Apoptosis is a process of death built into life itself. A pre-programmed end point hard-wired into cells, complex multicellular life as we know it wouldn’t be possible without it. It’s part of the process that allows fingers and toes to separate in the early stages of human development, and it’s part of what keeps processes of runaway growth (like, say, cancer) in check; a constant, ongoing self-destruction that’s necessary for survival and growth.
That definition is a useful bit of context in watching Reneepoptosis, a short from Renee Zhan that’s stuffed with multilayered metaphor. It’s a solipsistic sort of film in a very intentional way, following a trio of Renees as they traverse the landscape of Renee’s body in search of a god that is also Renee. Despite taking the artist as its subject and setting, Reneepoptosis doesn’t feel insular. Instead, Zhan’s imaginative reworking of her mind and body feels strangely limitless, an impossible landscape that never ceases to surprise.
It’s also borderline horrifying in places, depending on your tolerance for repurposed body parts. In an interview for the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where Reneepoptosis was awarded the jury prize for Best Animated Short, Zhan described the film as “a lighthearted meditation on the thin line between self-worship and self-hatred,” but “lighthearted” might not be the first word that comes to mind in a film that features auto-cannibalism, grubby parasites, and landscapes overstuffed with fleshy mounds, laughing cysts, and far too many teeth. Drawn in inky washes that serve the dual purpose of recalling traditional Asian art while adding visceral texture to the backgrounds, the aesthetic lands somewhere between fairy tale prints and Cronenberg daydreams.
As long as you aren’t squicked out by the fleshy landscapes, though, it really is a playful short. The narration, delivered in rhyming verse by a chorus of Renees, blends mythic importance with biting self-deprecation. The character designs are wonderfully unselfconscious, transforming the director into an endless stream of adorable and monstrous creatures. Zhan is remarkably open about her fears and anxieties, but she’s also skilled at putting them in their place, finding ways to heighten the absurdity without diminishing the honesty.
Reneepoptosis embraces the self for what it is, a mess of structures and processes that we’re usually too uncomfortable to look at with any degree of transparency. But it’s also open about doubts and fears, the sense of self-loathing that seems as embedded into our identities as any other biological process. It’s rich with symbols both subtle and obvious, feeling at times like a gateway into the depths of the unconscious. Ultimately, though, like the name implies, it’s not a film about creation or destruction, life or death, but the whole messy process that encompasses all of them.
dir: Renee Zhan
syn: Three Renees go on a quest to find God, who is also Renee. As they traverse the mountains and valleys of Renee, they discover all the great joys, sorrows, and mysteries of being Renee.