Release Date: November 30, 2018
Director: John Maringouin
MPAA Rating: NR
Run Time: 111 Minutes
One minute into the film and I’m worried. There are red flags everywhere: poor composition, an unstable camera, uncontrolled lighting and an incoherent string of slapdash shots. Is this going to be one of those awful, first-year-film-student productions that miraculously got a theatrical release? Cut to 15 minutes later and I’ve got pain in my stomach and tears rolling down my cheeks from laughing so damn hard.
Ghostbox Cowboy, directed by John Maringouin, is a loosely structured, guerrilla-style satire on China’s tech industry that will have your guts busting and your brain itching as to what the hell it’s even about. Jimmy Van Horn (David Zellner) is a Texan immigrant in China trying to land investors for his product, Ghostr, an electronic box that can supposedly put its user in contact with deceased loved ones. We know that much about what’s going on and we know the acquaintances and business partners involved with Van Horn’s loony expedition, but what is Maringouin’s point?
Well, I don’t exactly know and, in the moment, I didn’t care because I was too busy laughing at all the absurd, serious-toned scenarios that are obviously not to be taken seriously. Maringouin hurls you into an unfamiliar culture and piles one silly situation on top of another with little regard for dramatic continuity, forming a whirlwind of scintillating comedy.
Van Horn’s product and pitch, from the beginning, is ludicrous. An electronic device that allows you to communicate with ghosts? As Van Horn gets acquainted with both Chinese and American businessmen in Shenzhen, China, we learn it’s not whether a product works or not but whether you can sell it.
Maringouin is an imaginative child humoring us by playing with Shenzhen’s tech culture. Robert Longstreet’s character, Bob, regularly wears goofy electronic dentures and an awful wig and yet is supposed to be an important industry player. I especially laughed at the ridiculous dialogue, reminiscent of the classic This is Spinal Tap (1984), such as the serious voice-over concerning an invasion of giant gerbils or one of the many random tech idioms thrown around like “open the kimono and boil the ocean.”
Comedic punches consistently land for the first half of the film, then things slow down as Van Horn’s business venture starts to veer off course. As Van Horn declines, Maringouin’s jumpy narrative straightens out and the silly humor shifts to dry. The excitement and energy that accompanies Ghostr’s progression flips into a downbeat, almost dystopian atmosphere, and Van Horn turns from the showy new cowboy in town into a puppet of a powerful IT syndicate.
I prefer the first half, but the second gives perspective to Maringouin’s vision. Trying to form a picture of Maringouin’s motive is like looking out of a blurry window. I can make out some of Maringouin’s criticisms on the capitalist tech-industry strategies in America and China, but more than that is hard to speculate because of the narrative’s unrestrained and choppy nature.
With four feature documentaries under his belt, Maringouin infuses nonfiction elements into his first feature narrative to create a film with a muddled genre. It’s a fresh breath of foreign air, and I like it. Ghostbox Cowboy is like hanging out with a witty schizophrenic comedian. Its techniques may be difficult for an audience to bear or comprehend, but it is damn smart and damn funny.