2019 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL: OMNIBUS FIELD REPORT #3

La Première Leçon de Fantasia

I’ve never had such a cordial time disagreeing with people.

7/24: Hard-Core

Poster for Hard-Core (2018)Notice to the authorities: this actually could qualify as Apocrypha. Nobuhiro Yamashita’s melodrama concerns a pair a brothers: the younger, Sakon, is a successful day trader; the older, Ukon, has fallen from grace and is forced to work for an eccentric millionaire, digging in a hole looking for the legendary “shogun’s gold.” Ukon’s only friend is a simpleton also in the millionaire’s employ—that is, until they stumble across a retro-futuristic robot with a ridiculous face and a quantum processor. What makes this one weird isn’t that they stumble across the robot and wacky things happen; rather, they stumble across the robot, and it just blends in. The incongruousness of its appearance does lead to some funny scenes (the trio going to a karaoke bar was particularly hilarious), but in general the robot ends up more as a witness of the unhappiness around him—save for on two occasions. So yeah, Hard-Core is a moody, darkly funny, drama about men who have trouble relating to the world. And their robot friend.

7/25: Shadow

This is a two-hour period action drama. My feeling is that it should have been closer to ninety-minutes (as period-action) or closer to three hours (as a straight-up period drama). As it stands, Yimou Zhang’s piece is fairly satisfying on both counts, helped in no small way by the dominant palette of grey. The weather throughout the movie is rainy; the costuming ranges from white to black; and the only colors to speak of are red and occasional earth tones in the final battle. Now, the combat was fun, but didn’t quite earn its place in a political chamber-thriller; the politics were intriguing, but far too truncated, especially when interrupted by the neat-o combat spectacles. I suspect you can now see the problem. Shadow is, I assure you, good. It could have been great by going further one way or the other. Or, considering everything that it hints at, it might have done better as a miniseries.

Culture Shock

Still from Culture Shock (2019)Gigi Saul Guerrero is such a genuinely fun and adorable person, and knowing she was going to introduce and field questions after Culture Shock was actually the main reason I attended. (That, and last year’s La Quinceañera, which she co-created, was pretty powerhouse gore.) Culture Shock, I learned just moments ago, is a feature-length “episode” of Hulu’s monthly “Into the Dark” series, with “each episode inspired by a holiday.” Culture Shock has merits a-plenty, particularly the heavy dose of realism that starts us off. Pregnant Marisol plans on getting to the USA through one of the local coyotes— emigration facilitator or human trafficker, depending upon your view point—for a new life. Near the border, she and her companions are found by cartel members and are chased, seemingly to their doom.

Ostensibly rescued by the U.S. border patrol, Marisol awakens in one of those creepily bright and reassuring ’50s-style households, fully clothed in a new, chiffon dress—and somehow not pregnant. What she discovers isn’t too surprising, and the execution is by the numbers. But! That said, Guerrero’s version of the “American dream” stands should to shoulder with the best; imagine, if you will, the subterranean citizens from A Boy and His Dog, but topside. If you’ve got Hulu, you could do far worse than to check this out. Preferably on the Fourth of July.

7/26: Night God

Still from Night God (2018)Adilkhan Yerzhanov spins a dark, brooding, methodical dream. It takes place around now, but in a place where the sun has ceased rising. The countrymen of this dreamland live in quiet desperation, forever on the move, forever fearful of the authorities, who can execute  citizens on a whim. A father and daughter wander a minimalist city, decorated only by the occasional abstract neon sign. Looking for work, the father applies as an extra on a television quiz (somehow one of the only things to survive civilization’s collapse). When it turns out that a prop suicide bomb vest happens to be the real thing, his slow, twisted journey through bureaucracy begins. So goes the tale, and it is a very one. (I’ve always thought “Kafkarian” would be a better word.) Men with guns linger near every set piece, all of which look like scenes from a -does-Brazil production. The camera takes are long, though there is always something happening; while I was never bored watching Night God, it never gripped me. In the closing scene, a haunting musical score chimes in for the first time. I could have done with that accompaniment throughout, to complement the dusty, forlorn feel of the visuals.

