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END OF THE OMNIBUS-LINE

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2019 Fantasia International Film Festival final wrap-up and recommendations:

Seek

Somehow I managed to catch sixty-four screenings for a total of sixty-three new movies. You may recall that I watched one film, Koko-di, Koko-da, twice, and that suggests it’s my top recommendation. It was the most talked-about movie among my crew of fellow reviewers, and it elicited strong reactions on both edges of the hate/love spectrum; I did not come across anyone saying something noncommittal about it. So I give it “First Prize.” Tailing close on its heels is Why Don’t You Just Die! This was met with universal approval among all those with whom I spoke, which is quite a coup considering how extremely violent it is. That it’s also extremely funny is just icing on the blood.

 Poster for Koko-Di Koko-Da

The third place designation is a bit a tougher, so I’ll go easy on myself with a tie between Dreamland—for being most atmospherically weird—and The Gangster, the Cop, and the Devil, as probably the best example of straight-up fun and straight-up badassery. But bear in mind, such parsing is a really tough assignment when looking back on over five dozen movies.

Destroy

The bottom three were a lot easier to decide on, as I had already done so as I came across them. Sadoko set the baseline as an achievement in tedium. Flying in the face of critical and popular consensus, I designate Knives and Skin as the Most Pointlessly Melodramatic Film. I do not agree with the two defenses of the movie: strong feminist agenda (so what? There are plenty of feminist movies that have intelligent characters you can care about) and “capturing an emotional mood.” The emotional mood I found in this movie was one of idiocy. I have lived through the teenage years and knew plenty of people who had real problems. The maudlin sob-story of Knives and Skin fell flat.

Jessica Forever manages to combine the shortcomings of both of the above movies. If it’s an example of “alternative French cinema,” I understand the success of “mainstream French cinema.” Disenchanted, blandly handsome young Frenchmen who get the authorities’ dander up “just because” they go on some killing sprees? I don’t know why that seemed like a good premise.

Personal Summary

I quite enjoyed my previous trips to Fantasia, and this year was no exception. And I’m inclined to feel like I’ve become part of the family there; by the end of the festival, all the staff knew who I was and I got to know many of them myself. I’m hopeful that in future I don’t try to match to my new record film tally, but strongly suspect I won’t be able to help myself. Thanks everyone for reading; cheers.

Congratulations to those of you who’ve figured out what I’ve been up to with each of the omnibus sub-headings.

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 Continue reading 2019 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL: OMNIBUS FIELD REPORT #3

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics

FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth

PLOT: A divine white mare gives birth to a son, the Tree-Shaker, who is destined to destroy three dragons in the Underworld who are holding captive three mythical princesses.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Marcell Jankovics puts the limitless possibilities of animation on display for this mythic tale. Abstraction and form combine to move the story along in a way that would be stylistically impossible with any other medium, all infused with the most vibrant palette I’ve ever seen in a movie. Son of the White Mare‘s epic nature and ancient roots are perfectly represented by the timeless feel of the nonstop delights to the eyes.

COMMENTS: This movie, I’ve been told, has been hovering around the site’s periphery for quite a while now, with us forebearing discussion until we could watch a high-quality, non-YouTube posting of Jankovics’ iconic masterpiece. With the 4K, re-mastered version from Arbelos Film which screened at the tail-end of this year’s Fantasia Festival, that time has come. Some quick research suggests that a disc release has not yet been determined, but considering the three years of work put into the project by a dedicated multi-national team (under the guidance of Marcell Jankovics himself), it’s bound to made available. Some day soon. Like in early 2020. Hopefully.

In the meantime, let me try to regale you with my poor words what Jankovics and his crew put together almost forty years ago. The film begins with a flash, as a pregnant white horse flees across the screen from a horde of nasty, jagged pursuers. Finding protection in the Earth Tree, she bears a human son, an eager boy who grows to become known as “Tree-Shaker.” He is told the story of his father’s downfall and, after finding his brothers (“Stone-Crumbler” and “Iron Temperer”), he looks for the entrance to the Underworld after outsmarting the Seven Colored Gnome by stealing his beard. With his brothers’ help he forges the beard into a mighty weapon that aids him as he seeks to free the kingdom’s princesses trapped in castles, guarded jealously by twisted versions of their former beaus.

