Fantasia 2019, edition 23: A Report From the Trenches
For most people, summer spells the outdoors, the sun, the beach, but for a special breed of Montrealer, July is blocked off for one specific activity; the willful ingestion of unfathomable doses of pure, gooey genre cinema. I’m of course speaking of our beloved tradition, now entering its 24th year, the Fantasia Film Festival. For another year, festivalgoers could shelter from another blistering summer and commune together at the (climatized) church of weird, bloody, fantastic cinema. If this edition turned out not to be a banner year, perhaps due to the rarity or disappointment of works from big names, it nonetheless proved to contain its fair share of hidden gems, surprising curios and moving discoveries.
Programmer Ariel Esteban Cayer with director of Maggie, Yi Okiseop
Let’s start with some highlights. Women filmmakers, especially Korean ones, proved to be the winning ticket this year with the one-two punch of Maggie (Yi Ok-seop) and House of Hummingbird (Kim Bora), the audience dividing teenage boy anthem Jessica Forever (Caroline Poggi, Jonathan Vinel) and the interesting if uneven Knives and Skin (Jennifer Reeder). Maggie is a film that, like its muted protagonist, surprises in subtle but profound ways, building out an incisive and profound portrait of a generation and its women, through narrative digressions and a gentle tone that oscillates between the comic and the serious without ever falling into the trap of the twee. From its inciting incident of an hospital that is mysteriously emptied of its personnel following the discovery of X-rays of a couple mid-coitus, to its detour into the life of the protagonist’s boyfriend and his work filling mysterious sinkholes to the advertising work of a chipper doctor, Maggie marshals its disparate stories (the effect is never self-consciously structural, more like a series of low-key likeable stories) around the idea of trust, building to a finale that for all the sweet gentleness of the preceding 90 minutes, packs a potent punch.
Another debut, House of Hummingbird also seeks to paint a portrait of a generation, of a society, this time the Korea of the nineties dealing with a new democracy and its first recession following the economic miracle of the eighties as filtered through the eyes of a shy but quietly determined teenage girl. House, the arthouse hit of the festival having already amassed a few prizes elsewhere, has more in common stylistically with the films of the Taiwanese New Wave in its gentle intermingling of the personal and the historical, recalling the work of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien in its precise framing and natural lighting, than with the work of her Korean forebear (the soju is kept to a minimum). Kim demonstrates a keen eye for composition, placing her characters in spaces that emphasize their socio-economic status as well as their relationship to each other, all the while never letting them lapse into mere symbols or placeholders for a larger argument.
One of the more controversial films of the festival, eliciting strong reactions on both sides, was Jessica Forever, a strange assemblage of influences; the materialism of Straub-Huillet, the sci-fi self-seriousness of Hideo Kojima, the martial corporeality of Beau Travail, to conjure an ultimately touching ode to misfit boys. The film is clumsy, maladroit (by design), it’s something like an awkward hug you would give to the weird kid who obsessively draws guns in his math notebook, a kind of uncomfortable “I see you” for a generation of boys raised on video games and energy drinks. Poggi and Vinel are of course well aware of what they are doing, but it still doesn’t rob the film of its strange, clumsy aura. Some will (some have) hate it, but for this viewer, the film’s awkward beating heart was enough.
Knives and Skin is also a film with a lot of heart, something of a Twin Peaks for the tumblr generation. The film, the story of a lost girl and the reverberation she sends through a small community, succeeds with its cast of varied characters, building out a strong ensemble filled with subplots that’s a far cry from the empty boring suburbs we are more accustomed to see. However, the film fails to reunite them in any meaningful way, settling for a few interesting moments linked by neon tinted digital cinematography that too often belies the film’s low budget. An admirable effort but one is left wondering what is missing.
Finally I would be remiss not to mention 21st Century Girl, an omnibus by 11 female Japanese filmmakers on the theme of women and gender. As always with omnibus films, it’s a mixed-bag with a few interesting films and a lot of filler. This one is no exception.
