2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: A THIRD SLICE OF STRANGE

Abridgement

Last year there were three fully scheduled screening rooms. This year there are only two. With a flood of dramas from Southeast Asia clogging the Festival, pickings were a little slim. But hope springs eternal as it heads into its second half.

Short: “Hooligans” (dir. Adam-Gabriel Belley-Côté)

After a match that could at best be described as a qualified success, three members of the blue team (the fourth is in hospital with a concussion; the other three are also injured to varying degrees) discuss the prospect of letting the leader’s cousin into the group. The controversy? It was that same cousin that caused the blue team their injuries. Presenting violent European football fandom as a sport of its own, “Hooligans” eschews social commentary in favor of rib-tickling reveals about competition, induction, and club-house procedure. Beware appendix 1-A.

Short: “A/S/L” (dir. Benjamin Swicker )

A horror film about American Sign Language? Heck no. I was immediately reminded of my age when I saw this short that hearkens back to simpler times of Windows 95 and AOL 2.5. Doug ill-advisedly makes the titular inquiry of a thirteen-year-old girl he meets online. He compounds his error by taking her up on her offer to visit her place. What could go wrong; her parents are “gone for the weekend.” Upon arrival, things turn sinister/awkward. With the appearance of the girl’s “sister,” they gets doubly so—doubling again with the appearance of yet two more under-age girls. In their way, the girls have a feisty-good time; Doug, however, should have stayed at home.

7/24: Inuyashiki

Still from Inuyashiki (2018)In the tradition of Kodoku: Meatball Machine and others, Shinsuke Sato presents another in the genre of “Superannuated Superhero”: Inuyashiki. By chance, a put-upon father who has just been told he has fatal cancer and a disenchanted young man end up at the same park by chance and are struck by a blinding light and massive object. Coming to the next day, the father is first surprised to find himself alive, and then to find he no longer needs his glasses. Slowly he discovers he has a a shiny, new interior: a “switch” in his wrist releases a high-tech weapon; another node in his neck flips his head open to reveal some very impressive central processing power. The young man, on the other hand, learns about his new self faster, but chooses a more destructive path than the older man’s healing spree.

Inuyashiki deftly combines sky-high action sequences with down-to-earth ruminations on the nature of good, evil, and the feasibility of forgiveness. Both the father and the young man have understandable gripes with reality, but the former never ceases to try to do the right thing. The latter has known only loss of friendship, and, metaphorically at first, of loved ones; driven to psychotic bitterness, he eventually declares war on all of Japan. Things get serious at times, but never too heavy—and it is a credit to Sato that he juggles the film’s pendulous tones so ably. If you see one superhero movie this summer, make it Inuyashiki.

V.I.P.

Still from V.I.P. (2018)The first of an inadvertent Hoon-jung Park “double feature”, V.I.P. isn’t weird, but is a must see for any fan of gritty violent crime procedurals. (That’s an odd genre term, and I may not be using it correctly.) Myung-Min Kim plays Chae Yi-Do, an old-school policeman who is never seen without a cigarette. When his boss gives him carte blanche to solve a case involving a serial killer, he allows nothing to stand in his way: not South Korea’s Intelligence services, not the CIA, and certainly not the slippery, well-connected murderer (a smirkingly twisted Lee Jong-suk, who drops a long-standing “pretty boy” image to play at giggling evil). Colliding bureaucracies, savage murders, and more than a handful of twists keep the viewer on his toes. Stealing every scene he’s in, though, is Peter Stormare (you know, that guy from Fargo) as chewing gum-chomping, greasy CIA sleaze-pile Paul Gray. Quite worth the time for fans looking for the place where serial killers and political thrillers intersect.

7/25: The Witch, Part 1: the Subversion

Still from The Witch, Part 1. The Subversion (2018)Hoon-jung Park again shows off his directing chops, this time with something of a super-antihero origin story. The title itself is a give-away, of course, that this won’t be the last time we deal with this particular Witch. Da-Mi Kim as “the Witch” won the increasingly coveted “Cheval Noir” award for best leading actress, and certainly showed quite a range in The Witch, pt. 1. When a school for genetically engineered superhuman children gets thoroughly shut down, student massacre-style, some escape, including Ja-yoon, who legs it to a nearby farm run by a charming older couple without children of their own. Raised by the farmers, Ja-yoon is very talented but also very meek—until she isn’t. By not making it clear where one’s sympathies should lie, Park keeps things moving along until, much like in V.I.P., all the the factions smash together for—you guessed it—a grisly finale. While I found it entertaining at the time, upon reflection, it doesn’t hold up as well as it should have. In particular, one expository scene has a character talking, and talking, and talking, making the narrative mistake of telling the story instead of showing it, something to be avoided in a visual medium. Unlike the further adventures of old man Inuyashiki, I can take or leave what The Witch gets up to in the future.