Human Lost

The audience for Fuminori Kizaki’s science fiction film was a bit harsh, but I imagine they had a lot more at stake than I did. Knowing close to nothing about anime (ashamed as I am to admit it, I have not even seen staples like Ghost in the Shell and Akira), I’m in the comfortable position of having no expectations. So, I enjoyed myself. There were a few too many overly-emotional deliveries, and a weird psycho-spiritual segue that brought to mind, of all things, the portrait scene in Titanic. Counterbalancing that nonsense, though, was a very thrilling vehicle chase scene involving a hearse filled with explosives and some pretty killer speedsters driven by devil-may-care psychos being pursued by hopping police robots, as well as an intriguing premise: “S.H.E.L.L.” is an all-powerful company that magnanimously but forcibly keeps citizens alive through the “Evolution Curve” program as the powers that be await the arrival of the “Third Applicant,” the next step in human evolution. I know from friends that this kind of thing has been addressed in a lot in anime, so any otaku out there should probably give this particular retread a miss.

7/27: White Snake

Still from White Snake

I would do anything I could to be near you,

Walk all night in the pouring rain

To be at your side

My heart is aching for love,

My body’s shaking with desire

Believe me, baby, when I say

I will drink you dry

Kingdom

Still from KingdomLet’s all give it up for a unified China! Shinsuke Sato certainly seems to want us to, giving the audience a rousing series of skirmishes and other wuxia delights. Cheng Jiao, the evil half-brother of Yin Zheng, true king of the Left-of-Middle of the seven Middle Kingdoms, had better watch his back. On his trail are Yin Zheng (out for revenge), Li Xin (out for revenge), and a young boy (girl?) in a weird owl costume to provide comic relief and the occasional blow-gun murder. This was a really, really fun movie marred by the presence of the main character Li Xin, the boyhood friend of king Yin Zheng’s body double. He seems to have been transplanted from that era between ’85 and the early ’90s when melodramatic, snarky lads reared their petulant heads at the drop of a hat, emoting and explaining the obvious plot at the whim of the screenwriter and director. If you can endure the first twenty minutes, you’re in for a real treat when the focus is taken a bit from ham-orific Li Xin and put instead on some really fun military baddies and a crew of mountain-dwelling psycho soldiers.

7/28: Gintama 2: Rules Are Made to be Broken

Still from Gintama 2: Rules Are Made to Be Broken (2018)I’ve been assured that the first Gintama was far superior. I suspect that I will just have to make do with that assurance. I have no quibbles with Yûichi Fukuda’s follow-up to his hit original outing (based on manga, they also tell me; indeed, “they” are certainly going to a do a better job discussing this movie than I am). Gintama 2 was easy enough to figure out: some aliens, not-so-many samurai remaining, a shogun, some police… a guy with a guitar-sheath. All pretty mindless fun to me, all while not even getting any of the “special” otaku jokes globbed throughout. It could have been a much better (but necessarily longer) movie, as it was effectively two stories in one: sketch-like interludes with the White Demon (?) and his crew intercut with a surprisingly interesting film concerning loyalty and double-crosses in the “police” department. I only looked at my watch once during the movie, which is a pretty good sign.

Circo Animato 2019

Yep, another anthology. There are too many good options here for me to have realistically considered giving them all a miss. While every one of the dozen features were at least technically impressive, two in particular stood out: Frédéric Doazan’s “Hurlevent” and Yves Paradis’ “M52“. In the former (which is French for “stormwind”), letters from countless alphabets form and attack one another when a harsh breeze flips a book’s pages from start to finish. As their stop-motion movements progress, Doazan wordlessly conveys the beginning of the world, the rise of cities, and even projects into the electro- and cosmic aether.

Still from M52Paradis’ piece is, in its way, comparably abstract, beginning with shapes and lines akin to Malevich, before delving—perhaps—into the human mind and humanity’s future. Two dominant characters appear (although they may just be two sides of one “person”) and explore unknown depths, opening locks to mystical pathways… and, well, I am not describing this one that well. There was a notice from the director that this project was devised as an experiment: beginning with no plot or plan, he developed and animated the “narrative” on a week-by-week basis to see where it took him. It went somewhere amazing, and it was easily the best of the (very impressive) dozen shorts.

7/29: Depraved

Still from Depraved (2019)Following his producer/actor role on the pop-culture commentary Like Me, Larry Fessenden goes old school in the director’s chair with Depraved, his retelling of the Doctor Frankenstein story. You already know the plot, I imagine, so just put that story into a modern New York City setting and picture the resurrectionist as a medical genius suffering PTSD after a stint in the Middle East. All the right names are dropped (“Shelley” appears as a young lady bar-fly who shows kindness to the monster and “Polidori” is the brattish, effete money-man that funds Henry Frankenstein), and an atmosphere of medical awe tinged with foreboding permeates through clever “molecular special effects” (my own phrase) popping on screen at appropriate junctures.

