Kowloon Forest opens on a rooftop in Kowloon, where a mahjong table sits idle as a rack of laundry flutters in the breeze. The fluorescent lights of surrounding tenements glow in the advancing dusk. Suddenly, we hear the scream of a plane flying low overhead, just like in the old days, when Kai Tak Airport was nearby and air passengers could see right into apartment windows as their flight swooped down to land.
“I remember my grandmother would get dressed up to hang the laundry on the rooftop,” says a woman in voiceover. “She wanted to look presentable to the airplane passengers flying overhead.”
Next, we see the woman who speaks, sitting alone in her tiny, cluttered flat, staring into a mirror as she removes a blonde wig, fake eyelashes and makeup. It’s an uncomfortably intimate scene, especially considering this isn’t a conventional film: it’s virtual reality. Viewers wear a VR headset that gives them an immersive 360-degree experience of each scene in the eight-minute short.
“If you speak to someone there’s a certain personal distance you have with them – a comfortable distance,” says Kowloon Forest’s director, Alexey Marfin. “What happens if they come very close to you? I was testing those limits.”
Anyone who lives in Hong Kong is used to having the limits of their personal space tested again and again. But it’s one thing to jostle for space on a crowded MTR carriage, or weave around plodding pedestrians on a packed footpath. It’s quite another to plunge unseen into those people’s private realms.
That’s the thrill of Kowloon Forest, which follows five characters as they inhabit their own little corners of the city. Local musician Shirley To, also known as Toonyun, plays the woman reminiscing about her grandmother. Ming Lo plays a mainland Chinese businessman eating a takeaway dinner while watching a Korean mukbang video, in which a young woman devours a huge amount of food. Ainah Lagrimas and Sara Beatriz Meredith play Filipina maids picnicking on a Mongkok footbridge on her day off. Rahuram Shetty plays an Indian man who runs an internet café by day and livestreams astrological advice at night.
The film has no narrative, strictly speaking; viewers simply look on as the characters indulge in a moment alone, unaware that they are being watched. “At first it feels quite unnerving,” says Marfin. “The first scene is the woman taking off her makeup and she is taking off her contact lens – she leans very close to the mirror, and to us, and your first reaction is to jump back. But you realise it’s VR and you begin to inhabit that space where you shouldn’t really be.”
Born in Leningrad—now St. Petersburg—Marfin studied architecture in London and is currently based in Los Angeles, where he co-founded a master’s programme in fiction and entertainment at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. He first came to Hong Kong in 2013 to work on a short sci-fi film, Blue Eyed Me, that was filmed here and in Shenzhen. “I realised there was so much more to the place than the image that exists in the West,” he says. “There’s something more poetic and idiosyncratic about it.”
Befitting Marfin’s architectural background, this is a film about space as much as the characters that inhabit it. Each scene is oriented around two axes. The first links the character to the focus of their attention – a mirror, a webcam selfie, a conversation partner, a livestream. The second runs between their private space and the city beyond, which is always visible to one side.
“Everyone is having a moment of privacy to themselves,” says Marfin. “So the city is a way of defining this closed intimate moment to a bigger presence that you see. We always get a sense of this small intimate, quiet moment in relation to the bigger world out there, the city and these forces that may be shaping the moment.”
That cityscape is a mix of on-location footage and digital imagery, an ever-so-slightly embellished version of Hong Kong, one where neon signs still proliferate, casting streets and apartments alike in an eerie glow. The interior spaces were filmed in a studio but populated with objects that reflect both the characters and the actors who play them. “Most of the objects in the first scene are the belongings of Shirley, the actor, like childhood photos. There was a depth of design in a lot of the objects in those spaces,” says Marfin.
That extends beyond the art direction. “We were quite free in our choice of actors, which allowed us to find people who have interesting relevant, real-life experience for their roles,” he says. Shetty, who plays the astrologer, has his own spiritual practice in real life. Meredith’s performance is informed by her mother, who worked as a domestic helper. Ming Lo worked on Wall Street before becoming an actor. “The actors bring their own input to the project which allows the story to become bigger than what’s in my head,” says Marfin.
The result is a fly-on-the-wall look at the interior lives of five people who could easily pass unnoticed on the MTR – a voyeuristic glimpse at the spaces we create for ourselves in a crowded city. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m just like her – dressing up for the eyes of strangers,” says To’s character about her grandmother. “But what about when no one is watching?”
Kowloon Forest is on view at Osage Kwun Tong until 31 August 2019. Click here for more information.