Fantasia 2019, Day 18, Part 2: The Moon in the Hidden Woods

Monday, September 16th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Moon in the Hidden WoodsMy second film of July 28 screened at the De Sève Cinema. It was an animated film from Korea with a Japanese director, Takahiro Umehara, and it was stunning. Watching early scenes of The Moon in the Hidden Woods (Sup-e Sum-eun Dal, 숲에 숨은 달) I wondered where the movie could go from its opening act — it had already shown us a major city, fights, desert nomads, monsters, a wild variety of costumes and architecture and technologies and designs. Surely, I thought, it would have to slow down. It did; and then built back up again.

Long ago, in another world, the moon disappeared and its place was usurped by Muju, the red sky. The world’s been wasting away ever since, but as the film proper opens there is another usurpation, as the ambitious Count Tar claims a throne and the rightful Princess, Navillera, flees rather than be forced to marry him (voice talent for the film includes Lee Jihyon, Jung Yoojung, and Kim Yul, but I cannot find a cast list attaching actors to roles). In the metropolis of Trade City she comes across a drumming contest, and falls in with one of the rival groups, which is led by a youth named Janggu (the word, incidentally, for a specific kind of Korean drum). Helped by Janggu’s allies they flee through a wasteland where terrible Shadows come out under the red sky, and end up at the drummers’ village — where they find a clue that hints at the salvation of the world, to be found deep within the mysterious Hidden Woods.

The movie’s not just constantly visually creative, but a fascinating mix of sensibilities. There’s a post-apocalyptic feel here, as this world has been rebuilt in the shadow of a great tragedy, but there is also steampunk in its technology. And a traditional mythic fantasy feel in the way the social structure’s set up (the casual acceptance of monarchy, for example) and in the use of elements like music and community ritual. Above all the worldbuilding is incredibly rich in the way different places are not just designed differently but also mix different visual elements. Cities feel like cities, with a variety of fashions and cultures.

Character design is relatively realistic, but with a cartooniness that plays well in comic moments. Still, this is far from the anime approach of simply-drawn characters against a hyper-realistic background. The film’s all of a piece, and there’s an almost relaxing reliance on traditional 2D drawn imagery over 3D CGI. There is some well-used computer imagery, but the look of the movie’s traditional. It is in fact a thoroughly well-done children’s or YA film, something that plays well for adults but (I would think) particularly speaks to a younger audience. Navillera and Janggu are our leads, the people about whom the tale revolves. The other characters are well-drawn, but relatively uncomplicated. There is a slight implication of some of the adult characters having a relationship that might play differently to older viewers, in terms of their emotional tone, but that’s left understated.

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Growing up with Rollerball

Monday, September 16th, 2019 | Posted by Neil Baker

Rollarball poster-small

I’ve watched Rollerball (1975) at least a couple of times every decade since I first saw it on VHS in 1988. Before then, I had caught sporadic bursts of ultra-violence set to the contrasting strains of Toccata in D Minor and Adagio whenever the film was shown late at night on TV, and when my mum was unaware I was watching it.

It’s a great example of growing up with a film. We all have films that resonate with us on a personal level; films that we saw as impressionable teens and then revisited as allegedly wiser adults. With Rollerball, when I was younger it was all about skipping through the ‘boring corporate’ stuff and watching the games; reveling in the bone-crunching impacts, the frenetic energy and realism of the sport’s depiction.

In later years, as I grew out of my empathy-less youth, the party scenes laden with hollow bacchanalia and culminating in the tree burning scenes, and Moonpie’s inevitable yet devastating fate affected me deeply.  Now, older, battle-scarred and tainted by the cynicism of modern living, it’s the corporate stranglehold on life that interests me, that and the knowing glances between every character in the film who seem to be working together to make Jonathan E fail.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 18, Part 1: Gintama 2: Rules Are Made to Be Broken

Sunday, September 15th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Gintama 2My first movie on July 28 was one of my most-anticipated of the festival. In 2017 I watched Gintama, a live-action manga adaptation I thought was one of the funniest things I’d ever laid eyes on, and which also told a good solid science-fictional action-adventure story. Naturally when I saw Gintama 2 was playing at Fantasia I was eager to see it. It is unfortunate that sometimes great expectations result in great disappointment.

