On Tender Hooks (2013)

Directed By: Kate Shenton
Directed By:
Starring: Kate Shenton
  Tam Smith
  Ana Laco
On Tender Hooks

For most normal people, the idea of hanging from large hooks, embedded into their skin, doesn’t even bear thinking about, but for filmmaker Kate Shenton, the world of suspension, and those who inhabit it, is the perfect premise for a documentary – just don’t expect to learn anything about the practice, or the enthusiasts, or indeed anything much besides the freak show angle, which is perpetrated throughout.

The film begins with a shot of a young girl crying, before the camera whips around to focus on a man, just about to suspend, who is chatting away happily. It then cuts to someone who is in the midst of having the hooks pierced into his skin, before finally focusing on several people swinging around, without a care in the world, seemingly oblivious to the hooks in their backs.

This very muddled approach to storytelling is prevalent throughout this rather under-accomplished documentary. What’s perhaps most grating about On Tender Hooks is that Shenton doesn’t seem clear on whether she wants to be the focus of the piece, or if others should be. The opening shot, of her crying, doesn’t feature again until the final act, when, rather bizarrely, the director/narrator takes centre stage, to inform us that she is going to suspend herself, before proceeding to do so.

This would be more of a turning point if it hadn’t been revealed earlier in the film. Shenton even admits, during this monologue, that she doesn’t quite know what way the feature is going to turn out, which isn’t particularly enlightening. It doesn’t bode well, either, for the final act, which deals with nothing in particular, before ending with a whimper, instead of the bang that is expected following the rousing, shocking, first fifteen minutes or so (the director claims these moments are the hardest, and to stick with it, but funnily enough, they are actually the most interesting of the entire film).

Much of On Tender Hooks is spent in the company of body modification enthusiasts, the type with nails through their eyes and feet where their ears should be – or, so Shenton would have us believe. In spite of her claims to the contrary, the film has an unfortunate, freak show style twist to its narrative. It will infuriate, and probably insult, body mod enthusiasts with just how ignorant it is at times, and anyone who is into this particular art-form will be disappointed there is nothing new to learn here, that cannot be gleaned from attending house shows, or watching videos online.

On Tender Hooks boasts of travelling all over Europe, to check out various suspension groups in action, and yet, only a handful of places are featured, all of which seem to have been chosen at random. There is a notable absence of any Irish participants, which is a shame considering its close proximity to the director’s home turf, along with the fact that the suspension scene is burgeoning there, in spite of some rather narrow-minded, secular views from the general public.

There is no mention of the historic background to suspension, no attempts made to dig a little deeper, no discussion of the spiritual or sexual significance for certain participants. Very little is discussed, apart from the most obvious viewpoint, which is that this must hurt, and choosing to do it is a bit crazy.

Several participants are given a nice portrait, during which they discuss their lives, families, work, and troubles with body modification and its detractors. Unfortunately, not enough time is dedicated to each person, to give any kind of scope as to why they choose to suspend, or what it means in the context of their daily lives.

It’s a shame, because the chosen participants are charismatic and engaging, but there’s a sense that Shenton doesn’t know quite what to do with them, and is slightly uncomfortable. This would’ve been understandable, if the documentary focused on her introduction to suspension, followed by her decision to suspend. Then, maybe, it would’ve made a bit more sense. Likewise, if she had chosen to take herself out of it entirely, and simply narrate, it may have worked to her advantage – though there is still a worry that she doesn’t know which questions she should be asking.

On Tender Hooks is a fairly disappointing documentary, about a very strange practice that most people would be fascinated by, even if they are simultaneously disgusted. The film is neither brave nor informed enough to educate the audience on suspension, and Shenton’s own prejudices shine through, even when she tries to engage with her subjects. There are moments of clarity, and it moves along at a steady pace, but there is nothing particularly new here. If you’d like to watch footage of people suspending, just go on YouTube.

Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

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