Us is New, But Stylistically Stagnant
Stylistically, there isn’t anything interesting about Caroline Mariko Stucky’s romantic drama Us. For 18 minutes, an uncut static shot captures various stages of a newly formed relationship between its protagonists Jo (Melody Cheng) and Helen (Alice Kremelberg). So, while the short jumps in temporal space, it remains spatially stagnant in Helen’s kitchen apartment. There is seemingly no reasoning behind Stucky’s directorial choice apart from being unique for the sake of uniqueness. But where the film lacks visually it does attempt makeup in the dramatic arc between Jo and Helen.
Unlike Helen, Jo, a second-generation Chinese-American, wasn’t raised in a household where she was free to express her sexual identity. Jo struggles to be open with her sexuality outside the comfort of Helen’s apartment- so much, that she refers to Helen as her “friend” to colleagues at work. After being asked to stay home during a Christmas party at Jo’s office, Helen grows hesitant of the future of their relationship and the two splits.
Their separation, however long it was for them, last a few minutes for audiences. The impact of their breakup predominantly sees Helen perform menial household tasks alone which, again, isn’t too compelling due to the short’s stagnant camera. Jo calls soon afterward and in the next sequence, she’s meeting Helen’s family. There’s a lot of tension built in the first 16 minutes which is quickly resolved in a mere jump cut. Stucky’s film does navigate interesting territories of Jo and Helen’s relationship, ever touching on race issues, but the film ultimately falls short by perhaps examining the couple’s journey too early. Us could very much be opened with an already turbulent relationship and touch on the same themes in half its current runtime - not to say longer runtimes equate worse stories as Maxwell Addae’s Outdooring achieves some wondrous cinematic storytelling in about the same time as Us.
What truly hurts the narrative is the motionless one-take which fails to add anything thematic purpose to the narrative. It potentially could represent Jo’s isolation and distance from feeling “normal” in society, but the static shot persists even when there is a substantial shift in her character arc after being welcomed by Helen’s family slightly off-screen.
This does not mean that Stucky’s film is a total disaster as the performances of Cheng and Kremelberg, despite some difficulty selling a few emotional lines of dialogue, manage to portray their characters in a compelling way. Us is a decent film, good enough to stream on Amazon, which explores themes not commonly explored in popular cinema. These themes might just be overlooked due to poor stylistic choices.