working on her own, had to engage in a process of trial and error in setting up the shots: ‘I envisioned how I would move within the frame and did a number of takes, checking each shot and making small adjustments as I went along.’Chhorn, quoted in ‘5 Questions with Allison Chhorn’, op. cit.
The duality that comes from Chhorn being both creator and subject echoes the fracturing of identity that is played out through her autobiographical persona. In the film’s evocative conclusion, she is exiled from both her room and the destroyed greenhouse and has sought refuge in her car, a displacement that further aligns her with her parents’ identity and experience as refugees. That she is between worlds is communicated through a shadowy hand on the misty window, an unearthly manifestation that could be her shadow self or a further irruption of memory and loss. The narrative parameters that have been set up are disrupted when Chhorn emerges from the car – the first time she is pictured entering the outside world – and makes her way across a misty field. She is carrying a spade, which could either form a link between the routine work done inside the greenhouse or, within the Gothic landscape of this film, suggest either burial or disinterment: laying ghosts to rest, or setting them free. As she walks, Chhorn’s father’s voice emerges out of the fog, a jaunty counterpoint to her solitary progress across the wintry landscape. His down-to-earth commentary becomes a sound bridge to the penultimate scene, in which the narrative returns to the plastic house. Unexpectedly, but in keeping with the change of register and modality, the family is restored – with father, mother and daughter now working together within the film’s present. This emergence from the Gothic mode into the mundane present returns the family to itself, a symbol of wholeness and healing that either counters, or is countered by, the final image of Chhorn continuing her lonely journey into the mist before disappearing altogether.
|1||Allison Chhorn, ‘The Plastic House: Director’s Statement’, Pure Shit: Australian Cinema, 16 November 2018, <http://www.pureshitauscinema.com/features/plastic_house.html>, accessed 15 August 2020.|
|3||Allison Chhorn, quoted in Jessica Bassano, ‘Family, Identity and the Asian-Australian Experience in The Plastic House’, CityMag, 15 October 2019, <https://citymag.indaily.com.au/culture/adelaide-ozasia-film-festival-2019-alison-chhorn-the-plastic-house/>, accessed 15 August 2020.|
|4||Werner Herzog, ‘Minnesota Declaration’, 30 April 1999, available at <https://www.wernerherzog.com/complete-works-text.html#2>. Chhorn has referred to the influence of Herzog’s manifesto on The Plastic House; see ‘5 Questions with Allison Chhorn’, Liminal, 16 June 2020, <https://www.liminalmag.com/5-questions/allison-chhorn>, both accessed 15 August 2020.|
|5||Chhorn, ‘The Plastic House: Director’s Statement’, op. cit.|
|7||Louise Sheedy, ‘Pictures of You: Allison Chhorn’s The Plastic House’, Senses of Cinema, issue 95, July 2020, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2020/feature-articles/pictures-of-you-allison-chhorns-the-plastic-house/>, accessed 17 August 2020.|
|8||Sigmund Freud, ‘The “Uncanny”’, in Freud, Studies in Parapsychology, trans. Philip Rieff, Collier Books, New York, 1963, p. 20.|
|9||Chhorn, ‘The Plastic House: Director’s Statement’, op. cit.|
|10||‘5 Questions with Allison Chhorn’, op. cit.|
|11||Allison Chhorn, quoted in Walter Marsh, ‘Filmmaker Allison Chhorn Gives Voice to the “Ghosts and Traumas” of the Cambodian Diaspora’, The Adelaide Review, 17 January 2020, <https://www.adelaidereview.com.au/arts/cinema/2020/01/17/allison-chhorn-after-years/>, accessed 15 August 2020.|
|13||Chhorn, quoted in ‘5 Questions with Allison Chhorn’, op. cit.|