It would be next to impossible to describe how magnificent the animation is. Much of its motion defies Euclidean geometry. To get the vibe, I recommend an image search. But even beyond its presentation, its narrative is well worth a mention. The time-tested methods of storytelling—tasks and goals in groups of three; heroes of impossible skill and origins; ultimate good fighting ultimate evil—are all present. This is not surprising; what took me aback (in a good way) was the fusion of this ancient technique with the interwoven warnings against modernity. Of the three multi-headed dragons fought by Tree-Shaker, two are manifestations of modern man: a seven-headed, dozen-gunned tank beast and a truly menacing, twelve-headed, ever-shifting skyscraper monster. Obviously there is a message here, one that slipped passed the well-practiced Communist censors of the day.

If you’ve patiently waited to watch this movie, please continue to do so. The impending release will be of a print that doesn’t look like it has aged at all. I know that I can get very excited about movies that others find ho-hum (or worse); but, for those of you who’ve seen some version of Son of the White Mare, and to those many others who have doubtless heard its praises sung on high, it lives up to whatever expectations of wonderment you could possibly harbor. Whoever gets the task of certifying this gem, I hope they’re up to it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The art style is incredible: pastel and clashing colours are everywhere and are used to paint very trippy and beautiful art. The animation is fluid, with shapes morphing into others and back seamlessly – a road becomes a snake, the gap between two faces changes into a goblet – but these must be seen to grant them their full justice.”–Simon Brand, PopOptiq

CAPSULE: THE MOON IN THE HIDDEN WOODS (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Takahiro Umehara

FEATURING: Voices of Lee Jihyon, Jung Yoojung, and Kim Yul

PLOT: Muju, a dark cosmic lord, is enveloping the earth’s sky more and more each night because the moon has gone missing; a young princess and musician must work together to stop Muju and his earthly minion, the despicable Count Tar.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Moon in the Hidden Woods features two spectacular scenes of psychedelic light play, as well as a host of novel monsters and battles, but is grounded at heart in the world of fantasy.

COMMENTS: The Moon is the Hidden Woods‘ varied elements give it a feeling of timelessness. As a Japanese director of a South Korean story, Takahiro Umehara imbues The Moon Hidden in the Woods with a touch of universality, as well. Upon finishing the film, I felt that it could have just as easily been made forty years ago as a month or two ago. This is no criticism: it has the style and aura of a film you might have seen on occasion, with great excitement, as a child, reveling in the unfolding of a truly grand adventure grounded by young, likeable heroes.

These heroes are up against the double adversaries of the great, terrible alien, Muju, and the vain, manipulative Count Tar. The story begins in a bazaar where two troupes of musicians have gathered for a percussion battle. Janggu is the leader of “Nova Folk Band,” and with the help of the incognito princess Navillera, his team handily dispatches the sitting champions, “Pipe Beat.” The action then goes into overdrive, as royal guards pursue Navillera and Janggu, who escape with meteorite hunters riding mechanical war birds and retreat to the Nova village outside of the city. One of the Count’s agents betrays the villagers and Janggu and Navillera are forced to flee into the Hidden Woods. They know they must stop Muju, who threatens the planet, while being harried by Count Tar’s henchmen.

All that is merely skimming the surface of the goings-on in The Moon in the Hidden Woods. Though he’s perhaps late to the game, Umehara creates something almost mythopoeic in this movie. Although largely based on ancient Korean customs and myths, this distillation is a singular vision of the director and his animation team. The stylistic flourishes enhance the underlying mythology: the prevalence of Korea’s five colors which make up the world (black, blue, white, orange, and yellow); the importance of drum music, along with its metaphorical significance of “bouncing back” from adversity; and a Middle Ages-meets-steampunk mechanical aesthetic.

Admittedly I only fully appreciated what was going on after having interviewed the filmmaker the morning after the screening. But my initial impression, wholly ignorant of the film’s precedents, was still one of “kick-ass wonder”. The Moon in the Hidden Woods shows a vibrant society squaring off against great evil, the staple of any great epic. While its different threads are pulled from a particular culture, Takahiro Umehara, as an outsider, revels in the opportunity to weave them into something completely new. The one caveat to my praise is that Moon very much has the feel of a children’s movie. That said, it’s a children’s movie head and shoulders above the competition.

You can also read our interview with director Takahiro Umehara.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…will delight you with all the cool visuals and small details, while making you wish the filmmakers had been as creative with their story as the visuals.”–Steve Kopian, Unseen Films (festival screening)

THE MAN BEHIND “THE MOON”: A CONVERSATION WITH TAKAHIRO UMEHARA

Perhaps my Japanese hand-writing is better than my Korean. When I presented my altered business card to Takahiro Umehara I saw a look of understanding instead of one of confusion.

