Nocebo (Philippines / Ireland, 2022) is a blend of Gothic manor house horror, Southeast Asian witchcraft movies, and horror set in the world of fashion. Instead of focusing on connivances and cruelties within the world of haute couture fashion houses, like, say, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1973), it focuses on budget, ready-to-wear children’s fashion and its manufacturing. It has a gorgeous red/teal/green palette and an eerie feeling. I loved the art design, the practical effects and the music, but I focus on some other things in my piece.
From here on out there are more plot elements. If you want to see the film before knowing more, this is a good place to stop (and then come back to later). CW: A child dies. The dog does not.
Nocebo is a horror story not only of late stage capitalism and its sweatshops and mines, but of colonialism and its sweatshops, mines, ethnic hierarchies, manifest destinies and “civilizing missions.” Colonialism is still right with us embedded like a tick in places we can’t, don’t or won’t see anymore–sickening us all in ways we don’t always understand.
Directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley, Nocebo has a bit of the feel of a Gothic novel, using conventions about wealthy gentry trapped in the country with deceitful and malicious servants. Nocebo reaches back to fears that servants, colonized and enslaved people were only pretending loyalty, that their smiles and friendliness were false, and that they are plotting. There is the ambiguous feeling that the backwards and benighted people the gentry are “helping” will turn on them for no reason. Nocebo adds another classic colonial fear: witchcraft. The fear of the potentially spiritually powerful other. The fear that the colonized have a closer relationship to both the natural and the supernatural and that they can and will use this power to defeat rationality and civilization, sucking modern, respectable and white English people into a world of supernatural terror and pre-modern, pre-colonial irrationality. But Nocebo makes the underpinnings of these fears explicit: These posh, wealthy, successful, and white people are exploiting and hurting people in another country. They deny it. And that’s why they are afraid. If you scratch the surface, Nocebo implies, all of this still infests us now. Nocebo takes place in the contemporary world, with a posh English children’s wear designer, Christine (Eva Green), and her generally unpleasant, but still trying husband, Felix (Mark Strong). They live in the country in an English manor house with their daughter Roberta (Billie Gadsdon), who they call, “Bobs,”* and commute to work in London.
At what should be a triumphant runway for her new line of children’s wear, Tykie Couture, Christine receives a traumatizing phone call. She goes to an empty workroom to talk. We never hear the other end, but we hear her response, “I can’t process this now,” she tells the caller. As she ends the call–amid rising gamelan–an old, sick dog (Marco), teeming with ticks, approaches her and shakes the ticks free. One attaches to Christine’s neck unnoticed in her flailing horror before the dog disappears and we, like Christine, wonder if she only imagined it. A portentous nine months later, Christine is sick with a kind of psychological or supernatural Lyme disease. She has an angry sore on her neck where the tick bit her. She’s fatigued. She has headaches, brain fog and memory problems. She uses a CPAP machine at night. She has terrible cramps and pain in her limbs. Chritine might be overmedicated, but her symptoms disappear when she sees a doctor. It might be actual Lyme disease. It might not. In fact, the title of the film, nocebo, refers to an effect that’s opposite to the placebo effect—a neutral medical intervention that causes harm because the recipient believes it will cause harm. Christine accuses her husband of thinking her “mad.” In fact, Felix is skeptical that anything is physically wrong with Christine, but feels he’s being supportive and loving. He believes she is stressed, exhausted, and suffering from a trauma she refuses to address. Christine is trying to pull herself together and get her career back while managing her symptoms. Felix works in marketing. They are both a little too busy for Bobs, and transporting her to school and back has become a conflict between them. As in a Nineteenth Century Gothic governess novel, they love and correct Bobs, then send her off on her own or, later on, with Diana (Chai Fonacier).
It’s strange that Christine and Felix don’t already have a nanny. They are the kind of people who would. So it’s not surprising when Diana arrives on their doorstep, saying Christine hired her to help around the house. Christine doesn’t remember hiring Diana, but she also believes it’s absolutely possible that she did and doesn’t remember—and that she didn’t remember to tell her husband or Bobs that they have a new live-in housekeeper, cook and nanny. Felix tries his best, but his best is often unthinkingly insulting and casually racist. He asks Diana what part of the Philippines she’s from. When Diana answers, “Cebu City,” and asks if he’s familiar with it, Felix shuts down. But not for the reason it first appears. Bobs is outright hostile toward Diana. Diana maintains her professionally helpful face and doesn’t seem to expect better from either Christine or Felix. Bobs, she forgives because she believes Bobs is angry about her lack of friends and her parents’ neglect.
After Christine and Diana set up a room for Diana, they both lie down in different parts of the house and seem to share a dream–one where they remember giving birth to their daughters, Bobs and Amina (Sariah Reyes-Themistocleus). From here, their stories are told in parallel and their lives become more explicitly intertwined. When Christine has another attack during dinner, Diana intervenes and temporarily cures Christine’s pain. When Christine later asks her about her healing ability, Diana tells her the story of how she became an ongo. “You should never be with an ongo when it dies. But I was,” she tells Christine. Diana says it means she can understand the world—the plants, stones and animals—and how to use them to heal. She tells Diana about how lonely she was as a child. Her parents used her healing abilities to make a living, but others shunned her because they feared her ability to heal and destroy. Felix is suspicious about Christine’s increasing dependence on Diana. He believes the healing is all superstition and that Diana is preying on his wife’s weakened state, ill mental health, and desperation. When he finds evidence that Diana has deceived Christine, he and Christine turn on her, presenting a united, racist front casting Diana from their home. They cal her a “pitiful wretch.” But it’s too late, Diana has used her ritual skills, her relationship with Bobs and Felix and Christine’s prejudices about her as an immigrant Filipina homeworker to ensure that Christine can no longer escape her judgment.
