Preview: Play the Devil and Signature Move at VQFF

The Vancouver Queer Film Festival is running from August 10 to 20, and we're so excited! We'll be posting reviews for a handful of noteworthy flicks until the festival start date, so our readers know which titles to look out for. More details regarding the VQFF program can be found on their website. Yay!

Still from Maria Govan's  Play the Devil

Still from Maria Govan's Play the Devil

Maria Govan’s intimate coming of age drama, Play the Devil, tells the story of Gregory, a model student on track to win a scholarship in medicine—his escape plan for a better life in the West. Naturally, his real passion lies with more creative endeavours like photography, theatre… and an older man. The film’s underlying theme explores pleasure sacrilegious enough to be worth eternal damnation. The viewer is left wondering, who is the real devil? The film’s more obvious antagonist in the form of Gregory’s so-called best friend? Or Gregory himself, seduced into the temptations of a married man? Perhaps, Govan is talking about more metaphorical devils like drug addiction or poverty?

As the plot unravels, the devils multiply, fruitful and free. We’re given so many potential recipes for disaster, it’s a visual feast. One of the more obvious ones would be an actual gun. The barrel flashes illicitly from the waistband of Devin’s track-pants, to never be seen again, defying every literary rule that Chekhov established almost a century ago. In fact, the whole movie is a breathless affair filled with tension that is never resolved. There are too many smoking guns: drug addicted father, perverted teacher, scholarship, vicious best friend, fancy camera and, of course, the chaos of the carnival. But none of them let out a shot. Instead, they lie limply, bullet-less and frustratingly open ended.

In opposition to many coming of age dramas, Play the Devil evades the satisfying resolution. Instead, the film’s establishing shot with Gregory’s and best friend Devin’s paint-splattered bodies crawling through the thick forest are repeated in the end. Will Gregory repent and achieve his absolution as a cutthroat neurosurgeon? Will he let himself be seduced by the violence and drugs? We never get to find out.

In fact, this duality of good and evil is more fully explored in the subtle cinematic images. There are definite dichotomies of poverty and unmistakable wealth, represented through metaphoric imagery. However, it’s not as uncomplicated of a story as that. I Play the Devil explores the liminal spaces of perversity and bittersweet goodness, saintliness marred by the mundane and by true kindness.

Flowing throughout the film is the theme of cleansing, via the ocean or a waterfall. The cultural richness of Trinidad and Tobago shines through as well, especially with the presence of Carnival. It’s visually represented in Gregory’s struggle with his dual identity—as a studious grandson and rebellious queer teenager. The theatrical performance of the “devil” persona he adopts during the Jab Jab festival becomes unfortunate reality, as Gregory learns that the neat break between two personalities can stay secret only for so long.

Still from Jennifer Reeder's  Signature Move

Still from Jennifer Reeder's Signature Move

Signature Move, directed by Jennifer Reeder, is a boxing match of visual stimuli. The plot unravels in the true fashion of Bollywood classics, with abrupt transitions from genuine anguish to slapstick comedy, cutting heartfelt conversation short for theatrical wrestling matches. Signature Move tells the somewhat autobiographical story of queer Pakistani lawyer played by Fawzia Mirza, who also co-wrote the script. Her character, Zaynab, struggles to reconcile her racial identity with her sexual orientation. The process is made more difficult while she’s living with her recently widowed mother, who is dead set on finding a nice husband for her daughter. It doesn’t help matters that her love interest, Alma, is a very out and proud Chicana, and who isn’t willing to hide in the closet while Zaynab comes to terms with her queerness.

This indie film is peppered with many struggles typical of romantic comedy. Some of them are: generational misunderstandings, familial drama, a secret love affair, societal obligations stifling freedom. Signature Move certainly follows the telenovela or soap opera modes of operation. However, the tried and true plot twists are punctuated with capricious moments of pure surprise. Like the visual metaphor of grief visually represented by a hand watch circling a too-thin wrist. Or Zaynab and Alma kissing through the veil of Mexican wrestling masks in a grocery store. Or the stuffed tiger roaring as Zaynab trains for her first Lucha Libre match.

The film’s “signature move” is not an innovative plot however, but a personal exploration of culture. The most obvious difference between this comedy drama and any other Bollywood flick would be its unique relationship with language. Bilingual conversations continue seamlessly past borders, flowing from Mexican to English to Punjabi and back. And still, subtle word play indicates a greater chasm of misunderstanding between characters. When Zaynab says she’s leaving for a work out, her mother suggests she should work in. To which Zaynab sullenly replies, “I prefer out.” These conversational mishaps allow the viewer an intimate window into the second generation immigrant household. Another brilliant move on Fawzia Mirza’s part was showing a typical habit of a bilingual person confronted with family conflict. In the pivotal confrontation between mother and daughter, Zaynab starts out replying in English but as the tension increases, she switches to Punjabi. As if anger is easier expressed with familiar neural pathways of her mother-tongue.

Compared to this moment of anger, Alma and Zaynab communicate just fine in their shared second language, and with love. As Zaynab’s mother and Alma settle in to watch Mexican telenovelas together, Zaynab asks how can her mother enjoy watching films in a foreign language. To which, her mother replies that no matter the language, she will always understand the trivialities and conventions of love. What else is there to say?


Play the Devil will be screening on Monday, August 14 at International Village Cinemas. Signature Move will be screening on Friday, August 11 at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, and on Saturday, August 12 at International Village Cinemas. Tickets can be found here and here.