Fantasia 2001: Mid-Festival Report
Festival as Rhizomatic Head Space
The head-space I get into during festivals might best be described using the concept of hypertext, an increasingly popular metaphorical tool in the realm of film criticism these days. Hip film scholars like Slavoj Zizek often discuss issues of non-linearity, postmodern deconstruction, and intertextuality in terms of computer technology’s use of hyperlinks to create the labyrinthine interconnectedness of all things within cyberspace (1). Often when discussing hypertext, Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus is invoked for its depiction of the “rhizome,” that shape which best defines the parameters of a world where all lines are connected simultaneously creating a network of instant access between any two points. In the introduction to the English version of A Thousand Plateaus, Brain Massumi notes that the book is designed to be approached as a collection of plateaus from which the reader can jump one to another, using the analogy of playing a record where one can skip from one part to another by lifting and dropping the needle (2). Instead of seeing the book as a traditionally organized hierarchical argument where the chapters operate in cumulative fashion to create a whole, the authors encourage us to take what we want from whatever part of the book, and carry that with us to the next point of interest. In so doing, we draw connections between segments based on our own interest in the material, in the same manner that one might follow a series of links through various web pages to create a path based on the flow of interest, without the need to see each site in its entirety, and thus creating a rhizomatic approach to the navigation of cyberspace.
This is the essence of festival space for me. When I see a large number of films in quick succession, not only do they blur together, but I become less interested in each individual film as a holistic work, instead drawing moments from each that affect me and relate them to similar moments found in other films.
This is not to say that I am not interested in discovering masterpieces or tracing the works of particular filmmakers, nor am I eschewing my instinctual understanding of auteur presence in favour of a more contemporary focus on cultural context and the like. It’s just that the festival environment encourages a form of reception that is based more on seeing through films as individual entities and moving towards a larger picture of filmmaking. And Fantasia achieves this form of reception very well, for a number of reasons. Eclectic though its programming is, it still has the most coherently unified vision of any festival I have attended. Also, because it takes place entirely at one theatre, it is one of the few festivals where it is actually possible to see everything, thus allowing a solid understanding of how the festival works as a whole. So I find myself drawing all kinds of connections between the various films, looking for underlying themes, and enjoying the act of viewing film for its own sake, the experience of seeing and hearing beautifully presented materials in a top notch facility. Even when I’m watching crap I find that its place within the context of the festival always makes it a worthwhile experience. And when a gem pops up, all the better.
So, my festival experience is like living inside a rhizome, where the succession of films presented on the screen are a series of plateaus that begin to fold in on one another, the lines between each blurring and my mind connecting the dots across a period of weeks rather than hours. Given this hypertext influenced approach to film viewing, it is all the more appropriate that one of the major themes I have noticed up to this point in the festival is that of video games, and by extension the pitting of game playing vs. reality, and ultimately the search for complete escapism. With the arrival of Tomb Raider to the silver screen, the age of the video game on film is well underway. And the critics are not far behind, as the NEMLA Convention in Toronto demonstrates with this year’s topic being labeled “From Dots to Bodies: Intersections of Cinema and Video Games.”
The first film I am exposed to this year is a short entitled Y2 by French director Nicolas Douste. The film’s five minutes depict a live-action rendering of a Street Fighter style video game. While the action is fairly well executed, the film offers little more than the novelty of seeing this game structure realized by live human beings. I felt that perhaps I was starting to feel a little bit for the main character, as all the violence he is exposed to is made more visceral by the fact that he is a real person and not a poorly animated digital construction. The film ends with a shot of a little brat controlling the game, and I guess there’s a comment somewhere in there on if and how youth identify with the characters in the games they play. Needless to say, this is not particularly well developed in such a short span of time. Y2 is followed by the Japanimation feature Escaflowne. A young schoolgirl is driven to the point of contemplating suicide by the banality of her daily existence, but is whisked away at just the right moment to a mystical wonderland where she will reign as Goddess of the Sun, or some such thing. There she comes into her own amidst dueling clans of magical warriors, and at the end earns her wings…literally. I can’t help but wonder how many Fantasia patrons, famous for our geekish and misfit-like qualities, dream of the same scenario befalling us? And isn’t this the essence of much animation and video game design, to provide that fantastical outlet to those of us who need it most? Trouble is that, for me, this kind of film does not offer the escape it promises to its main character. Maybe I just do not understand Japanimation, but I find it utterly unaffecting. However, this early in the festival, the film does promise one thing: better things to come.
