Tag Archives: Folklore

366 UNDERGROUND: KING JUDITH (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bailey

FEATURING: Nicole Fancher, Joanna Schellenberg, Jenny Ledel, Emily Ernst, Rhonda Boutte

PLOT: A police detective investigates a car crash which ends the lives of three women and triggers the disappearance of a fourth.

Still from King Judith (2022)

COMMENTS: Viewer discretion is advised: this film is best viewed as a treatise on American feminist folklore. The plot’s threads remain unwoven until a quiet reveal at the finish, and even then the pervasive mystery is not put to rest. This method of storytelling is in keeping with the Southern Gothic style, relying heavily on ambience and spirituality—both religious and otherwise. The ethereal-but-anchored tone also echoes the subject matter: ghosts, memories, and revenants. And despite the sun-infused imagery and wispy, often (overly) poetical dialogue, there is a sense of unspecifiable loss wrapped around the ambiguous happenings.

The facts at hand are scant. Known: three women died in a car crash while en route to a “macabre literary festival.” Known: the sudden appearance on the road of a fourth woman, recently evicted from her tent-home of twenty years, triggered the crash; this woman’s whereabouts are unknown. Known: this tragedy is followed by a series of deaths-of-despair on the parts of several ostensible witnesses. Through the detective’s interviews with the victims’ friends and associates, and obliquely pertinent poems sent to her by an unknown observer, the meandering turns of events are uncovered. But what it all adds up to remains opaque, both for the film’s protagonist and for the audience.

While enduring the first third of the movie, I felt a growing apprehension—the bad kind. I feared I would have to spend an entire review dumping on an unlucky indie filmmaker. The opening mystery-tedium and the lead actress’ unconvincing performance (imagine a keen twelve-year-old girl attempting to come across as a thirty-something “seen-it-all” kind of cop) nearly sunk it. To my relief, King Judith manages to transcend both the sum of its parts and its myriad flaws. (As with anything “Southern” or “Gothic”, patience pays off, in this case handsomely.) The second act opens with a bar scene in which writer/director Bailey at last finds his storytelling voice. What follows is an encounter where an awkward fellow beautifully regales a childhood ghost experience, and the young woman he’s speaking with (one of the three car-crash victims) in turn share the amusing story of the “Mounted Aristotle” caper from Alexandrian times.

King Judith never fully shakes off its pretensions; there are too many random shots of poetical movement in front of poetical backdrops, plenty of “quirky” artist characters, and dialogue of the “…reckless urges to climb celestial trellises, and slide down them” variety by the bucketful. The grandiloquence is heading somewhere, however, and its meandering way covers interesting intersections of folklore and psyche, feminist and otherwise. And Richard Bailey’s detective-story frame is apt. In the world of memory, tales, history, the supernatural, and the hereafter, there are “no answers to our questions, only rewards—fascinating details, luminous things; on and on it goes: the work of gathering clues.”

Kind Judith is currently streaming for free on Tubi.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird little film that mixes folklore, and Southern Gothic, with a dose of women’s studies, and comes up with something that feels almost like a stage play that was adapted for the screen.”–Jim Morazzini, Voices from the Balcony (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: INU-OH (2021)

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犬王

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Voices of Avu-chan, Mirai Moriyama

PLOT: A blind itinerant priest crosses paths with “the King of Dogs”, a vivacious and deformed creature with a talent for dancing; through the priest’s music and the dancer’s storytelling, they attempt to lay the lost souls of the Heike clan to rest.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I have come to the conclusion that perhaps everything in Masaaki Yuasa’s œuvre should get canonized, particularly as we now have the elbow room to do so. (Night is Short, Walk on Girl was shortchanged due to numeric constraints.) Inu-oh brings an unlikely legend to bombastic life, fusing rock opera, ballet, pyrotechnics, spirits, curses, gender self-discovery, physical transformation; it’s a 21st-century story about a 14th-century performance troupe unearthing the secrets of an 12th-century war.

