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Cathartic Agoraphobia: Representing COVID in Kimi (2022)

Talking about the pandemic can be tiring. Watching movies where the pandemic is happening, or has happened can be exhausting. Much like Trump, it feels as though all that could be said has been said and that maybe we should just stop talking about it because it's a massive downer and no longer a problem.

I've never been good at processing things on time. It always feels like I'm slightly behind emotionally which is a roundabout way of saying that I don't think I'm over that one thing that happened in March 2020. The world stopped and I was stuck in permanent state of panic for about a year. And then it ended (allegedly). Everyone around me stopped being cautious which made me feel insane. Where I was still keeping my distance from people and feeling increasingly isolated, many people had already returned to what they were doing before. I felt very alone and once again, unable to process what had happened.

It feels incorrect to call it traumatic, not just because the internet has thoroughly sucked the life from that word. When those around you don't seem as affected by the loss of time and life as you do, it forces you to internalise a lot of it, which I suppose is what we are taught to do with trauma, just put it away so you can continue on with the status quo. 

Still, it feels extreme and melodramatic. I've never felt comfortable with the word 'trauma' because although COVID completely shifted the way I think about illness and human life, no one else seemed as bothered as me. If it is collective trauma, why am I the only one in pain?

Kimi (2022) tells the story of tech support agent, Angela, working remotely during the pandemic in service of an Alexa-esque device, who, whilst she is combing through the data on the devices, she hears a woman being murdered. What follows is a story of technological corruption as she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. 

The film parallels the agoraphobia Angela feels as a result of her sexual assault to the foreboding of the pandemic, where leaving the house could have been deadly and put other people at risk. Furthermore, it uses the trope of the hysterical woman to highlight the ways in which the public have had their fears undermined by lousy governments and lack of preparation for something as drastically affecting as a world-stopping virus. Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to anxiety-based cinema, even directing Contagion (2011) which I saw brought up a lot when COVID panic was at its height. The way the camera is used in this movie, the way it switches from the calm of Angela's home to the queasy, fast-paced outside world, confirms a feeling of never-ending fear. Women in horror and thrillers are often made to feel crazy for reacting negatively to gendered violence, so this hysteria transplanted into the midst of lock-down validates the general feeling of insanity that occurred when we were trapped in our houses.

It's one of the few films where I wasn't annoyed that the main character was coded to be neurodivergent, most likely autistic. The alienation of a world marred by a illness that we can now see no one in power was willing to deal with is reflected in Angela's perception of a world where she is very good at her job and not very good at being a 'normal' functioning person. Therefore, much of the struggle for the mid-section of Kimi is Angela's terrifying adjustment to the outside world, magnified by the notion that she may or may not be being stalked by forces trying to stop her from finding out the truth about a possibly murdered woman.

What was interesting about Kimi is at once I, the audience member, was identifying with Angela because of her descent into madness and in turn, Angela was identifying with Samantha, a murdered woman who was made to disappear. They listen to the same music and they both experienced sexual assault. We both identified with fictionalised versions of people with the intent of validating fears we already experience and found comfort in identifying with a victim in a way the world tends to discourage. Women's shared pain under misogyny is such a powerful form of socialisation that it transcends death and fiction. Across the threshold of life, Angela connects with Samantha and vows to avenge her despite having never met her. It's an incredibly potent and unique kind of love.

We live in true crime hell and women's pain is very profitable. I think we want to identify with pain and suffering because it validates our experience of the world, the way we are scared a lot of the time but have to repress it in order to live a 'normal' life. I like movies about women losing their minds or trusting their paranoia not because I believe women are more instinctual or more emotional, but because we are less likely to trust the logic of people who are the cause and perpetrators of the misogyny sat on your shoulder all day, every day. There are things that women do or believe that make sense within a violent patriarchal context and if you aren't acutely aware of that context, I'm sure that women do seem to be crazy, overly emotional, illogical. But it is a logic - it's a method of survival.

Kimi, the device, appears to signify that the technology we get used to as it accumulates around us is not created in a vacuum at all,  not neutrally scanning our data and delivering a simple convenience for us. For much of the film, it's functions as a piece of technology in the background of the people's lives but for the audience, we are shown behind the supposedly politically neutral facade of Amygdala, the company that created Kimi. There are, in fact, thousands of people behind that technology, and those at the top profit significantly off what they can glean from our usage, and therefore companies like Amygdala are incentivitised to keep the engine running despite the house very clearly filling with smoke with everyone else still trapped inside. The film draws our focus to just how profitable our pain is and how we are even more useful to these companies if we aren't around to cause them problems.

I do think the film has its flaws, mainly its rushed ending and the unsatisfying closure on Samantha's death, that in a not-so-funny way were probably very impacted by COVID during the actual filming of the movie. The pandemic and its aftermath lingers all around this film, and I couldn't work out if I wanted to sigh with relief or throw up after watching it. It was a similar feeling I had after watching Unsane (2018), another Soderbergh film that I absolutely can never watch again because it upset me so much - also a claustrophobic film about violent, seemingly immovable and invisible systems of power guiding our lives. One moment you are living your life, the next you are being hunted by the company you're employed with for trying expose a scandal or you're being thrown into a psychiatric ward against your will. 

Autonomy and the lack thereof are significant in a world that feels more and more out of control every day. I'm not sure the ending works because the catharsis of experiencing a pandemic is not the end of lock-downs and things returning to normal - it's an acknowledgement that they actually happened.