The second feature of the evening is the South Korean Die Bad from director Ryu Seung-Wan. Unfortunately this marks the first instance where the print that is supposed to be shown is replaced by a video projection, but it actually is not too bad. Here the question of youth violence is explored in detail, again with some reference to video games. Early on we see a gang of impetuous youngsters who like to fight for any or no reason, one of whom describes his passion for brawling in terms of his favourite game: Street Fighter. The film is structured in four episodes, tracing the movement of one young gang member from the street, to jail after killing someone, to his release and rise in the ranks of an older gang, and finally on to the next generation of youngsters who seek to follow his path. The notes in the Fantasia guide suggest that these four episodes can be taken as a larger narrative, or treated as four individual stories, an approach which fits right in with the festival experience in which the film falls. Each section has its own style, with the third marking a very interesting hybrid of talking head documentary and epic action. Shots of a young cop and a distinguished gangster being interviewed separately about their chosen vocations are intercut with shots of the two of them battling it out hand to hand over a long period of time. By the end of it, neither of them can hardly walk, yet still lunge at each other in pure adrenaline fueled determination. Most harrowing, however, is the final segment, shot in cinema verite style black and white, documenting a huge gang bang where a group of youngsters seek to prove their worth by taking on a rival pack of vicious knife wielding maniacs. The sheer sense of wasted lives in the gang world is well illustrated as the cocky young go-getters are systematically reduced to hunched over lumps of fading flesh, grasping at the wounds that will ultimately be their undoing. The shift in tone from the comedic opening parallels between gang violence and video game playing to the harsh reality of being knifed to death at the age of 13 in a back alley somewhere is acute. Rarely have I seen such a display of carnage, made all the more traumatic by the use of knives as the weapons of choice. It is definitely something to see.
Two other short films deal with the crossing of video games and film, both of these sporting a little commentary on the place and representation of women therein. Antimone and Avatars both present ultra-stylized live action renderings of bizarre games, the rules of which are unclear. Both involve opponents engaged against one another, and both feature the presence of a woman who, after seducing the male players into physical contact, does away with them. Are we to understand from this that women are the almighty enemy, all attempts at physical contact to be avoided at any cost, further justifying the seek of escape within the realm of the computer screen? Or are women here to be seen as the most powerful presence in the game world, a force with which men must come to terms if they are to succeed? Well, it doesn’t really matter, because neither film provided anything of interest at all except mildly appealing visual aesthetics.
The film that carries the video game theme to the most extreme this year is St. John’s Wort from Japan’s Shimoyama Ten. Here the subject of the film is a group of video game designers who, in search of a new environment on which to base a game, travel to an old mansion just inherited by one of the team members. Shot entirely on video, the film’s strongest point is definitely its look. As the Fantasia notes say, this is no Dogma film. Everything in the film has an eerily game-like feel to it, the colours being particularly amazing to look at. In an early scene, as two of the scouts drive through the forest and arrive at the mansion, the trees and flowers have an intense glow that is truly beautiful, and the mansion is revealed as though it were fresh off a 32 bit game disc, the filmmaker really exploiting the aesthetic of low-resolution graphics. When thinking of digital effects for film these days we expect a lot more than what we see on our Playstation screens. We want The Matrix and Jurassic Park. Rarely do we find a film that seeks to explore the unique look of video games in as much detail as this film does. Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot more going on here. As the couple make their way through the mansion, video taping all the way, they discover deeper and deeper secrets about the man who owned the house, a famous painter and father of the woman of the couple. There are some interesting moments where the team back at the design headquarters draw up plans of the house based on the images of it they are receiving in real time from the scout couple, and help guide them through the labyrinthine floorplan via cell-phone and email. Ultimately the woman discovers she has a long lost sister, who just happens to have become a maniac and is living in the house, and who wants to kill herself so that her sibling can use her blood to complete the last painting their father was working on. The film offers two endings in true video-game fashion, one where the couple doesn’t escape the mansion and another where they do. Like I said, this film is definitely an accomplished visual examination of how the video-game world translates onto film, but is ultimately uninspiring and a little silly.
