Short Film Review: ‘Moth’ (2018), dir. Shu Zhu
Compared to its distant relative, the butterfly, the moth is a little bit underwhelming. Duller, darker, and always second best–that’s the moth’s unfortunate reality. Yet, they’re a creature that is constantly drawn to the spotlight. The smallest flicker of light (or the slightest glimmer of hope) will make the moth come flapping in an instant. Not to mention, it’s not an easy metaphor for one to adapt for their short film.
It’s quite a feat then, that director Shu Zhu so expertly weaves the subtle characteristics of the moth into the very fiber of his short film, Moth. Zhu’s transformative drama follows Asian American actress Jeanie Lim (Christine Chou) as she navigates the slippery job landscape of Hollywood. Like many others who had come to California in the hopes of making it big, Jeanie is in a similar state of flux. She’s only a semi-successful actress (given her massive movie poster starring her in her workplace), but she’s having trouble finding work in something new. The beginning sequence–a shaky monologue that she gives that turns out to be an audition for a lead role–seems hopeful. It appears that Jeanie is hitting all the right notes: the director/producers seem to love her work, they know her, and they’re on the brink of offering her the part. However, as it is in Hollywood, it’s not as simple as it seems. Pressured by her agent to go to a party with the directors, Jeanie watches her chances of snagging the lead role wither away before her eyes. It seems that the director has another lead actress in mind–only this actress is one who is willing to go all the way with him, offering up her body as an added bonus. Torn between landing the part and her own personal morals, Jeanie leaves the party prematurely and undergoes quite a literal metamorphosis–turning into a moth and flying out into the night sky.
If all of that sounds a little strange, that’s because it is. Moth is a film that acts as an extended metaphor likening struggling actresses with the insignificant moth. What’s clever about the film is that there are so many parts that surprisingly line up the more you think about it: moths are constantly searching for that spotlight, they’re mouthless (mirroring how these actresses don’t really have a say in their career), and they’re only surviving off of the energy they’ve built on before they die (in this case, Jeanie is heavily relying on her film credit as her sole leverage for the part). While Jeanie’s transformation at the end might be initially shocking, it’s not as far-fetched as it seems.
It also doesn’t help that Jeanie herself is not the most convincing actress (the first sequence clearly shows that her acting is semi-believable at best, a feat Chou absolutely nailed in her layered performance), and she has a family to support. Lingering shots of Jeanie and her daughter add to the collateral damage, since she’s constantly having to choose between her family and her work. Unfortunately, Jeanie can’t stop chasing that spotlight, even though it means less time with her family.
Zhu thus does a brilliant job of capturing the disorienting feelings that Jeanie goes through as she traverses the unstable world of acting. As she’s deciding whether she wants to be in that club with those sleazy men who might or might not offer her a job, colorful lights and scandalous stage dancers cloud her vision almost like a dream sequence. Aside from that transformative sequence at the end, the club scene is unshakeably hypnotic. The contributions of editor Guangwei Du, production designer Harshita Reddy, and cinematographer Ayinde Anderson can’t be ignored–Moth contains some of the most memorably dizzying shots that I’ve ever seen in a short film.
As a result, Moth succeeds in his vision in portraying a woman stuck in a treacherous limbo, and it’s one of the more creative takes on the perils of the industry yet.