As I said in my last post, I went out of town for the first weekend of August, and thus missed a couple days’ worth of movies playing at the Fantasia film festival. I was able to catch up with some on Monday, though. Fantasia maintains a screening room, with workstations where journalists, industry people, and other accredited folks can watch movies on computer. It’s not the optimal way to experience a film — they’ve usually been burned onto a DVD or accessed through a private Vimeo account — but it’s serviceable if you can’t catch the movie any other way. The screening room usually loses rights to the movies shortly after they play at the festival, but when I went by on Monday, there were still quite a few available.
So from about 11 in the morning until I left to get a quick meal before Thermae Romae II, I sat and watched films. These are the tales I saw in the screening room: two movies I missed over the weekend and one that various misfortunes had kept me from seeing earlier. The first of the three was a Japanese near-future science-fiction movie called Real. The second was another Japanese movie, the live-action manga adaptation Black Butler, which mixed action, comedy, sf, horror, bits of steampunk, and probably some other things I didn’t catch. The last movie I saw was an American film called The One I Love, a slightly horrific low-key relationship comedy. As per usual, it was a fascinating and oddly mixed day of movies at Fantasia.
I’ll begin with Real (originally titled Riaru), but I have to admit I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa from a script by him and Sachiko Tanaka, and based on a novel by Rokuro Inui called A Perfect Day for Plesiosaur, it seemed to reinvent itself periodically throughout. The closest I can get to a sense of it is to use that overworked adjective Hitchcockian — in this case not to indicate technique but atmosphere, the way tension builds in the first part and then twists and dissolves and becomes something quite different by the third act.
I have to say to start with that this was probably a case where seeing the film on a burned DVD screener did it a disservice. The lighting seemed dulled in a way I don’t think it was meant to, and which I don’t see in the stills I’ve found online. Given that there’s much play throughout the movie with atmosphere, mist, and sunlight, that may have affected the overall experience. Certainly a sense of claustrophbia still came through, but the visual power seemed blunted.
Still, one way or another, it’s a tight film. As it opens, we learn that a year ago manga artist Atsumi (Haruka Ayase) tried to commit suicide and ended up in a coma; her longtime boyfriend Koichi (Takeru Sato) is now trying to bring her out of it using new ‘sensing’ technology. This technology places him directly into Atsumi’s dreams, where he can communicate with her. It also means he experiences the dream-imagery she creates. Atsumi gives him a task, telling him that a drawing of a plesiosaur she did when they were children will help her. Strange images and visions follow Koichi as he looks for the drawing, and it soon becomes clear that everything somehow relates to a traumatic memory from when they were both children.
The story plays out in a way I found odd, but maybe in the end appropriate. There’s a heavy atmosphere of foreboding earlier on, even when there seems to be no obvious reason for that kind of emotional tone. In Freudian terms, there’s considerable latent power in these scenes — the way they’re framed and lit and the way the actors play them. Usually that feel of a latent power is related to a weight of symbolic meaning carried by dream-images, but I found that this was not as much the case as I might have expected. There’s very little surrealism in this film. The unexpected images in the dream are all images that appear in Atsumi’s work; they all have direct explanations. And most of them are basically everyday things given emotional signficance, not the impossible fantasies of dreams. (Though there is a nice scene where a drawing of a gun becomes ‘real,’ if invisible, strictly through the use of sound effects.)
As the movie goes on, the latent becomes manifest: the meaning behind the things we see in the dreams becomes clearer and more firmly established. There’s a crucial twist that I saw coming, in part because I’d seen almost the same one play out a few days ago in another movie, but which in any event sets up the last act of the film. I will say that by the end of the movie I did feel I was watching a story about a relationship in which both parties involved were given real agency, which in turn had the effect of making their connection much clearer, much more palpable.
But overall I felt as though I wasn’t quite on the movie’s wavelength. There’s a sense in which it seems to be investigating the boundary of real and unreal, with stubbornly realistic dreams populated by faceless “philosophical zombies.” But when the antagonist of the two leads is literalised in the final scenes of the movie, the special effects are too literal, and the symbolism too random. The acting is universally almost affectless. Ultimately, it seems that the movie ends up too clear for its own good, with all its imagery neatly explained away.
