A thematic cousin to Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), the experimental semi-documentary essay The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy (2008) is Peter Liechti’s journey away from the filmic depiction of a body’s end. While the off-screen narration (based on a novel by Masahiko Shimada) details a self-inflicted death by starvation of a cryptic recluse, we never get to see the narrator – save for a brief long shot of a cloth-covered stretcher at the beginning of the film. What we see are almost entirely unpopulated shots of the woods, the inside of the shack the narrator built for himself, and other seemingly unassociated footage of nature and cities. Rarely does a human figure enter the frame, and if they do they remain unidentified (vaguely remembered?) by the narrator.
Liechti drains his images from narrative cohesion and significance almost entirely, save for the recurring image of the plastic-foil coverage of the shack’s makeshift rooftop, which gets more and more specked with insects, foliage and mud as the narration proceeds. These shots, specific yet verging on the abstract, are the most striking images in the film – in fact, the only images that indicate any kind of shared perspective between the unseen central character and the ultra-detached, free-flowing camera.
As the narrator’s body withers down (or so we believe), what keeps undermining our sympathy are the small inconsistencies within the eponymous record (a mirror is never mentioned and yet facial changes are described in detail), and the unexplained motive behind the extremely painful form of death chosen by the man. We never get any specifics about his life or profession, and thus in the end his motives seem purely philosophical, if not religious (on the day 40 of his fast, he likens himself to Buddha and Jesus and expects to share their experience of a divine visitation).
Ultimately, the film feels less an ordeal than a meditation, and Liechti’s understated editing strategies, as well as his apt use of distorted sound, play into the idea of not really meeting a character, but sharing a state of mind. It’s one of doubt, curiosity and fear of total spiritual self-obliteration that may or may not follow the willed demise of a body.