COMMENTS: It tickles me that Inu-Oh is Masaaki going “commercial.” This stems to a great extent, of course, from the fact that here in the United States, film norms are sickeningly normal: we are reigning kings of the lowest white bread denominator (so much so that it was controversial when Disney took a belated and modest stand against overtly bigoted legislation in its home state). Among the many themes explored in Inu-Oh, gender identity is near the fore, along with the nuances of parental acceptance of someone’s true self.

But let me stop that vein of thought for the moment. This is film for, and about, entertainment. It’s about musical revolution, and the delineation of the esteemed Noh tradition, which harkens back to the middle of last millennium. Inu-Oh follows Noh’s traditional story arc, lacing it with modern rock sensibilities. (Well, maybe not “modern” rock, but certainly strains of Buddy Holly through Jimmie Hendrix and Freddie Mercury.) The titular character is a born performer, despite—or because of—the fact he is a born monstrosity: an unnamed son of a proto-Noh performer, a boy of ambiguous shape, deformed face, and a long, strong arm. He embraces his outcast status, at one point referring to himself as “the Horrible Gourd” in honor of his misshapen mask. But as the son of a dance troupe leader, it comes as no surprise that Inu-Oh was born to jump and jive.

Tomona, the biwa priest, has a comparatively subtler trajectory. The son of a salvage diver, he is blinded at a young age when he and his father retrieved cursed regalia. Masaaki’s visual treatment of this unseeing musician is a treat, as total darkness gains rough outline of form with each sound Tomona hears. Being unable to see, the priest-musician (a biwa is never without his four-string shamisen and bachi) does not fear Inu-Oh, and is so able to help the mutant through his journey. Tomona’s personal journey is also about transformation as he evolves into an increasingly feminine entity, adopting the name Tomaori by the film’s end. The morphing of their name allows them to grow into their true form, but plays havoc with the spirit world, and with their ancestors—as one’s given, or accepted, name is what allows Tomona/Tomaori’s father to maintain contact from the afterlife.

While the first half of Inu-Oh is “merely” steeped in music, song, and dance, the second half is one long string of hand-clapping, foot-stomping musical numbers showcasing the monumental talents Tomona and Inu-Oh share as natural performers. They give the forgotten fate of the Heike spirits full-throated treatment, with Inu-Oh performing transgressively non-traditional storytelling through song and dance, while Tomona positively shreds it on their shamisen. Contemporary shogunate politics play a role in the story as well, as does the concurrent, tragic tale of Inu-Oh’s fame-obsessed father. Masaaki Yuasa never settles for half measures, and every theme—friendship, salvation, transformation, politics, and music—ties together in an animated vortex of vivacity and sonic rollercoaster of rocking melody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This anachronistic rock musical promises a return to the playful, literary surrealism of ‘The Tatami Galaxy’ (2010) and its 2017 spin-off, ‘Night Is Short, Walk On Girl,’ but comes up short… There are individual sequences that reach the psychedelic heights of Yuasa’s best work. But too often, this tale of the liberating power of art is about as mind-expanding as an early-afternoon set at Fuji Rock Festival.”–James Hadfield, Japan Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LAMB (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Valdimar Jóhannsson

FEATURING: , Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson

PLOT: A childless couple living on a remote farm in Iceland become attached to a newborn lamb.

Still from Lamb (2021)

COMMENTS: Debuting director Valdimar Jóhannsson has been adamant in interviews that Lamb is not a horror movie. While that may not be strictly accurate—Lamb abuts the supernatural, relies on ominous music cues and a bit of shocking violence, and nurtures a sense of unease throughout—the lack of intent to horrify is an important consideration to get your expectations in order.

Anyone going in expecting a stately A24 horror outing a la St. Maud (2021), The Lighthouse (2019), or Hereditary (2018) will likely grow impatient in the first forty-five minutes as the movie languorously spends its time following the slow rhythms of farm life. Maria and Ingvar, all alone except for a dog, a cat, and their livestock, spend long days grazing their sheep, preparing and eating meals (including lamb chops), and servicing their temperamental tractor. The only event that breaks up the idyllic monotony is the unexpected birth of a new lamb. After pulling the babe out of its mother, Maria gets that motherly look in her eyes. The couple take the lamb inside their home and care for the newborn like a favored pet, lavishing as much affection and attention on it as they would on an infant. The cute-as-a-button critter is usually lovingly wrapped in swaddling clothes, and it’s only when we get a brief glimpse of its lower extremities that anything resembling horror starts to take root.

