Fantasia 2019, Day 22, Part 3: The Divine Fury

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Divine FuryAll good things must come to an end, they say, and for me Fantasia 2019 ended at the Hall Theatre with the Korean action-horror movie The Divine Fury (사자, romanised as Saja, literally Emissary). Directed by Kim Joo-hwan, it follows Yong-hu (Park Seo-jun), a champion MMA fighter who lost his father under mysterious circumstances at a young age. In the present, when mysterious wounds appear on his hands and he is attacked by a demonic force, a blind shaman guides him to exorcist Father Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki), who tells him the wounds are stigmata and give him great power in fighting demons. The two team up, reluctantly on the part of Yong-hu, who holds a grudge against Christianity after the death of his father. But there are dark forces at work in Seoul, and Yong-hu must use all his skills to defeat the forces of hell on earth.

There are a lot of good ideas in this movie. And a lot of the time it looks very nice, with lovely shots of Seoul by night, and glossy, richly-coloured cinematography. Unfortunately the action and horror elements are not blended well, and character beats don’t come off as powerfully as they should.

Let’s start with the action bits. After a long introductory sequence showing Yong-hu as a boy and the death of his father at the hands of demons, we get our first fight. Note that the intro’s failed to build any real narrative momentum, and even the appearance of the demon is only brief. The actual fight we see with the adult Yong-hu looks like it’ll be more exciting; but then it too ends quickly. There is a plot reason for this, but the scene sets a pattern for the rest of the film. Yong-hu finds himself battling demons, and his power ends each exorcism before any real sense of dread can emerge. The set-pieces are thus brief and don’t develop into anything significant, even when plot’s being advanced.

The climax is easily the most kinetic and visually interesting sequence of the movie, a well-shot brawl that does have its own internal structure: Yong-hu defeats some flunkies to make his way to the boss, and then both hero and villain level up as the fight goes on. The problem is that the combatants don’t have anything to say to each other, literally and figuratively. The spectacular visuals feel empty, as Yong-hu doesn’t seem to be dealing with any particular character issue in the fight. The staging’s fine, but there’s no particular sense that there’s an internal logic that dictates when Yong-hu’s done enough to end the conflict. Basically, there comes a point when he hits the bad guy enough that the bad guy goes down and stays down.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 22, Part 2: The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Miracle of the Sargasso SeaThe nice thing about my last day of Fantasia was that rather than sit in one place, I would watch something on my own in the screening room, then something at the small De Sève Cinema, and finally something at the big Hall Theatre. It had the well-rounded feeling of a good summing-up.

The film I had at the De Sève Cinema was The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón, Το Θαύμα της Θάλασσας των Σαργασσών). Directed by Syllas Tzoumerkas from a script he wrote with star Youla Boudali, it follows two characters in the Greek town of Messolonghi. The first is police chief Elisabeth (Angeliki Papoulia), who we see in the opening scenes be exiled from her law-enforcement career in Athens; years later she’s still a square peg in the round hole of Messolonghi. The second is a quiet girl named Rita (Youla Boudali) who works in an eel processing facility; her brother, Manolis (Christos Passalis), is a local pop star. We see Elisabeth and Rita negotiating their lives in Messolonghi, with its various social complexities and patriarchal attitudes. And then a crime unites them, and various secrets of the town come to light.

This is a well-shot film, pleasant to look at with a kind of off-centred low-key energy — there aren’t many mannered symmetrically-composed shots here, but there’s a closeness to the characters that’s engaging. The actors shine, and Papoulia in particular comes off well, a weary dismissive cop with an anger that’s less smouldering than it is in a state of steady magnesium-like incandescence. Multilayered dinner parties are shot with an interesting sense of the social complexities and relationships of the speakers. Contrasting with this are brief scenes of dreams and visions.

And yet much of the film has the feel of a TV cop show — not an American network drama set in the big-city, but something like Inspector Montalbano or Broadchurch. Shows about cops in a small town, solving small-town crimes. Shows that lack the distinctive weirdness of Twin Peaks but that still dwell on the character of the investigators and suspects. Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is different in that the crime doesn’t happen at or before the beginning of the story, but instead relatively late in the film. At which point the paths of the two main characters, until then having nothing to do with each other, begin to converge.

