Ethan Eng is a filmmaker from Toronto. His debut feature film, Therapy Dogs, which he wrote, directed and acted in, had its world premiere at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival, was released theatrically by Utopia Distribution and is now available on Apple TV. He is currently working on his next feature film about the 20’s and the 2020s, titled A New Age.
To start off, it’s important to acknowledge the insanity of making movies at a low-budget level. It’s never really a low-budget movie but an all-in movie. It’s when someone decides to exchange their time, energy, soul and any opportunity of a normally functioning life for an mp4 file that may not be seen by anyone at all. We happen to accept “filmmaker” as a profession, but at this level, better words would be “lunatic,” “holy fool” or “egotist.” The all-in movie is greater than the $100 million movie because it’s a bigger gamble. You don’t get paid, and have no choice but to innovate your craft and scrape every corner of your soul until you find something worthwhile. If you don’t succeed, you take your dreams and die quietly with them.
Terry Chiu is one of these filmmakers. He has just gambled everything on his newest movie, Open Doom Crescendo. It’s a three-hour epic set in the wastelands of Montreal, about several rejects who are banished to a gray purgatory of human pain as they battle each other in a search for the Embodiment of Angst, who will deliver their ultimate catharsis. It has 50-plus characters, rivaling masterpieces such as The Human Condition and A Brighter Summer Day. One of its more apparent homages you will notice is to The End of Evangelion, while it has a mythology proportional to The Lord of the Rings. Terry wrote, directed, edited, VFX’d, scored and acted in this operatic yet introspective personal prayer on film. Any filmmaker with a sense of their own well-being would not do this at all, yet he did it. And it’s amazing.
Open Doom Crescendo follows two of these rejects, Keikei (Xinkun Dai) and Rev (Terry Chiu), as they travel through the Wasteland of Angst in search of their friend Spike (Matias Rittatore), who seems to have given up on everything in life. Along the way, they cross paths with many others who have also been sent to this purgatory. Some are also looking for the mythical Embodiment of Angst, in hopes of reaching a catharsis and thus freeing them from the Wasteland. Others have simply given up and lend themselves to pure nihilism. There are also different groups that have formed, such as the Candy Ass Kickers, led by Lady Moondrift (Pei Yao Xu), a gang made up of a bunch of gray brainlet goons who will do anything to please her, often failing in humiliating and charming ways. There are many more colorful characters as well, all with their own outlandish outfits and powers. What we see on screen is a fantastical and full-of-life representation of the odyssey we go through in our minds when the world becomes bleak and loveless. But the story doesn’t provide quick answers or cheap wisdom; ideas are constantly being battled with a strong scrutiny. It mirrors Terry’s own struggle with self-worth.
I first heard of Terry Chiu when I graduated high school and began editing my own DIY movie, Therapy Dogs. At the time, I had a lot of high expectations for it. It needed a real bite that no big-budget film could ever recreate. It needed to be freely expressive, shape-shifting to whatever form fit the emotion best. And it needed angst beyond the meaning of the word. When TIFF Midnight Madness’ Peter Kuplowsky sent me Terry’s first feature, Mangoshake (now available digitally), it checked all these boxes. And from then on, Terry became my secret hero. He was in Montreal making his movies anonymously, as was I in Mississauga. Whenever I thought about my own pain editing Therapy Dogs, I saw Terry alone making his movies in the same unrewarding silence with a Berserk level of intensity, fingers bleeding at the keyboard as he made each cut, no one there to see him except a couple of helpless programmers and me watching from the sidelines.
