Director: Shezad Dawood
Screenplay: Kirk Lane
Cast: Houda Echouafni (as Mask); Chen Ko (as Jiang); Tracy Brabin (as Maggie); Samantha Elizabeth Edwards (as Nikki); Paul Leonard (as Warner); Jennifer Lim (as Shin); Bhasker Patel (as Naseer Khan); Derek Siow (as Lee)
Synopsis: In the city of Preston, aliens have for decades lived hidden amongst humans disguised as the Earthling's own. Two more aliens, disguised as a young Chinese brother and sister (Ko and Lim) appear and meet a veteran who has been on Earth for a long time (Patel), disguised as an older Pakistani man who runs a corner store, who is both incredibly glad to see them and offers a pure white room in his home for them to stay. Their appearance is timely as aliens who live in the town are in debate in-between finally revealing themselves to mankind and trying to return back home. Amongst those who are caught up within this are a single mother (Brabin), a UFO enthusiast, who realises that she may not be who she thinks she is, her adult daughter who meets a bald, Chinese guy around her age and strikes up a bond with, and an alien disguised as an older male counsellor who is the one instigating the idea of revealing their true forms to humanity. As sinister hoodies stalk the aliens, and Acid Mother Temple acid rock scores the scenes, it's culminates in transcendental revelations.
Piercing Brightness from that synopsis does sound awesome, only for it to have plenty of great ideas and a lot to like but a structural flaw that cripples it, it's presentation deeply flawed from the beginning. The best thing to take from the film is its premise, the alien placed into the ordinary environment, in this case an English city. Something innately about an English environment, both the countryside or an urban landscape, is so drastically different from the American cities and countryside of their sci-fi that to imagine a UFO over a Spar shop in my neck of the woods, even in London, is strange because of me being fed on Hollywood science fiction and their locations for years. Especially if you depict the England as here of corner shops and nightclubs, cups of tea and breakfasts in cafes, it's incredibly odd as does setting it in Scotland or any other member of the British Isles, something which was as much the reason why Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin (2013), with Hollywood star Scarlet Johansson stepping out of her comfort zone and becoming an alien, was so eerie and unique. Piercing Brightness takes advantage of these cafes and nightclubs, soaking in the pleasant, sometimes frankly bland mood of such environments in bright, crisp cinematography, the kind of environments where it's the people within it that really give it some much needed colour, an advantage this has in its cast and because it's all about aliens and can get away with an unconventional use of such locations.
While the aliens are revealed to be of all shapes and sizes, the film can almost work as a metaphor about immigrants entering a new country and having to adapt to the environment, not in a crass jokey way, though the brother alien tries asking for cigarettes in a cafe once, but in terms of the adaptation to the new place followed by the hindsight, the moments of wonder whether it was better to be there or go back to their home world, or whether it's better to revealed oneself as an extraterrestrial being.
When the film succeeds, it's when the aliens express their disappointment with their long waiting, originally part of a project to study the humans, to be sent back home after the promise they had this would be the case, of their position stuck amongst the humans and having to accept their position, rewarding as the initial synopsis suggests it would be. The cast in general helps with this, and there's one single individual, Bhasker Patel as the alien posing as a corner shop owner, who brings the quality of the film up a bar in how he is both charismatic and how this best aspect of the film comes from a lot of his scenes and dialogue, the man more than happy to be amongst the humans, excited like a young man when new aliens like him appear, but melancholic if found in a corner and opened to discussing the position of his life.
The music as well helps greatly with the film, both from the original score by Alexander Tucker and the choice cuts picked from cult Japanese acid rock group Acid Mother's Temple. Known for being able to release up to four albums minimum a year since they started in 1995, side projects with other bands, and their clear love of psychedelic rock of the sixties from the title puns of their songs and albums, Acid Mother's Temple is the kind of band you'd imagine aliens being scored to, archive footage of UFOs scored in montages to their druggy guitar riffs and making a perfect union together. Especially when the film starts to improve in structure by its middle half to the end, when the music is of greater importance than visual trickery, it helps reach a good build-up to the climax immensely.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Experimental
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
The problem, when all the following sounds spot-on and great, is how debuting director Shezad Dawood, originally an artist, decided to put together Piercing Brightness visually and in style. He decided to purposely make the film abstract in tone, intercutting shots of birds at unexpected moments between incidents in a single scene, using colour filters and distorted frames, noises mixing with the music. The result is incredibly clichéd, the stereotype of what an experimental movie is, which becomes distracting rather than abstract in terms of presentation. This is worse as, with only eighty minutes of running time, these techniques and inexplicable shots of birds, strange as a choice when the real UFO footage at least makes sense in context, waste precious time that could've gone to adding more plot about these aliens and their lives. More to the relationship between the adult daughter and her bald headed, quiet friend, at least some explanation to what the hell the faceless hoodies are, chasing the aliens sinisterly on bicycles and molesting one in the least threatening way possible by merely tugging her top and then leaving her alone, at least in the logic of a weird movie plot. The film drastically improved when it gets to the middle of its running time, when its night and the whole plot finishes within this timeframe of one night, the score taking over and being far more effective with some choice editing of snapshots in creating a tone. Unfortunately by this point, despite the improvement, the film has very little of its own character in tone beyond the essentials, the great idea in the centre of the film, even Patel's memorable performance, squandered by the lack of interesting structure.
Piercing Brightness as a result is the heartbreaking example of something that could've been cool or great, but is instead a testament to the dangers of trying too hard, to a detriment, in being an alternative film. Considering the director's art installation origins, the film based on a script from a cult novelist, this is the same mistake that one finds in modern cult genre films particularly the ones trying to be neo-grindhouse movies. I cannot believe I'm comparing this to something like The Man With The Iron Fists (2012) but it's the exact issue paralleled, the tone and style compromising the greater premise and ideas that occasionally survive the structure forced upon them and poke their heads up from the ill-designed surface to shine from brief moments. These moments, like those neo-grindhouse movies, aren't enough to save Piercing Brightness; just when you fancy a trippy sci-fi where two sibling aliens see a female alien with computer chip parts stuck to her face on the TV instructing them with esoteric words, such a delight is spoilt by the packaging being detrimental to the point it effects the quality of such moments.