The theme of escapism through game playing is also well explored outside of the strictly video game mind-set, with several entries this year being preoccupied with the intersection of role-playing and reality and the desire to flee the banality of the quotidian. Hong Kong’s Double Tap from director Lo Chi-Leung explores the world of Rick, and expert speed-shooter who, after establishing himself on the competition circuit, removes himself from the spotlight and focuses on teaching his art. He has a strong emphasis on the fact that guns are not to be used on flesh of any kind, and that speed-shooting is a sport only. On the challenge of a rival, he enters his first shooting contest in some years. However, a friend of Rick’s, desperately broke, explodes into the crowd with a hail of bullets, crying out to be shot so that his wife and family can gain his life-insurance money. Rick is forced to shoot him to spare innocent onlookers, and discovers that he enjoys using his weapon to take human life. From there he starts going insane with blood lust, and the rest of the film concerns the police efforts to stop him from continuing the killing rampage into which he has thrown himself. The film is well crafted with a tight sense of its purpose, though again does not really offer much in the way of inspiring cinema. In the context of the festival, it again provides a look at how game playing can carry over into real life, and the often indistinguishable psychological barriers that exist between reality and recreation. Rick’s mastery of his art was achieved in a fantasy environment, and when unleashed upon the real world proves to be almost unstoppable. Another message about how we are to integrate the need for self-expression through fantasy while balancing this with a grounding in daily life.
Part of the cast from Slashers (Photograph provided by Jesse Gryn email@example.com )
Taking blood-lust from game to reality and back again is raised to ridiculous heights with Slashers from Montreal’s own Maurice Devereaux. While leaving me generally unenthralled, this piece is definitely interesting on many levels. The film takes as its premise a Japanese reality TV game show where six contestants pits themselves against three brutal killers in the slasher film tradition. It is shot entirely on video, as such a show would be in real life, and is constructed to appear as though executed entirely in one take. One camera follows select contestants around a carnivalesque “danger zone,” awaiting their confrontations with the maniacs. Although Devereaux wrote the script in 1998, just before Survivor imposed itself upon the world, the comparisons that can be made between the two are undeniable, and provide for me the most interesting aspects of the work.
Survivor is fascinating for the way that it plays on the tension between its contrived nature and its sense of being real, the dynamic that arises between the survivors themselves, the impact the presence of the crew has on the show’s proceedings, and the ultimate search for spectacle that the show entails. Slashers explores these dynamics in great detail. Hideo, the sole camera person for the Slashers show, interacts with the contestants on various levels. First and foremost, his presence is kept as quiet as possible. Several times, upon being asked questions by the contestants, he remains silent. However, from time to time, he offers bits of advice, such as suggesting that if female contestants remove their clothing they will remain alive longer. However, the contestants are acutely aware that if the camera is around, regardless of how neutral the presence, there is more likely to be danger in the vicinity. Also, early on in the film, the idea of alliances forming between contestants, and the question of working as a team vs. everyone for themselves, is brought up. This is a crucial element of Survivor, and has ended up dictating the ultimate winners on both of the show’s installments so far. Another of Survivor‘s big questions, that of how the direction of the show impacts the so-called natural proceedings, is raised in a later scene where one of the contestants appropriates the earpiece of a vanquished slasher, and now has the inside scoop on what’s going down behind the scenes and can act accordingly. There have been many suggestions that Survivor is rigged one way or another, directorial and production decisions taking precedence over the real unfolding of events within the game. Finally, the question of sex appeal and spectacle guiding the show’s events is certainly front and center as it is made clear throughout the Slashers show that those who provide the most entertainment, be it flesh either bared or mangled (or both), have more airtime and a better chance of being kept alive. However, its campy aspirations notwithstanding, Slashers just did not do it for me. While it fits well within the concept of people seeking ways to merge their fantasies and realities, I found the fun-house aesthetic irritating, the performances of the contestants to be very lacking (I did somewhat enjoy the three slashers, though, two, Preacherman and Chainsaw Charlie, played by the same actor, Neil Napier), and ultimately found myself craving the real thing. Survivor 3 starts in a couple of months…I can’t wait.
Chainsaw Charlie revs up Fantasia crowd before screening (Photograph provided by Jesse Gryn firstname.lastname@example.org )
Another Canadian entry this year, John Eyres’ The Ripper, explores a group of students studying the psychology of serial killing who are confronted with the appearance of a real-life killer picking them off one by one. A truly awful film, we nevertheless have here another look at how reality meets fantasy, here in the context of theory meeting practice. The students spend 114 minutes furrowing their plastic young brows in an attempt to make the translation from classroom to the outside world in order to prevent themselves from being slaughtered. As the film goes on, I become more comfortable laughing with the film instead of at it, as it seems it is not taking itself particularly seriously. But it is not enough of a parody to accept it as such, and it ends up just being a ridiculous (and very loud) onslaught of competently executed stupidity.
