Marriage is a curse from which there is no cure in Chienn Hsiang’s horror-inflected pandemic-era social drama Increasing Echo (修行, xiūxíng). Though the English-language title may hint at the spiralling quality of the shared resentment between a husband and wife no longer, if they ever had been, happy with each other, the Chinese reflects on the heroine’s spiritual journey as she searches for a release from her internalised imprisonment but finds it increasingly difficult to “become a little bird and fly away”.
Reuniting with Exit’s Chen Shiang-chyi, Chienn opens the film with a surreal scene of a collection of people dressed in white stumbling around zombie-like in a park while some kind of guru instructs them to listen to the voice inside which will guide them towards their own tree. One of the blindfolded devotees, Mrs Yan (Chen Shiang-chyi) eventually embraces a trunk but subsequently faints after a cicada lands on her arm. Encounters with the natural world will prove increasingly ominous, yet we can infer from Mrs Yan’s distress that even if she has managed to find her own tree or at least a solid trunk to hang on to it has not given her the sense of release that she is seeking. With her son about to be married, she finds herself trapped in a loveless relationship with her equally depressed husband Fu-sheng (Chen Yi-Wen) who sips from a hip flask all day at the office, ignores his wife’s calls, and sits in a depressing convenience store cafe every evening to delay having to go home.
As we later discover the major source of discord between the pair is Fu-sheng’s infidelity, Mrs Yan having discovered his affair with his secretary, Ke-yun (Huang Rou-Ming), some years previously after hiring a private detective. Never really healed, the wound is reopened when Mrs Yan receives a surprise phone call from Ke-yun’s sister who is stuck abroad due to COVID-19 and wants Fu-Sheng to visit his former mistress who has been living in a nursing home for some years having sustained some kind of brain injury that has left her largely unable to communicate. Though originally outraged, Mrs Yan pays a visit to Ke-yun herself and then goads Fu-Sheng into accompanying her though whatever it was she intended the event only forces Fu-sheng into revolt taking off with the dog in tow leaving her all alone in the family home.
For his part, Fu-sheng quite clearly identifies with the family dog, Terry, surreptitiously feeding him junk food in the park after being admonished for giving him salty table scraps. Where Mrs Yan would prefer to keep him safely at home, Fu-Sheng keeps letting Terry escape to wander freely with the result that he ends up with a canine venereal disease. The vet advises Mrs Yan have him neutered, but this is obviously something Fu-sheng can’t countenance himself feeling fairly emasculated and trapped within his marriage. In this the film perhaps leans uncomfortably leans into patriarchal social codes in implying that Mrs Yan is at fault for limiting her husband’s sexual freedom with even the private detective she hires to find him telling her that it’s good to let him stay out a little and that he’ll come home once he’s got bored and had enough which sounds like statement more applicable to a randy dog like Terry or a child who’s wandered off in a huff than a cheating husband indifferent to his wife’s feelings and willing to risk his relationship with his son by not showing up for any of the wedding prep.
The implication that Mrs Yan has brought this on herself is further deepened by her gradually fracturing sense of reality born of the array of pills we see her taking each morning and her investment in a cult-like new age religious practice which is later betrayed when she returns to her spiritual home and discovers someone’s put it up for rent. Her world is full of eeriness and ominous symbols from the pigeons which seem to follow her around, to the ghostly corridors at the hospital to which Ke-yun has been consigned with Mrs Yan perhaps also harbouring a sense of guilt though each of them is themselves imprisoned if in an obviously different sense. In this age of social distancing, Mr and Mrs Yan appear to have had a lengthy head start, their alienation from each other later leading towards an act of violence which provides no sense of release only further constraint. Broken by the anxious knelling of Buddhist prayer bells, Increasing Echo hints at the radiating legacies of emotional betrayal but paints the marriage of Mr and Mrs Yan as a kind of maddening curse for which there is no cure only perpetual misery amid the impossibility of separation.
Increasing Echo screens in Chicago April 9 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)