Fantasy, reality, and the worlds in-between

Inspired by GFF title, Zalava, Young Selector, Sumayyah, reflects on dark fantasy tales and what their open-ended conclusions reveal. Warning - spoilers ahead!

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Spirited Away

Some of the fantasy films we watch are left open-ended, leaving us uncertain about the main character’s journey as they explore new worlds, magic and life. Inspired by Young Selector pick, Zalava, I decided to look at four films that are similarly connected in this way.

Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki is an animated film that follows a young girl called Chihiro who comes across an abandoned amusement park with her parents. They pass through an entrance which leads them to the realm of the spirits. When she loses her parents to greed, Chihiro is desperate to find her way back home and reunite with them, but to do so she has to find her way through this unknown world, on a journey of self-discovery.

The underlying theme of identity is explored throughout. At one point, Chihiro's name is changed, and she becomes a worker in a bathhouse, but she is warned by her friend Haku to never forget her real name. It’s one of the only things linking her to the real world and her original identity. To forget her name and her parents, would be to lose herself and forget her origins, slowly becoming part of the spirit world. Chihiro comes across a spirit,‘No-Face’, who is completely different from her as he is void of an identity, distant from who he might have once been. We never truly figure out who he is.

By the end, Chihiro has changed from who she was at the beginning of the story, displeased with moving cities and clinging to her parents. Through her journey she has gained courage and independence. Before her departure, Chihiro and Haku promise to meet again with his last words being 'Now go, and don't look back'.

When they return to the real world, time has passed, and she now looks back at the tunnel with its overgrown grass. Was it even real? Or could it be said that Chihiro is looking back on her journey, the memories and friends she had made? It leaves us with a bittersweet feeling.

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Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro explores fantasy and fairytales in his film Pan's Labyrinth. It stands out from conventional fairytales with their happy endings because of a darkness he creates by combining a sense of violence and death with a childlike essence. The film has a strange balance between reality and fantasy.

One side of the story is about Ofelia, a young girl, and her pregnant mother moving in with her stepfather, Captain Vidal. They are surrounded by the horrors of Fascism and rising tensions of a rebellion. The other side of the story follows Ofelia on a quest, encountering mythical creatures and fairies. She is engrossed by the fact that she could be a lost princess from another world. Ofelia is tasked with completing three trials. All of these trials are intertwined with the reality of the story.

The ending, which we have seen a glimpse of before at the opening scene, is showing Ofelia's death. At this time, we are unaware of what has happened. We start to piece things together throughout the story. The ending is the third and final trial, Ofelia is tasked with sacrificing her baby brother so the kingdom will open and she can reclaim her immortality. In the end Ofelia refuses and in return she loses her life.

On one hand we could believe that she is dead, it was all in her head, or that it was a way for her to cope with the horrors surrounding her when moving to a new place. She gets caught in a political conflict and struggles to accept her new brother. On the other hand, we could believe that the adventures Ofelia goes on with fairies and fantastical creatures are real – meaning that Ofelia lives on in this unknown kingdom, with only remnants of her time on earth left behind.

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Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko is written and directed by Richard Kelly about troubled teen, Donnie Darko. A rabbit named Frank appears to Donnie one night after sleepwalking. Frank states that in '28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds' the world will supposedly end, leading Donnie on an unusual journey.

The film reflects a coming-of-age story combined with sci-fi and fantasy elements. Donnie struggles to balance his mental health with his purpose in life, especially considering a rabbit is warning him about the world ending. The sci-fi element is introduced when Donnie's original universe branches into a tangent one, which can only last for a limited amount of time before it collapses. Donnie needs to find a way to restore balance to reality and his original universe. The film leaves us with many unanswered questions. Everything is challenged by the fact Donnie has been struggling with his mental health. He's sleepwalking and even his therapist believes he’s hallucinating.

Outside of the fantasy, Donnie challenges society, his teacher, and the ideas they are trying to teach that conflicts with his life as a teenager growing up. The ending follows Donnie’s realisation that he has to sacrifice himself to restore reality, causing the events of the tangent universe to cease to exist. It is never revealed if it was real or just a hallucination.

Zalava by Arsalan Amiri is based in a small town where the townspeople are convinced of a demon’s presence. A sergeant visiting from another town witnesses them put faith in a shaman to eradicate this demon.

We follow the story through the sergeant’s eyes. His own views are challenged by the superstition that surrounds the town. He doesn't believe it's true; this prejudice follows through to the end. In a later scene, the townspeople’s superstition causes them to murder his friend, a doctor. In the end we are faced with an important question: did the people cause more harm than the supposed ‘demon’ who may not even be real?

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All the films are largely left open-ended. In Zavala, we are unsure whether to believe the sergeant who is fixated on his idea of reality or the villagers who are consumed by superstition. Similarly in Donnie Darko and Pan’s Labyrinth, we question if the protagonists are hallucinating or if this is reality. We also wonder if Spirited Away's Chihiro will remember the world she visited. We are conflicted as to whether we should believe the protagonist’s point of view, in turn making us question the ending of each film.

Leaving these films in this unique way does not give a definitive answer, giving us the opportunity to create our own theories. This choice also maintains the mystery and magic surrounding the films.

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