366: My name is Giles Edwards and I am sitting down with Takahiro Umehara, and his translator Yoko, for some questions about the movie screening yesterday, The Moon in the Hidden Woods. Thank you very much. I was curious as to how a Japanese director got involved with a South Korean animation studio.

TU: First of all, I want to state that I am incredibly honored to have gotten the position of director for a South Korean production. I’ve been in Korea for almost eighteen years. And while I’m not representing the whole animation industry in South Korea, I wanted to return the favor that I’ve received in regards to my experiences in Korean film. So I’m hoping that this project will show my gratitude to the Korean people I’ve been working with.

366: I looked a bit at your earlier career, and you’ve been credited as “Art Director” on IMDb for your previous projects. This looks like it’s your first job as director. I was wondering how you made that jump and what interesting you in this particular project.

TU: I feel I am very good when it comes to drawing, so I was always interested in drawing and designing. I’ve generally wanted to be the “hands” of storytellers, but there was some good timing in that someone with whom I’d been working offered me the chance to be a director. I had thought that some day I would want to be in charge of direction, so I jumped on this chance. It was also a great chance to create a real Korean film; before that I’d always been working with Korean people for Japanese productions. This time I wanted to make an animated story based on Korean culture.

366: In regards to the film in particular, there is a whole lot of story—a lot of narrative—fit into this hour-and-a-half-long movie. I was curious as to what that was based on, and if you might explore this world again in the future.

TU: First, I want to see the reaction of screening in Korea, and then perhaps think about exploring more of this world in the future. I believe, however, that the kind of themes found in the movie are universal, and can be found in almost any country’s cultural background, especially as this focuses on the music, songs, and dance.

366: That leads nicely to my next question. The music in the feature—could you talk about your focus on the drums and drumming found in the picture?

TU: I was quite impressed when I first listened to the drums found in Korean music, so I’m glad to know that others have questions about this, as I had. And I look forward to letting my Korean counterparts know about this reaction. Korean music has a special energy, like when something is pressured, you can bounce back. It is quite free, this type of music, like the free jazz in the United States. In particular, the final scene, there’s a really strong beat, and at the end there’s a release.

366: In regards to that final scene, and a preceding scene about mid-way through in the “Hidden Woods”, there are some very astounding Continue reading THE MAN BEHIND “THE MOON”: A CONVERSATION WITH TAKAHIRO UMEHARA

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE! (2018)

Papa, Sdokhni

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Kirill Sokolov

FEATURING: Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Vitaliy Khaev, Evgeniya Kregzhde, Michael Gor, Elena Shevchenko

PLOT: Matvey intends on doing in Olya’s father with a hammer, but complications—and Matvey’s uncanny indisposition to dying from his wounds—derail his straightforward plan.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: At a certain point I figured this was merely an extreme case of Guy Ritchie violence and mayhem. By the third act, though, I discovered that the movie still had a bloody mile to go.

COMMENTS: To paraphrase one of my peers who attended the screening, this movie has “Chekhov’s shotgun, Chekhov’s hammer, Chekhov’s power drill, Chekhov’s handgun…” I managed to slip in, “also Chekhov’s ceiling light.” Considering the crowd, I’m not sure if you’d not be surprised to hear it also had the most consistent laughs of any Fantasia “comedy” so far. Perhaps all of us are just terrible people, but I lay the blame squarely on directing neophyte Kirill Sokolov (who also wrote the film) for creating such a side-splitting violence chamber play.

During his brief introduction, Matvey (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) seems like a regular fellow, albeit a regular fellow furtively hiding a hammer behind his back as he rings an apartment doorbell. He intones “One, two, three, evil can’t touch me” as he buzzes and is greeted by Andrey (Vitaliy Khaev), an intimidating, hefty man in his fifties, who reluctantly invites him in. Andrey’s wife Tasha (Elena Shevchenko) offers the boy something to drink. When Matvey and Andrey sit down, so begins a very awkward conversation after Matvey’s hammer slips out of his pants and clammers to the ground. “Is that your hammer?” “Yes. A friend wanted to borrow it.” And soon a room-busting melee between the father and Matvey ensues.