This edition was also something of a banner year for the animation section with a healthy mix of features and shorts program to satiate any 2D fan. First to catch my eye was a new film from anime master Masaaki Yuasa, who after concentrating on TV since the masterpiece Mind Game has returned with three films in two years. This year he revisits to the aquatic theme of Lu Over the Wall with Ride Your Wave a bubbly exploration of grief set in the milieu of surfers and firefighters. The film toys with being too cloying, a particular song that gets repeated dozens of time can get annoying, but as always with Yuasa, big emotions win out and explode in a stunning climax that embodies all the qualities of Yuasa’s cinema with its gorgeous animation and kinetic majesty. Yuasa remains one of the more interesting visual artists of anime, bending bodies, spaces and colours into kaleidoscopic marvels, and this new film is no exception.
Another anime director riding in with high expectations, Keiichi Hara (Colourful, Miss Hokusai), somewhat falters with The Wonderland, a too by-the-numbers girl in a magical land tale that fails to make a mark compared to its obvious Ghibli inspirations. The animation is lovely and there are some interesting design ideas in this story of a valiant girl who must save a sleeping prince, but for all its outstanding elements, one can’t shake the feeling that they’ve been to this magical land before, and better.
An oddity, She (Zhou Shengwei), a stop-motion metaphor for capitalism (communism? Forced labour?) impresses by its commitment and imagination in declining all the possible images of shoes and flowers, but even at its short length, its constant barrage of ideas gets exhausting. After a while you just check out, returning to its story in fits.
More successful on the visual overload side of things was The Son of the White Mare (Marcell Jankovics), a classic of Hungarian animation showing at the festival in a new restoration. The film a kind of psychedelic take on an old legend straddles both worlds to great effect, supplementing its mythical storytelling (a warrior must defeat evil) with colourful, spaced-out visuals. An unknown classic worth discovering.
Just as in your face was the new film from the good folks at Trigger, Promare (Hiroyuki Imaishi), a relatively archetypal story of a world at war with a mutant group possessing fire powers and the young maverick firefighter who must decide his true allegiances when the state turns out to be more deceitful than he had imagined. As always with Trigger, it’s style over substance with extended, neon-coloured feats of animation with firefighting mechs defying the laws of physics as a matter of routine making this an enjoyable if slight experience.
As always, a lot of fun could be had with the Korean blockbusters, chief among them Extreme Job (Lee Byeong-heon), a smash-hit action comedy about a group of cops who go undercover running a fried chicken joint that becomes an overnight success. More of a comedy, with the jokes coming in fast and loud, the film still manages to deliver a few effective action scenes. The film sticks to a well-honed recipe, but it’s a winning one and like a good piece of Korean fried chicken, it doesn’t leave you feeling too guilty once you’re done.
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil
In a similar action-comedy vein was the hilarious and inventive Hit-ad-run Squad (Han Jun-hee) about female cops affected to traffic duty who make it their mission to take down a revenge porn ring. The film never slows down and cleverly plays with the mundane world of traffic cops in impressive action set-pieces mixing car chases and desk duty, but ultimately impresses with its heartfelt and timely (South Korea was recently rocked by an eerily similar scandal) defense of women’s rights.
Less successful, but still entertaining is The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (Lee Won-Tae), a winning pitch (a cop and a gangster team up to take down a serial killer) that gets too caught up in its dark tone, surprising given Korean cinema’s deft hand in mixing comedy and darker subject matter. Fans of Don Lee should be advised that he does bust through a door at full speed, justifying the film’s existence in one swift motion.
In a different register was the maximalist horror film It Comes (Tetsuya Nakashima), about a mysterious entity terrorising a family and the race to stop it. The film is a thrill ride from start to finish that mixes outlandish plot twists with visceral shamanist imagery to offer up a pulse-pounding piece of pulp horror. This is horror as large-scale spectacle, which might put off some people looking for the more subdued side of J-horror, but in its constant one-upping of itself, the film achieves a kind of breathless unhinged genius, lending even its more ludicrous developments the poetic logic of the best of genre cinema.