Anna and the Apocalypse

Still from Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)Despite never having seen the musical episode of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I cannot help but think that John McPhail’s teen musical comedy (with zombies) must be very similar. At the very least, it hits all the cues of a high school dramedy: Anne (Ella Hunt) feels stifled by the smallness of her hometown; her best friend is filled with ever-to-be unrequited romantic love for her; no one takes the sharp-tongued news reporter woman seriously; and, best of all, the up-and-coming principal is a stuffed-shirt, no-nonsense autocrat that only a teenager could dream up (and he’s even ironically [?] named “Savage”). The musical numbers were good, in a “I don’t have much to say beyond that” kind of way, except for Savage’s solo bit where he sings boisterously about having “finally made it” while leaving the surviving teens to fight some zombies that he let into the school. And yes, the zombies. They dominate the second and third acts, and are used mostly for non-sequitur jokes (one I remember was the “kill/shag/marry” challenge with Zombie-Beyonce, Zombie-Taylor Swift, and Zombie-some other celebrity). Trying to remember any of the songs and other gags right now, I am at a loss, so that may be saying something. However, I know I laughed along with the movie at the time. Frankly, you’ll know yourself whether a Christmas-Zombie-Apocalypse-Musical movie is something you want to see.

7/26: Cold Skin

Still from Cold Skin (2018)Having moved on from his Nazi torture-porn and triple-A blockbusters of a decade ago, director Xavier Gens has focused since largely on horror of one flavor or another. In Cold Skin, he presents us with an adventure about as rollicking as the ian atmosphere allows. An unnamed man (David Oakes) has come to a remote island in the Antarctic for the purposes of chronicling wind patterns on the outcrop for twelve months. Occupying the only structure other than the weather officer’s hut is a bearded, near-wild man, Gruner, the lighthouse operator. As the weather officer settles in, he quickly comes to learn that there are some inhuman inhabitants of the nearby waters—inhuman inhabitants who are prone to raiding the island from time to time.

So, breaking each-other’s solitude, weather officer and Gruner barricade themselves in the lighthouse with the food, flares, guns, ammunition, and, curiously, a female of the hostile species. It is hard to pin the over-all tone of the movie. There is action, quietude, desolation, bright sun, and strange developments in the relationship between the two men and the humanoid aquatic creature. Intending no disrespect to Da-Mi Kim, but having now seen Cold Skin, I was much more impressed with the actress who played the fish-woman (Aura Garrido). She made the creature relatable (certainly more so than the human men) and understandable just through body language and her character’s mysterious clicking and wailing. The finale’s combination of ambiguity and apathy is in keeping with the story’s Lovecraftian tendencies, and while it’s not an adaptation of any of his works, Cold Skin incorporates enough riffs on his adventure-focused tales to be worth a look.

“DJ XL5’s Outtasight Zappin’ Party”

Structured as an hour and a half of flipping through channels, the Outtasign Zappin’ Party lived up to its title—I think. I’m not sure what is meant by the “Zappin'” part. Amidst brief clips of old martial-arts movies and at least half a dozen Samuel L. Jackson death scenes, DJ XL5 insinuated eighteen short films. The earlier link will get you to a full line-up, but there were a few that stood out.

Some of you may be familiar with “The Shivering Truth”, which is on the bubble for being approved as an Adult Swim series. Over the course of eleven minutes of stop-motion animation, we learn that lunch ladies will get sliced meat however they possibly can, some people just weren’t meant to kill themselves, and that butterflies really, really hate Bali’s natives. Consistently weird and hilarious, it follows associative logic as it jumps from one bit to another, all under-pinned by an ever reliable omniscient narrator.

As one of two French-Canadian inclusions, “Hypochondriaque” (dir. by Carnior Steve Landry) tells the Alien story in even more of a stripped-down manner than did with his eight cast members. A husband and wife are driving their mining vehicle back home after a hard day of work on some planetoid. The wife starts complaining of a stomach ache, which the husband groups with the litany of other symptoms he’s known her to complain about. The folly of writing her off as merely being a hypochondriac, though, becomes clear when she shows him the body of a familiar looking face-hugging creature. We quickly find her stomach ache is more than mere whinging.

New Zealand provides another bit of inspired whimsy with the animated disaster comedy, “Fire in Cardboard City” (dir. by Phil Brough). Woe betide the titular metropolis: after an action-packed police chase, the bad guys crash and their cardboard car explodes on the cardboard streets. Enter our heroes, the valiant fire-fighters of Cardboard City. However, everything is cardboard: the people are drawn on it, the roads and buildings are made out of it, and we learn that that spray of blue-painted cardboard from the fire hose is, like all the surrounding materials, flammable itself. It takes a deus ex machina à la The Lego Movie to tame the blaze; but then comes the new title card, “Flood in Cardboard City.” A hilarious little outing.