Still … I feel as though there’s something more in this movie. Thinking about it a few days later I still feel a kind of satisfaction from it, a fullness, that I can’t quite articulate. I think it may have something to do with the way it works through dreams, with the way it rigorously moves from the latent to the manifest. I find myself responding to this movie more deeply than I can rationally explain, and I have no idea if that’s a personal response or not. At the least, I suppose this is a competent movie. At best, it might touch on some deep part of the psyche.
Black Butler (originally Kuroshitsuji) was a wild contrast. Directed by Kentaro Otani and Keiichi Sato from a script by Tsutomu Kuroiwa based on the manga by Yana Toboso, it’s direct in every way except backstory. It’s bloody and high-contrast and fast-paced, with fight scenes and elaborate costumes and underground club parties and malevolent rich people and, at the end, a bomb with a timer. It’s solid pop fun that affects a modish cynicism — once you get past the exposition at the start.
In fairness, it actually opens with a fight scene, introducing us to Shiori (or Kiyoharu) Genpo (Ayame Goriki), and her super-powered butler, Sebastian (Hiro Mizushima). This is a world divided between East and West, and Shiori’s an agent of the Queen of the West operating undercover in the East, as her father, Count Genpo AKA Ernest Phantomhive, did before her. In order to assume her inheritance, she’s had to pretend to be male, under which name she’s known as Kiyoharu (Goriki makes an awfully unconvincing boy, but one must allow the movie its eccentricities; or one can enjoy the gender-bending cosplay; or perhaps both). As the current Count Genpo, Shiori’s also the head of the huge toy manufacturer Funtom, as well as the head of the local underworld. Obsessed with finding her parents’ murderers, and finding these resources insufficient, she’s also sold her soul to gain the assistance of a devil — her butler, Sebastian, who has an infinite supply of deadly butter knives. (His self-assessment: “I’m just one hell of butler.” Oh, and by the way, when Shiori sold her soul, it made one of her eyes change colour, so now she always wears an eyepatch.)
Got all that? Good, because that’s where the movie starts.
The first quarter or so of the movie is so packed with information, backstory, and subplot it’s almost disappointing when it slows down afterward. The actual story involves mysterious murders, deaths by mummification in which a tarot card — the Devil — is left at the scene of the crime. This is leading the “great figures of East and West” to come together to perform a mass exorcism, which I suppose couldn’t hurt except that it’s exactly the sort of gathering against which nefarious villains plot attacks. Shiori and Sebastian are of course caught up in the tension and go through a series of set pieces before Shiori gains some measure of vengeance and personal growth.
It’s actually quite entertaining. There’s a nice sense of style to the picture, adding steampunk touches to an essentially modern aesthetic. From references within the film we can deduce that it’s taking place in 2020, apparently a departure from the original manga, which took place in 19th-century England. The producer has said that they decided to set the film in near-future Asia so they could cast Japanese actors; anyway, it works well enough, as the appearance of Sebastian the butler, of sealing wax, of Victorian suits, all register more strongly as anachronisms.
Sebastian himself has all the elegance you’d want in a Mephistopheles waiting more-or-less patiently to drag his Faustus’ soul to hell. He enigmatically refers to gathering information through “personal contacts” (which we see are stray cats), and, when compared to a vampire, sniffs “please do not lump me in with those graceless creatures.” He’s the mechanism by which Shiori’s able to overcome all obstacles — an attempt to establish a physical danger for him late in the movie is unconvincing — but is less a superpower than a genie. (If you want to be pedantic: less a Green Lantern ring than Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt.)
Given all that, it’s probably a good sign that Goriki holds her own. The script also does its business here, nailing down an almost too-clear character arc for Shiori. At the start of the film she abandons some crime victims to possible death; by the end she’s risking the ultimate heroic sacrifice. Goriki plays it well, though it’s unclear how the things she goes through lead to her transformation.
Honestly, it has to be said that the intricate details of character development are not the key selling points of this movie. This is an over-the-top ride with thrilling action and dastardly evildoers. There’s a surprising amount of gore — which is to say more than you’d normally get in a heroic adventure movie, but far far less than gore fans would want. Still, the fight scenes are nicely done, always clear and quick and well-choreographed, often one-on-many battles involving knives and guns and bare hands.