Things perk up a bit after the overly-long introduction, helped by the arrival of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother, who crashes at the farm and, like the audience, looks askance at the couple’s unnatural attachment to the animal. Things still proceed relatively slowly, but the viewer’s interest is held by dreamy visuals of the verdant Icelandic valley and the strangely expressive lamb (formed from a variety of techniques, including CGI composting and puppetry, into an aberration that’s simultaneously ridiculous and uncanny). The narrative is thin, but the metaphorical implications are broad; the story is driven by a likable couple’s need for something to love. (Coincidentally, displaced and delusional parental love is also a key feature of the recent Titane). It falls just short of earning a general “” tag, but for those who enjoy slow but offbeat art-house movies that focus as much on gorgeous scenery as horrific visions, Lamb may serve to fill an empty space inside of you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a kind of WTF object of fascination… Even the (excellent) trailer from boutique studio A24 can’t find a way to entirely hide the movie’s hyper-bizarre premise.”–Taylor Antrim, Vogue (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander

PLOT: King Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts a challenge from the mysterious Green Knight to deliver a blow that will be returned to him in exactly one year.

Still from The Green Knight

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Green Knight reconnects us with the deep weirdness of ancient legends, where even Arthur’s shiny new Christian order cannot banish the strange chthonic magics growing from the world below.

COMMENTS: We find him hungover in a brothel on Christmas morning. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is dissolute, only seated at the Round Table thanks to nepotism. He tells his uncle that he has no stories to tell, but when the half-tree, half-man Green Knight strides into Camelot (summoned, it seems, by witchcraft), he himself will become the tale. Since none of Arthur’s other knights will accept the oaken interloper’s proposed “game” to trade blows—delivered a year apart—with his axe, Gawain, suddenly ambitious to make a name for himself, steps forward and unwisely cleaves the Knight’s head from his trunk. This fails to deter the tree-man, who merely picks up the severed appendage and reminds Gawain of his date one year hence.

Thus begins Gawain’s quest to become a man. The knight’s code of honor Gawain aspires to demands that he keep his word and, although his resolve trembles a bit, he never seriously doubts that he will face his fate. Lowery fills out the sketchy 14th-century poem with some new incidents (which feel authentically Arthurian, like a version of the story of St. Winifred), but his main twist on the ancient legend is to make Gawain human, relatable, a man with feet of clay who nonetheless perseveres in his duty—or one who is pulled forward inexorably by his fate. As with most of The Green Knight, it’s unclear whether Gawain’s willingness to sacrifice himself is noble, or merely predestined. Contradictions abound: the pagan and the Christian exist side by side, an ancient story is told through a modern lens, and green, as Alicia Vikander reminds us in a long poetic speech, is simultaneously the color of life and of death.

There are strange things in the world which defy all logic, and Gawain experiences many of them on his journey. Heads persist separately from their bodies, women pass out magical totems and sashes, corpses hang at crossroads, giants plod along in an inexplicable parade, and a fox joins his quest (and dispenses advice). In every hut and castle along the way, Gawain encounters strange residents who may actually be ghosts, fairies, or magicians. Dreaminess overtakes our hero as he advances towards the Green Chapel, but in the end, only the clear inevitability of the axe-blow awaits. The formalist minimalism of Lowery’s A Ghost Story yields to a fiery maximalism of fantasy, but the dire existential edge remains.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A mystical and enthralling medieval coming-of-age story in which King Arthur’s overeager adult nephew learns that the world is weirder and more complicated than he ever thought possible, ‘The Green Knight’ is an intimate epic told with the self-conviction that its hero struggles to find at every turn. Stoned out of its mind and shot with a genre-tweaking mastery that should make John Boorman proud, it’s also the rare movie that knows exactly what it is, which is an even rarer movie that’s perfectly comfortable not knowing exactly what it is.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

