From directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, Mister John follows Gerry Devine (Aidan Gillen) as he travels to Singapore following the death of his brother John (Michael Walsh) by drowning. John had owned a nightclub called ‘Mister John’ and had a local wife and daughter (Zoe Tay and Ashleigh Judith White respectively). As Gerry remains in Singapore, partly for his brother’s funeral and partly to escape a traumatic argument with his wife (Claire Keelan) at home, Gerry begins to take on some of the characteristics of his brother.
Mister John is a film primarily about identities becoming confused and merging with each other. Initially, Gerry is something of a non-person. As the film unfolds, we find out more about him and about his brother’s life in Singapore. Gerry seems to become confused about whether to retain his own identity or whether the best thing for him to do would be to take his brother’s place. This is made explicit many, many times; we see Gerry putting on John’s clothes after his own are lost in the airport (the exchange of clothes representing the exchange of personalities is an art house cliché – Antonioni, a clear influence here, made it a trademark: see L’Avventura and The Passenger), dreaming about owning a nightclub called ‘Mister Gerry.’ It is also suggested more implicitly by Gerry’s apparent lack of a clear past and his often surprising and unexpected actions. Similarly, the film has a few lurches in tone and style, as if the impulse towards more traditional film aesthetics, like Gerry’s fascination with the space left by John, sometimes proves irresistible. However, the film’s own fascination with liminal states leads to a rather stolid, forced and unlikeable film.
Mister John is so self-consciously minimalist that it is almost self-defeating. It is intentional slow and vague and oftentimes the camera will go for a wander, with our without a character to give the shots context, as if it is not sure what it should film next. This is all justified thematically, but these lengthy diversions merely suggest that the ideas presented here are not complex enough to hang a feature length film on. Although clearly an unfair comparison, yet one that remains somewhat illuminating, La Jetée addresses similar ideas with much more complexity and ingenuity in less than half an hour. With 95 minutes to kill, Molloy and Lawlor allow their film to become irritatingly repetitive. A doctor warns Gerry “he will not be himself” following an illness, a warning that is later repeated in case you missed the double meaning. They also allow the film to become very sluggish in a way that recalls ‘slow cinema’ without matching, again, the complexity of other films. Essentially, Mister John is about a man reassessing his life after he is suddenly offered the chance to take on another identity. The film shows Gerry facing a variety of dilemmas – quite a few sexually available prostitutes (again, repetition), a lucrative but immoral business and a man who owes him money – in order to see whether it will be Gerry or ‘John’ who reacts to each stimulus. It is left to one’s own interpretation if Gerry’s choices are the result of the vagaries of Gerry’s own moral outlook or if they are the result of a fluid personality. Shrug.
The film is also rather uncomfortably recalls Edward W Said’s brand of Orientalism in its depiction of Singapore, full of heady mystical exoticism that is just too much for a simple Westerner. Is Mister John also a fable of a stranger in a strange land questioning the West’s conception of the East? An examination of the post-colonial world in which exploitation is still present? John’s nightclub is clearly dubious though sexual exploitation is only hinted at, the filmmakers clearly not too interested in this angle to give it the full Ulrich Seidl-style examination it deserves. It seems that all this, when placed alongside the film’s dogged questioning of identity and morality, unlike for Chris Marker’s other classic, San Soleil, is just a step too far. In reality, Mister John gestures at ideas without addressing any of them, making points only by vague suggestion and, ultimately, not really sure what its conclusions are. The film, hence, has more to do with political speeches than with art – it talks but it doesn’t say anything.
Mister John is hard, if not impossible to like since every character is left unknowable and somehow impure, the storyline is left intentionally vague and the editing is very slow-paced. But although the film’s self-questioning nature offers justification for the above, the film itself is not particularly interesting and the actors are not given much room to impress. Instead, it is a very cold, cerebral and rambling film, one that replicates the devices and aesthetics of certain strands of 1960s art cinema, particularly Antonioni and, to a degree, Bresson, with not quite enough depth. Ultimately, there is very little to get out of Mister John.