A much more enjoyable look at the merging of work and play is Kim Ji-Woon’s The Foul King from South Korea. A young bank clerk who still lives with his father finds himself getting into more and more trouble at work due to poor performance and frequent tardiness. Yearning to be a professional wrestler (in the vain of our beloved WWF), he stops by the local training center to apply for a wrestling job. He is laughed out of the building. One day, however, the gym’s wrestling coach is informed by a gangster type that they require a wrestler who will specialize in the art of cheating. Not being able to find anyone willing to be trained for such a position, the bank clerk is summoned and promptly groomed to be the Foul King, master of below the belt tactics within the ring. Kim’s film is a wonderfully funny and moving coming of age tale of an awkward young man who gains self-confidence through the act of living out his fantasy in the real world. The piece boasts some very nicely choreographed physical comedy, both in the ring and out. It also features fine performances all around, and succeeds in blending laughs with a true sense of feeling for the joy that can be instilled in life when one isn’t afraid to follow a dream, ultimately showing the power that can be achieved by merging fantasy with reality in constructive ways. And, no doubt, the Foul King‘s distinctive mask provides some preliminary motor revving for this Friday’s mandatory Santo screening.
Another coming of age tale is American Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, telling the story of two young women who don’t know what to do with themselves following their high school graduation. Once two peas in a pod, it seems now that the two friends might be drifting, one towards the banality of proper suburban existence, the other towards the nether regions of misfit land. The main focus of the film is Enid, a bit of an odd-ball with whom I’m sure many Fantasia fans can relate. Desperately irritated with the commonplace, she becomes intrigued by Seymour, an older odd-ball played by Steve Buscemi. Into antique furniture and old 78s, Seymour’s removal from the norms of social acceptability offers Enid a comfortable place in which she can be herself. She develops a crush on him, and instead of finding a job so she can afford to move out with her friend, she spends all her time hanging with Seymour. Ultimately, however, Seymour doesn’t provide her with what she needs, and Enid fails to find a place where she can really feel at home. Distanced now from everything in her life, she finds most solace by talking to an old man who has been waiting for a bus at a decommissioned bus stop for many weeks (months, years?). One day a bus does arrive and carries him off. As Enid watches, her path now seems clear. After a wonderfully long close-up/fade to black of Enid’s expression as the bus pulls away from the stop, she goes and plants herself on the same bench, and eventually boards a bus of her own, riding off into the nether regions of adolescent uncertainty.
While not the masterpiece that I’ve heard the film described as, Ghost World is a well crafted, beautifully understated look at what can be the most trying time in a teenager’s life. All the performances were good, but Enid’s character was especially well presented. Zwigoff’s pacing is excellent as well, and his aesthetic of the misfit is obviously influenced by his interest in the likes of cartoonist Robert Crumb, about whom he made an amazing documentary some years back. In fact, a member of the Crumb family supplied some of the artwork found in the film. The movie has a nicely cartoony look to it overall, which lends itself well to an exploration of how a developing young person sees the world proper through her sketches. The nicest touch is definitely the mystery bus at the end, and in the context of the festival provides the clearest link to Fantasia itself. However, unlike the over-the-top onslaught of fantasy that Fantasia fans are so often assaulted with, here the slip into the realm of the netherworld is gentle and touching, providing much more for the imagination to work with, and allowing more feelings of identification on my part. While I might not like to become a powerful god in some magical wonderland, I might like to get on an empty bus whose destination is unknown. Therein lies the Ghost World, a world permeated with the uncertainty of human existence moving between formative stages of life, and the need we all feel to slip into a comfortable zone of escape from time to time.
Another way that those who seek a sense of belonging try to get comfortable in their own skin is by looking towards gangs as sources of support. It occurs to me, as I sit through the onslaught of gangster movies that Fantasia has put forth so far, that the whole gang concept is very related to the more fantastical vehicles for escape that the festival provides. At the root of all the game-playing turned real-life and the mystical journeys undertaken by ordinary humans is a fundamental lack of a sense of place in the world. Akira provides an example of a blending of the youth gang element with the more fantastical elements of science-fiction, finding the young and bullied Tetsuo discovering he has unlimited power resultant from a secret government project. Not having found his place within the biker gang to which he so wanted to belong, he exacts his rage over Neo-Tokyo after having been subjected to various military experiments. This is a classic misfit-gets-revenge scenario and exemplary of the mentality that many other gang-related films seek to explore in less supernatural ways. Again I am ultimately disappointed by how Japanimation presents itself, but am reminded about one of the great joys of a festival like this: seeing amazing prints well presented in top notch facilities. That alone makes seeing something like Akira worthwhile, and will get me back for the other animated features in the coming week.
