FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL DIARY, 7/18/2016 (THE EYES OF MY MOTHER & THE WAILING)

Still from The Eyes of My Mother (2016)My first screening of my second day at Fantasia was The Eyes of My Mother, ‘s black and white horror/art film that made a minor splash at Sundance in the NEXT category. The SGWU Hall was about half full for this one (which still means a couple of hundred folks attended). The title is suggested by the fact that our anti-heroine Francisca’s mother was an eye surgeon in her native Portugal, before immigrating to the U.S. to live on an isolated farm. Mom is an Un Chien Andalou-style homeschooler who slices open cow eyeballs to demonstrate ocular anatomy, setting up Francisca’s future lack of squeamishness about physical mutilation. Francisca is devoted to her mother, while papa, by contrast, is what is euphemistically called “distant.” Knowing only her parents, the girl loses half of her socialization opportunities when mother dies in a gruesome fashion while Francisca is still a tyke. This event sends her already stoic father into a state of near catatonic depression, and sets up Francisca’s lifelong quest for companionship that goes horribly wrong in ways that I won’t spoil here. Although Mother is packed with grisly sequences—a couple of scenes had the jaded horror crowd squirming in their seats—overall it is more of a psychological character study than a horror show. Kika Magalhaes holds down the fort as the adult Francisca, lonely and deranged, and the script makes her as sympathetic as possible; her lack of human empathy is understandable, given the odd, near-feral circumstances of her childhood. Bleak as hell, both in its subject and its visuals, Mother unspools in a non-specific, grayscale, timeless rural void. The soundtrack mixing Portuguese fado with old-timey country death ballads ensures we won’t mistake the film’s style for anything contemporary or accessible.

Those who love Eyes of My Mother are going to defend it as a beautiful nightmare, but commercially it’s a hard sell, and may not get enough distribution to find a following. This is a movie that falls between audiences: it’s too slow and somber for the average horror fan, but too gruesome and disturbing for all but the most adventurous of art-house patrons. For our purposes, it’s not weird; it is, in fact, all too realistic—not a stylistic flaw, but a fact that puts it on the periphery of this site’s circle of interest.

Mother was preceded by the short “Agravoy,” an impressionistic, subjective story of an unkempt stranger who spies on the romantic trysts of two apartment-dwellers through a series of peepholes. The sound design is intense and director Jacob Nizzola has promise, with an eye (and ear) for weirdness. He’s someone to look out for.

Just like at yesterday’s screening of As the Gods Will, I arrived late to the lineup for The Wailing—which wasn’t a pre screening sell-out, but which nevertheless filled every available seat. This time I blame take-out poutine, that Quebec culinary specialty 1)Speaking of local foodstuffs, whenever a particular Ramen noodle commercial plays on before the movie starts, the local audience howls wildly with delight. I have no idea why. Must be good Ramen. consisting of french fries and cheese curds drowned in beef gravy. It’s exactly as disgusting, depraved and delicious as it sounds. (When ordering, remember to ask for “poutine” and not “poutain,” which is an impolite name for a prostitute—a constant source of confusion at Montreal brothels that also have full-service kitchens). You see, when ordering my poutine petite “to go” for hotel room dining, I forgot to request a fork or napkins, which are absolutely necessary for consuming this delicacy. Figuring out how to make a makeshift spoon from my plastic cup set me back a few minutes. Nonetheless, despite once again staking out a spot at the end of the badgeholders line, I was seated with no issues.

Still from The Wailing (2016)The Wailing is a Korean horror with broader appeal than Eyes of My Mother. It’s an exotic variation on The Exorcist,  complete with a foul-mouthed possessed pre-teen cutie and a Catholic priest whose faith gets tested. Kwak Do-won stars as a portly police sergeant investigating odd goings on in a sleepy village resting beneath majestic mountain peaks. Kwak bumbles his way through the early reels as a likable regular guy, not especially competent at his job and easily spooked by the supernatural (he and his skinny partner mug with fright at bumps in the night, almost like they are starring in an Asian production of Abbot and Costello Meet the Devil). He’s redeemed in our eyes by his dedication to his family, which, when his beloved daughter becomes one of the victims of mysterious plague of black magic, turns him from comic relief into force to be reckoned with, and finally into a tragic figure. His character’s journey is driven by encounters with murderers covered in boils, reports of a feral man dining on deer carcasses, a mysterious woman in white, dream premonitions, a Catholic priest named “Thirty Two,” a witness struck by lightning, dead birds in the soy sauce, and a Japanese hermit outsider with a pit bull and a collection of photographs of the town’s victims. Halfway through his investigation, his daughter falls ill, and his mother-in-law calls in a shaman to exorcise the girl. This leads to a remarkable drum-beating, animal-sacrificing battle of rituals that recalls Mo and other Asian “magic duel” movies. Unfortunately, the mother-in-law hires one of those hip young shamans with a ponytail, and his lack of experience proves deadly. Unfolding with novelistic complexity, The Wailing keeps twisting and turning for two-and-a-half hours, revealing a new kink just as you think it’s about to wrap up. The players are not always who they seem and Kwak does not know who to trust, and it goes without saying that things will end badly. The cinematography, editing, and acting are all ace.

With its overstuffed nature and a shifting plot that threatens to into complete confusion, The Wailing makes for a stranger viewing than Eyes of My Mother, but it’s still firmly in the supernatural horror tradition. Although it’s exemplary for the genre, it’s not what we would call a weird movie per se. Horror fans should put it on their short list, as it’s already being distributed in the U.S. by 20th Century Fox and is guaranteed to appear on DVD/streaming services by the end of the year.

The accompanying short was called PYOTYR495, which is set in Russia’s underground gay community and has good intentions and technique, but yields few surprises.

On to tomorrow!

References   [ + ]

1. Speaking of local foodstuffs, whenever a particular Ramen noodle commercial plays on before the movie starts, the local audience howls wildly with delight. I have no idea why. Must be good Ramen.

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