SHORT: In the decaying city of Dana Point, a marine biologist, haunted by her father’s murder and desperate to prove her scientific worth, forms a reluctant alliance with a philosophical skeptic from Beijing. As they embark on a quest to find an “improbable” sea creature, their perceptions of reality begin to unravel. As the lines between madness and sanity begin to blur, the aggrieved marine biologist must choose between her career ambitions and confronting a surreal world of performance and madness.
LONGER: The harbor-side town of Dana point is a city in decline. The harbor reeks of rot, foreign powers vie for political control, and the city’s last beacon of integrity, Mayor Elizabeth, has been ruthlessly assassinated.
The late mayor’s daughter, Kathryn Elizabeth, a determined yet underachieving marine biologist, struggles to make a mark beyond the city’s confines on account of her being “from the city.” However, her fate takes a remarkable turn during an overnight dive off the coast of Dana Point. She stumbles upon an extraordinary find: a 500-year-old harpoon spear lodged in the severed fin of a recently living creature. She believes this discovery may be her ticket to outside scientific recognition, free from the city’s corruption.
In pursuit of this mysterious creature, Kathryn dedicates most of her days and nights to underwater expeditions. But her life takes an unexpected twist when she returns from one such dive and discovers a mysterious woman, Li, making a mess of her lab bench and rummaging through her datasets. Li introduces herself as an “alternative scientist” from Beijing, who challenges conventional scientific norms through a brand of philosophical skepticism, which Kathryn recognizes as an ideology linked to the city’s corruption. Li has come to Dana Point because she believes the specimen Kathryn found belongs to a 500-year-old Greenland Shark. Kathryn laughs off this theory as absurd, while Li, unfazed, insists that what’s absurd doesn’t need to make sense, as long as it’s true. Li tells Kathryn that if they could locate a Greenland shark in Dana Point it would go a long way towards validating a significant but proprietary theory of the “alternative sciences.” Li then makes an offer: she will help Kathryn publish in an established scientific journal, but only if Kathryn agrees to help her locate and I.D. this creature. Kathryn strongly detests the corruption and uncertainty that Li represents, but her ambition getting the better of her, she makes the proverbial deal with the devil. Their partnership begins as they board the Brig Pilgrim, an historic tall ship moored to its dock in the harbor, to commence their stakeout.
However, the Brig Pilgrim isn’t the quiet vessel they expected; it’s hosting a children’s sleepaway camp for a class of second-graders. To complicate matters, John Davies, a notorious method actor known for never breaking character, has replaced one of the camp’s amateur actors, thereby taking the leading role in the camp’s overnight immersive experience. As Li deconstructs Kathryn’s perception of reality, John Davies expertly immerses everyone, children and adult chaperones alike, in a re-constructed 19th-century merchant sailor world, further conflating fact and fiction, past and future, logic and absurdism.
Kathryn begins to feel like the outcast on the ship, as everyone else starts to subscribe to a version of reality interrogated by Li and fabricated by John Davies, thrusting her into a mission to prove her sanity. After suffering a series of setback, on the brink of surrendering, Kathryn falls into a vat of fish guts and busts open her head. Blood and reeking of fish guts, she takes on the persona of a mad prince, and it’s unclear whether she is performing or truly mad. Reality and performance further blurs.
As Kathryn’s madness intensifies she is finally able to confront the method actor, and successfully forces John Davies to break character, her greater madness triumphing over the actor’s “lesser madness.” Kathryn, however, is still unable to outwit Li. The creature in the harbor turns out to be a whale, something inexplicable, by her standards of logic, but not by Li’s absurdist standards. The world around Kathryn shifts too rapidly, confronting her understanding of logic and order. Motivated by concerns over the mounting uncertainty, and also by a thirst to redress some grievances over her father’s murder, she steals the First Mate’s gun and vows to seek revenge against Li, though her sanity remains uncertain.
As morning arrives, Kathryn makes her final move against Li, only to find out the gun she has stolen is just a prop. Furious, Li threatens to ruin Kathryn’s career. Kathryn mocks Li, inviting her to carry out her threats. Kathryn remains resolute. She suggests that she has plans, perhaps inspired by John Davies, to construct a city of performance, where science, logic, and certainty continue to prevail, in spite of the changing of the times beyond the city’s borders. Kathryn intends to become the resistance against the encroaching chaos, just as her father once was. Li warns that it won’t be effective. If not Li or Beijing, someone else will come. Hyenas crouch at the city’s gates, and they sense weakness; they smell the rot. Kathryn remains steadfast, determined to preserve her father’s city, the grandeur and the rot alike.