The story of Gintama 2, which is titled in full Gintama 2: Rules are Made to be Broken (Gintama 2: Okite wa Yaburu Tame ni Koso Aru, 銀魂2 掟は破るためにこそある) follows the first directly enough. In an alternate reality where extraterrestrials conquered Japan in the nineteenth century, a new society’s sprung up that’s a weird mix of period technology, super-science, Japanese cultural traditions, and aliens. Samurai were discharged from their traditional role, launched a rebellion, and were defeated. One former samurai, Gintoki Sakata (Shun Oguri, Terra Formars), has formed an odd-jobs company with young Shinpachi Shimura (Masaki Suda, Wilderness, Assassination Classroom, Princess Jellyfish) and superstrong teen alien girl Kagura (Kanna Hashimoto, Kingdom, Assassination Classroom). This time out, they become involved with a plot against the shogun, and a scheme that divides their country’s police force, the Shinsengumi.

The main actors from the first movie reprise their roles. Director Yuichi Fukuda returns as well. But the feel of this movie is very different. There’s less comedy, and less focus on the main characters. I have no idea how much this reflects the source material. But I found I was disappointed.

To be clear, this is recognisably a sequel to Gintama. It has a similar look, with outrageously-costumed leads wandering a Japan blending past and future. And there is still a lot of humour, in a similar vein to the original. There are more gross-out gags than in the first film, but not so much as to represent a really different approach. Early on, in particular, we see some of the same kind of metafictional jokes that marked the previous movie.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t last. Instead Gintama 2 turns out to be more interested in the internal strife within the Shinsengumi, to the point that the ostensible leads are largely sidelined. While the film does find some humour in the Shinsengumi storyline, for the most part it’s much more restrained. We get a scheming manipulative villain we’re apparently meant to take seriously, and the riotous pace of the first movie never kicks in.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 17, Part 5: Les Particules

Saturday, September 14th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Les ParticulesFor my last movie of July 27 I crossed the street to the De Sève Cinema to take in the French-Swiss co-production Les Particules (The Particles). It’s the first fiction feature by director Blaise Harrison, who co-wrote the script with Mariette Désert. After a day of particularly frenetic movies, this was good way to end the evening; a subtler, atmospheric, intelligent, and character-based film that thoroughly succeeded at what it was trying to do.

The movie follows Pierre-André, or P.A. (Thomas Daloz), an inarticulate older teen in a small town on the Franco-Swiss border. He’s in a band, kind of, or at least has a group of friends; we see them at school, and buying drugs, and taking drugs, and wandering around. We see a romance between P.A. and a chronically ill girl named Roshine (Néa Lüders), and watch their relationship develop. It’s all good slice-of-life storytelling.

Except we also follow P.A. on a school trip into the Large Hadron Collider hundreds of feet below their village. And we come to suspect the installation might be linked to the strange things that happen over the course of the movie, slowly at first, then as the film goes on a little faster and a little more obvious. Reality changes. Things, and characters, disappear. Are the quantum-level forces of the LHC causing the world to change? Or does this have to do with mental illness? Or both?

This is a stunning movie, in its sound and images, but also in the way it brings out the sense of lived experience and everyday life. And then again in the way that everyday life fits into a symbolic pattern, exploring many meanings of ‘particles’ in human existence and in the larger world. So the first shot is a view from above of the countryside as P.A. takes the bus to school: lights of houses, here and there, against the darkness of the night, glowing particles in blackness. And so, later, Christmas tree lights are something similar. So also is snow, as winter and the school year wind on.

But the crucial point, I think, is that the youths we see in the film are particles themselves, fitting into the school system, fitting (or not fitting) into society, bouncing off each other in unexpected collisions. P.A.’s relationship with Roshine is symbolically matter and anti-matter meeting. The hard physics of the LHC provide the underpinning for a metaphor that gives the material of the film some unity.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 17, Part 4: Why Don’t You Just Die!

Friday, September 13th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Why Don't You Just Die!My fourth film of July 27 was once again in the Hall Theatre. It was a Russian film about which I had heard very good things, with one web site calling it among the best action movies of the year so far. You may have heard of Chekhov’s gun; well, Why Don’t You Just Die! (Papa, Sdokhni) gives us Chekhov’s gun, along with Chekhov’s other gun, Chekhov’s claw hammer, Chekhov’s power drill, Chekhov’s CRT TV, and any number of Chekhov’s other odds and ends.

Written and directed by Kirill Sokolov, the film opens with a young man before the door of an apartment, nervously contemplating the doorbell, a claw hammer clutched behind his back. His name is Matvey (Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Marten in The Scythian), and he has come to visit Andrey Gennadievitch (Vitaliy Khaev), the father of Matvey’s girlfriend Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde). Matvey’s got a score to settle with Andrey, or thinks he does. There’s more going on than he knows, though, and after the opening tension explodes into violence things settle down only to open up as more and more characters get drawn into the confrontation.

