Duncan Roy's aka comes with an interesting back story, one you might want to be aware of before you view the film. It's a film that appeared in theaters in an unusual format—which the director calls a "triptych," spreading three frames of overlapping, simultaneous action across the screen (reminiscent of Mike Figgis's Time Code, which used four quadrants). In this "triptych" format, the film received modest festival acclaim. Interestingly, for the DVD, Roy has chosen to present aka in the usual single-frame format, and it's a decision that radically changes the effect of the film—for the worse, in this reviewer's opinion. Fortunately, however, the "triptych" version of aka is available on the disc, in the supplements section, so that you can compare the two formats and marvel over the difference in effect.
Either way you watch the film, its story and characters aren't terribly involving. You might consider aka a low-budget take on The Talented Mr. Ripley, although that oft-used comparison seems too easy, and too elevating for this small film. The year is 1978, and we're quickly introduced to a tentative, introspective young man named Dean Page (Matthew Leitch), who clearly has problems at home, not least of which are a sexually abusive father and a powerless mother. Dean yearns for something more, and he finds it after a strange but telling homosexual encounter involving showy middle-aged queens. Somehow, even though his speech consists of dull-eyed monosyllables, he finds himself in the employ of a bitchy London gallery owner, Lady Gryffoyn (Diana Quick), who feels an unlikely attraction to the young cipher and brings him into her home. Dean is soon feeling right at home amidst the upscale society, but soon Gryffoyn's son (Blake Ritson) sees through Dean's charade, and Dean seems to be at the end of his frivolous masquerade.
But wait! An entirely ridiculous chance encounter with a young Texan named Benjamin Halim (Peter Youngblood Hills) paves the way for further deception, and before long, Dean—now assuming the identity of Lady Gryffoyn's son, Alexander—is on his way to Paris. There, Dean hooks up with Halim and Halim's older gay lover, David Glendemming (George Asprey), and the story becomes a gay soap opera in which Dean luxuriates and bickers emptily among playboys. But all good things must come to an end, and in a separate plot thread, we see that an unkempt police officer is hot on Dean's trail.
In the end, aka is something of a turnoff, essentially because the portrait it paints of uppercrust UK society is so utterly repellant, and because Dean never really lets us see the person he really is or wants to be. Sure, his motives for abandoning his working-class origins are all too clear—bludgeoningly so—but why is he drawn instead to a cartoony, lifted-nostril British landscape that never welcomes him and, in fact, is just as dismissive of and violent to him as his abusive dad? I could accept the weird yearning to be a part of such a caricatured realm if I understood Dean's reasoning better. Is Dean merely coming face-to-face with his own sexuality? Perhaps, but I wish Dean were more a force in his own story than a glazed bystander swept along into a meandering fate. It doesn't help that Leitch's performance is lacking any kind of energy.
Despite my shrugs at the film's subject matter, I must admit that aka improved on second viewing, in which I watched it in its original "triptych" format. Although most of the time, the three images provide a lot of the same information and action, you get it from different angles, from separate takes, and the result is a jittery sensation, a tentative "personality," that really adds to the film's point of view. aka is a far more powerful film when viewed this way, and I'm surprised Roy has presented the film primarily as a single-frame experience on DVD.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Sundance Channel presents aka in a flat-looking anamorphic-widescreen presentation of the film's 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. The film was shot on digital video and has the attendant flaws, including rather severe aliasing and grain. That being said, detail is passable, although there's no real depth to the image. Colors are muted, and black levels are average at best.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 2.0 track is as flat as the image. At least dialog comes across with a fair degree of clarity. However, most of the audio comes straight from the front, although I noticed infrequent use of an open soundstage—for example, during a few party sequences.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Interestingly, only among the extras will you find the film's original theatrical presentation, in the form of the so-called aka—Theatrical Triptych Version. I'm amazed by how this three-frame presentation makes aka a completely different experience, in essence transforming a mundane film into a fascinating (though derivative, considering Timecode) experiment that adds a sense of realism, almost a documentary foundation, but mostly a sense of voyeurism that really aids the film's theme. Even in the many instances when nothing much is happening in one of the frames, or when we're getting essentially the same information in two of the frames, there's a jittery liveliness to the presentation that adds back story and feeds the film's notion of fractured personality. For me, this is by far the preferred presentation—although the film can't completely hide the fact that it's somewhat shallow and uninvolving.
In the Triptych Version with Director's Commentary, director Duncan Roy talks about the evolution of the film's presentation, which went from a traditional single-frame image to the three-frame, side-by-side gimmick that appeared in theaters—at Sundance, for example. In his monotone way, Roy mostly focuses on the origination and evolution of the project (he reminds you a few times that he would not take no for an answer and had to make this film), then he goes deeply into the way his own life experience finds its way onto the screen. You will probably tire of Roy's somnambulant voice and wish that he'd had a co-commentator, but if you're a fan of the film, you'd do well to give him a listen and learn not only about the creation of aka but also about the many autobiographical elements contained within.
Finally, you get a spirited U.S. Trailer.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
aka is an interesting film experiment that's a bit hamstrung by its DVD presentation. By all means, watch the "triptych" version in the supplements section before watching the diluted single-frame presentation that's offered as the default. Image and sound quality are merely okay, and Roy's commentary is illuminating.