A much more interesting treatment of the subject of youth belonging in the gang environment is A War Named Desire from Hong Kong’s Alan Mak. A young Hong Kong man goes to Thailand in search of his estranged older gangster brother to confront him about $50,000 that he stole from the family. While there, the younger sibling is implicated in a nasty underworld murder, and is ordered to be executed at the hands of his brother. So, the gangster must choose between his allegiance to his gang and his sense of family belonging. Discovering that his little brother is the only family he has left, the gangster decides to help him escape to safety, thereby discovering that the bonds of blood provide the greater sense of belonging than the artificial family provided by the gang environment. Aside from being a decent examination of the role of family in one’s sense of place in the world, Mak’s film is also nicely shot, with its Thailand context providing some relief from the usual urban settings of Hong Kong actioners. The pace is well measured, with a keen sense of the value of tasteful editing, also a rarity in the frenetic world of the Hong Kong gangster film. The film also features the perennial Francis Ng, who graced four films at last year’s Fantasia and also appears in the delightful Clean My Name Mr. Coroner this year.
The Fantasia guide describes Francis Ng’s appearance in Clean My Name Mr. Coroner as being a “stunning transformation,” and I would have to agree. Generally playing either a cop or a gangster, usually to gorgeous effect, here Ng finds himself in the role of a “bespectacled misfit,” a coroner who sets his watch to ring at 9:30 pm every night as a signal that it is now time to listen to music before going to bed at 10:30 pm. The story is a fairly standard take on the scenario of the corrupt police chief framing a subordinate, this time with the framed cop depending on the work of Ng’s coroner to help clear his name. Hong Kong’s James Yuen brings this story to the screen with wit and some depth, providing alternately comical and hard- boiled looks at the seedy underworld of police corruption. Stylistically it isn’t much to speak of, although it is, like so many others, very competent in its direction and aesthetic, both of which are there to serve the story more than to serve film as a distinctive medium in its own right.
Also in the realm of police corruption and the gangster underworld is the U.K.‘s 24 Hours in London. First time director Alexander Finbow introduces his piece by stating that if anyone feels the need to vomit during the film, they should try not to spew any on their neighbors. This is a classic example of why I’m not a huge fan of getting too close to the personalities that lie behind works…the mystery is too often spoiled, and his cockiness doesn’t help me get into the film. So, the whole time I’m thinking, okay, this guy fancies he’s made something that is going to move me to the point of retching, but it isn’t. I try to look beyond the film’s attempts at extremism, far enough beyond to try to recognize the aspect of parody that lay within it, somehow trying to distinguish it from all the ultra-hip in your face super violent British gang banging that we’ve seen as of late, but it isn’t enough. Not that it’s poorly made, but I ultimately just feel like saying: why bother?
Alexander Finbow on stage (Photograph provided by Jesse Gryn email@example.com )
On the lighter side of extreme action are the three Jet Li vehicles the festival has put forth so far: Once Upon a Time in China I + II and Swordsman II, all under the production of Tsui Hark. I know I’m missing something whenever I watch period pieces of this nature, especially the two Once Upon a Time entries. A lot of their humour and spectacle is derived from a historical background about which I know very little, and thus I cannot comment too readily on how it is treated on screen. However, I must say that there is an energy and spirit to all three of these films that suggest a pure joy in filmmaking. Beautiful costumes, excellent set-pieces, and some truly startling action sequences, these films are exemplary of their genre. Storytelling like this cannot take place in any other medium. I think what I like most about martial arts films is the way they adapt film’s inherent capabilities to those of the human physicality, merging cinematography and editing with the movements of the human body in ways that complement one another perfectly. Make no mistake about it, you have to have a keen understanding of film as a craft to pull this stuff off with the ease and effervescence that comes across in these films.
Not in the same vein as the Tsui Hark films but also a Chinese period film that relishes its medium is Johnnie To’s Wu Yen. Based on a classic Cantonese opera, this Hong Kong production bristles with life, bringing the realm of the stage opera into more visceral territory through the magic of film. The story finds Emperor Qi madly in love with Wu Yen, a woman who has been cursed with a facial blemish by a mischievous magician princess who is jealous of the Emperor’s love. Full of magical happenings and gender-bending role-playing (Emperor Qi is played by actress Anita Mui), Wu Yen is a wonderfully playful bound that truly shines on the screen. The costumes again are amazing, the art direction spectacular, and the interplay between the filmmaking and the stage presence of the piece make it an excellent exploration of the relationships between the two forms of expression and how they can join to mutual benefit. This film also provides a good example of the ways that fantasy can be treated on film without resorting to epic violence or over the top special effects. It must be said, however, that this is not The Mission, and Fantasia fans who have come to love Johnnie To for his earlier work might be a little thrown. But here the established director demonstrates that he need not restrict himself to the realm of the gangster flick.