This battle of violence and wills continues throughout the run-time of the movie, interrupted on only three occasions by vignettes that explain the pertinent back stories. All very “Guy Ritchie,” as I mention above, but much like Come To Daddy, there is a point at which the whole affair careens over an edge and becomes ludicrous. No more hemming-and-hawing in the theater seat for me, but a quick flash of realization that this movie had just entered the world of crazy-go-nuts. Within its tiny setting (I’d say over 80% of the action takes place in a three room apartment), nearly everything becomes saturated with someone’s blood as TVs bludgeon, shotguns blast, drill bits spin, and kitchen knives cleave.

Near the end, when all the facts are on display and poor Matvey is sitting in a sorry state on the tattered couch (middle finger still flipped up in defiance), Andrey muses aloud to his daughter, “How is this guy still alive?” What, indeed, is this bloodshed for? Part of me suspects it’s allegorical: Matvey, the Russian everyman, enduring and outlasting every abuse from a government system that’s against him. A slightly larger part of me suspects that that would be thinking too much. This red-spewing fountain of black comedy needn’t be approached with any lens, political or otherwise. Just make sure you can stomach ninety straight minutes of top gore .

WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING:

“Building a crazed Looney Tunes mood with cartoon-bright colors, kinetic camera moves and zippy fast cuts, Sokolov keeps ramping up the savagery to absurdly excessive levels, his protagonists somehow struggling on despite skull-cracking, stomach-bursting injuries. Gore levels are high, but the overall effect is more sicko comedy than torture porn.”–Stephen Dalton, Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LAKE MICHIGAN MONSTER (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, Beulah Peters, Erick West, Daniel Long

PLOT: Having lost his father to the claws of the terrible “Lake Michigan Monster,” Captain Seafield assembles a crew of specialists to exact his revenge.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: This movie is very dumb, in a good way, and very derivative, in a good way. Tews creates a scratchy, black and white world à la Guy Maddin in a clever, mindless romp where every rule of narrative is bent as the story crescendos to a dizzying municipal-political climax.

COMMENTSIn the spirit of the movie, this is a DIY review. Feel free to cut and paste the sections below however suits your mood.

Disclaimer: In no way have I been remunerated for the views expressed herein. Fact is, they’d have to more than double the film’s budget to buy my good graces.

Good: There is a jokesy doppelgänger of Guy Maddin at work in Lake Michigan Monster. Ryland Tews captures the Canadian auteur’s aesthetic—grainy black and white, mythic proportions, and the idolization of a city (though not Winnipeg for this go-around)—and puts it to work for an episodic comedy that would seem ramshackle if it weren’t so charming and also somehow pinned to what just about passes as a story arc for the good Captain Seafielding.

Plot: Assembling a mercenary crew comprising a weapons expert, a N.A.V.Y. drop-out, and a “sonar individual”, Captain Seafielding (Ryland Tews) hopes to hunt and destroy the titular monster that he blames for the murder of his father. With half-baked schemes (à la “Nauty Lady” and other pun-driven titles), he fails again and again until he is abandoned by his hirelings and is forced to summon a ghost army (found, incidentally, in an Episcopal cathedral). After losing all his henchman, worldly and otherwise, he must complete his quest mano-a-beasto.

Weird: Lake Michigan Monster is merely 78 minutes long, but a whole world and mythology is haphazardly crammed into each and every nook. Seafielding begins each outing with a magical, animated map of the action, on which designations for each crew member zip around according to his mad whim. The fourth wall is battered to dust as Seafielding, in character, begins to dismantle the narrative shell that keeps the audience separate from his machinations; we become very much the accomplice in his silly work as the movie goes on. To boot, there are the kind of quips and asides that we’d expect more from popular television.

Opening or Closing: So what is it like to watch this movie? Unless you have some very creative film buddies, it’d be hard to get closer to the core of the crafting experience. Mind you, this isn’t just some dumb evolution of a movie into a movie about movies. This is just some dumb s̶e̶a̶ lake-faring yarn that feels like it’s being told to you live over a glass of bourbon, or whatever that type of whiskey it is you find in Scotland. But there is a gloriousness to its apparent idiocy. No real actors, no fabricated sets, but one heckuva a closing sea shanty await you in this wild and whimsical outing.

You can also listen to our interview with some of the gang responsible for Lake Michigan Monster.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Tews and company have crafted something unique here, an absurdist fever-dream that looks (and sounds) like little else.” -Matt Wild, Milwaukee Record (contemporaneous)