This is an unusual structure which sounds worth trying, but to my mind it comes off as dramatically inert. Early on the different strands are interesting on their own but don’t inform each other, meaning neither really builds up any momentum. Then when the crime does happen, there’s no twist to it. We find out about a death, and the killer and motive are exactly what we imagine they are. The investigation goes about as one might expect. What could have been a subversion of genre ends up merely a dramatic structure that misfires.

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Fantasia 2019, Days 21 and 22, Part 1: The International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase 2019

Monday, September 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

EternityAfter taking a day to attend to various non-cinema matters, I came early to the last day of the Fantasia Film Festival. I had two movies I wanted to see in theatres, but first I wanted to catch up on something I’d missed when played on the big screen: the 2019 International Science Fiction Short Film Showcase. Luckily, I was able to watch it at the Fantasia screening room. Uncharacteristically, American shorts dominated this year; in an appropriately science-fictional statistic, 7 of 9 movies were from the US, with one from Australia that ended the showcase (at least in the order described in the Fantasia program) and one from Ukraine that began it.

“Eternity,” directed by Anna Sobolevska from a script by Sobolevska and Alina Semeryakova, is an effective 23-minute tale about a future year 2058 in which dying people can upload themselves into digital worlds designed by a massive corporation. These worlds have been tested by living humans, but for some even the best are pallid copies of the real world. One way or another, nobody wants the simple afterlives provided by the state. Ian (Oleg Moskalenko) is a man who doesn’t buy into the illusions provided by the Charon Corporation. But his wife Marie (Daria Plakhtiy) is thrilled by the cyber-estate they’re offering. Then tragedy strikes, and Ian has to make a series of terrible choices, balancing the desires of both of them with his idea of integrity.

This is an extremely strong film. It looks sharp, to start with; both the grim, shadowy real world and the lushly-hued cyber-fantasies come across well. The acting’s strong, especially from Moskalenko. The story structure’s solid, getting across a complicated science-fictional idea, exploring it with both plot twists and background ideas (Charon is everywhere, it seems), and above all telling a character-centred tale.

What may be most impressive is how many themes are on display here. I read it as a story about a man struggling to hold on to his beliefs in the face of corporate pressure, trying to set aside sterile romanticism but forced into being complicit with the powers that run the world. But then there’s also a lot here about the power of capitalism, especially in opposition to what used to be viewed as transcendental values — Charon sells a simulacrum of heaven, almost but not quite the real thing. So the film’s about life, death, and what’s beyond, and how to meet all these things. And, on top everything else, it’s built around a relationship of man and wife sketched both convincingly and briefly. This is Sobolevska’s first film as both writer and director, and it’s impressive; one hopes to see more from her in future.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 20, Part 2: Garo — Under the Moonbow

Sunday, September 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Garo — Under the MoonbowI approached my second and last film of July 30 with real uncertainty. I’d never seen many tokusatsu films or TV shows, and what I had seen I hadn’t cared for. (‘Tokusatsu’ literally means something like ‘special effects,’ but in the West it’s come especially to refer to shows like Power Rangers or Kamen Rider.) Still, playing in the De Sève Cinema was Garo — Under the Moonbow (Garo: gekkô no tabibito, 牙狼 — 月虹ノ旅人, also translated Garo: Moonbow Traveler), written and directed by Keita Amemiya. It’s the latest installment of a franchise, created by Amemiya, which began with a 2005 TV series and has continued through more TV shows, live-action movies, and anime series. as well as video games, manga, and various other tie-ins. A veteran creator of tokusatsu dramas, Amemiya is particularly known for his powerful design sense, and the images and description of the film promised a stylish fantasy adventure. Although it’d be my first experience with a series that had dozens of hours of continuity behind it, I decided it was worth passing up a chance to see The Crow on the big screen in order to watch Under the Moonbow.

The movie’s about Reiga Saezima (Masei Nakayama), one of an order of warriors, the Makai Knights, who protect humanity from monsters called Horrors. Superhumanly powerful, he becomes even stronger when wearing his suit of special golden armour — which is unfortunately corrupted by evil not long after the movie opens. Saezima has to purify it, but also must save his true love (Natsumi Ishibashi), who has been abducted by Horrors. Yet as he fights his way through a bizarre train, even more plots boil away, leading ultimately to a fantastic battle involving secrets of his lineage.

