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FANTASIA 2023: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KILLING ROMANCE (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Lee Won-suk

FEATURING: Lee Ha-nee, Lee Sun-kyun, Gong Myoung

PLOT: Erstwhile “It”-girl Yeo-rae will do anything to escape the clutches of her possessive husband—even if it means enlisting the aid of one of her bumbling super-fans to commit murder.

Still from Killing Romance (2023)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: A common grumble we have about Wes Anderson on this site is that he doesn’t go far enough. Lee Won-suk does, with maximal ridiculousness rendered in an Andersonian tint.

COMMENTS: During the audience chatter that immediately followed the film, it was mentioned that, in its native South Korea, Killing Romance is not much dissimilar from other films of its genre. I have no reason to doubt this—all the less-so for having a limited exposure to South Korean films in general, and their romantic comedies in particular—but even if Lee Won-Suk’s film were the most run-of-the-mill outing to found in that East Asian nation, it was unlike anything I have seen.

Framed as a storybook (possibly added to ground potential American audiences), Killing Romance tells the tale of Yeo-rae, famous for a staggeringly idiotic reason, but nonetheless someone who won the hearts of many fans. While recovering emotionally from a badly panned film performance, she meets mega-mogul environmentalist Jonathan “Jonny” Na. They wed, retreat from the world for seven years on a remote island, and then return to Seoul. There Yeo-rae meets a neighbor, lovable loser and fan club president Bum-woo, and Jonny’s darker side emerges.

This darker side manifests in the form of possessiveness, down-to-the-smile control freakery, and occasional beatings (of sorts) via tangerine. Amidst the randomness (when the murder schemes kick off, super sauna steam heat and countless bowls of bean soup are among the attempts at offing Jonny), musical numbers (spoiler alert: the film climaxes with a sing-off, in karaoke so the audience can join), and animal encounters (a throwaway joke about Bum-woo at the start manages to become a major plot point somehow) is the phenomenon of Jonny Na—a masterfully whimsical sociopath. He loves his wife, but she must be “just so”; he loves to be loved, and finds this “so gooooooood” (a running gag); and he seems genuinely confused that the world does not always bend to his wishes. Lee Sun-kyun’s performance nearly steals the show.

Except there is so much going on here. I’ll spare you further lists and sentences and wrap up with a brief anecdote. Over the course of the screening, a young woman in the audience removed her shoes and neatly placed them on the floor below; perched herself atop the edge of the fold-down theater seat; and proceed to sit in a state of grin-stricken happy tension throughout the feature. Killing Romance is a sheer delight, and one of the few “quirky” movies to turn that corner into weirdful wonderment.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…weird, campy, hilarious, and actually offers a cathartic revenge for anyone who has lived with a horrible spouse.” —Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? (festival screening)

2023 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL: “THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE EAST” SHORTS SHOWCASE

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Sarangi (Tarun Thind, United Kingdom): Florescent eeriness, late-night study, and then an incongruous, but familiar sound. An unnamed student hears the tones of “God Save the Queen,” but performed on an instrument native to his ancestral land. When the witch appears, each run of the bow and turn of the wheel further traps the young man as the echoing pitch of his adopted home’s anthem severs him from his past.

Two Sides (Luo Mingyang, China): This animation was cryptic and circular, and prominently featured an ominous blade. Effectively silent, as well, as a troubled boy, the least-worthy member of a gang of toughs, is alternately challenged to rough up a victim, or petrified by a vision of a two-faced spirit. It doesn’t make much sense, but it has a “vibe”, a climax, and a post-credits coda that, for whatever reason, seared a deep impression in me.

English Tutor (Koo Jaho, South Korea): Comedy and horror from Korea! Few things are more of a delight. An (you guessed it) English tutor seeks work and is summoned by a mother desperate for her young daughter to write, one word, any word (!), in English. The tutor succeeds in her task after calming the weeping child. But, alas, something is very wrong: and things turn from sweet to creepy to violent with due haste.

Foreigners Only (, Bangladesh): Ohohoh, this was the best of the lot. Our hero (if you will) is a tanner by trade, desperately seeking lodging away from work. Bug bites from ambient animal skins vex him something fierce. His girlfriend is appalled to learn his trade (“You hurt animals!” —”No I don’t! They… they come pre-hurt.”) But Continue reading 2023 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL: “THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE EAST” SHORTS SHOWCASE

CAPSULE: MEMENTO MORI (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Kim Tae-yong, Min Kyu-dong

FEATURING: Kim Gyu-ri, Park Ye-jin, Lee Young-jin, Gong Hyo-jin, Baek Jong-hak

PLOT: When Min-ah finds a diary written by two of her classmates, she is pulled into their story of romance, rejection, and retribution.

Still from Memento Mori (1999)

COMMENTS: From the first frame of the Korean horror/romance Memento Mori, we are immersed in girls’ school culture: imagine Lord of the Flies in a Michaels arts and crafts store. The entire film is embedded in this world on the brink between childhood and adulthood, equal parts bedazzled pink hearts and vicious social game play.

Within this microcosm, there are best friend duos and trios. Best friends are affectionate and vulnerable with each other, and these connections mean everything. For one pair—Hyo-shin and Shi-eun—this relationship goes further, and they become a romantic couple.