The movie is about as good as any variant of the story I’ve seen, with my only gripe being a sagging final act in which we observe an odd dinner with Polidori and his in-laws before finally getting to the showdown. I must take a moment to credit the monster for being infinitely more charming than the whiny loser from whose body and brain he was forged. I’m not sure if it’s a testament to good writing or bad writing, but the opening five minutes made me glad that the prat had his unfortunate run-in with a blade.

7/30: Dare to Stop Us

Poster for Dare To Stop Us Truth be told, the main reason I attended this was to see the opening clip from the annual Fantasia trailer mash-up, which incorporates a couple dozen clips from films screened during the festival. With that in mind, I was very pleased to have gone on such a whim, as Kazuya Shiraishi’s tribute to Koji Wakamatsu is satisfying on both an historical level and a dramatic one. Told through the eyes of one of the few females to take part in Wakamatsu’s crew of subversive filmmakers, Dare to Stop Us expresses the joy and terror of making movies on the edge of society. While the last part was a bit of a drag—the trials and fate of young Megumi as she desperately works to infiltrate the boys’ club—there was, overall, a sense of grand defiance. Arata Iura plays Wakamatsu with a performance riding the razor’s edge of madman and messiah, and watching him talk “Ultraman” with (Sôsuke Takaoka) is a real treat.

Jessica Forever

There’s a festival attendee this year who has taken the liberty of walking out of no fewer than ten films. I wish I had had his determination when I toyed with walking out of Caroline Poggi’s and Jonathan Vinel’s “alternative French cinema” outing. I hadn’t thought that I’d have a three-way tie for worst movie of the festival, but Jessica Forever combines the tedium of Sadoko with the pretension of Knives and Skin. I have, in effect, nothing good to say about this movie: its agenda is executed better elsewhere, and all I felt by the end was a complete lack of sympathy for a crew of young men who were about to be massacred.

Garo – Under the Moonbow

Bearing in mind the previous movie, take it with a grain of salt that I say that Keita Amemiya’s second chronicling of the otherworldly silliness of the Makai Knights was absolutely amazing. Yes, there is very little logic behind the proceedings: Raiga, a hunter of Horrors, has lost his father and is about to lose a potential girlfriend, and so he travels on a train to an Underworld with a David Lynch-meets-Naked Lunch kind of feel. But! It turns out that he’s been duped, and so he (and his father, and ultimately his father’s father) makes a deal with a super-being to allow for some long-form, CGI combat with mega-armor in what appears to be a floating Neuschwanstein. Epicly ridiculous and ridiculously epic, my only regret is I didn’t bother to get my lobby card for the movie signed by the creator and director who was available for such a task right after the screening. I have a weeabo buddy who may just kill me for this oversight.

Dachra

Poster for DachraRounding out my day was an offering of Tunisian horror that I couldn’t in good conscience let pass me by. Meeting up with a young reviewer friend for the late screening of Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s directorial debut, I had no idea what was in store. At this point I typically would go into one of my series of adjectives describing how amazing it is, but I won’t: Dachra was atmospheric and at times grotesque, but played altogether too much like The Tunisan Witch Project. This dismissiveness, however, probably stems from it having been my fourth film of the day, and how much I continue to demand (despite years of experience) from my “exotic” horror. It was all very nicely done, with a twist-ish bit or two, and I can’t really say there was anything wrong with it. It’s just that I wasn’t scared out of my wits. So despite this lukewarm bit of writing, it’s definitely worth checking out as a singular offering from a part of the world that’s still new to genre filmmaking.

7/31: Extreme Job

Still from Extreme JobAnother Korean movie, another free sample of Nong-Shim’s cup noodles. But I didn’t go for the nourishment (although as a visiting journalist, all food at events was very welcome), I went for a fun time watching Korean cops, robbers, and a fried chicken restaurant. This Byeong-heon Lee action comedy (mostly comedy) focuses on the driven but inept attempts of a squad of narco-agents to take on a drug kingpin. They’re holed up at a stakeout at a chicken restaurant across from the gangsters when the owner tells them that he’s leaving the business and selling the place. The crew pools together cash to buy the restaurant and, to stay open and inconspicuous, continue selling chicken as a front. Naturally, fame follows when it turns out one of the five is an adept chef, and their police work becomes sidelined by busy days serving a larger and larger clientele. Obviously foolishness reigns the day, but I cannot hold that against a well-executed comedy. Warning: you will want fried chicken by the time you finish this Extreme Job.