The first thing to say is that the film’s easily understood without any prior knowledge of the franchise. I suspect that the climax will have more weight for people familiar with the world and with certain characters who appear there, but everything’s set up well enough in the film itself. Exposition’s delivered cleanly, and does not overbalance the plot. The complexities of the world are dramatised well, and if in an absolute sense evil still remains to be fought, at least the main antagonist of this particular story is dealt with.

Beyond that, the plot’s nicely-worked. The tale keeps expanding as the film goes on, sprouting subplots. A range of characters get moments of their own in which to shine; everyone does something important in bringing matters to a happy ending. Rules of this fantasy are established, and followed logically in ways that bring out unexpected wrinkles. Importantly, new ideas and images are always emerging,

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Fantasia 2019, Day 20, Part 1: Jessica Forever

Saturday, September 21st, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Jessica ForeverMy first movie on July 30 was the first feature by two French directors of independent short films, Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel. Jessica Forever, which the duo wrote as well as directed, is set in a near future in which disaffected and violent youth, mostly male, roam empty suburbs. The law hunts them down with killer drones, and the movie opens with a cloud of drones after one man, Kevin (Eddy Suiveng), who has squatted in an empty house. He’s saved from the law by a mysterious woman named Jessica (Aomi Muyock) and her squad of young men, who welcome Kevin into the fold.

Various bonding scenes follow, but the emotions of the group are odd: muted, to the extent they exist at all. The young men, each in their late teens or twenties, sleep in one room. All worship Jessica. Kevin makes a smooth transition to becoming one of them, training with them in the use of weapons and force. Then another flock of drones approaches, and there’s a surprising death, and the survivors have to flee. They end up on an island, where history risks repeating itself: some members of the group get too close to the locals. Will they find new allies? Or pull the attention of the authorities down on their heads?

The first thing to say about the movie is that it looks lovely. Images are nicely composed, the camera mostly still (it struck me at one point that it seemed to move more when Jessica was in frame, but I wouldn’t swear to that). There’s a kind of sterile perfection in the images of rich estates and partly-green suburbs, emphasised by the lack of people — we see cars and trucks in the distance, see a mall with passersby in it, meet a community on the island where Jessica’s group ends up, but mostly the world is empty of outsiders, of passersby or neighbours. There is a solitude here; a silence and a stillness.

Along with that there’s an affectlessness to both the characters and actors. There’s a blankness to them that’s maybe less an absence of emotion than an absence of a certain kind of social convention. You don’t know how to read them. This all fits perfectly well with the film’s set-up: these are young men gone wild, grown up outside of family or community, learning how to interact with each other. Their only guide, their teacher and parent, is Jessica. Who she is, and why she is gathering these men, is not explained; this is not the sort of film that explains these things. The important thing is that her relationship to her followers comes through, and for the most part it does.

I would go so far as to say that one of the most intriguing aspects of the film is the way it depicts its characters. These youths are convincingly violent, and many of them have done terrible things. But they don’t act the way this sort of character acts in virtually every other movie set in the contemporary world. These aren’t tough-guy hard men trying to assert dominance by busting each others’ balls. They’re quiet, if not reflective, and give each other space and respect. There’s a kind of alternative masculinity to these men, strong and capable of violence but not brutal.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 19, Part 4: Son of the White Mare

Friday, September 20th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Son of the White MareThe last of the four movies I had on my schedule for July 29 promised to be interesting on any number of levels. Son of the White Mare (Fehérlófia) is an animated film made in 1981 by Hungarian Marcell Jankovics, directed by him from a script he wrote with László György. It’s based on the work of poet László Arany and folktales of the Magyars and Avars; Jankovics, who has published 15 books on comparative mythology, picked and chose from among the various versions of the tale to create what he wanted — a weird, protean, eye-popping, archetypal light show.

The version presented at Fantasia was a new 4K restoration of the movie. Hundreds of hours went into cleaning and colour-grading the film, with the participation of Jankovics. When the movie originally came out it was not a box-office success, but it has since gained a high (and thoroughly deserved) reputation among animation fans; the restoration’s an important project, and the results are beautiful, doing the colours justice.

The story itself is a fairy-tale: a king and queen are deposed, and the queen in the shape of a white horse gives birth to a boy who grows into a hero by drinking her milk. He sets out to find his brothers and destroy the dragons who overthrew his father’s rule. This entails a long journey into a mysterious underworld, where he must rescue captive princesses, slay the dragons, and return.

