FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL DIARY, 7/20/2016 (MOMOTARO, SACRED SAILORS & THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK)

A relatively uneventful Wednesday (which began with me buying a band-aid for my injured finger at the local pharmacy—I still have not located a corkscrew) featured two oddball pictures guaranteed not to play at your local multiplex.

When I saw the description for Momotaro, Sacred Sailors on the Fantasia schedule, I knew I wanted to prioritize it if at all possible. Only a bizarrely dedicated movie fan would consider a Japanese animated propaganda film from 1945 a “must see,” and as I expected, this was the most lightly-attended event of the festival so far—the lower part of the Alumni Hall auditorium was about two-thirds full. The challenge of watching an indie or foreign fantasy film is one thing; a relic from seventy years ago, espousing a political view that no living person on the planet now shares, presented in a visual style that vanished long ago, is not the biggest entertainment draw. It was encouraging to see a couple of hundred curiosity seekers show up to experience visions of the world through the eyes of another time and place. Ironically, Momotaro was never properly screened in its homeland, since Japan had already lost the war before the film was ready to be shown.

Scene from Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (1945)Intended to inspire patriotism in the imperial young, Momataro features anthropomorphic monkeys, bears, rabbits, birds and other creatures, all led by a cherubic human commanding officer (Momataro himself, a legendary Japanese figure whose name translates as “peach boy”). The opening scenes are idyllic and dull, as sailors return to their home village on furlough and are greeted by adoring friends and family. A youngster falls into the river and the entire village demonstrates the value of teamwork by pulling together to rescue them. Later, a village pitches in to build airplane hangars (the elephants sing “sweat is my only joy” while hauling timber). The animal antics provide Disney-style comic relief throughout, and much of this black and white cartoon mimics the feel of an early Mickey Mouse short, although other parts are much more ambitious, and darker (a cloud of dandelion spores evokes paratroopers in flight).

Since cavorting animated animals are no longer a novelty, the early reels are boring to modern sensibilities. The propaganda is actually fairly innocuous, pushing a generic “everyone pulls together and does their part” message of social responsibility. I was wondering if the movie was ever going to mention the actual war and the enemy; fortunately, when it does in the last act, things become a lot more interesting. In shadow-play flashback, a “large-nosed” white man comes to a Pacific island posing as a merchant, but he’s actually the leader of a band of pirates who massacre the islanders. Before dying, the king erects a monument prophesying that someday saviors will come from the East to liberate the island people. Back in the present day, the animals prepare to parachute onto this very island; their preparations are presented in great detail, from making their meals to prepping the chutes. Once on the island they meet little resistance from the cowardly Allies. It was disturbing to watch these cute little monkeys and panda bears viciously bayoneting unseen Americans, but the sequence ended with the biggest laugh of the fest yet: when the animals round up their captives, among them is none other than a quivering Popeye the Sailor Man!

This restored Momotaro screened at Cannes earlier this year, and Funimation has picked it up for worldwide distribution. Obviously, the appeal is specialized, but if you have an interest in early animation or Japanese history, or if you’re just looking for an oddity coming from an alien perspective, Momotaro is worth checking out.

Still from The Alchemist Cookbook (2016)After the show let out I walked across the street for my first screening at the smaller J A De Sève theater (which seats about 150). ‘s The Alchemist Cookbook was on the menu. For a change, I was at the very front of the VIP line; about an equal number of press and regular ticket holders showed up for this one. Potrykus, who comes across as the regularest of regular guys, hosted the screening with a few opening remarks. His attitude—he makes movies for himself, and is surprised and gratified when other people take interest and show up to watch it—should be the model for every independent filmmaker.

Potrykus describes Cookbook as a kind of alloy of two of his earliest influences,  and The Evil Dead. The scenario involves Sean (Ty Hickson), who’s hiding out in a cabin in the woods,  practicing ancient alchemical rituals from an old book, intending to summon a demon to bring him gold. The script demands that Hickson must be onscreen the entire time, often acting opposite a cat or opossum. All credit to Hickson for tackling this challenge with aplomb; using nothing but expressions, incantations and deranged monologues, he manages to keep us interested as he gradually breaks down from cabin fever (and possibly demonic possession). The only other character in the film is Cortez (Amari Cheatom), Sean’s streetwise cousin, who delivers groceries, medicine and chemicals, and doesn’t hide the fact that he thinks Sean is a flippin’ fruitcake. Potrykus has a gift for dialogue, and Cortez’s visits are a welcome break from the mixture of melancholy intensity and monotony that makes up Sean’s solitary existence. (Sean and Cortez’s argument over cat food is the movie’s take-home memory). The atmosphere is creepy, the presence of evil is real (though its source is ambiguous), and the narrative experimental.

Cookbook bears some similarities and will face some of the same challenges as The Eyes of My Motherin that the pace is much slower then horror fans normally expect, but if you like either occultists rooting about in the spooky ancient woods or reality-bending movies depicting the disintegration of a lonely protagonist’s mind, this may be for you. It’s already signed to Oscilloscope, who did a good job promoting Potrykus’s last oddball/misfit film, Buzzard, so your chances to see it outside of theaters should be decent.

About half of the audience stayed behind for what proved to be a short Q&A session with Potrykus that ended with a dare to the audience. I spoke to the director in person the following day, so I won’t recap the content of the session, but will wait to reveal more tomorrow, by which time I expect to have seen the world debut of another portrait-of-a-weirdo flick, Michael Reich’s She’s Allergic to Cats, and hopefully tracked down local Quebecois filmmaker over a beer.

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