Directed by Hui Huang | Review by Helen WheelsHui Huang’s Little Deaths is an intimate look at the neurological disorder, Narcolepsy. We experience its effects through the eyes of Darby Steeves, the unfortunate dancer who can no longer perform because she never knows when sleep will overtake her.Her voice-over narration reduces the audience to voyeurs of poetic beauty and madness. The dancer’s eyes close, and she falls to the floor. “I die several times a day … simple, meaningless, little deaths.”Steeves’ lilting voice off screen, combined with her facial expressions as we watch her pain play out, personifies the narcolepsy. She has lost the ability to perform, her sense of self is adrift, and her inability to remain conscious feels like many “little deaths.”
The film’s mise-en-scene, filled with photos and letters is evidence of a life consumed by ballet. By contrast, a close-up reveals heavy eyelids, a limp body and the hold of an unseen enemy who is draining the passion from her life. Huang’s use of framing captures the arcane details of the dancer’s battle to remain present as the darkness envelopes her physical being. She enters and exits the mise-en-scene in the same way her body creeps into and out of consciousness. We see her bow for the audience, leaving the camera’s frame in total blackness. As a memory of a performance disappears, she falls into the camera’s line of vision. We see her legs, part of her costume and then all is black.
A sheer curtain obstructing the view of the outside world speaks of the thin veil between reality and madness, while the dancer explains the relationship between Hypnos, the Greek God of sleep, and his twin brother, Death. She tells us that sleep is a parody of death as if narcolepsy is somehow a cosmic joke, a cruel farce that attempts to steal her identity. Low-key lighting casts long shadows and obscures our view of Steeves’ while she dances in and out of the frame. The dramatic lighting mirrors Steeves’ constant battle with light and dark. The camera angle, lighting, and movement all work together and serve to heighten our emotion. We feel empathy for this poor lost soul.
Steeves go on to tell us that she finds that she can dance in case she identifies a way to stay connected to her body. Now we begin to understand the depth of the effect of this disorder on her psyche. Her madness is apparent as she tapes a razor blade between her fingers. She dances in the in-between, an awake dream-state, as the blood runs down her arm.We are frightened for this young woman as we realize how lost she feels and how desperate she is to maintain some control over her body and its connection to her mind.
Huang has created a painfully beautiful Art House film with Little Deaths. She takes a misunderstood neurological disorder, and instead of creating a narrative that explains the mechanics of Narcolepsy, she produces an art house piece that explores the human side of the issue. Her work is reminiscent of Maya Deren’s, Meditation on Violence. According to Deren, “the intent is not to show these movements in a documentary sense, but to recreate the sense and spirit of these forms through filmic means – editing rhythms, camera attitudes, and movements, etc. Deren captured the essence of a martial arts form. Huang’s short film captures dance and the disruption of narcolepsy with editing rhythms, movement, and mise-en-scene that mimic the shifts in the dancer’s consciousness.
Helen Wheels is an independent filmmaker, freelance writer, and visual artist. She has produced, directed, worked as a set designer and scenic painter, and has been an assistant director on dozens of films. Wheels graduated from Shoreline College with an AAAS in Digital Film Production and is continuing toward her MFA in New Media Communications. Known for her eye to detail and advanced research skills, Wheels is currently researching historical events for her latest script and is in the process of developing her online writing business.