What makes Terry different from most lo-fi filmmakers is that he goes big. Where the usual instinct is to be small and earnest, he ditches formality and breakdances against the ballet. Initially, I saw in his work the spirit of early Edgar Wright, but you will see bits and pieces of many different kinds of filmmakers: a glimpse of Terrence Malick in one moment, the Wachowskis in another, now a hop over to Hideaki Anno, and a sidestep to James Wan. He’s not shy about his Hollywood influences and it carries over. What translates is a melting-pot tribute to cinema itself. DIY in both big and small ways. Watching Open Doom Crescendo hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s action-packed, sincere and paired with an angst that is burned to a char. It’s the perfect low-budget movie. And he doesn’t represent an ego like most filmmakers do, where one sensibility undresses another. Instead what we see is a living and breathing person, someone you can’t help but have empathy for.
It’s been hard for Open Doom Crescendo to reach audiences. After it got rejected by programmers around the world, who were scared shitless by its runtime, I worked with Peter Kuplowsky and film critic Adam Cook to help get it to an audience. We managed to set up a small screening in Toronto, and it absolutely killed. Even though there were only about 20 curious folks in the audience, every beat was accounted for. The thing you will know when you see it is how watchable it really is. There were even legitimate cheering-applause moments near its climax, which something I’d only ever expect at a sold-out screening of Star Wars. It was wonderful. Everyone came out of that theater a fan of Terry. And I think it gave him some strength to keep going. He handed out soundtrack mixtapes to people at the door, which reminded me of an early-days Daniel Johnston.
Little of substance came out of that screening, except for the new die-hard Terry Chiu fans, including my friend Nara Wriggs. She loved the movie and spread word to the rest of her team at the Insomniac Film Festival, which set up another one-off screening here in Toronto, probably the last. They were able to book a screen at the back of a video store. The max occupancy is about 30, but that’s if people even show up. Terry’s going to hop back on the 10-hour Greyhound to introduce the film, and right now he’s working on printing more soundtrack CDs to hand out to attendees. I’m going to pick him up from the station and he’s going to crash at my house during his time in Toronto. We’ll hang out too, as I try to keep his hopes up so he doesn’t look crushed at the screening. It’s an unceremonious end to his life’s gamble. The most recent development is that he had to plead with his local neighborhood film festival, who said he had to chop it down to just 20 minutes if they were to play it.
Terry Chiu, like many geniuses, is fated to die unknown and then become a martyr years later. He’s one of those artists whose visions are uncompromising, maddening and far ahead of the spirit of the times. It’s unfair to think about the Terry Chius and Daniel Johnstons walking today, their creative genius known only to them. All it takes is the right person seeing the work, after which it can go a long way. I was incredibly lucky that my film Therapy Dogs hit a spark with a programmer from Slamdance, but until that time I was getting ready to figure out what to do with my life next. I didn’t have the money or energy to go all-in again, but Terry did it twice with Mangoshake and Open Doom Crescendo, and now he’s really spent. I have a feeling this will be his bow-out. It’s never a good thing as a filmmaker to see someone else hang up the gloves for good, but it happens. For now, he spends his time volunteering for Montreal’s Chinatown association and feeding a newly adopted stray cat. He doesn’t spend too much time biting his nails waiting for a big break; instead, he’s dedicated himself to others.
One of the first things I asked him when we first met was how he had the strength to keep going in life, as before Slamdance, I couldn’t bring myself to continue after all the rejections of Therapy Dogs. I took his message to heart and I think it captures Terry’s resolve well:
“Art’s a lot of pain with almost a hilarious negation of returns. Unless you actually become successful enough to make a healthy living off it, for me it’s a full-time job that I pay off rather than it paying me, I’m on borrowed time before becoming a homeless person, and when it’s done, I’m still on my own to deal with my voids. And ’cause I believe you deserve to love and be loved, I hope whatever you do, be it art or not – that there’s peace of mind and that your real life takes after the good things you express for the world.”
Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting while he was alive.
Herman Melville was reported as deranged.
Jackson C. Frank became homeless.
Nick Drake died too early.
Terry, our hopes and dreams travel with you.
Featured image shows (left) Terry Chiu’s Open Doom Crescendo (2022) and (right) Masaki Kobayashi’s No Greater Love (1959), part of The Human Condition trilogy.