The film unfolds largely within Andrey’s apartment, with flashbacks now and again showing us background that shapes what goes on. New wrinkles are constantly added, new aspects of character demonstrated. The plot takes on new shapes at unexpected moments. Violence is a leitmotif; beautiful, horrific, entertaining violence.

There is a lot of blood and blood-splatter in this film; there is torture and the threat of torture. It’s all presented with a cartoony verve, but this is not violence for the sake of violence, or violence for the sake of comedy. The movie is in fact very violent and very funny, but uses violence for the sake of story, creating a tension and a tone and, in the end, getting a certain point across. It will not be to all tastes. It very much was to mine.

There’s a temptation to talk about Quentin Tarantino when faced with a violent but clever small-scale crime film. The sense of corruption is probably most like Tarantino; more than brutal men doing brutal things, there is here the feel of a tough world in which everybody’s out for their own interests. But then the characters also, most of them, have redeeming features, too. Goons are also friends. Sometimes. As a result Why Don’t You Just Die! feels more like an early Guy Ritchie film — the Guy Ritchie of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, not the Ritchie of the Sherlock Holmes films. The film’s pacing in particular is like those movies, and how flashbacks are cut in after a bizarre or unexpected plot twist as a way of explaining the twist. But also how people do bad things for good reasons, or what they think are good reasons.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 17, Part 3: Kingdom

Thursday, September 12th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

KingdomMy third movie of July 27 was a live-action manga adaptation by the dauntless and prolific Shinsuke Sato. Having been thrilled by his previous work in past years (I Am A Hero, Bleach, Inuyashiki, Death Note: Light Up the New World, and Library Wars), I was eager to see something new from him. This year’s offering was Kingdom (Kingudamu, キングダム), which Sato scripted along with Tsutomu Kuroiwa, adapting the manga of the same name by Yasuhisa Hara. As of August, there were 55 volumes of the manga, which had already been adapted into a 77-episode anime. I am not familiar with the source material beyond those statistics, but they suggest that Kuroiwa and Sato had their work cut out for them fitting the story into a two-and-a-quarter-hour movie.

The setting is ancient China, where war swirls among feuding kingdoms. Two orphans are taken as slaves by a wealthy merchant. They grow up dreaming of a better life, and practicing swordplay on their own in the forest near their master’s home. One, Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa, Gintama), is bought by a government minister. Piao’s blood-brother, hothead Xin (Kento Yamazaki, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure), is therefore surprised some time later when a dying Piao returns with a mission for him — and the soldiers who gave Piao his mortal wound hard on his heels. Xin’s launched on a quest that leads him to the young king Ying Zheng, now deposed by a palace coup. The minister who bought Piao had used him as the king’s double, which saved Ying’s life. Now the ambitious Xin wants to keep him alive, and make his own way to a great destiny.

This is a well-told story. It builds nicely, through varied set-pieces that come at key structural points, are executed with flair, and move the story forward. It’s always colourful and fun to look at, though unsurprisingly the costumes show the manga roots of the film: major characters stand out through their eye-catching gear, to the point that we know a general we see at only a couple of points is obviously going to play a major role in the climax. But this fits into the overall tone of the movie, both narratively and visually. The choreography is strikingly effective, which is important, and the humour works, mostly coming in the form of Xin’s aggressive attitude toward just about everything.

If you look carefully, you might notice the film’s not actually as lavish as it seems. There aren’t any major urban scenes, for example. But there’s enough variety generally that you don’t notice any lack. Xin and company explore a lot of different places, and the story feels full to bursting. The sense of a vast kingdom containing a range of people and cultures and landscapes comes across, and that means more is not needed.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 17, Part 2: The Relative Worlds

Wednesday, September 11th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Relative WorldsFor my second film of July 27 I stuck around the Hall Theatre for another animated feature, this time from Japan. Preceding it was a 13-minute animated short from Canada.

“Alexis Inside” was directed by Montrealer Brandon Blommaert. Alexis is one of a group of friends who play a VR video game. When one of the friends goes missing, the vampire-like force that afflicted her is passed on to Alexis, who shuts herself away from the world. Can her remaining friend save her? The short’s open to interpretation, and has a stylish look based on old-style computer graphics given modern details and animation. I read it as being about depression, and see an ambiguity in the title having to do with the insides of Alexis, as opposed to Alexis choosing to lock herself away from the world. The film’s an interesting, disconcerting piece, somewhat alienating due to its look but ultimately emotionally engaging.