To round out the sub-theme here of bringing the past alive we could include the Italian film Denti from Oscar winning Mediterraneo director Gabriele Salvatores. Here we find Antonio, owner of some very unfortunate front teeth, who has tried over the years to rid himself of these monstrosities. When he was a child he tried smashing his face into a rock, but to no avail. However, when his girlfriend many years later cracks him in the face with an ashtray, he discovers something very unusual: his teeth possess the power to unleash his past. As he assesses the damage to his teeth with his tongue, he finds that, when placed in just the right spot, the connection of his tongue and teeth creates flashbacks in his mind. As the film progresses, Antonio’s past becomes increasingly vivid as he travels from dentist to dentist trying to get his teeth fixed. By the end of the film, people from his past become physically manifest in his present-day world. The climax occurs as he finally finds a dentist who will be able to remove the offending protrusions. Surrounded by ghosts from his past, the surgeon extracts the teeth and finds that there is another set, a third set, waiting to emerge underneath. Ecstatic, Antonio is reborn, and although his marriage has failed and his girlfriend has run off, he is ready to start life anew with his wonderfully perfect miracle teeth. Exuding a confidence I would like to see more of in film, director Salvatores unflinchingly, beautifully, and very humorously spins this coming of age tale about a man who has been traumatized by his physical appearance his whole life only to find that the power to defeat this trauma lay within him the whole time. Nice allegory indeed, and here the protagonist finds happiness rooted in something as real as his own body instead of traveling off to a far away land to escape his troubles.
Michael Walker introduces Chasing Sleep
Not so lucky is Ed Saxon, the Jeff Daniels character in American Michael Walker’s Chasing Sleep. One night his wife doesn’t come home, and he descends into a nightmare of anxiety and jealousy-fueled paranoia, lurking about his house, experiencing shifting time while being plagued by the sounds of his overactive plumbing and a menacing ceiling hole that migrates from room to room. As the story develops, it becomes something of a noirish detective mystery that may or may not place Ed in the shoes of his wife’s murderer. Very atmospheric and well made, I would ordinarily love this film if I didn’t feel so strongly that it borrows a little too heavily from three of my favourite works to date: Lost Highway, Eraserhead, and Barton Fink. While Walker certainly demonstrates a remarkable talent for probing the psychological depths of a man in the throws of no small amount of angst, all the rumbling pipes, claustrophobic interior mental space and the drifting in and out of time and shadow are just a bit too much like the aforementioned masterpieces (and I don’t use the term lightly), especially the first forty minutes of Lost Highway. Jeff Daniels even looks like Bill Pullman, and the way in which the Daniels character loses himself within the darkness of his own home, having bizarre flashbacks that suggest he may be a vicious murderer, and the intrusion of the police within the domestic sphere, are all stylistically treated in a manner very similar to Lynch. Of course, I am aware that Lynch did not invent all this, and that both directors here are drawing on a huge pool of film traditions and reinterpreting them from contemporary perspectives. But still… I’m willing to leave my reaction here open to the fact that I am heavily biased in favour of Lynch, and say simply that this is a good film worth seeing, if maybe not so original as the Fantasia guide might suggest.
On the subject of borrowing from Lynch, I hate to condemn another film on the same basis, especially one whose director hails from my own stomping grounds of Concordia University. However, François Miron’s latest short film, Resolving Power, features a large haired man in a slightly small dark suit wandering through an industrial landscape filled with electrical outcroppings and various incomprehensible machines, and with a little animation thrown in here and there for good measure. Need I say more? To be fair, I must point out that borrowing an aesthetic does not preclude originality, and this film’s subject matter does not correspond exactly with that of Eraserhead. Miron has an appreciation of an analog aesthetic that I really enjoy, a fascination with old school electronics and the mysteries of electrical signals floating through the air waiting to be captured by boxes with lots of knobs to be transformed into new forms of energy for our own use. No doubt there is some Mary Shelley in there. But I can’t help but wonder why it is necessary to make a film that looks so much like something that’s been done before? Surely the world hasn’t yet run out of new ways to explore old topics.
