Though made in pre-pandemic times, Allison Chhorn’s The Plastic House is an eerily resonant portrait of isolation. Half-documentary, half-fiction, Chhorn presents us with elliptical fragments of a woman tending to her plastic greenhouse. Details and habits loop over and over: the woman wakes up, slips on gloves, plants beans into soil. After finishing her tasks for the day, she sheds her gloves like a second skin, burrows back under her duvet. Always alone. Rinse, repeat.
The Plastic House is Chhorn’s semi-autobiographical imagining of what life would look like if her parents’ died ― an anxiety that is more timely and widespread than ever. Chhorn, born in Adelaide to Cambodian migrants, grew up on a greenhouse farm that she runs herself when her parents visit their homeland. For her, the possibility of loss not only comes with grief, but also the weight of hereditary responsibility. This preoccupation with legacy manifests in nostalgic interludes, where crisp panoramas of the present-day greenhouse shift into grainy, shaky cam footage of Chhorn’s real-life parents tending to their crops, chopping mangoes and calling relatives overseas. Here, we hear the film’s only slivers of dialogue: “If you can do a little work, it’s good for you,” says her mother in one scene. “It’s good for your well-being.”
Chhorn takes on the admirable task of unpacking this statement: when you’ve lost all sense of guidance and stability, can you find healing through work? Through comforting rituals passed down through generations?
Outside these dreamy capsules, the film is completely wordless ― after all, there is nobody for the subject to speak to, not anymore. Ambient sound is heightened and ever-present: the rustling of plastic, the howling of the wind, rain. The subject’s days are not marked by conversation, but by this ASMR-heavy natural soundscape, recorded on location. As a result, the 45-minute runtime feels elastic and boundless; an experience that may be monotonous for some viewers and meditative for others.
Much like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman… (1975), the focus is on everyday labour ― bodily gestures and the passage of time, which slowly accumulate into a climactic cloudburst. As a viewer, it’s easy to sink into the rhythmic progression of a workday; a sense of satisfaction builds as we watch the barren greenhouse slowly grow into a vertical jungle of lush greens, curling stems. The hypnotic quality also recalls the videos of Chinese internet sensation Li Ziqi, who films herself farming, building bamboo furniture and dyeing wool in the remote Sichuan countryside. There’s an escapist quality to these videos: a romanticised simplicity, and closeness to the earth, that attracts those seeking to escape the chaotic crush of urban life. In lockdown, this romanticisation has flourished into a new beast, as seen with the sudden popularity of sourdough starters and “cottagecore” aesthetics. When feelings of uncertainty and loneliness dominate, role-playing narratives of admirable self-possession and resourcefulness, along with elevating quaint, frugal living spaces, evoke the feeling that everything will all turn out okay.
But Chhorn’s film is striking in its ambiguity; it does not provide such neat answers when tackling a theme as thorny and terrifying as grief. As a viewer, we may find healing and pleasure in the film’s reliable routines and verdant imagery, but there’s no guarantee that the bereaved subject feels the same. She is in every scene but her presence is spectral: Chhorn never fully shows her face, preferring to linger on her back, her mud-crusted hands. Blur effects are expertly utilised, with an insidious fog eating up the greenhouse and Chhorn’s reflection in a mirror. The subject’s presence in her own life feels tenuous, a sentiment echoed by the camera’s fixation on fault lines in plaster and holes in plastic tarp. Water drips and rushes through the fissures; storms thunder against the greenhouse’s poor defenses. Chhorn threads each scene with a thrumming unease ― as if, any second, the woman and her home will be completely obliterated.
Chhorn entwines these existential enigmas with the quotidian, a careful balancing act encapsulated by a split-second focus on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. On the page, someone has underlined the following passage in faint pencil: “In a strange room, you must empty yourself for sleep. Before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am.” For many of us right now, neither do we.
The Plastic House screens with the pre-feature short Outside the Oranges Are Blooming as part of the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival from 6–23 August.
Claire Cao is a freelance writer and avid dumpling lover from Western Sydney. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow Review of Books, Voiceworks, SBS Life and the anthology Sweatshop Women. She tweets @clairexinwen.