Even today, South Koreais not LGBTQ-tolerant. In 1999, having a lesbian relationship in a movie—especially a movie aimed at young people—led to government censorship. And made Memento Mori an instant cult classic.

Hyo-shin and Shi-eun create an ornate diary together, evidently something taken from real-life girl school culture. It is highly decorated, has hidden pockets, and possibly has the ability to cause hallucinations, or at the very least flashbacks. But mostly, the diary is full of confessions of their love for one another.

Min-ah, another student, finds the diary, and from that moment on, it will not let her leave it behind. She becomes possessed with it, if not by it, and the diary becomes the central storytelling device.

All does not go smoothly in Hyo-shin and Shi-eun’s relationship, not least because of their rejection by their peers, and Hyo-shin takes the breakup hard. She also might be pregnant by one of the teachers. Unable to bear one iniquity or the other, or both, she kills herself. Hyo-shin then comes back to haunt the school. Her supernatural view of her classmates is portrayed through a washed-out and yellowed film technique might have called “Ghost-O-Vision.”

Ghost Hyo-shin kills a couple people who were mean to her. Terror ensues. Mayhem follows. The cinematography and editing go a little nuts toward the end, and there are a few delightfully surreal moments. But all of this excitement is squashed into the last third of the movie.

Memento Mori has plenty of qualities besides government censorship that explain why it’s a Korean cult classic. It goes to great lengths to accurately portray a realistic courtship between teenage girls, and it doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that happen in adolescence (e.g., bullying and being groomed by a trusted adult). It also shows a teenage girl’s unhinged vengeance.

This is a fair-to-middling girls’ school horror movie with a few neat film tricks, a story told out of sequence, and a couple hallucinatory scenes. Beyond that, it is an early (especially in Korean cinema) and sensitive portrayal of a queer adolescent relationship, and for that it is important.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“On a horror/cult movie level, it combines the hallucinatory horro[r]s of Repulsion with Lynch-ian flourishes that reside in a Pandora’s Box where the past and the present are as one.”–Steve Langton, The Spinning Image (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Micah, who said he was “oddly fond of [this] very very flawed movie” that is ” similar to Donnie Darko in feel and content…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE FIFTH THORACIC VERTEBRA (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Park Syeyoung

FEATURING: Jung Sumin, Haam Seokyoung, Moon Hyein, Jihyeon Park, Seungki Jung, Oh Jeongyeon

PLOT: Mold formed in widely traveled mattress gains awareness and, eventually, a humanoid form.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: “Cinema-verité meets monster movie, wherein grand philosophical questions about the nature of the self and awareness are explored by way of a creepy-tendriled fungus with a hunger for human spine.” I’m hoping that’s sufficient.

COMMENTSThe Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is art-house-mumble-core, showcasing slices of Korean life as a mattress travels from the center of Seoul to the city’s periphery, and even further, up toward North Korea. Slow dialogue, poignant encounters, life and death, aborted love, and… an increasingly sentient mold. This hook in Park Syeyoung’s feature debut allows for the mundane to sidle up to the grandly philosophic, thanks to the collective organism that seeks to learn about its milieu through the consumption of its victims’ fifth thoracic vertebrae.

The director (who is also the screenwriter) has a knack for dialogue, and has devised a method to gather authentic performances from his cast. He remarked in the Fantasia Festival post-screening Q&A that all the male actors were musicians—ones, incidentally, he refused to allow to compose the film score—with no acting ability. By accumulating various takes of their scenes, just like his film’s mold-y protagonist accumulates expansions of itself, he was able to play around with social tonality, grabbing the best of the various performances to graft on to his film as he grew it from the ground up. Without the hyper-realism of the ambient action (or, often the case, inaction), The Fifth… could easily have sputtered to a clunky collapse under the weight of its pretenses.

But it doesn’t. The cognizantial arc of his mold begins slowly; the film even begins some couple of hundred days before its “birth.” Once the mold forms, it seems to breathe. Sound design carries a great deal of weight, as the audience hears the strange crackling, moaning, and creaking-breathing (?) of this odd main character, and there is a sensation of complete acceptance when, at last, its first knobby tendril emerges from the slickened crack in the mattress, reaches toward its victim… and snatches a section of their back-bone. As the days fly by, the mold begins to learn the rudiments of speech, and we eventually reach a poignant scene where a dying woman leaves a letter to her daughter in its charge (its mattress-home having now traveled quite far). The letter is never delivered, but becomes part of the organism’s sentience.

The closing sequence is both touching and quietly monumental. A reviewer pal of mine described The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra as “boring”; and while I must admit to it being a slow and quiet movie, I found it much more of a peaceful, contemplative film—one that organically grew into near-cosmic significance. Immediately upon viewing, it occurred to me that Park Syeyoung’s debut film would be a fitting B-side to ‘s debut; addressing similar themes, albeit from a different bio-organic perspective, the meditative nature of The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is the perfect come-down from Tetsuo‘s frenzied hyperactivity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Syeyoung Park’s imaginative debut feature blends the body horror of early David Cronenberg with the witty eccentricity of Quentin Dupleux and adds its own flavours of melancholy and wistfulness… {Park]  teases out the bizarre in the everyday and finds beauty in moments of horror. His first feature may be unpolished but it shows a good deal of unsettling originality.”–Allan Hunter, Screen Daily (festival screening)