Director Jem Cohen takes a page from Chris Marker's sociopolitical essay-style films with Chain, a deliberate, didactic study of two very different women who either work or live in unnamed cities filled with large stores, malls, airports, theme parks and hotels. One of the women, Amanda (Mira Billotte), is a homeless drifter who finds a rundown house near a shopping mall in which to live. The young woman confesses in a video diary her sad adventures working from store to store in malls across America. The other woman, Tamiko (Miho Nikaido), is a businesswoman trying to sell international theme parks for her company's home office. Tamiko's travels take her all around the world, though the various city settings seem the same. The two women never meet, but their experiences are similar-they both seem numb and disaffected by their environments.
Chain could have been executed in the form of cinéma-vérité, but the shot selection, editing and overall pacing are very studied-not only like the work of Chris Marker but also Frederick Wiseman and (to a degree) Michelangelo Antonioni. (The end credits acknowledge Marker and author Humphrey Jennings-though not other filmmakers or the seminal writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.) Cohen shot (in 16mm) over a seven-year period many places around the world that look and sound as if they were all an identical location. Cohen particularly centers his attention on Western and American homogenization of culture-it is almost impossible to distinguish Florida from Texas or Paris from Berlin, for that matter. The cross-cutting of the two women's lives demonstrates another way corporate globalization has impaired the quality of life: Both characters seem depressed and disconnected from other human beings.
Chain's approach to questioning the direction and progress of the industrialized world is admirable and thought-provoking. It is also monotonous, since sameness and repetition are thematic, and not just a bit pretentious. Perhaps Cohen's experiment would have worked better had it incorporated some of the self-reflexive humor and more playfully metaphysical musings of Marker's work (or Peter Greenaway's surreal anti-capitalist parody, Stairs One Geneva). Also, it may be great to see Miho Nikaido on screen (she was brave and wonderful in Ryu Murakami's Tokyo Decadence over a decade ago), but the character she plays here is so flat, one has to make an effort to appreciate the Noh-like performance. Both Nikaido and her untrained co-star, Mira Billotte, do too good a job at portraying ennui and Chain suffers as much as it succeeds from it.