The Lodge

The Lodge was one of those “on a whim” viewings that paid off handsomely — and its intensity makes me glad that I still have another day here to wind down. Sergio Casci and Veronika Franz together have made one of the most unsettling psychological horror movies I’ve seen of late, possibly ever. This team had previously made their mark with Goodnight Mommy. While The Lodge doesn’t cross the weirdness threshold, its intensity makes it come close.

Still from The Lodge Mia and Aidan are still suffering after the suicide of their mom when they agree to stay at the family’s winter lodge with their soon-to-be step-mother, Grace. Grace’s history is complex, as she’s quite a bit younger than Aidan’s and Mia’s father, as well as being the only survivor of a (Christian) cult mass suicide. With the father away until Christmas because of work, the three have an uneasy time in the lodge until something very strange happens. They awaken one morning to find all the food, luggage, and even Christmas decorations stripped from the house, the power cut off, and the clocks reading “January 9th.” Outside, a blinding snowstorm keeps the three trapped, and what begins as a hardship becomes a spirit-crushing ordeal. Their descent into spiritual madness ticks all the right boxes for edge-of-your-seat viewing, and I cannot remember the last time I nearly jumped from my seat. Highly recommended, this movie blasted me into full wakefulness which I’m still reckoning with even at midnight as I’m typing this.

8/1: Judy and Punch

Wouldn’t you know it, another writer/director debut. This time, Mirrah Foulkes toys with us by providing one of the best openings to a movie of the entire festival, only to subtly sabotage her work throughout its remainder by making small but cumulatively ill-advised decisions. Judy and Punch concerns the professional and domestic relationship of “Professor Punch” and his wife, Judy. Both are whizzes at the art of puppetry, but the husband drinks too much. He’s also irresponsible with the baby, and a deeply tragic (though hilariously conveyed) event spurs the action and, unfortunately, leads to the beginning of the mistakes. Any audience attending a Feminist re-imaging of a late 17th-century performance art form needn’t have things dumbed down, nor hammered home any further than the story demands. That said, Foulkes just about torpedoed what was already a rickety experience with a montage that included some women from the “heretics camp” doing Tae-Chi in a stream. This movie could have been amazing. As it stands, I can only barely recommend it.

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea

Still from Miracle of the Sargasso SeaI’ll blame the ambiguity of Fantasia’s blurb about this movie for me thinking this might have been a weird movie. It was, ultimately, a compelling one, but only beginning at the halfway point (an hour into the film). Syllas Tzoumerkas’ Sargasso Sea is effectively a “crime movie”, but the crime isn’t committed until well into the proceedings, and instead of an investigation section, we’ve seen all the pertinent backstory beforehand, and the person we think did it, for the reasons we’d suspect that he or she did it, was the one, for those very reasons. There was much more hardcore sex (in previously recorded “home video” form) than is typically found in crime dramas, so that was a little weird. I guess. But nothing was ultimately worth the time drag and emotional fatigue of this kind-of-depressing, kind-of-pointless melodrama. I bet that Abel Ferrara could have covered this story in ninety-minutes flat. (Hm, I didn’t think I’d be mentioning him again.)

The Divine Fury

Still from "The Divine Fury"Ladies and germs, it’s time for the closing movie. Fury opened in its home country of South Korea on Wednesday, July 31st. Those attending at Fantasia got to see it on Thursday, August 1st, and I was there, and thoroughly enjoyed this MMA Exorcist. Joo-hwan Kim’s franchise opener (here’s hoping) concerns the tale of Jong-hoo, a man who hates God so much that he achieves stigmata status. He’s a boxer who lost his (policeman) father to a sports-car hooligan. Ultimately, his investigation of what’s wrong with his palm (darn thing keeps bleeding) brings him to Father Ahn, and so begins an adorable cop buddy-comedy with some violent fighting, violent exorcising, and a showdown with a big scaly demon monster. Truly mindless, but truly fun.

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