The pacing’s odd, as the film seems to move in fits and starts, then hits a part late in the story where sudden revelation piles upon revelation. The climax is unexpected: it abandons fight scenes as Shiori scrambles to save the world. Still, the wry humour is effective, and the sheer weirdness of the film sometimes helps create a distinct atmosphere. I think of the villainous pharmaceutical CEO who raves at dying drug addicts he’s just poisoned: “Are you all enjoying the sensation of climbing the staircase to heaven?” (And I wonder here about the translator’s choice for the third-to last word.) It’s not really justified by the plot, it’s just there, a villainous line for a villain to deliver, which he does, with gusto. Late in the movie we’re told that the angels fell “due to unrealistically high expectations,” and I wonder if that’s the way to enjoy this film: don’t go in with over-high expectations, but relax and enjoy some energetic and occasionally ghoulish thrills.
The One I Love is once again a different thing entirely. It’s a small, quiet film about a married couple, Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) whose relationship has run into difficulties. Their marriage counselor (Ted Danson, unrecognizable here) suggests they go to a cottage he recommends to them, and spend some time there alone. They do, and soon discover something strange revolving around a guesthouse on the same property. There seem to be people living there. And those people seem to be alternate versions of themselves.
Apparently the script for the movie, from Justn Lader, was fifty pages long, and director Charlie McDowell encouraged his cast to improvise. This works to a degree, as the relationship between Ethan and Sophie is built nicely: you see how they relate to each other, and the stresses they put each other through. You see how they can’t help but tear each other down. Explaining their relationship to their therapist, Ethan says that they don’t laugh together anymore, and turns to Sophie: “I used to call you a bitch, and it was funny,” he blurts out. “Yeah, it was hilarious,” says Sophie, almost honestly supportive. It’s a well-delivered line.
The problem is that there are too many lines that tend less to develop character than reiterate it. Plot is completely sidelined. The movie’s slow; in outline it’s something like The Twilight Zone as done by Woody Allen, but it lacks the wit of either. And the sense of pacing. Even the character work is less solid than it at first appears. What do these characters do for a living? Where does their money come from? Are they thinking of children? I have no idea. The quarrels between the characters don’t seem to be based on anything really important or profound; as much as I tried to read significance into the dialogue and performances, I found them utterly resistant to any such reading.
More: there’s an old saying to the effect that a lead character has to either likeable or interesting, if not both. I’ve never believed that line (check out Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain to see a counter-example). But Ethan really makes the case for it: he’s not just unlikable, he’s smarmy. The more we learn about him, the more we hear from him, the less we want to deal with him (well, fine, the less I want to deal with him). Both characters are deceptive, but Ethan more so, and more damagingly. This is a problem as the alternate versions of the characters who appear in the guesthouse are apparently meant to be ‘superior’ versions of the originals, or at least versions more desired by their original’s partner — but the alternate Ethan seems to have all the weaknesses of the original, only with a little more extroversion. You don’t know if the movie’s tone-deaf, or if Sophie’s got a self-destructive streak that draws her to losers.
Probably the greatest strength of the movie is the cinematography. If the version of the movie I saw (from a Vimeo account) is faithful to the theatrical presentation, then cinematographer Doug Emmett here channels the spirit of Gordon Willis, the so-called “Prince of Darkness” famous for underlighting his films (or more charitably, expanding the palette of light and shade). Emmett certainly evokes the feel of 1970s realist films, creating a murky sense that could have been exploited for the creation of atmosphere and emotional intensity. Unfortunately, here as in so many other ways, the film seems unable to take advantage of some strong ideas.
How to take the ending of the film, for example? The plot comes together smoothly, but should it be read as triumph for one character or horror for another? There are a number of possible readings, but none are compelling. None are really involving. And that’s the real problem I had with the film: there’s nothing involving in it. The dialogue isn’t clever enough to be interesting, lacking character subtext (or at least interesting subtext). There’s no wit. And at the end the implications of the fantastic aspect of the film are ignored — characters that ought to be collapsing in paranoia simply go on with their lives. That’s important because it points up a central flaw of The One I Love: it has an extremely shallow grasp of character. You don’t believe the film understands relationships, or the things that draw people together or pull them apart. Lacking that understanding, what remains is a listless acting exercise with a couple of plot twists and some pretty pictures.
(You can find links to all my Fantasia diaries here.)
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.