Fantasia 2022: Views From The East
Now firmly back on its home turf of Concordia University with occasional detours to the Cinéma Du Musée and the Cinémathèque Québécoise, Fantasia unfurled another wave of genre cinema upon the hearts and minds of its devoted audience. Of particular interest for your humble writer were the generous offerings of cinematic curios and delights from the Asian continent, ranging from heartfelt romantic dramas, two-fisted action romps and bone-chilling horror freakouts. This text will dive into the hits and the misses from the Easternmost part of this year’s program.
Let’s begin with some highlights. Detective Vs. Sleuths a new solo film from Wai Ka-Fai, frequent collaborator to Hong Kong axiom Johnnie To, is all that we love about Hong Kong crime cinema wrapped in a neat, no-fat 2 hours. Starring Lau Ching-Wan at his unhinged best, the film tells the story of a disgraced former cop, now homeless and obsessed with his old cases, pulled back into the sleuthing game by a series of murders committed by a brutal gang all linked to his previous career. The film explodes on the screen, all crane shots and Hong Kong bombast, with reversal after reversal, clever plays on perspective and a non-stop pulse pounding pace, making for one of the most purely enjoyable films of the fest. The tone jumps around wildly, cutting from heartfelt to pure schmaltz to bracing violence with wild abandon, in other words a good old Honk Kong potboiler.
Another standout, coming from a frequent collaborator, was Shin Ultraman, an adaptation of the popular television character into the Hideaki Anno Shin Hero Universe which had previously given us the all-out masterpiece Shin Godzilla. Here Shinji Higuchi directs alone, emulating much of the offbeat camera angles and frantic editing rhythm that have made Hideaki Anno’s live-action work such an interesting reconsideration of codes of genre but also of cinematic representation itself. The film is a direct continuation of the universe set up in Shin Godzilla, now centering on the Kaiju-fighting half-alien half-man Ultraman and his quest to defend and understand his place on earth. Shin Ultraman transposes much of the psychedelic and philosophical undertones of the 70s series onto a modern Japan of depressed economic outlook and stifling bureaucracy, cleverly continuing the series sly political commentary. In that sense, the film works for long time fans of the series who can spot references and compare the change between the pop optimism of the original with this more muted modern incarnation as well as newcomers who get a zany out-of-the-box sci-fi adventure with plenty of style and interesting gravity-defying action.
Inu-Oh, a new work from fest regular Masaaki Yuasa, also brought down the house in the animation section with its intoxicating mix of rock opera and Kabuki in its Orphean tale of a cursed dancer, his biwa playing partner and their rise to fame in the Muromachi period. Oozing style in every frame with Yuasa’s trademark reality-warping animation allowing for truly breathtaking musical sequences and clever plays on perspective, the film is a relentless assault on the senses that still finds time to ask deeper questions on fame, the writing of history and the power of storytelling to speak truth to power. Yuasa’s cinema is an evanescent one, warping and coiling around the experiences of his characters, perfect for a rock musical such as this where the music becomes a new player in the mad dance of affects unleashed on the screen.
Switching gears, a trio of low-budget Korean debuts brought understated vibes to the fest, starting with Chorokbam (Seo-jin Yoo), an autumnal, melancholic intergenerational drama shot through with a deep well of sadness. Filmed with poise and distance to better zero in on its group of characters and their repressed lives, the film slowly unfurls its depressing world letting dread and mystery slowly emerge out of the contours of the seemingly banal and inconsequential lives it chronicles. A world away from the frenetic films I praised earlier, Chorokbam, with its expertly deployed atmosphere and enveloping green-tinted cinematography, can fascinate and transport as well as anything else on offer at the festival.
Even more enigmatic was The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra (Syeyoung Park), a 60 minutes sketch film following the growing fungus inside a used mattress as it intersects with various lives in and around Seoul, ultimately building a strange offbeat ode to the beauty of human life. Borrowing its otherworldly groove from its inhuman main character, the short feature is not scared to go cosmic and psychedelic with its imagery, contrasting the broke urban banality of the characters the creature encounters with a more primal, coarse lust for life. What ultimately unfolds is a strange little object of a film, kaleidoscopic in its ambitions, perhaps too obtuse for some, but possessed of a resilient and pungent presence that will make its way into the recesses of your mind.
More recognizably an horror film was Seire (Kang Park) which inventively folds Korean folk superstitions into a modern fable about the anxiety of fatherhood to bone-chilling effect. Effective in its scares and focused more on slow-building dread than jump scares, it centers around a new father who, breaking with tradition, attends a funeral a few days after the birth of his first child, inviting a mysterious and threatening presence into his home, a spirit which might have a connection to his past. Using its horror set-up to comment on the sometime uneasy cohabitation of tradition and the modern world in today’s Korea, the film operates on a number of levels. It works as a family drama which subtly comments on the socio-political situation of South Korea and its Confucian family dynamics as well as a smartly effective horror concoction. If anything, the film is perhaps too muted, lacking a truly explosive moment, preferring to slowly simmer in its unease.
