Ever give somebody the up-and-down and then realize they’re actually a fabricated automaton in a human clothes and a wig? German filmmaker Nils Clauss documents the Blade Runner-like phenomenon of robotic mannequins designed to draw customers to small Seoul businesses with his new short, PLASTIC GIRLS.
Clauss noticed the mannequins and first documented them in a photo series called PLASTIC WELCOMER back in 2015. He had hoped to draw attention to the “sexualization of public space” he’s noticed since he moved to Asia 2005, and now revisits the mannequins in PLASTIC GIRLS using scripted audio to voice the mannequins’ imagined thoughts between scoping out their street corners with drawn out, cinematic shots.
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The camera lingers on the girls’ short skirts, pink lips, and rigid plastic eyes, intentionally tracking the male gaze. “It makes us feel very uncomfortable staring at the plastic girls and that reflects the relationship between the mannequins and the passersby who encounter them every day,” Clauss says in a statement. The goal is to appropriate his own flawed perspective and reflect it back by turning it on an object eerily designed to replace women. The film thus, “illustrates how the male gaze is supposed to interact with those plastic mannequins in a public space simply for the sake of commerce.”
Clauss and collaborator Udo Lee, a gender studies graduate who also composed the music, carefully considered how to write appropriate dialogue. “[It was] a challenge to put yourself into the mindset of the mannequins,” Clauss says. “This raised many questions. What do the mannequins think about? Are they happy or sad? How do they feel about their role and appearance? How do they express or verbalize their thoughts?” He and Lee decided not to frame them as victims without agency, but as, “products of a society in which gender related issues are not addressed sufficiently.” Obedient, submissive, gracious—the robots’ self-repression is as uncanny to Western ears as unmoving plastic faces are to the eyes.
PLASTIC GIRLS is labeled a documentary, but, like its characters, the film is artificial. Clauss was unable to track down many of the mannequins he photographed in 2015. The company that makes them went out of business, and the few remaining storefronts that use them were uncooperative with Clauss’ shoot. As a result, he and his team borrowed a mannequin from a friendly gas station owner and shot it in different public locations dressed in different outfits. The result is a reality that Clauss remembers, but that itself undercuts the definition of “real.”
Clauss’ social criticism, on the other hand, is concrete. He credits the entertainment industry with creating unrealistic standards of beauty, and encouraging vain obedience in return for popularity. PLASTIC GIRLS is a crash course in the Korean vocabulary of objectification. Phrases like ‘s-line,’ which is “a very curvy body from bottom up to breast,” ‘nuclear beauty,’ ‘honey skin,’ and ‘Cola bottle body’ are the Seoul equivalent of upchucking an unsolicited, “Hey, nice rack.” The vacuous, robotic characters are branded with these words, which overshadow their actual names.
From Sigur Rós and M83 music videos to award-winning short films, Clauss’ films are moody and atmospheric. With a self-proclaimed love for architecture and fascination with space, he documents places taken for granted and uses those physical details as fodder for character development. In PLASTIC GIRLS, Clauss overlays his subjects’ inner worlds with dreamy cinematography, moving slowly throughout the kinds of grocery shops, restaurants, and clubs that employ these uncanny hostesses.
PLASTIC GIRLS taps into the anxiety of robots taking our jobs, society objectifying women, and Western xenophobia toward foreign cultures. Clauss rolls intersecting threads of cultural criticism into a captivating package, seasoned with appropriately Blade Runner neon lights and ambient electronic music. Watch the film below.
See more of Nils Clauss’ work on his website.