Asian horror was, as is customary, a heavy presence at the fest from its opening with Hideo Nakata’s Sadako offering an underwhelming return to the genre from the J-horror master. Also disappointing was Stare (Hirotaka Adachi), a forgettable film that gets by on good creature design and a few laugh out loud stupid moments. More interesting were a pair of moody films from countries less dominant in genre cinema. Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s Night God, perhaps Fantasia’s first Kazakh horror film, is more of a brooding existential slow-burner, melding intricately choregraphed long takes with an oppressive, Kafkaesque tone to create a mesmerizing, if punishing two hour headscratcher. But follow it where it wants to take you and the light outside the theater after the film might just hit you a little differently.
Also exploring a more methodical approach to the horror genre is the Philippines’ Mystery of the Night (Adolfo Alix Jr.), an interesting debut bit of folk horror reaching back to the Philippines colonial past to create a flawed but promising final product, where monsters stand in for a number of the nation’s ills.
Mystery of the Night
Ode to Nothing (Dwein Baltazar), also from the Philippines, whilst less outwardly linked to genre, similarly engages with the world of the dead in its portrait of a lonely women living with a corpse. The film is attentive to the unique rhythms of its elderly main character, offering a portrait of loneliness and aging that pierces with its lived-in truth, but the film is perhaps a little too lethargic for its own good
Winner of the Cheval Noir award for best film in competition, Idol from Lee Su-jin returning after his debut Han Gong-Ju impressed a few years back, is not lacking for ambition over its 144 minutes of grueling drama. This tale of fathers linked by a terrible crime, one a poor man whose mentally handicapped son is killed in a car accident by the son of a rising politician, is appropriately twisty and twisted in its uncorking of the social ills of South Korean society. But whilst the film reminds one of the cinema of Bong Joon-Ho, its lack of focus and its tendency to get too side-tracked with red herrings ultimately robs it of its full power. We should however emphasize the extraordinary acting across the board especially from lead Sul Kyung-gu as the monomaniacal bereaved father on a quest for revenge.
The sins of the father were also a driving force in the interesting moral fable that could be found in the Japanese drama His Bad Blood (Koichiro Oyama), an off-kilter take on the Judeo-Christian idea of the original sin given new depths in the Japanese context of family and the legacy of blood. Set in a small Christian community in northern Japan, the son of a petty criminal whose actions have cast a long shadow over his life in the village is unknowingly reunited with his absent father in the local’s reverend house. The film, mixing black humour and tragedy, asks probing questions about family and redemption and in its own unassuming way builds to an emotional and satisfying finish.
Nobuhiro Yamashita’s new film, Hard-Core, however proved disappointing. Yamashita is usually a master at shading in characters who in other hands would simply come off as despicable, but here he fails at sticking the landing and the movie winds up feeling disconnected, lacking a strong center. The more magical touches like the presence of a robot, fail to really stick and leave the film feeling more confused, an extended lark with no real payoff for its band of unlovable layabouts.
More interesting is Almost a Miracle from tear-jerking prodigy Yuya Ishii, a film that toes the line of being too cloying with its saintly main character, an almost inhumanely nice high school boy, but manages to delight with its uncynical tone, bubbly visuals and ultimately sweet story. A nice breath of fresh air in a festival usually known for the gallons of blood spilled on the screen.
Japan was responsible for a few of the more delightful moments of the festival providing a laugh-riot in the form of the bonkers comedy Fly me to Saitama (Hideki Takeuchi) a truly bizarre sci-fi take on the suburb big city dichotomy. The film is an escalation of sight gags and straight nonsense skewering shojo conventions and Tokyoite stereotypes with straight-faced aplomb tells the non-sensical story of the chosen one meant to liberate Saitama (a town in the greater Tokyo area) from the capital’s tyrannical rule. Lead by Fumi Nikaido and all-around weird person Gackt, the film keeps the absurdity mounting and will no doubt lead to many a belly-laugh even in those less well-versed in the nitty-gritty of Japanese prefectural humour.