Beyond the subject matter, the structure’s a fairy-tale as well. It’s generally cyclical, beginning with a child in a deep dark forest and ending with the restoration of the idyllic state of things before the saga began. The rule of threes is everywhere: three brothers, three princesses, three dragons. It begins with “Once upon a time” and ends with “they lived happily ever after.”

But then the way it’s made is something else again. The animation’s expressionistic, mostly in primary colours without black contour lines, shapes frequently neon-bright and often against dark backgrounds, sometimes strobing from one hue to another. The designs are almost Blakean, mixed with elements of art-nouveau.

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Goth Chick News: Universal and Amblin Drop a JW3 Sneak Peek

Thursday, September 19th, 2019 | Posted by Sue Granquist

Jurassic-World-3-Battle-At-Big-Rock-Connection

There have been five movies in the Jurassic Park franchise since the original first blew our minds on the big screen in 1993. With a sixth installment due in the summer of 2021, it’s fair to ask what more can be done with this storyline?  I mean, five movies in, we’re very clear that when dinos and human intermingle, things are never, ever going to end well. Also, even the most money-hungry corporate entity (INGEN in this case) couldn’t possibly survive the continual carnage wrought by playing God. As Dr. Ian Malcolm said, “Ooo, ahhh, that’s how it always starts, but then later there’s running, and screaming.”

Which pretty much sums up the last four Jurassic movies.

So where do we go from here plot-wise, without causing audiences to pull a muscle doing a collective eye roll? As it turns out, there still might be one last trick in the JP bag.

This week, Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment released an official short film giving us a view into what we can look forward to in Jurassic World 3. The 8-minute short, entitled Battle at Big Rock, occurs a year after dinosaurs escaped into the wilds of California at the end of JW2: Fallen Kingdom. We see a campground in Big Rock National Park where a family is enjoying grilling chicken wings with other campers. The dad tells the daughter to take the food inside the camper before it attracts bears and…

Well check it out for yourself.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 19, Part 3: “A Japanese Boy Who Draws” and Yutaka Yamamoto’s Twilight

Thursday, September 19th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

TwilightMy third screening on July 29 was a double-feature at the De Sève Cinema of two animated movies, a long short and a short feature. “A Japanese Boy Who Draws” (ある日本の絵描き少年) is 20 minutes long. Twilight, which I immediately came to think of as (Not That) Twilight (and in fact some places online translate the title 薄暮, Hakubo, as Project Twilight), is 53 minutes long. They’re both slice-of-life films about young people in Japan making art, but are otherwise very different narratively and visually. Which is to say they have enough in common and enough contrast to make a fine double bill.

Written and directed by Masanao Kawajiri, “A Japanese Boy Who Draws” can actually be said to deal with two Japanese boys who draw: Shinji, an aspiring manga artist, and his friend Masaru, a mentally challenged boy who wears a luchador mask everywhere. They meet at the age of 10, and we follow Shinji as he narrates his career trying to break into manga. He breaks from Masaru, who does not grow up as Shinji does. But Shinji’s life doesn’t go as smoothly as he hoped. He gets into manga, he gets better at his craft, but nevertheless his career stalls out. He returns to his home town, and, as one might expect, reconnects with Masaru in a surprising way.

Put like that, the film sounds standard; it isn’t. It looks distinctive, to start with. Different art styles reflect Shinji’s different ages, different levels of drawing ability, and perhaps different relationships to art at different times. Childlike drawings give way to manga pages give way to greyscale live-action photography. The film’s particularly strong technically in the way it uses comics pages to tell its story; panels are a tricky thing to make work in motion pictures, but it comes off brilliantly here.

At the same time, this isn’t just a technical exercise. There’s some powerful emotional material in the movie. Shinji’s lack of progress in his career is powerful because it feels almost subversive: he works hard, he lives for his art, and he gets nowhere not just in business but as an artist. If there is a problem with the film, incidentally, it is that it may be difficult for an audience to assess how good an artist Shinji is or is not. I found myself surprised at the way other characters uniformly dismissed his work when the art on screen seemed perfectly fine. In any event, Shinji doesn’t have the creativity needed to make a great manga, it seems, which is fair enough.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 19, Part 2: Depraved

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

DepravedOne of the things that most fascinates me about film is the way Frankenstein is at least as important in that medium as it is in prose. Obviously this importance is most visible in genre film, but it’s there one way or another in the mainstream too — consider Gods and Monsters. From at least 1910, when the story was adapted into a then-epic ten-minute movie, through the tremendously important 1931 Boris Karloff version, it’s a story that’s haunted cinema. One way or another the tale or the monster comes up regularly at Fantasia, whether in Guillermo del Toro talking about the monster as a religious figure, or a film using a 1977 version of the story as a metafictional conceit. So this year, in addition to a screening of the notorious 1971 Dracula vs. Frankenstein, there was Depraved: a straight-faced modern-day retelling of the Frankenstein story.