7/27: The Ranger (Special ad hoc Press Screening)

Still from The Ranger (2018)Jenn Wexler’s directorial debut can be accused of any number of things, but subtlety is not one of them. The Ranger is an eighty-minute howl against the Patriarchy, with a literal howl from the protagonist in the final moments. A gaggle of drug-snorting punk rockers run afoul of the law when one of their crew stabs a policeman who’s cornered Chelsea (Chloe Levine), a young woman who grew up in a rural environment (and is later accused of being a city punk “tourist”). They flee to a remote mountain cabin that was left to Chelsea by her uncle, who died some years earlier under mysterious circumstances. From the get-go, they step on the toes of the ranger (Jeremy Holm, in a sinister, regulation-spouting performance) and then proceed to make further bad decisions. Obviously, things start going very badly very quickly, and I was driven to wonder, “When will these people figure out they should play by the rules?” Of course, these are punks and anti-authoritarians: but, c’mon.

Once the ranger’s psychotic nature, never lurking far below his officious exterior, surfaces, ping, ping, ping, down they go. The final showdown has Chelsea literally grappling with a Man In Charge; a Man in Charge who in many ways had been her “Faerie God-Ranger.” Raw feminine rage wins the day, and we are left with heavy-handed scene of Chelsea being accepted by mountain wolves. Perhaps not a bad message, per se, but the gracelessness of delivery prompted a young female reviewer to turn to me and say, “boooo!” right as the credits came up. The horror genre (if that indeed is what The Ranger falls into) isn’t easily harnessed for nuanced discussion. Ms. Wexler will hopefully bear that in mind for her next movie.

7/29: Five Fingers of Death aka King Boxer (1972; 35mm print)

Still from Five Fingers of Death (1972)In a belated effort to educate myself about the heritage of many martial arts films that have been on display, I took in Chang-hwa Jeong’s classic about dueling martial arts schools seeking dominance in northern China. Five Fingers of Death came at the start of the wave of /martial arts movies that swept the West in the 1970s, cementing their prominence with Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. This movie, however, predates Lee’s 1973 breakout. Filmed in beautiful “Shaw-Scope” (never quite explained), FFoD is the simple but convolutedly-presented story of Chi-Hao as he prepares to win a kung fu contest for the noble Suen school against the dishonorable Ming school. Thugs get thwacked, Japanese assassins get their comeuppance, and a glowing red light emanates from Chi-Hao’s hands whenever he prepares to execute kung fu’s deadliest move, The Iron Fist.  swiped its blast-siren sound cue for his Kill Bill franchise.

“International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase 2018”

Eight short films, all competent in execution: most having to do with time manipulation, with a couple of post-apocalyptic ones. I somehow remember greater diversity of subject matter last year, but as we all know, “they just don’t make ’em like they used to.” One film of the bunch is worth mentioning, though, as its very good and is honest enough to wear its influence on its sleeve, even declaring it a few minutes in.

“Exit Strategy”, directed by Travis Bible, primarily involves a wonderful repartee between two brothers: Matt, a firefighter, and Shane, an MIT graduate (trimmed with all the nerd-awkward fixin’s you’d expect). Armed with a program with pertinent alarms and a flip notebook, Shane has been working on trying to manipulate events in a time-loop he’s constructed (Groundhog’s Day-style, as his brother observes early on) to prevent a deadly fire. Shane thinks he’s just about cracked the problem after hundreds of attempts (or thereabouts), but Time is a harsh mistress. The short spools out with some great dialogue between the estranged brothers and does the audience the service of following logic. Ending on a bittersweet note, I was reminded of the time-looping troubles of Aaron and Justin in The Endless. Here’s hoping Travis Bible keeps at it.

Five Fingers for Marseilles 

Still from Five Fingers for Marseilles (2018)This movie would have made my personal cut for a full write-up, except that it’s much, much more in the camp of beautifully made revisionist-Western drama than anything remotely “weird.” Michael Matthews utterly astounds us with his directorial debut, the story of five friends (the titular “Fingers”) in South Africa. Growing up during Apartheid, they see little change in their lives once the old regime is voted out and “equality” is enshrined. Young Tau is imprisoned for the murder of three corrupt officers and is released two decades later. Toughened by prison, he returns to his dusty hometown of Railway, on the hill above New Marseilles. He finds that one friend has gone on to become mayor, another a corrupt chief of police, a third a pastor at a failed church, and the fourth was killed under mysterious circumstances. Tau is given scant time to reconnect with his old gang before a near-mystical gangster, Sepoko, “The Ghost,” declares both Railway and New Marseilles to be his.

The prehistoric grandeur of the South African countryside is caught beautifully in all its primal glory; it is a grandly savage counter-point to the ill-functioning towns that have malignantly sprung up on it. All the cast are impressive, including Zethu Dlomo as the adult Lerato, the female friend of the titular “Five Fingers.” But it is Hamilton Dhlamini as Sepoko who raises Five Fingers for Marseilles from Western Drama to a more mythical level. Each of his speeches is laden with gravitas, delivered in the manner of traditional African story-tellers. In a mountaintop encounter with Tau, the sky even darkens and thunder and lightning rage as Sepoko declares his power and intentions. Five Fingers is an elemental movie that has much violence, but none that is unnecessary. Things don’t ever get too heavy, either, with another stand-out performance in the part of “Honest John” (Dean Fourie), a white, ne’er-do-well traveling salesman. The finale, like much that comes before, is both brutal and believable. Highly recommended.

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