Miron and Trembles of Resolving Power braced before a Coffin Joe Screening (Photograph provided by Jesse Gryn firstname.lastname@example.org )
Of course, Eraserhead was one of the original midnight movies back in the days of Ben Barenholtz, and Fantasia would not be a festival at all without its own midnight series. Easily one of the most anticipated of this year’s late night screenings is the 1979 exploitation flick Cannibal Holocaust from Italian director Ruggero Deodato. The print we are treated to is stunning, but what can really be said about such a film? Its interest in the mock documentary form is well taken, and it does serve a certain purpose in challenging the audience to examine why they react the way they do while watching. Essentially, the film posits four young television reporters who take off into the jungle to find a mysterious tribe of notorious cannibals, the Tree People, packing film equipment to document the journey. Along the way they become corrupted with their power and start to stage mayhem, rape and pillage, murder natives, and mutilate animals, all with the intention of sensationalizing their subject and winning an “Oscar.” Finally they stumble across what they have been seeking, and are in turn viciously murdered and cannibalized by the Tree People (with their camera filming their own comeuppance right to the end). The “footage” is presented as though being viewed by a NYU anthropology professor and a group of television producers from the Pan Am Broadcasting Corporation, who recover the film on an expedition undertaken to find the missing reporters. Between reels they discuss the morality of what they are watching, and by the end decide that the film cannot justify being shown for any reason, and it is ordered destroyed. Cannibal Holocaust is a good early example of a film that uses documentary strategies in conjunction with difficult subject matter in order to present an examination of the relationships between filmmaker and subject, subject and audience, audience and filmmaker, etc. The film is, indeed, very hard to watch at points. Even the blood thirsty Fantasians are not laughing so loud while a young woman is being raped in the mud by two of the crazed reporters. However, for my money, Belgium’s 1994 C’est arrive prez de chez nous (Man Bites Dog) has the current lock on this type of found footage mockumentary seeking to explore the dynamics of film viewing in the context of extreme violence. I know I probably shouldn’t compare the two, being so far apart in years, but ultimately film is film regardless of when it is made, and the latter film is a far more intelligent treatment of very similar subject matter.
Now for the gems. Of all the films I’ve seen so far, there are three that have really stood out. And guess what? They are all Japanese. No surprise there. Japan, for whatever reason, seems to produce some of the best films in the world year in and year out. First up is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Séance. A wonderfully understated ghost story involving a sound recording engineer married to a psychic who together discover a young girl trapped inside one of the engineer’s equipment crates. Seeing this as an opportunity to propel her career, the psychic creates a plan to hide the girl and then lead the police to her, supposedly drawing on her psychic powers. However, the plan goes awry when the girl dies in her care, leaving her spirit behind to haunt them. Aesthetically the film is beautiful. Although made for television, Kurosawa shot on film and imbued his work with an eerie calm and sense of wonder that lurks in every shadow. The cinematography and cutting are straight forward, allowing the mise en scene to come through to its fullest.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa relaxing at Luba Lounge (Photograph provided by Jesse Gryn email@example.com )
What interests me the most, however, is the function of a sound recording engineer within the context of a ghost story. The little girl becomes trapped in his crate when she comes across it in the woods while fleeing from a kidnapper. She climbs into the crate that sits next to the soundman’s car, while some 200 feet away he sits recording the sound of wind through the trees. Later in the film, upon listening to the recording at the studio, his colleague wonders if there isn’t something strange on the tape, the sound of voices perhaps. Later still sound is addressed in the context of the home where the girl’s spirit resides after her death. While discussing his sound work on a documentary that is being shown on television one night, the soundman comments to his wife that his work is lost on their little TV. After she suggests they get a new one equipped with surround sound, her husband muses that maybe they don’t need it after all, since he doesn’t need to hear all those sounds at home.
There has always been an interesting intersection between spiritualism and electronic reproduction technology, an intersection that has seen some resurgence in recent years. The idea of being able to capture the voices of the dead through the radio or television has fascinated many since the dawn of the electrical age, and the larger implications of how the spirit world can channel through the harnessing of electrical power is still alive and well in the horror and science-fiction world today. In Séance, the issue of sound reproduction technology within the domestic sphere is related to the fact that the husband is a professional soundman, just as the presence of the young girl’s ghost is a function of the wife’s career as a psychic. Just as the worlds of sound reproduction and psychic abilities don’t meet directly in the film, their co-existence within the married couple’s home speaks to the issue of how two married professionals have difficulty in communicating, thus creating some underlying horror that could unleash the very ghostly powers that they find themselves confronted with in the film. The notion of fidelity, he always trying to faithfully capture the essence of the sounds he records, and she always trying to faithfully capture the essence of the spirits with which she seeks to make psychic contact, is well explored here in the context of the joining of electrical and spiritual energies. The real story here is that of the frightening underpinnings of daily existence, and Kurosawa draws on the tradition of haunted media to great effect in fleshing them out into the open for us to witness.