The feature I’d come to see was The Relative Worlds (Sotai Sekai, ソウタイセカイ). Written and directed by Yuhei Sakuragi, it’s adapted from a series Sakuragi did for Hulu Japan. Shin (Yuki Kaji) is a Japanese teenager whose mother died a sudden inexplicable death when he was a child, part of an ongoing wave of inexplicable deaths across Japan. His date with Kotori (Maaya Uchida) is interrupted by the death of his father, which we in the audience see is connected with something far stranger. It turns out that Japan is linked to another reality, where history took a very different turn. Everyone in Shin’s reality — or at least Shin’s Japan — has a doppelganger there, and when somebody in one reality dies so does their doppelganger in the other. Shin’s double, Jin, has crossed over to this reality to kill Kotori, because in Jin’s reality Kotori’s double is the despotic Princess Kotoko, who rules the dystopia of that world and also has dark schemes for this one.

This is not a bad plot, and the deaths of Shin’s parents are unsurprisingly tied in with the core plot of the conflict of the two worlds. There’s a solid emotional background, in other words. The problem is the rest of the story. It’s uninvolving, playing out on a small scale. This does change in the last third or so of the film, as the other world deploys the full strength of its forces, and organisations in this world get involved. But the build’s erratic, too slow for too long.

What I think the movie is trying to do is keep the story focussed on the teen protagonists, Shin and Jin and Kotori, and that’s not a bad idea. But there’s an asymmetry. The bad guys from the otherworld are too powerful to stop. You understand why Jin planned to kill Kotori, and the movie doesn’t really come up with a better alternative. Nor does it effectively explore the morality of killing an innocent for the greater good, partly because the science fiction aspect of the story is so outlandish, and partly because the greater good is abstract. The movie doesn’t really dramatise either world; doesn’t make us believe in a society of individuals in either reality.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 17, Part 1: White Snake

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

White SnakeSaturday, July 27, was going to be a long day for me at Fantasia. Hopefully a good one, too. I had five movies on my schedule, starting at noon with the animated Chinese fantasy-adventure White Snake (白蛇:缘起, 白蛇:緣起).

Directed by Amp Wong and Ji Zhao from a script by Da Mao, it’s a prequel to the Chinese legend of the White Snake, one of China’s Four Great Folktales. That story was first written down in the Ming Dynasty but originated in the Song Dynasty; the film’s set hundreds of years before that, in the Tang Dynasty. As the movie opens, snakes are being hunted to make immortality drugs for an evil general. A snake demon, Blanca (Zhe Zhang), tries to assassinate him and fails. She escapes, and wakes as an amnesiac in a village of snake-hunters. She’s cared for by a scholar-hunter named Xu Xuan (Tianxiang Yang). They try to uncover Blanca’s past, and in the process struggle with various supernatural forces, the machinations of the wicked general, and the plans of Blanca’s own family.

This a lovely film, colourful and action-packed with fluid 3D animation. It builds a spectacular fantasy world of misty mountains and wide rivers and thick forests and ancient ruins. Then it fills that world with spirits and demons and magic. And engaging heroes. The characters are well-designed and cartoony in a good sense; they move a little like marionettes in the hands of a master puppeteer, not stiffly so much as stylised. To me there’s a slightly classic feel as a result, though I can see other opinions varying.

Importantly, action scenes aren’t stiff in the slightest. This is a film that takes full advantage of animation’s capacities, using its medium to tell a magical story brimming with metamorphoses and impossible motion. Battles are large-scale events defined by supernatural tranformations. Even quick editing rhythms in those set-pieces don’t obscure the story, and still give us time to feel the impact of magic at work.

Which I think is important, as this is to me a literally wonderful film: that is, filled with wonder. It evokes that wonder by having a strong story with solid characters moving through a world of magic, but then also by presenting magic and monsters in a way that emphasises what is astonishing about them. It’s a fantasy story that knows how to present fantasy, which can be trickier than it sounds; it’s not just having characters stand around in shock at what they see. It’s that they, and we, keep seeing new things. The world expands, at just the right rate of change.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 16, Part 2: Human Lost

Monday, September 9th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Human LostMy second film of July 26 was in the big Hall theatre, a science-fiction anime called Human Lost (人間失格). Directed by Fuminori Kizaki, it was scripted by Tou Ubukata based on a novel by Osamu Dazai. The movie’s set in 2036, when advanced nanotechnology has given human beings a lifespan of 120 years but turned Japan into a deeply unequal society, with the wealthy sequestered inside a vast citadel called “the Inside.” Some people, for unclear reasons, metamorphose into monsters: the ‘Human Lost’ phenomenon. A troubled young artist, Yozo Oba (Mamoru Miyano), gets involved with his cyborg friend Takeichi (Jun Fukuyama) when he attempts to break into the Inside, and sets off a complex series of events which bring to light the truth about the Human Lost problem and the future of 2036 — but which also might drive Yozo over the edge of sanity.

