Modeling is melancholic. Who knew? Well, it’s far from being that simple, but what is perhaps most striking about this documentary is the thread of melancholia that runs through its seventy- some minutes, expressed both by the imagery and the unmitigated emotions of the subjects. This is neither a film about the glamour of the modeling industry (we have vacuous TV shows for that) nor a journalistic expose on the evils or travails of a soul-sucking, youth-hungry realm. It is something immeasurably more compelling than either of these- an intimate look at one particular corner of the industry from two perspectives.
Nadya is the humble and unassumingly beautiful 13-year old (15 on paper) who leaves her simple Siberian home for the first time, allured by the promise of adventure and money that her family could use to build a home that better accommodates her siblings, parents, and grandma. Ashley is a Tokyo-based talent scout who scours the Siberian countryside for fresh faces suitable for the finicky Japanese market. In a fair world, it would be a win-win situation.
Nadya, the self-described "grey mouse" gets plucked from what she sees as a boring environment and gets an enviable and rarefied chance to travel while Ashley benefits from delivering to her bosses a money-making asset. Of course, this is commerce: a particularly pernicious and corrupt segment of capitalism. It doesn’t take long for promise to give way to pain.
For Ashley, an American ex-model who herself came to Tokyo with big dreams as a teenager, the psychological pain of modeling set in long ago. When we first see her she is all business, assessing hundreds of posing teenage prospects in an auditorium full of youthful flesh and apprehensive smiles. Soon, though, she candidly confides her trepidation about her work. Her heart is not in it; she does it because it’s what she knows, and she is hooked on the stimulation of travel.
There is quite a lot of travel in this documentary, and there is something brilliantly evocative about Ashley opening up during her twilight train trips through the stark Siberian countryside (which, by the way, makes for a lovely juxtaposition as when the filmmakers cut from the countryside to the auditorium full of models at the film’s opening). We can only imagine what sort of self-reflection kicks in on these routinized train journeys when she is not being prompted by filmmakers, but certainly the journeys that we see are a time for bittersweet reflection. Complementing this are concise segments lifted from her decade-plus old model video diary, in which she expresses fear and desperation.
Though explicitly negative emotions are present, the film maintains a subtlety in its tone. Throughout, it observes mood fluctuations and shimmers with the ambivalences of existing in a high stakes world with steep rewards and steeper prices to pay. Nadya and Ashley are both fascinating as characters because they are not what we expect, and they embody this ambivalence well. When at last Nadya, who doesn’t know enough English to get around on her own in Tokyo, endures enough fruitless casting sessions and disappointing photo shoots (her face is concealed by a wig; her payment is elusive), she becomes embittered towards her adventure, yet she is still a fun-loving teenager. Ashley is sympathetic as a victim of the callous industry that sucked her in, yet she perpetuates this exploitation in the work she does and demonstrates minimal capacity for or interest in communicating with and standing up for these girls.
Many subsidiary questions about the way the system functions in Japan rise along the way, and a few secondary characters, such as Nadya’s more worldly roommate, Madlen, provide some insight. But the heart of this film - and where it really succeeds - is a poignant portrait of two smart women who compromise a whole hell of a lot to participate in an industry that reflects our most caustic cultural urges.