Reviews Short Narrative

Parasitic Wasp (2023) – 1.5 stars

Director: Zhang Wenbo

Writer: Sun Haoran, He Yilin & Zhang Wenbo

Cast: Zhang Shiyu, He Yilin, Xiong Xuan

Running time: 10mins

Writers struggling to make a pedestrian idea a bit more unique often look to the natural world for inspiration. Sometimes this can add a metaphorical subtext that would not have been present before, enriching a story that might not have been especially original, and giving the audience something more to think about and engage with. It’s a risky strategy though – requiring a decent level of research, to make sure the natural phenomenon referred to is relevant, and your understanding of it is full enough that it doesn’t imply something you hadn’t intended.

Parasitic Wasp seems to have almost nothing to do with the story which it tells, unless the audience applies it in the cruellest way possible. The non-linear narrative gradually unveils the making and breaking of a relationship between two students. Zhang Shiyu (who the credits suggest is played by an actor of the same name) has a crush on Li Nian (He Yilin) – another girl in her biology class.

After sitting through a lecture (repeated twice from different angles) about the way parasitic wasps use enzymes to drug other insects which then host their young, Zhang Shiyu makes her move, inviting Li Nian to watch a movie later that night. Several layered and overlapping scenes follow in which the pair seem to be becoming closer, interlocking fingers and coming close to a kiss before a loud noise distracts them (yes, that old chestnut).

However, things take a horrific turn – again from two different perspectives – as Zhang Shiyu seemingly pushes Li Nian off the top of a flight of stairs. We are not provided with an exact reason for this. A police interview sees Zhang Shiyu suggest Li Nian never turned up for their film date – though it is unclear whether that is what happened, or if she is trying to claim she was not involved in her death.

That’s basically the story, and it makes the inclusion of the natural phenomenon in its title strange, if we’re being generous about it. Why exactly is this parasitic wasp supposed to be central to proceedings? We never see anything to suggest the relationship between Zhang Shiyu and Li Nian was anything other than caring and consensual – but there needed to be something to live up to the exploitative, parasitism of the animal behaviour we’ve been primed to think about.

No, this is just a regular same-sex relationship. That leaves the film with a conspicuous cloud hanging over it. Was the implication intended to be that any LGBT+ pairing is in some way damaging or malicious? Are we supposed to see Zhang Shiyu as the wasp, using pheromones to put her prey at ease, before inflicting grave harm on them?

If that is the case, to what end does Zhang Shiyu do that? Parasitic wasps seem like Earth’s grimmest form of life, but they have to behave that way if their species is to survive. Presumably Zhang Shiyu isn’t about to lay her eggs in Li Nian’s lower back, so what part of her future is contingent on the murder? Is this suggesting her ‘survival’ depends on denying her attractions to other women? Is this some vague hinting at the tried-and-tested cinematic trope, as seen in The Talented Mister Ripley, that LGBT+ individuals are somehow predisposed to become serial killers, because they are unable to make peace with who they are, ‘really’?

Honestly, I don’t have the answers to any of those questions, and it would be wrong of me to imply any. The only thing I can be sure of is the core story of the film. Not because of the actual film – the shots of the murder are both too vague to really tell what has happened – but because of the director’s pithy plot summary, “She fall in love with Li Nian, but she killed Li Nian”.

The ‘whys’ are anyone’s guess, though, as this work is wide open to interpretation. While I cannot definitively weigh in on what I make of those whys, in the absence of either more dialogue (how this script needed three writers is utterly beyond me) or visual storytelling, the point stands that if you are going to make a film that is ‘open to interpretation’, the whys you lead audiences to are still in your control. If you simply lump in a biological concept to a pre-completed script, without adequately understanding it, you could leave some particularly distasteful whys open, whether or not they were your intent.

The cinematography is innovative and engaging; the acting is subtle and relatable; and the non-linear format is interesting without losing cohesion. But there is something about Parasitic Wasp’s use of its titular insect which does not seem like it belongs to this story, unless it is genuinely implying something reactionary.

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