18*. GREEN SNAKE (1993)

 Ching se

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“Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel honoured?”–D.H. Lawrence, “Snake”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Maggie Cheung, Joey Wang, Wenzhuo Zhao, Hsing-Kuo Wu

PLOT: After imprisoning the soul of a shapeshifting spider in a bowl, a monk spares the lives of two snakes, one white and one green. The two snakes take human form, seeking to learn the wisdom of our species. White falls in love with a scholar, while Green is more mischievous and seductive; eventually, the monk regrets sparing the pair, and seeks to banish them to their old forms.

Still from Green Snake (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • As a director, and perhaps even more importantly as a producer, Tsui Hark is one of the key figures in the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Hark wrote the screenplay based on Lilian Lee Pik-Wah’s novel, which was itself based on an ancient Chinese legend. In the original tale the Green Snake is a subordinate character to the White Snake, but in the novel and movie they are of approximately equal importance.
  • The same folktale was the basis for The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) with Jet Li, and the recent Chinese animated hits White Snake (2019) and Green Snake (2021).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An amazing moment occurs when meditating monk Fa-hai is bedeviled by lustful demons, who appear to him as bald women in skintight cat suits. Shocked when one appears in his lap, he leaps ten feet into the air in front of his giant Buddha statue, then fights the felines off with a flaming sword while they taunt him.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Monk tempted by pussies; snake joins a Bollywood dance number

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tsui Hark has style to spare, but spares none of it in this feverish epic filled with Taoist magic and Buddhist mysticism. A spectacle for the ages, Green Snake goes beyond the merely exotic into the realm of the hallucinatory.


UK trailer for Green Snake (1993)

COMMENTS: Green Snake gives you everything you could want in a Continue reading 18*. GREEN SNAKE (1993)

17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

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“In my animated films the design of every frame is of great importance, as if it would be a painting. Most of the time, and particularly in a mythical, fabulous context, my human characters, even lead characters, are only a minor part of the whole thing.” —Marcell Jankovics

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics

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

PLOT: Fleeing hunters in a forest, a pregnant white mare takes refuge in a knot of the World Tree. For seven years plus seven she feeds her son, Treeshaker, before he embarks on a quest to destroy the three dragons that have captured the three princesses of the kingdom. Joined by his brothers Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, he seeks the entrance to the Underworld in order to battle the monsters.

BACKGROUND:

  • The narrative takes its inspiration from around half-a-dozen variations of a folk legend (which itself exists in over fifty forms). The canonical version is “Fehérlófia” as related by the Hungarian poet László Arany, though Jankovics’ rendition often departs from this source.
  • Jankovics’ decision to adopt an experimental animation style proved to be a double-edged sword. The film’s singular appearance grew famous only after years of word-of-mouth percolation; it was unmarketable at the time of its release, and Jankovics found only fleeting acclaim (and no work whatsoever) outside of his native Hungary.
  • Jankovics discounts any assertions about having taken psychedelics, claiming instead he merely wished to respect the fantastical grandeur of the source material.
  • The titular White Mare takes on a warm, pinkish glow when near her son. This tonal effect was lost until the film’s recent restoration, the mare having appeared simply white in earlier washed-out prints.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Treeshaker striding confidently behind row upon row of modern buildings in silhouette as a horrible brown smog obscures the scene: a mythical hero boldly facing modernity.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Bubble-beard gnome; twelve-headed skyscraper monster

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It might be impossible to find another feature-length animation that is simultaneously so stylized while feeling so organic, or with such vibrant colors telling so heroic a tale. Every cel is a stunning piece of art that seamlessly morphs into the next jaw-dropper. The curious source material lends a further twist: ancient Central European folklore channeled through a 20th-century animator toiling behind the Iron Curtain.


Re-release trailer for Son of the White Mare

COMMENTS: Marcell Jankovics’ introductory dedication declares Continue reading 17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

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Son of the White Mare has been officially added to the Apocryphally Weird list. Please visit the official entry.

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