Sensuous Wonderland: Shangri-La (2021)-Reviewed

(Image Courtesy of Miu Miu)

Women’s Tales are an ongoing series of shorts commissioned by fashion brand Miu Miu. Giving the women they hire full creative control aside from asking that they use the brand’s clothing in their film, the series has seen everyone from the legendary Agn├Ęs Varda to up-and-comers like Mati Diop create new, singular works. Joining a long line of luminaries is Isabel Sandoval with her film Shangri-La.

Sandoval broke out in a major way in 2020 with her third feature, Lingua Franca, a sensual and gorgeous story of a trans Filipino immigrant fighting to receive permanent citizenship in the United States. The film, lauded for Sandoval’s uncompromising vision and her deft ability to tackle many roles in front of and behind the camera, has scooped up countless awards and has cemented her a filmmaker to keep your eye on. 

Set in 1920s Depression-Era California, Shangri-La opens with a Filipina farmhand giving a confession to a man on the other side of the wall. We soon learn that the man is not a priest but actually the woman’s lover and the “confession” is a role play for the two to express their deepest desires to one another. As the woman continues, she imagines alternate lives for herself and the film transports her to stunning, vast universes. The falsely promised “Shangri-La” of the United States giving way to an idealized one where she can be free to be the person she deserves to be. Realities where she can explore and embrace her sexuality without the oppressive threats of societal persecution.

(Image Courtesy of Miu Miu)

In eleven short minutes, Sandoval takes everything that made her previous work so special and singular, and explodes into thrilling new directions. Visually and sonically decadent, we’re treated to a phantasmagoria of light, shadow and sound as it all envelops the farmhand. She’s so smart about where her camera should be and as an actress, she emotes a yearning for a reality just out of reach. Brilliantly keeping the camera on herself, we’re only privy to the worlds around her through periphery. She’s a fantastical warrior somewhere in the cosmos but the camera stays locked on her. Always wanting you to meet her protagonists as they are, you only see what she allows you to see. She’s a remarkably assured filmmaker, much preferring her audiences to engage emotionally rather than spell it all out.

The way she incorporates the brand’s clothing is subtly breathtaking. As reality warps and bends, so does her costuming. She’s enrobed in a regal golden top befitting a queen. As she reminisces with her lover about fireworks, her camera glides across a shimmering outfit that pulses with color. Even when working within the parameters of a commissioned piece, her voice bleeds through.

(Image Courtesy of Miu Miu)

“My lips want to be the earth so that they kiss you every time you touch me.”

Most thrilling about Shangri-La is that it’s another foray from Sandoval into the sensual and erotic through spirituality and real world strife. In her past features she looked at political turmoil in her home country and the looming terror of deportation. Here, she uses the bigoted laws of the time (anti-miscegenation legislation that barred couples from different ethnicities to be together) to paint the passion-filled dreams of a woman on the margins of history. Her evocative dialogue tethers you even as you drift, trance-like, through the shifting realities of human desire. She guides you through the passionate dreams of a woman yearning not just to love but to be allowed to be loved. 

Most films depicting real world strife struggle to show their subjects as sexual beings. In fact, most modern American cinema is sexless in that its depiction of sex feels so remote, routine and passionless. Sandoval’s work often feels like a pushback to that. That she’s doing so with trans immigrants or Depression-era farmhands feels wildly radical. Especially from the POV of a woman. These kind of protagonists are almost exclusively used to tell a specific kind of narrative (read: tragedy). Her protagonists aren’t characters in a glossy Hollywood film hoping to get a message across. They aren’t being bizarrely sexualized through tragedy by the male gaze.  They’re women with wants and desires that happen to be going through it.  

Sandoval inextricably ties these struggles to beings that are so full of life, desire and passion. She depicts sex and attraction as something to derive pleasure from not a routine act. She rounds people out that never get the opportunity to even be two dimensional. It’s our clearest, most human instinct and something anyone could understand. It’s why she’s one of the most exciting filmmakers around. Her films are gorgeous, desire-filled sojourns into the lives and loves of women so rarely shown this way on film.  

Her next feature, Tropical Gothic, is set in 16th Century Philippines and centers on spirituality, possession, bondage and secrets. If Shangri-La is any indication, Isabel Sandoval is only just getting started showing us the sensually vibrant worlds within her mind. And this writer couldn’t be more excited. 

-Brandon Streussnig

(Shangri-La is available through Miu Miu's official YouTube and IGTV channels. Lingua Franca is available on Netflix.)