‘Ema’ is the latest film from Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain and judging by the audience reaction after its Asian debut at the Busan International Film Festival, it may prove to be his most controversial yet.
Even describing the plot is a challenge. As a joke, I asked some friends who I’d watched it with to try to summarize the movie in one sentence. Here’s the best I could do: a pyromaniac, reggaeton dancer (Mariana Di Girolamo) hatches a scheme to regain custody of her adopted son after she and her husband (Gael García Bernal) return him to the orphanage for setting things on fire. And while all of this is technically correct, it still fails to capture how insane and often intoxicating Ema really is.
The best way to describe the world in which Ema takes place is to imagine someone took the fractured, affect-driven aesthetic of a music video and expanded it into a narrative feature. Random bits of property are set on fire with no real consequence. Groups of women break into dance routines seemingly out of nowhere. I honestly don’t remember how many orgy scenes there were but my guess is north of two.
Larrain has made it clear that Ema is first and foremost a film about a generational divide, and it would be easy to read much of the toxic behavior of Ema and her cohorts as a validation of Gen X millennial bashing. But I think the protagonists of Ema are not so much characters as they are expressions of the worst tendencies of the social media era – from the emergence of vicious, self-validating cliques, to the increasing impunity with which people seem to get away with doing terrible things provided that they’re entertaining or hot or…whatever.
Like A Clockwork Orange, Ema derives a lot of its momentum from indulging in the thrill of being young, pretty and evil. But while it never reaches the intensity of Kubrick’s film, Larrain’s portrait of a society overtaken by nihilism is just as much an indictment of the present. As people on social media argue about razorblade commercials and killer clowns and our planet comes dangerously close to burning up, a film about a toxic pyromaniac seems oddly appropriate.