Stray (2019)

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When a woman is found burned to death in a warehouse, the police think they’ve got a cut and dry arson case. Except there are two problems with that theory. One, there’s no evidence of a fire being lit. And two, an autopsy reveals that the victim, a Miss Kyoko Oshiro, wasn’t burned to death. She was petrified. And how can a woman who was alive and kicking the previous night, according to her daughter Nori, have been dead for thousands of years? This leads Detective Murphy, an officer struggling with the fallout from her own daughter’s death, to investigate the Oshiro family, and, in so doing, uncover some remarkable, seemingly fantastical things about them. What things? Watch the movie and find out.

Stray is a film I never would have heard of if not for the star, Karen Fukuhara. In case you don’t recognize her name, she made her big screen debut as Katana in the successful, but critically reviled Suicide Squad, and has since gone on to voice Glimmer in the critically-acclaimed Netflix series She-Ra: Princesses Of Power. (Side note, if you’ve never seen She-Ra, DO SO NOW! I don’t care if it’s based on a line of toys from the 80s, its got some fantastic dialogue, a terrific voice cast, and a 100% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. It may be the best animated series since Avatar: The Last Airbender). But, getting back to Miss Fukuhara, I do think she’s very talented, and I’m always eager to see where Asian American performers go after they’ve been thrust into the spotlight. That’s why I’ve been following the careers of Constance Wu, Lana Condor, Hong Chau, Kelly Marie Tran, and Steve Yeun so closely since they broke into the mainstream. What kind of projects become available to them, as Asian American performers? What kind of projects do they choose to be a part of?

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Well, in the case of Miss Fukuhara and Stray, it seems that she chose to be in a strange, beautiful, low budget, semi-superhero flick. The film is like if you combined the aesthetics of Blade Runner with the plot of Chronicle. Like the former, everything is bathed in neon colors, particularly light blues and greens, and like the latter, the film winds up being a family drama about people with vaguely defined psychic superpowers clashing over past abuse. I can’t unequivocally say I like the film since the dialogue is bland and the characters are anything but well-defined. At the same time, however, I think the movie is kind of special. For starters, it looks amazing. The cinematography is gorgeous, not just in terms of how light and shadow are used, but also in terms of the camera movement. Very rarely have films been able to hook me with their first images, but Stray, which opens with a tracking boom shot of the main character lying back in a tub and psychically freezing the water around her, did so. The visual effects are impressive for such a low budget movie. The plot is original. The performances are top-notch, with Karen Fukuhara showing a ton of pain and nuance with very little dialogue, and Japanese pop star Miyavi stealing every scene he’s in with his slimy, serpentine delivery. And the film is short. As in, it’s less than 90 minutes long. So there’s no risk of you getting bored.

But, at the same time, the briskness of the plot highlights the film’s biggest flaw; the fact that it needs more substance. There is so little in terms of characterization that I honestly couldn’t tell you a single thing about the people in this movie. The script just doesn’t linger in scenes long enough or give them some stuff to talk about other than exposition that will move the plot forward. For instance, Nori and her mother share all of one, minute-long scene together, where they do each other’s hair, and exchange maybe three lines of dialogue. We don’t get any sense for who they are or what their relationship is. As such, it becomes harder to care when Nori’s mom dies. This film has interesting ideas and themes, but it never commits to any of them. I wish I could go back and rewrite the script for this myself, wherein I give each of the characters, particularly Nori and her family, more personality and provide some greater backstory concerning their powers and how they work. I’d also play up the “stray” aspect suggested in the title, and hinted at throughout the film. Nori and her family are immigrants; “strays” in American society. The main villain was abandoned by his family, making him a “stray” as well. And these people have powers, which makes them very different from everyone else, aka “strays.” All of this, coupled with the superb performances and cinematography, is good. And I like the fact that a low budget indie film is trying to be ambitious and original, telling a supernatural, quasi-superhero story. It just lacks a clear personality or character. And that’s a damn shame.

In the end, though, I would recommend Stray to you all. It’s original. It’s beautiful. It’s well-acted, and, like I said, it’s short. It falls frustratingly short of what it could do. But as an easy, visually stunning watch with some good acting, it’s more than worth the cost. Make of this what you will.

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