It opens with a man (Owen Campbell) and his girlfriend Lucy (Chloë Levine). They have a minor domestic disagreement; he leaves; is murdered; and then wakes up. He’s lost his memory, and is horribly scarred (and is now played by Alex Breaux). He was re-animated by a scientist named Henry (David Call), who names the reborn entity Adam. Henry has a friend named Polidori (Joshua Leonard, who began his film acting career way back with The Blair Witch Project), who’s responsible for acquiring funding for Henry’s one-man revivification project. That’s turning out to be tricky, though, and Polidori wants to take Adam public. As he argues with Henry about this, they along with Henry’s girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne) educate Adam about human life and history. But will Adam be able to control his instincts? How will it all end?

In tragedy, of course, as it began. The film was written and directed by Larry Fessenden, and it’s an interesting straightforward science-fictional take on Shelley’s Frankenstein. Fessenden’s a veteran filmmaker (and actor, who appeared among other places in In A Valley of Violence) who has spoken about being influenced by the Universal horror films. His second movie, 1982’s Habit, was a vampire film; his first major feature with a full crew, 1991’s No Telling, was subtitled The Frankenstein Complex. This movie’s a more direct take on the story.

In some ways, though, it’s still very subversive. The fevered gothic atmosphere of the original, with its point-of-view anchored by Victor Frankenstein’s subjectivity, is gone. This is Frankenstein from the creature’s perspective, a rendering in which Adam’s humanity is key. Thus we do not have the frenzied moment of creation, no cry of “It’s alive!” There is a level, in fact, in which this movie undermines Frankenstein’s claim to create anything. Fessenden underlines the fact that Adam, or the raw material of his brain, had a life before Frankenstein ever got his hands on him.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 19, Part 1: Full Contact

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Full ContactThere’s still so much I don’t know about film, so many great movies I haven’t seen. Thankfully, every year Fantasia screens restorations and special presentations of a number of established classics (and semi-classics). I usually don’t have free time in my schedule to watch films I’ve already seen — I had to pass on First Blood to watch Why Don’t You Just Die!, while a presentation of The Crow later in the festival was up against something else — but early on July 29 I had an open spot to take in a film I’d never seen before: a 35mm screening of the 1992 classic by Ringo Lam (Lam Ling-tung) Full Contact. Lam passed away late last year at only 63, and so Fantasia honoured him with a presentation of one of his greatest works.

Written by Yin Nam, the movie’s about Jeff (Gou Fei in some translations, Ko Fei in others, played in any case by Chow Yun-Fat), a tough bouncer in Bangkok whose friend Sam Sei (Anthony Wong) went into debt to a loan shark to pay for Jeff’s mother’s burial. To pay off the debt, they decide to embark on a heist alongside Sam’s cousin Judge (Simon Yam). Judge has other plans. He betrays Jeff, and leaves him for dead. But Jeff survives, and as Sam rises in the underworld, Jeff returns seeking revenge.

And revenge he shall have. Full Contact is one of the late apotheoses of the 80s action movie, filled with snarling attitude and brutal gunfights. There’s a heft to the violence, a weight that comes only in part from the lack of CGI. Mostly it comes from acting and directing and writing. You feel anything can happen to any character at any time. Or at least anything imaginable in 1992; the film’s solidly of its time, to the point of opening with a dance sequence set to Extreme’s “Get the Funk Out.” Which, somehow, impossibly, works.

The movie moves well, building to set-pieces that send the plot off in unpredictable directions. The heist, for example, is the kind of action sequence other movies might make their grand climax. Here it’s more like the end of a long first act, twisting the story to set up the rest of the film. But the point is that it has its own logic and its own structure, with a car chase and a running gun fight and then a siege of a man pinned down inside a house. All of it’s clear, all of it fun to watch, and yet also oddly realistic; the gang’s small, and the violence is on a matching scale.

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