Filmmaking is not an easy thing to do. Sure, anyone can get a camera, have people read some hastily thrown together dialogue, cut it to resemble a story (or to make it nonsensically abstract and therefore “artistic”) and call it a film. But to make something that looks, sounds and is presented as a polished feature is not easy. It takes time, skill, and ever increasing amounts of money.
Even documentaries, found footage horror flicks and quirky comedies that work so hard to appear “indy” cost tens of thousands if not millions to get that perfect made-on-a-shoestring look. Meanwhile, micro-budget filmmaking of comparable quality, like that of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (see my review), often requires that the filmmaker already have the millions necessary to leave their day jobs long enough to produce something just for the fun of it. This is one of the things that makes Amiss such a remarkable film. It’s a micro-budget independent which seldom appears that way, and a very assured piece of filmmaking from a pair of first-time feature directors.
Another way that Amiss differs itself from much of its first-time, independent brethren, is that it isn’t derivative of its influences. It would be exceedingly easy to allow the film’s elements to slip into a gritty crime drama, but instead directors Raoul Dyssell and William “Sonny” Sonbuchner have crafted a mystery where overlapping narratives create deepening levels of character within a structure that vaguely harkens to elements of Reservoir Dogs and Rashomon (even the slightest hints of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit”) without limiting itself to those conventions.
Eventually the multi-story structure falls away, revealing the strongest emotional pull of the narrative, that of a simple story of father and daughter. Although a couple of the early tales become increasingly less important (and less fitting in the central motivation) as this mystery unravels, they provide a greater view into the vital parts of the story, like mounting evidence in a criminal case. Through both its central and side stories, Amiss finds opportunity to subtly comment on issues including acceptance of psychiatric therapy, school pressure, video game addiction, parental control, suicide and government corruption, all of which are gaining importance in modern Korean society.
If nothing else, the side stories also offer a chance for the film’s different performers to step into the spotlight, with varied results. In fact, one of the major strengths of the anthology-style structure is that it doesn’t require any one performer to carry the film, so some of the less convincing portrayals aren’t a burden for the rest. The majority of that emotional heft is born by Allan Choi as The Father, with a quiet menace that nicely masks a deeper core. It’s telling that other performers, particularly Kimberly Buxton, are most compelling when sharing the scene with him. Although more limited in her role, Lauren Ash-Morgan turns in a strong performance as personal troubles bleed into professional life in one particularly impactful scene.
Unlike many first-time (and some long-time) feature filmmakers, Dyssell and Sonbucher never descend into style solely for the sake of style. Infrequent flairs and artful composition serve to punctuate rather than replace character moments: asymmetrical framing for imbalance, slow pans for isolation, and so forth. Frequently characters are filmed in close-up with the background left out of focus, a visual indication that while they are confident in their narrative the rest of the world, which they are a tiny part of, remains unclear.
While a couple of scenes take on the flatly-lit appearance of home movies or those made just for YouTube, the vast majority of Amiss is photographed with depth and a stark palette of bright, over-saturated backgrounds and natural lighting behind darkly-clad characters, except for the one whose suicide catalyzes the story. The most obviously craft-centric element however comes in the film’s audio, including a couple of instances of muted sound but mostly in building and cutting music. This tactic could at times border on overwhelming if the score itself (composed by Samuel Akpovi) weren’t so good.
It would be easy to praise Amiss with the use of qualifiers (e.g. “excellent for an independent/micro-budget/first-time film”) but that only serves to separate it from its aspirations. This isn’t a film that is looking for excuses or limits, it’s a film that is looking for something beyond genre or budget. And it often finds that, comfortably. It’s a surprisingly confident piece of filmmaking without the eagerness or mimicry common to others who work within the same constraints. At times it seems almost effortless. Of course, filmmaking isn’t easy. Not everyone can do it well. That’s part of what makes Amiss so remarkable.
(Editorial note: It needs to be stated that while Pop Mythology editor-in-chief Daniel Kim has supported Amiss throughout its production, this reviewer has no relationship whatsoever with the film or anyone involved with its production. The preceding review was written with as little bias as is possible given the inherently subjective nature of film criticism. In other words: even if we’re friends, if your movie sucks, I’m gonna say it sucks. —J.K.)