The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra
Just Remembering, from Fantasia alum Daigo Matsui, is a low-key, low-stakes look at ordinary people feeling out their way in the world, a breath of fresh air after last year’s less assured Remain in Twilight from the same director which relied more on bombastic displays of emotions than Just Remembering‘s finely honed intimacy. This small-scale charmer, possessed of a surprisingly deep undercurrent of melancholy and regret, charts the path of two lovable twentysomethings over a number of days. The film is structured around a clever gambit which lets us suss-out their relationship to each other as it progresses. I won’t spoil it here, but know that this is a film that shines in the small gestures, that looks at its characters as they are, making us come to truly cherish them by the time the credits come rolling. One of the highlights of the festival.
As always there were a number of disappointments to be found in the program some of them sadly coming from familiar voices from whom we had become accustomed to better work. Fast and Feel Love from Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, is such a case. Nawapol, one of the more interesting younger Thai directors, usually manages to be modern and romantic in his stories of disaffected urban youths living half their lives online. He brings a similar background to Fast and Feel Love, but the film, his most mainstream yet, quickly loses its relatability and charm in its accumulation of toothless jokes and parodies. There is some fun to be had in its story of a 30-something loser trying to become the world champion at cup stacking and his long time girlfriend’s attempts at making him grow up, but the film never lands anywhere, its sophomoric internet humour distracting from its sport movie narrative of betterment. Nawapol usually manages to create a lived-in world from which he can launch into flights of fancy, but here everything seems fake, parodic, which blunts its more emotional aims. I’m sure some will find a good time to be had with the film’s more crowd-pleasing tone and broad humour. I’ll be waiting for a more small-scale project from him.
A lack of focus both in story and in its action scenes is what ultimately brings down Alienoid (Choi Dong-hoon) an overlong mish-mash of sci-fi and fantasy tropes that fails to convince on both sides. Taking place in a few different time periods, but mostly in medieval Korea and present day Seoul, the constant back and forth never allows the film to settle into a comfortable rhythm. Something not helped by the film’s over-reliance on cheap looking CGI which robs the action scenes of any kind of impact. The story, which ends on a cliff-hanger, is not much better filled with empty side-quests, questionable humour and broad characterization. At 2 hours and 30 minutes, the film is more tiring than enjoyable, a bloated misfire.
The Pass: Last Days of The Samurai from Takashi Koizumi is more focused, but perhaps too old-school for its own good. Chatty and slow-paced, its languorous pace brings it down. Telling the story of a famous battle mainly from the side of the generals, the film gets bogged down in its strategy and politics with high-brow notions of honour and duty being bandied about in decorous monologues. Yakuza movies can be filled with dialogue, because it is usually shouted by gruff looking middle-aged Japanese men in a Kansai accent, the objectively optimal way to present dialogue. Here everything is too polite, restrained. Fans of the genre might find some interest in the crepuscular tone that enshrouds the whole thing, but those looking for engaging Samurai action should look elsewhere.
On that note, Fantasia is also the occasion to check back into the world of Asian action cinema. The Roundup (Lee Sang-yong), the now obligatory Don Lee vehicle of the fest, does its job fairly well, blending humour and high-octane, big impact action in its story of a fish out of water Korean cop trying to solve a kidnapping in Vietnam. Don Lee sticks to his classics letting his big intimidating size and curmudgeonly demeanour deliver laughs and thrills. The film doesn’t reinvent the action comedy wheel, but does everything well and is sure to please the Don Lee afficionados with its weighty hand-to-hand action and destructive panache.
More conservatively budgeted and laid-back in its ambitions was the charming Baby Assassins from young action auteur Yugo Sakamoto, which plays around with the codes of the genre by casting bratty young women in the role of ruthless hired assassins. Most of the laughs come from this disconnect with the characters seemingly more interested in their phones than with their mission. It’s all quite entertaining in an internet sketch comedy kind of way, but where the movie really shines is in its fight choreography which is wonderfully fluid, using the small size of the main characters to focus on grappling and speed over pure power. Sakamoto’s camera follows along the action letting it play out in real time and highlighting his performer’s athleticism with well deployed camera movements, especially in the intense finale. For some, the ratio of jokes to action will be too slanted towards the former and it’s true that the film takes its time to get to the fighting, but it is ultimately a good time at the movies.