Gem number two is Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q. All I can really say about this piece is that sometimes, in life, all you need to get your shit together is to get a good smack upside the head. A philandering husband finds himself at a bus stop after having procured the services of a school-aged prostitute who happens to be his daughter. A young thug, of sorts, decides that he will crack this man on the head with a large rock while he sits unawares. Next thing you know, the young thug is eating dinner at the man’s home at the latter’s invitation, served by the man’s wife who is under constant physical attack by their adolescent son, apparently acting out his pent up aggressions from having been bullied at school. The man, an out of work reporter still searching for a great story, decides that he will make a videotape about his son’s pain. So, enlisting the rock toting visitor as cameraman and the help of an ex-mistress in the news business, they track down the son one day while he is being forced to defecate by some bullies. The mistress suggests that this will never sell as a news piece, and that she has come along for the ride not because she loves the man but because she feels pity for him. Enraged, the man decides to sexually assault her and kills her in the process, all under the watchful eye of the visitor’s camera. They take her home and make plans to dismember her. However, the man becomes aroused and decides that he would like to defile the corpse first, which he does while videotaping himself. Meanwhile, the visitor has gone inside the house where he has awakened a new ecstasy in the man’s wife by massaging her breasts to the point where milk spews forth. The wife then learns to achieve this on her own, and puts on a grand display for the visitor whereby she summons so much milk that the whole kitchen floor becomes flooded, with a little of her excited urine thrown in for good measure. Outside, the man discovers that his member has become stuck in the corpse due to the onset of rigor mortis. He calls for the aid of his wife, who is now so rejuvenated that she cares not about her husband’s exploits. She sits him and the corpse down in a bathtub full of vinegar to soften the skin, then shoots him up with some of her heroin, which seems to do just the trick; he pops right out. Then their son returns home, the bullies not far behind. Only now the father decides to take action, and proceeds to savagely slaughter the bullying trio with various tools. Finally, the family’s daughter, who has been out on the street prostituting for some time, is encouraged to return home by the visitor (also using a large rock), and the family is reborn into a new splendor of caring for one another. The final shot finds the daughter and husband both suckling at the wife/mother’s breasts, she in the bliss of harmonious domesticity.
Believe it or not, this film is great. Shot on video, this is not aesthetically what we have come to expect from Miike, and shows little of the beauty that can be found in the likes of Audition or The Bird People of China. But his approach works for the piece, as it largely involves the husband’s obsession with videotape. The execution of the work is exceptional. I’m usually one who complains about the eliciting of humour from morbid situations, especially when rabid Fantasia fans seem to want nothing more than to laugh at the most horrific of exploitation. However, this film was uproariously hilarious, and the crowd was in full force. The performances were perfect, the sheer absurdity of it all was treated in such a way as to make it enjoyable rather than just being an obnoxious onslaught. Top notch work from a director who is fast becoming one of my favourites. I’m very much looking forward to the screening of his Dead or Alive 2: The Birds.
Finally, there is Gojoe, the latest from Japanese wunderkind Sogo Ishii. Although the version presented here is the 97 minute export version as opposed to the 137 minute original cut (which was shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival last year), the film still managed to impress. This is loosely a period Samurai piece, but is not in the same category of any Samurai film I’ve seen to date. Sogo does not work in genre, and has a habit of reinventing those genres he decides to touch upon. His earlier films Labyrinth of Dreams and Angel Dust are amazing achievements of style and substance, and Gojoe continues the tradition. The story, I believe somewhat convoluted by the missing forty minutes, basically involves a demon monk who arrives at Gojoe bridge to purge it of a demon swordsman who has been making it impossible for anyone to pass. But the story is actually of small importance, as this film is filled with a beauty and wondrous energy that I have not often witnessed on the big screen. The forests are alive with colours just slightly supernatural in character, the scenes of warrior carnage are executed with a down to earth brutality that reminds us of the drastic difference between the Kung Fu and Samurai traditions, despite the fact that this film boasts a rare combination of the Samurai in conjunction with the presence of the supernatural. While most of the films in the festival leave me wishing they were slightly less fantastical, here I relished the idea that a Samurai picture might cross over a little into the realm of the spiritual. Among the more notable sequences we find an unnaturally invoked solar eclipse, moments of deliriously depicted psychic connection between dueling parties, and a ferocious climactic one on one between two demon forces the likes of which are scarcely worth trying to impart here in words. In short, this is a remarkable achievement, and I look forward to its release in the spring of next year, abridged version or not. Sogo Ishii is a talent to be reckoned with, someone who understands implicitly the film medium and uses it to impart true magic to the world. And with that I’m off to enjoy the rest of the festival, with the hopes that I will have more gems to report upon once it’s all said and done.
1 – See Slavoj Zizek, “The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway,” Seattle: The Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities, University of Washington, 2000.
2 – Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987: xiii.