Directed by Rui Yao/ Reviewed by Prarthana Mitra
“Physical pain has no voice, but when it at last finds a voice, it begins to tell a story […]”
– Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain
The desire to be remembered by the living underscores the human quest for immortality. And this desire is all the more intense when death is an overwhelming reality, as in the extremity of sickness and death. Based loosely around this very notion, US filmmaker who goes by the moniker Hypnus has written a gripping screenplay for an upcoming English-language short.
Titled ‘Secret Path,’ the script for it is replete with generous doses of magic realism and psychedelic elements but they are merely narrative prostheses that Hypnus uses to depict the grim realities of terminal illness, the toll it takes on families, and how accepting the inevitable can set everyone free. In the process, he makes a difficult put powerful statement on existential threat and fear, and the surprising ways in which the human mind deals with them.
As far as the story goes, the protagonist CZ is a nine-year-old boy, diagnosed with thalassemia – a deadly genetic blood disorder that necessitates regular blood transfusion and has practically robbed the child not only of the semblance of a normal life but also of any certainty of recovery. Although the prospect of recovery is slim when it comes to thalassemia, will power often makes the difference, making medical miracles possible in terminal cases. But Hypnus does not toy with empty hope and gives his audience a realistic
account of death and grief. Only, his way of arriving at the narrative culmination is as imaginative as can be.
The entirety of the film is set inside a children’s hospital in the presence of nurses, doctors and CZ’s distraught father. As the narrative progresses, we learn that CZ has lost his mother at a young age. What’s worse, as his doctor (Dr. Schin) tells his father, CZ has just about given up on fighting back. In the opening scenes, we see a considerably weakened CZ resisting the prescribed but painful blood transfusion. With it, we can sense his father’s despair and helplessness, although the doctor tackles CZ’s increasing nihilism expertly,
patiently deferring the procedure for a day to give the boy some respite.
The crux of this hospital drama, however, is contained in a mysterious scene mid-script, that remains open to interpretation, and whose efficacy depends on the way it is visually rendered on screen. It consists in CZ finding a secret pathway that leads him to a room where she meets a mystery woman called Edge who helps bolster his faith and courage. The needles, as he later recounts to Dr Schin and his father, melt into an orange-shaped clay ball and no longer hurts.
Although the adults around him chalk it up to medicine-induced hallucination and long-time confinement to bed, to CZ, the episode is as real as his disease. He has a series of epiphanies surrounding this experience, chiefly among which he realizes Edge is really an incarnation of his mother. He also understands that no matter the consequences of his treatment or the pre-determined fate that lays in store for him, he must pluck up the courage to fight for his life and for those that might survive him. He accepts the treatment, and prepares for the reality should it fail to work.
In the fag end of the drama, Hypnus also exposits that CZ’s only concern at this point is not to be forgotten, which is what he asks of his father before embracing the cold eternity that awaits him in afterlife – a glimpse of which he has already seen in the secret room. The director’s marginal notes denote a lot of shift in tone and pace as the story shuffles to and from CZ’s otherworldly dream and clinical reality. What might have been another mawkish tale of a thalassemia sufferer is lifted by its offbeat tone and segue into a bizarre Lewis
Carroll-esque climax. Touching and small, ‘Secret Path’ shows the same sentimental sensitivity as fellow genre hits – The Fault in Our Stars, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, Love and other Drugs, and Before I Go- but is probably best described as a Roald Dahl-shaped tear jerker.