All of the above tracks very much with colonial and Gothic stories. But it’s also where we get to the most important difference between Nocebo and those stories. The film sympathizes with Diana more than with Christine. It not only shares Diana’s reasons for revenge, but it tells her story in parallel with Christine’s. We see Diana’s story of becoming an ongo. Her family took in a dying woman and Diana saw a bird emerge from the woman’s mouth on her death, then ingests the bird herself. We see, Diana falling in love with Jomar (Anthony Falcon), having Amina with him, their home town being destroyed by mining company goons, moving to Cebu City, and working in a sweatshop where she hid Amina under her sewing table because she had no one to watch her daughter. Diana doesn’t tell Christine till the end that she made clothes for Tykie Couture and that she saw Christine, during a visit to the factory, give orders upping the hourly quota and asking for the workers to be locked in to prevent theft. These orders led to a fire that killed her daughter and everyone else in the shop. While Christine’s affliction is horrific–ticks!–it is an outgrowth of the greater horror she thoughtlessly inflicted. Diana arrived on Christine’s doorstep to get the justice she could. And she will use any means she can to do this. Sometimes witchcraft is the only solution.
Witchcraft is one of the weapons of the poor and comparatively powerless–people who cannot take on systemic oppression or the local oppression of bosses, landlords, and officials. There is no level playing field between a Filipina garment worker and a posh English children’s wear designer. Witchcraft is a weapon and an equalizer in Nocebo, where mining companies destroy entire towns when it suits them and factory managers accede to dangerous requests when asked to by a designer, who might not entirely understand the consequences of what she’s asking, but absolutely should. Diana doesn’t have money or political power. She knows she will not be heard by government officials, but she can use her own power as an ongo.
Ongo is a Cebuano / Bisaya word for a folk healer, ritual specialist or witch. It covers some of the same ground as “aswang,” though in English-language film circles, “aswang” has mostly come to denote a specific form aswangs can take—a disembodied torso that flies around with its viscera dangling (manananggal). Diana never appears in this form, though Bobs tells her parents she has seen Diana fly. They don’t believe her, of course. They are rational people of the world. Except when they are not. Christine, after all, has a pair of lucky red shoes and a special rhyme she uses when she dons them, “Lucky shoes, lucky shoes / Make me win and never lose.” Diana’s magic is more traditional Filipino sorcery. She ingested the power of an ongo to become an ongo herself. She uses nails, hair and blood for sympathetic magic. She uses a sick, old street dog to transmit her curse. She whispers her instructions to arachnids telling them what she needs from them.
As I said, by the time Christine and Felix throw Diana out of their house, it’s too late. Diana has taken Bobs away from them. Not by killing her. As someone who was also isolated and lonely as a child, Diana relates to Bobs and becomes her friend. She gives Bobs her legacy and makes Bobs into an ongo, too. Christine might see this as stealing Bobs, but Bobs already feels abandoned to Diana. Diana’s true act of revenge, though, is making Christine see and feel what she did to Amina and all the other people who died in the fire. I think Christine did have a small chance of surviving. Diana might have left her intervention at healing if Christine had faced what she had done and tried to make amends. Instead, when Diana healed her enough that her symptoms were gone, Christine started work on a new line of children’s clothing and contacted Vesmodo, the same company who contracted with the sweatshop in Cebu City. And the new line’s launch was going to be especially appropriational. “A little urban. A little ethnic. Southeast Asian. Pow!” the Vesmodo rep exclaims and Christine is unbothered, perhaps she sees it as sublimating her trauma into something productive, but it’s gross. Christine preferred to continue as if nothing had ever happened and to ignore the effects of her actions on the rest of the world. So Diana tells Christine, “What makes you think you won’t face your own judgment.” And Christine does. She dies working a sewing machine surrounded by flames. Christine’s lucky shoes—and presumably her feet—are the only thing that survive. As Amina and the factory workers faced the consequences of Christine’s actions, so must she. Christine is one of the ticks herself, embedded in Cebu City’s neck, focused only on nourishing herself.
*Final girl name.
Some books from my previous life that are in the background of this piece:
James Scott. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Resistance in Peasant Southeast Asia. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
Aihwa Ong and Michael G. Peletz, eds. Bewitching Women and Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)
Michael Taussig. Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: Studies in Terror and Healing. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987)
I received a review copy of Nocebo. Nocebo is now available streaming on Shudder and many other places.
The Gutter’s own Angela suggests watching Nocebo with Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico / Peru, 2022). Carol Borden doesn’t disagree, but she really thought about watching it with In Fabric (UK, 2018) and, A Wounded Fawn (USA, 2022). And maybe Parasite (South Korea, 2019).
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