Kingdom (Shinsuke Sato), an adventure film about a young orphan who must save ancient China, also provides ample enjoyment by sticking to well-worn genre tropes, this time providing a by the book shonen origin story, replete with plenty of chest-thumping to become the best fighter the world has ever seen and teary promises to overcome adversity. The film won’t surprise anyone who’s read a manga before, but its story chugs along at a good pace peppered with well-executed, gravity defying fights.
Similar good vibes could be had with Dance With Me (Shinobu Yaguchi), a well-made take on musicals, which follows an office worker who through some supernatural hijinks involving a hack magician finds herself launching into full-on musical numbers at the sound of any music. Problem is nobody around her is privy to her bouts of escapism, complicating her life greatly. She has no choice but to find the magician, sending her on a road-trip to northern Japan. Fun and breezy, the film never takes itself too seriously giving it a lithe charm. If cable were still a running concern, one could imagine it being a film you put on for five minute and wind up watching the whole way through
Another low-stakes comedy, but under-pinned by more serious concerns, was Hong Kong’s Missbehavior (Pang Ho-Cheung), a ribald tale that like most Hong Kong comedy hangs on untranslatable Cantonese wordplay. The movie however gets the most out of its ensemble cast and fast-paced antics. What sets the film apart is its clear love of what makes Hong Kong special, its diversity, its liberty and its intransigence. Given recent events, one can’t help but read the film as a kind of eulogy, for a place and for a way of making movies. A shame since classical Hong Kong cinema gave us two of the highlights of the fest with The Boxer’s Omen (Kuei Chih-Hung) a crazed magical Kung-fu movie that reads as if Bresson had directed an Asian Harry Potter movie and Full Contact (Ringo Lam) a stylistic marvel where kinetic gunfights rub elbows with effortless gangster cool to create perhaps the quintessential 80s Hong Kong movie.
Dare to Stop Us from Kazuya Shiraishi, a young director seemingly cycling through the history of Japanese cinema, is a strange proposition, even for this festival. A biopic on Wakamatsu production, the firebrand production company which in the 60s was responsible for producing the most politically incendiary Pink films on the market. From a distance the film seemed in danger of putting a commercial sheen on an ultimately radical subject. And whilst the film never reaches the experimental heights of its subject’s cinema (nor does it really try to), it also doesn’t drown it in nostalgia or devolve into a “spot the famous person” exercise. No, the film’s loyalty lies much more with the forgotten artisans, the behind the scenes workers who made those films possible, charging its loving recreation of 60s Shinjuku, with a lived-in proletarian spirit as is evidenced by its real main character Megumi, solidly portrayed by Mugi Kadowaki, an aimless 20-something who stumbles into this strange little world.
And Your Bird Can Sing
Aimless youth had a strong presence in Japanese cinema this year. Chiwawa (Ken Ninomiya), something like an East-Asian take on Spring Breakers, anchors its partying youth in a pervasive sense of hazy melancholy and lost youth poetry. The film is mainly a collection of party footage, contrasted with the character’s painful stabs at growing up, but its’s roving camerawork and melancholic undertones lend it a strange power, like leaving the party at 5am and walking back alone in the misty new day.
However, the highlight of the festival has to go to the perceptive, richly observed And Your Bird Can Sing (Sho Miyake), a delicate pas de trois, set in the city of Hakodate around three part-timers at a library. A miracle of characterization anchored by a trio of amazing actors, none more so than the amazing Shizuka Ishibashi, each rendering their character’s nonchalant day-to-day fumbles with sensitive ease, their intersecting love lives told with no bashfulness, but with a calm, empathetic gaze. There is so much to praise, like perhaps the best texting scene ever put to film, or the gentle accumulation of detail that builds a world that is redolent with minute truths, but the best thing I can do as a reviewer is to put it in no uncertain terms: Seek out this movie.
For another year, Fantasia was a welcome reminder of the breadth and quality of cinema, especially from Asia which gave us everything from tender slice-of-life chronicles, to pulse-pounding actioners and madcap comedies. In a world that has changed so much, it’s perhaps fitting that the films that left the deepest impressions are the ones that found the grace and the fantastic in the simplest acts of living. Let’s hope we’ll be able to get back there soon.