More meandering was Hansan: Rising Dragon (Kim Han-min), a period war film about a legendary general and his feats of strategy in a famous naval battle against Japan. It is also a prequel to the highest-grossing Korean film of all time Admiral: Roaring Currents and it must be said a pretty nationalistic work of historical fiction. That being said, I have no problem with this type of filmmaking, if anything out of control jingoism can add that touch of frenetic madness that takes an action movie to the next level. Sadly, this is not the case with Hansan which is mostly plodding, following a main character plagued with doubts which he mostly expresses by furrowing his brow and looking distraught. When the action scenes arrive, they are mostly exercises in CGI that fail to really bring the naval battles to life. The film is still interesting for the aforementioned nationalism at its heart, lionizing a character who is frankly quite boring. This is in the contrast to the villains; flamboyant Samurais who bicker and betray each other while wearing outlandish colourful armour. I don’t think I was meant to root for the bad guys but here we are.
The Killer (Choi Jaehoon) on the other hand was an effective action movie with great fight scenes. You have to salute the balls of an action movie to call itself The Killer and whilst it doesn’t reach the heights of the Hong Kong classic, it has plenty of cool, suave charm, stylish action and lowkey comedy to distract from its basic revenge plot. Following a retired assassin, more machine than man in his cold efficacy at dispatching wave after wave of bad guys, who is stuck babysitting the teenaged daughter of his wife’s best friend as they go on a girl’s trip. The ward gets kidnapped and our man in Seoul has to unleash a veritable biblical flood of violence upon gangsters and layabouts, uncovering a conspiracy that might reach all the way to the top. The action is creative with a real heft in some of its kills and ultimately builds to a pretty satisfying bloody finale where swift revenge is enacted on truly despicable villains.
Turning back the clock to the heydays of Shaw Bros glory was The kid with the Golden Arm, a Chang Cheh classic from his Venom Mob period, dropping us into the legendary director’s hyper-masculine world of violence, honour and male friendships. At this point, the plot hardly matters, more of a skeleton to hang kung-fu nonsense onto with expertly choregraphed fight scenes brought to life by talented martial artists. Shaw fans will note the increasing levels of gore typical of the period and newcomers will marvel at its bonkers beauty.
What’s Up Connection
A blast from the past that was also an highlight of the fest was Masashi Yamamoto’s What’s Up Connection, a true oddity, bringing a bohemian transnational attitude to 90s Japanese cinema. Yamamoto’s story of a poor Hong Kong family’s trip to Japan and subsequent fight to keep their property back home is prescient in its exploration of globalisation and the ways lower classes are set-up against one another. But the film’s true strength lies in its leisurely digressions and tossed-off experimentation; like a character played by a male and female actor or an impromptu documentary tangent into the slums of Osaka. This off-kilter energy, blending drama and comedy, kinetic camera work and vibrant colours, makes a virtue out of chaos. It is truly a film where you can’t expect what’s coming next. It unfurls with the panache and energy of the best drunken stories, locating the bawdy core of its characters’ lives without overlooking the ways in which various systems seek to profit from and ultimately destroy their lust for life.
And finally some films showed promise if they were not always totally successful. Such was the case with My Small Land by Kore-Eda protégée Emma Sawatika, a fine little immigrant drama, that whilst it sometimes falls into the clichés of the genre (saintly main characters being tested by an uncaring bureaucracy) has its heart in the right place. Following the adolescent daughter of a Kurdish immigrant family and her ordinary life in a Tokyo suburb which gets rocked when her father is set to be deported, the film does not break any codes but carefully and calmly takes stock of its characters lives and emotions. The shadow of Sawatika’s mentor looms large on its gentle humanism which can sometimes verge on the saccharine, but usually sticks to the right side of the melodramatic line. The film also gets points for being relatively unique in the Japanese film landscape where films, when they focus on immigrant narratives, usually tend to explore the Korean experience.
Shinzo Katayama’s Missing, a twisty, unpolished, messy serial killer thriller with a dark beating heart at its center also fit the bill. If the narrative can sometimes be confusing there is a real magnetic pull to its plot machinations and the characters stuck in them. Telling the story of a young girl set on finding her missing father, the film switches perspectives a number of times, painting its bleak, desolate world in shades of gray. It pays homage to the great thorny character dramas of Korean masters like Bong Joon-Ho and Lee Chang-dong, whilst staking out its own moral territory, asking questions about guilt and the weight of one’s actions in the face of an uncaring world.
For another year, Fantasia allowed us to take stock of a filmography that oftentimes fails to reach our screens, giving us a glimpse into a continent’s cultural production in and outside of genre, from its present to its past, gesturing towards its future. The 2022 edition was fruitful in many ways, confronting us with new voices given varying levels of resources, buoyed by ambition, or old favourites pushing their limits. It showed us singular visions and industries flexing their technical muscles, allowing us to build narratives of conquest or decay. It looked back to past favourites and unearthed genuine overlooked triumphs. Also, some of the films were pretty good.