Chino Moya’s directorial debut Undergods is an anthology movie that uses the subgenre’s classic storytelling device to explore ideas of domesticity and family – and for the most part, it’s a success.
Moya’s setting is dystopian Europe: parts of the continent have been ravaged and left looking rather like Chernobyl, and parts of it are operating normally. Our primary narrators, Z (Géza Röhrig) and K (Johann Myers), are scavengers, looking for people and bodies to sell to factories to make a living, and telling each other stories on their travels.
While the storytelling device used is hardly revolutionary, the way Moya uses it is what makes Undergods so intriguing. Each narrative layer is more interesting than the last as the stories grow increasingly desolate. The tales are linked by ideas of domestic intruders bent on disrupting familial bonds, and the ending of each tale is deliberately unsatisfying. Moya isn’t interested in happy tales of the nuclear family: what he explores is domestic desolation, plain and simple.
This might be too bleak for some (because goodness knows this is a bleak movie), but there are rare moments of hope scattered throughout. The ending in particular is something of a happy one: the contrast between Z and K’s contentment and the dissatisfaction of the families in the stories we’ve just listened to is a fantastic note to end the movie on. It goes to show that, ultimately, family is what you make it, regardless of who’s involved or where you are.
That setting is something that clearly matters to Moya: his world-building is incredible, and always intriguing. We never do find out what happened to parts of Europe, but it doesn’t matter – what matters is the people we find there. Moya’s excellent screenplay combined with stellar performances all-round mean that we’re able to engage with his characters really easily, no matter how much time they spend on screen. Hats off to the film, too, for 2021’s first “holy shit Burn Gorman is in this!” moment.
As a whole piece, Undergods is something of a Marmite movie. It’ll work for some, but not for others. For some, its relentless futility and nihilism might be too much, but if you can work with that and find the hope within, then you might just end up loving it. And anyway, regardless of how you end up feeling about Undergods, there’s no denying that Chino Moya is a fascinating genre voice that we should all be paying very close attention to going forward.
Release Date: May 17th (cinema and digital)