Zhang & Knight – a.k.a. Linden and Hannah – are halfway through packing when I call. They’re thinking less about what they’re going to haul onto the plane, and more about the plane they’re going to be hauling.
“We’re going to the airport tonight to go to Kazakhstan, so we’re getting last minute nonsense together at the moment. We’re filming a music video…driving across Kazakhstan…towing an aeroplane for a while.” Just a mini-break, then.
In reality, it seems that the duo haven’t caught a break since they broke onto the scene just a couple of years ago. Originally meeting at University, joined by their love of film and desire to explore their queer identities, they teamed up to create an edgy, distinctive partnership.
“Neither of us had wanted to direct – Hannah had wanted to be a writer and I really wanted to be a cinematographer – but I guess we didn’t really have a third friend, so there was no one to direct!” Since then, they’ve made incredible music videos for artists like Sigrid and Nao, landing them a coveted Best New Directors UKMVA award.
Now, they’ve unleashed their first narrative short. Titled ‘Sweep Away Hungry Ghosts’, it’s the latest in the Random Acts series, following a young Asian man trying to understand his late father’s crossdressing. The theme is one of ‘filial piety’, a traditional Chinese attribute of worshipping one’s parents.
“For a long time we’ve been really obsessed with these old Chinese depictions of filial piety,” Linden tells me. “It’s this very Confucian idea of the child cutting off the flesh to feed the parent. It goes back hundreds of years – there are these very lurid depictions of what a good filial child looks like – some of these are very violent.”
Alongside this, the pair wanted to explore the idea of “parents’ sexual identity”, something often forgotten when we like to think of them as “neutered”. This was “compounded with a ghost film idea”, spirits holy and unholy vaporising together.
These bright ideas had been flickering on their back-burners for a while; but it took being stranded in a car in the Romanian snow to take it further (a classic creative cliche, right?)
“It all kind of came together in one weird week when we were briefly stranded in Romania, we were driving back and our car broke down,” Hannah Explains. “It was two days before our meeting with Random Acts, and we were going to pitch a completely different idea originally!”
Well thank the heavens for kaput car batteries. It’s given us an ace short that’s as stupefying as it is stimulating, shocking you dumb with its unheimliche unhinging before making your mind race with surreptitious symbolisms.
The visuals are a true treat. Saturated shades lets scarlet scar your retina, evoking the many connotations that red emits; passion, blood, and luck. This is coupled with a “bombastic” score from producer Eden, featuring drums which the duo say comes from a “mystery box of percussion” that he managed to turn into a “really sophisticated soundtrack”.
There are two clear standout successes that stem from ‘Sweep Away Hungry Ghosts’. Firstly, it achieves Zhang & Knight’s vision of an atypical queer film. “It isn’t the same LGBT story you see every time – it’s always from the young person’s perspective. This was a slightly more grey area to explore which was very tempting.”
“There are so many queer films that you watch which are like ‘oh god it’s another one about the parents struggling to accept the child’, Linden adds. “They can be good, but we were just like, ‘oh god, no more!’ It’s a story about a child accepting a parent…moving into a more tender and passionate place.”
Secondly, it hits the sweet spot of scary and stunning, that sublime limelight that falls impossibly between horrible and beautiful. For all its classic creepiness, visceral visuals and filial flesh, are moments of sheer gorgeousness.
The ending, especially, is as delicate as the most gossamer of romances, a moment of tenderness after a mind-bending narrative. Creatives, take note – it might be time to grab a dodgy banger and take it to snowy Romania…