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Japanese/Polish virtual reality strangeness
Avalon is an illegal virtual reality game: the next stage of first person shoot 'em up, available in single player or multiplayer modes, and awarding D&D style experience points. Veteran player Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak) is one of the best. She earns her living from the game and Avalon is literally her life. When she is not playing the game her life is depicted as a looping, pointless series of mundane events. This is further emphasised by Oshii's use of an extremely muted colour palette; battle scenes are rendered in dreamy sepia, the real world in muddy browns and greens to the extent it is virtually monochromatic.
Ash seeks to escape her existential malaise by finding a hidden level in the game known as Special A or Class Real. At the same time she becomes aware of another player who is even better than her and is identified only by his character type, Bishop (Dariusz Biskupski). He is somehow involved with this secret level as is her old comrade Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko), one of the Unreturned (players who have become lost in the game).
This ties in with the literal meaning of Avalon. As we are reminded by Kenji Kawai's score it is the mythical island where the souls of departed Arthurian heroes rest. The parallel legend of Odin and the crown of oblivion is also recounted and is of even more relevance to the story.
At times it can seem like the film is deliberately alienating the viewer with its wilfully oblique story, dreamlike pace and monosyllabic heroine. What saves it from this is the obvious intelligence that lies behind the picture and the fact that we never feel we have been cheated by its ambiguous nature, that everything is there for us if we can only unravel it.
The film is absolutely larded with symbolism, recursive images appearing again and again: a pair of stone cherubs, Ash's dog, the ghost of a little girl. Food in particular is vividly fetishised, bursting from the screen in full colour (though pointedly the heroine is never seen to do more than nibble on a dog biscuit herself).
We are never sure whether we have even seen the real world. In the final section of the film it is implicitly suggested then explicitly denied that this is in fact reality. In fact serious arguments can be made for either side of the debate. In this way, as with all good puzzle pictures, Avalon demands immediate rewatching and it's about time you could say that of an SF film.
This article originally appeared in Matrix #162