Osamu Dazai was one of the most celebrated Japanese writers of the first half of the twentieth century; he died in 1948. I have not read his novel No Longer Human (which has the same name in Japanese as Human Lost), but Wikipedia tells me it is considered his masterpiece. Wikipedia also tells me that an alternate and perhaps more faithful translation of the title is “Disqualified From Being Human,” which is closer to the film title. I mention this because a glance at the plot outline suggests the film is otherwise pretty far from its source. More explosions, to start with.

The film takes the idea of a troubled, self-destructive young painter at odds with a stifling society in some counterintuitive directions. Let me put it this way: I had no idea while watching this film that I was watching an adaptation of a twentieth-century novel about alienation and anomie. I can see some connections, even with only the most cursory knowledge of the book. For example, the biotech that keeps people alive forces them to stay alive; suicide is effectively impossible, which is an interesting twist on certain things from the original story. The future society is something of a straitjacket more generally. Some characters have the same names and characteristics as those in the novel. The story’s divided into “notebooks,” which is a structural choice taken from the book.

There’s certainly a kind of ambition at work here. There’s an unusual feel for a violent cyberpunkish dystopia, a strange pacing that puts an emphasis on Yozo rather than on bigger and wilder battle scenes — for better or worse. The problem is, the movie never really manages to find a connection to something recognisable as real life. The action and futuristic plot points are what draw interest, and Yozo’s not charismatic or interesting enough to be intriguing on his own without reference to the larger plot.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 16, Part 1: Night God

Sunday, September 8th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Night GodMy first film on Friday, July 26, was a Kazakh work playing at the de Sève Cinema. Written and directed by Adilkhan Yerzhanov, Night God is a particular sort of uncompromising. It’s a beautiful picture, but extremely slow, still, and self-consciously meditative. I was deeply moved, for all its studied avoidance of simple dramatic action.

A man (Bajmurat Zhumanov), his wife, and his daughter (Aliya Yerzhanova) arrive in an unnamed town, a post-industrial city ruled by a cadre of state officers. It’s dark and cold, with comets in the sky, and the people live in fear of the coming of the Night God who will destroy the world. The man’s ordered to report to the local TV station to act as an extra, in exchange for which he’ll be given a house; this sets off a chain of serio-comic misadventures that must be called ‘kafkaesque’ if that word is to have any meaning.

A fake bomb’s strapped to his torso as part of a game show. But the bomb turns out to be real. He asks to have it removed. But before that he has to get an imam to sign a document attesting that he isn’t a radical. Thematically, then, there is a faith present in the film implicitly opposing the belief in the Night God; but all along the way the movie’s speaking of the struggle to believe in anything in a world that is feral and, to all appearances, meaningless.

The first thing one notices about the film is its intense visual beauty. It’s a mix of beautiful shadows and beautiful light. Taking place in an endless night, illumination is nevertheless powerful, bringing out colours and detail. We see every crack in every wall, every mote of dust; and this city is filled with cracks and dust. Although apparently shot entirely in studio, the town feels like a real place, looks like a real city coping with decayed industries and a collapse of central government. There are no screens or phones, and it feels right that a television station, the old technology of an earlier age, is central to the story.

That sheer sensory power is important, because the movie’s based mostly on very long takes with no or minimal camera moves. That is, the camera moves enough to give a very subtle sense of personality to the scene; not a sense of threat, as can happen with long tracking shots, but a kind of curious meditative feel, as though the camera is shifting ever-so-slowly to get a better idea of what’s happening. The soundtrack’s minimal, mostly a soundscape of whistling winds and water dripping from some unseen broken pipe. We’re stuck staring at what the movie insists on, and fortunately that is often beautiful in the way that inorganic decay and abandoned things can be beautiful. It has been said that the film has a painterly visual sensibility, and this is true. A statue, a clock without hands, a grated floor with light rising through it, come to feel like powerful statements hinting at a symbolism more profound than can be easily stated.

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