– Indian director Ishan Shukla’s animated dystopian sci-fi feature combines staples of the sub-genre with Eastern spirituality, resulting in a somewhat jumbled but undeniably impressive debut

Review: Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust

Based on his 2016 short film Schirkoa, which stemmed from his own graphic novel, the first feature-length film by Indian director Ishan Shukla, Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust, is a dystopian animation that combines a classic story of authoritarianism, the fight for freedom and self-actualisation with Eastern philosophies’ concept of enlightenment. Although it struggles under the weight of its own ambition, it is a stunning, even overwhelming and definitely impressive debut, sporting an aura of cool with a voice cast including Asia Argento, and guest appearances by Lav Diaz, Gaspar Noe, Shekhar Kapur and Soko.

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The setting is split roughly into two halves in the film. At the beginning, we are in the city-state of Schirkoa, where citizens are required to wear paper bags with codes instead of names written on the forehead. “To be alike is the way of life” and “Safety, sanity and sanctity” are this society’s mottos, blaring as public service announcements from loudspeakers in the teeming metropolis. It is a place where architecture, languages and traditions from all over the world intertwine and collide, a noirish setting slightly borrowing from Bladerunner (an early snippet of Sneha Khanwalkar‘s score harks back to Vangelis’s legendary soundtrack), but with its own, distinct flavour: the colours are slightly muted and enveloped in darkness, the characters and set design in the foreground are richly textured and realistic, while the backgrounds are misty – an atmospheric decision, rather than a technical issue, as the film’s combination of 2D and 3D animation and motion capture was processed in the Unreal game engine.

197A (voiced by Shahbaz Sarwar) is a mid-level official in the city’s bureaucracy who is informed that he will be the ruling Intellectuals’ government representative in the mystical Finale against an opposition candidate. His lover 242B (Iranian-French actress Golshifteh Farahani) is a prostitute in Schirkoa’s Blue District, who is planning to leave the oppressive environment for the “forbidden refugee state” of Konthaqa. This is where, supposedly, Anomalies come from: people with horns or wings that the city tries to exterminate.

But maybe this is all a hoax orchestrated by the government to keep the population in line, and even 197A tends to believe so. However, a chance encounter with a rebellious young woman, 33F (Anurag Kashyap), which includes a darkly humorous discussion on various methods of suicide, will take our hero to Konthaqa before half of the film has elapsed. This chaotic society is led by Lies (Asia Argento), a no-nonsense mermaid. Forget the wings and the horns; this place is populated by wildly imaginative human-animal hybrids. This second half is head-spinningly psychedelic, with bright, shiny colours swirling among floating mandalas and other symbols, to the sounds of Khanwalkar’s overwhelming score and tracks from the likes of Sun Ra and King Khan.

Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust inevitably stands on the shoulders of its predecessors: besides Bladerunner, there are whiffs of Star Wars and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but it is still very much its own, authentic beast. The hero’s character arc follows the Eastern concept of transcending the self, awakening and enlightenment, but along the way, the mythology and mechanism of the film’s world get muddled. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in such a rewarding, vertiginous viewing experience if the script didn’t lead us to follow a logic that is later largely abandoned, even if the refreshingly clean, quiet epilogue ultimately makes it irrelevant, ending the picture on a strongly spiritual note.

Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust is a co-production between France’s Dissidenz Films, India’s Red Cigarette Media, Germany’s Rapid Eye Movies, and Mumbai- and London-based Civic Studios. New Europe Film Sales handles the international rights.

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