I’ve always wondered what would happen if someone from a Buddhist culture was reincarnated into a culture that didn’t believe in such things. The most entertaining part of the movie "I Origins" (coming out on July 18th) was, for me, the tale of exactly this.
When I was 16, I went to Bangkok for the summer to hang out with my Thai family. I grew up in Hawaii with a scientist father, but I’ve never been allowed to think that science explains all the things. In fact, perhaps this is the biggest fallacy of "I Origins"; the idea that there could be a scientist out there that doesn’t know the limits of the scientific method.
But I digress. That summer, in Thailand, I met my uncle’s boyfriend.
The family sat to meet him in front of the Buddhas in the shrine room of my uncle’s house (every Thai house has a shrine room, or at least a shrine shelf). The room smelled of jasmine incense, and the young man looked strangely embarrassed as he explained how he discovered my uncle.
“When I met him, I recognized immediately that we were married in a past life,” he said. “I knew somehow that he had been my wife.” He handed my uncle a plumeria blossom, and my uncle tucked it behind his ear.
This same uncle had taught me how to carve fresh ginger root into the shape of flowers when I was much smaller, and -- to me -- he always carried those scents: jasmine, plumeria, ginger.
My Thai family always told me that my uncle was the reincarnation of a strong woman, which is why his culturally feminine traits were prevalent despite his male body. This was as good a justification of his sexuality as any, I thought, and I was completely unsurprised to find that my uncle had discovered a relationship from this past life.
Was it “true,” though? I don’t know, why not?
I am Thai, and my mother brought me up Buddhist. I found it amusing that someone needed to make a movie that proves to a white scientist guy that reincarnation might be a possibility. However, it is probably necessary, given the fact that Asian religions are often relegated by Western culture to the bookshelf where the clearly mythological things are kept.
The intent of the movie is to prove with SCIENCE that reincarnation might exist, because WHAT IF out of all of the unique eyes out there, someone is born with an iris pattern that is the same as someone dead.
Would memories of a past life surface too, because the eyes are so deeply connected to the brain? Probably, this movie posits, although it stops just short of dealing with the implications of this speculation.
Here is a swift summary of the plot: Ian (played by Michael Pitt) meets Sofi (played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) at a party. She ruthlessly sleeps with him and runs away, but not before quietly sowing a few seeds of doubt in his mind. What if we feel so connected because we’ve met in a past life? Ian outright stalks her, and somehow she sees past his creeper personality and gets involved with him, probably due to their past life connection.
Sofi does not back down from her stance on reincarnation or the possibility of a spiritual explanation for existence despite the fact that she’s dating a scientist, and even agrees to a more permanent relationship with him despite their philosophical differences.
The movie is about how Sofi’s belief shakes Ian’s firm faith in science. I imagine that a lot of people might think that the story is about Ian and his quest for understanding. However, I was most drawn to the character of Sofi -- because with her “exotic” non-English-speaking background and inability to fully buy into scientific tropes of provability, she seemed to speak for me and other women whose ideas are sometimes silenced by white maleness.
Michael Pitt seems to have also comprehended that the movie was Sofi’s movie, and played his character with so much attention to Ian’s petulant scientific man pain that Sofi’s arguments are all the more valid. I have to give credit to Pitt -- his acting chops are pretty awesome to be able to portray such an intensely self-involved character with so little regard for whether or not the audience likes him.
My least favorite moment with Ian is a direct illustration of Sofi’s silencing. Right before a major plot twist, Sofi argues with Ian yet again that there might be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy (to steal from another old writer who understood the limitations of science).
But Ian has had enough of his woman actually talking about ideas with words, so he stops her in the middle of a sentence by leaning forward and kissing her. “You’re so beautiful,” Ian says to Sofi, communicating exactly what she is to him before turning away.
The moment made me shudder with such revulsion that I once again had to hand it to Michael Pitt: he’s done an amazing job to perform such a jerk.
I have not spoken yet about the other important character in the trio of main characters -- Karen (acted by Brit Marling). Her role is as Ian’s lab assistant and therefore Sofi’s counter-argument; she's a woman so similar to Ian that she kind of thinks for him, and, one might even say, instead of him.
She is the important female voice of the second half of the movie, and all of the moments with both Karen and Sofi are so interestingly charged that I kind of wish Ian had been left out of the equation entirely. In fact, I can envision a version of "I Origins" as a non-romance movie containing JUST philosophy, Karen, and Sofi.
Think it would fly in Hollywood? No? Ah, well, maybe someone will write a fanfic of it.
More plot twists happen, and for various reasons, the rest of the movie is left without Sofi having much of a voice at all. Because I was drawn to Sofi’s character so much, I was deeply curious about Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s take on her. (I was going to interview her for xoJane, but her promotional schedule got backed up and she wasn’t able to talk with me.)
Sofi is the center of the movie in a lot of ways because she serves as an Arwen-esque inspirational character for Ian. Is she just a plot device, and is that why she is practically called a “manic pixie dream girl” at one point in the film?
Sofi seems to have a lot of mysteries about her past. For example, when she’s getting to know Ian, he asks her a lot of questions to which she responds, “I’ll pass.” Did the writers have any sort of backstory worked out for Sofi, or was it important to the viewer that Sofi not have an actual real history? Was it to make her even more of a manic pixie dream girl?
Also, was it important to set her answers about her character’s history over a montage of sex?
When Sofi first meets Ian, he looks her up on the Internet (in a creepy manner) and then frequents the places that she blogs about. How did Sofi manage to overcome her internal qualms about such a stalker and start dating him?
Was it seriously because he managed to hypnotize her through the power of indie music, played via his headphones (stuck -- without asking -- onto her ears while he followed her on public transit)?
Sofi becomes, shall we say, a bit quiet during the second half of the movie. Since Sofi is kind of a cypher, did the rest of the movie speak for her? What would Sofi have done had she been given a voice in the second half of the movie?
Would she have perhaps broken up with Ian after he continues to tell her that she’s “a child” (exact quote, not even taken out of context), for example?
This movie was thought-provoking enough that I think I'll actually watch it again -- just to answer my own questions.