Standing Woman (2021)
Dir. Tony Hipwell
by Ellis Reed
Tony Hipwell is best known to Horrified as one of the three creators of the Zomblogalypse franchise, and the most obvious thing to say about his new short is that it couldn’t be more different to his feature-length zombie mockumentary.
With a script by Max Gee, Standing Woman (UK, Tony Hipwell, 2021) was adapted from a story by the award-winning Japanese novelist Yasutaka Tsutsui. Getting the rights to use it must have been quite a coup for a small production; in his home country, Tsutsui’s works have been adapted for film, TV, stage, graphic novel and animation, and at one point, Wolfgang Peterson (Das Boot, The NeverEnding Story) was attached to a live-action version of his novel Paprika.
For the most part, Hipwell’s film has a serious and haunting tone, blending elements of social commentary, dystopian sci-fi, and chilling body horror. There are also flashes of dark humour, but not to the point where the film’s impact is softened.
Like many great shorts, it features a simple premise that can be shown in brief – which is crucial for shortform cinema – but lingers on the mind long after. A new scheme called ‘planting’ turns criminals and dissidents into trees. The procedure sounds comical but really isn’t; the victims are buried up to their ankles in a public place and slowly begin to vegetate, both physically (prosthetics) and mentally (performance). ‘When you become vegetised, you don’t care any more,’ says one slowly. ‘Makes you wonder why you got so knotted up…’
Once the transformation is complete, all that remains is a tree – albeit one with an eerie resemblance to a human being. The film makes effective use of contrast, juxtaposing the bright, breezy tone of the government campaign – ‘join us in a greener, cleaner, brighter future!’ – with the eerie spectacle of people frozen at the roadside. Giving a human face to the satire is producer Tom (Anton Thompson) who works on government propaganda – or, as he delicately puts it, ‘policy outreach’. His wife Mari (Yuriri Naka) has been planted for making seditious comments, but he’s still doing his job. ‘I think I might be a coward,’ he admits. During our fifteen minutes in his company, we’re treated to some engaging human drama with a haunting payoff. The film is reminiscent of a Black Mirror episode, or even Doctor Who at its most serious, except there’s no rogue Timelord to sort everything out. All in all, it’s both impressive and touching.
Standing Woman isn’t a Hollywood production – like Zomblogalypse, it was shot around York – so the future looks very much like now. This is to the film’s advantage; the everyday locations provide another element of contrast, making the fantastical even more uncanny. Transposing the story to a more obviously sci-fi setting would have stretched the budget and only lessened the impact.
The practical effects are basic but hit the spot, and (for this reviewer at least!) are a lot more appealing than cheap CGI would have been. The film’s final and most striking image is a lingering view of a very impressive prop, so ‘props’ to whoever made it. Sakiko Sakuragi’s score is beautifully done and really helps to establish the mood of the piece, as does the nice work of cinematographer Jenni Suitiala. Lastly – perhaps most importantly – the performances are very good, especially Thompson in the lead role.
Standing Woman has shown at many festivals, including Frightfest and Leeds International, and I hope it shows at many more. It’s a great showcase for all involved and would play very well as an apéritif to a longer feature – ideally something in the same what-if, near-future-sci-fi kind of ballpark as Await Further Instructions (UK, Johnny Kevorkian, 2018) or Peripheral (UK, Paul Hyett, 2018). When viewed with Zomblogalypse, it shows Hipwell’s versatility as a filmmaker and is well worth a watch. Recommended.