After his 2004 cult low-budget feature, Primer, with its complex language and mind-boggling time travel, Shane Carruth’s sophomore effort, Upstream Colour, is mind-boggling, experimental sci-fi.
Its non-linear storyline follows the complex, life cycle of a parasite and its synergetic relationship with pigs, orchids and humans. Multi-talented Carruth, once again, assumes various roles ranging from actor to editor to composer. His talents as a filmmaker have certainly developed, often cutting to black and then re-emerging with cross-fades and match-cuts. Upstream’s calm and abstract cinematography, for the most part, is reminiscent of Terrence Malick, particularly in its cerulean-lit exterior scenes and stirring shots of flora and fauna.
Much of the movie follows Kris, played by Amy Seimetz, and her encounter with the worm-like parasite. Her dialogue, for the most part, is often incomprehensible and impulsive and one can only assume that this is purposeful, particularly in a scene when she questions the source of one of her memories. The story seems to slip into familiar territory when she meets Jeff (Carruth) on a train – dialogue-free at first – and these moments are romanticised and endearing to watch.
But the strength of its narrative is more of emotive sound than language, complimented by a stirring, ambient score and sound design. Its power is demonstrated when an omniscient character known as ‘the sampler’ vicariously collects the natural music of his surroundings. In another, we have a fast-paced montage, cross-cutting between different characters going about their daily work-routines – the sounds they create correspond and dovetail.
With Upstream Colour, many will be left scratching their heads long after the credits roll. But its appeal does not derive from solving its puzzles or analysing its motifs. Rather, Carruth catches his audience in a temporal and stream-like narrative; becoming as methodical as the story’s mysterious parasite.