Fantasia 2000: Looking Back

by Donato Totaro Volume 5, Issue 3 / June 2001 36 minutes (8901 words)

Like last year, my report on Fantasia comes at the heels of the new installment, with a full year to create more distance than is critically necessary, and more than enough to challenge my long-term memory. Given the interminable distance between this writing and my viewing of the films, I will keep to a minimum the usual token plot-synopsis accompaniment. Not only because I deplore that aspect of film writing, but because it is so damn hard to remember plots while immersed in the thick of a film festival; and the plot is usually the first thing I forget in a film anyway, especially the mediocre variety.

Fantasia 2000 kicked off its fifth year with the Montreal premiere of Canadian pseudo arthouse Between the Moon and Montevideo (2000), directed by Attila Bertalan. Bertalan also stars as Tobi, the laconic anti-hero scrap dealer stranded on a purgatorial planet between the Moon and the Earth. Granted Canadian cinema does not have a rich science fiction tradition, but Bertalan’s intentions are not to honor to the conventions of the genre. His relation to the genre is akin to Andrei Tarkovsky’s with Solaris, Stalker and parts of Nostalghia and The Sacrifice. In other words, the genre trappings are used as a template to explore emotional and metaphysical territory. Not that I am placing Bertalan anywhere near Tarkovsky, but there are sporadic moments where it is apparent that Bertalan saw Stalker, and may have been influenced by its sensibility. Though it is fair to say (to Tarkovsky) that Bertalan didn’t get much except some surface similarities: Bertalan’s Stalker-esque concentration camp style cropped hair; his weakness and fragility; the scenes of surveillance trucks chasing him through deserted streets; the derelict art direction. From what I gathered at the post-film opening night party, the film had its vocal detractors: too long (111 minutes), boring, bad acting, bad characterisation, and bad action choreography. Although I could see some of the points, my critical sense is to be more kind and give the film points for at least attempting to do something with the future other than the typical post-apocalyptic, post-Bladerunner aesthetic.

The plot consists of Tobi attempting to escape his depressed planet existence. And I liked the way the film’s opening and closing shots played off each other to thematically entrap Tobi in his environment: (opening shot) long shot of a sun baked earth, with Tobi atop a heap pile selecting pieces of scrap; (closing shot) extreme high angle long shot of Tobi entering a boxing ring against a black opponent he did not want to fight, they begin to encircle each other and move in for the fight. In the end, after all his efforts to escape, nothing has changed. His environment remains the same.

Bertalan starts out by making his character interesting, but he strains the situation by making him too many things: an anti-hero and a hero; pathetic and weak, yet strong enough to defeat three men. Pascale Bussières walks through her depthless role, and the female femme fatale, Carmela, is a walking cliché (wacko Hispanic who kills so the Bussières character can get her man). There are, however, some good characters, like the old black man who stands on the street corner sharpening knives yet knows where everyone is at all times! The main problem with the film is that the disparate pieces do not come together: the myriad of narrative snippets, the SF elements, and the social allegory (immigrants attempting to leave for a better world). There is nothing wrong with leaving loose ends, as in the film’s opening/closing circularity, but there is no effort made to explain any of the social, cultural, or technological artifacts. In the end it becomes apparent that there is no reason outside of convenience for setting the film in the future (and shooting it in Cuba for that matter). In the end the odd touches – the muslin woman walking through streets, the rabbits, the cell phones – do not add up to much. Two plugs are in order. One for the nice cinematography by former Concordia film student François Dagenais. While the pacing and characterisation may be uneven, the look of the film remains consistent, getting progressively darker and expressive as the claustrophobic end nears. And a second plug to local actor Johnny Vamvas for his brief but energizing back alley scene with Bertalan (Mr. Vamvas appears in a second scene as the corpse at his funeral and, approriately enough, exhibits no energy).

Donato Totaro with Johnny Vamvas and actress/wife Olga Montes on Opening Night

I was also much kinder than most to the other Canadian film premiere, The Island of the Dead (2000). Like Bertalan, director Tim Southam, an admitted novice to the genre, tries an off-kilter approach to the traditional nature gone amok film. The film takes off from a fascinating bit of documentary evidence, an island off of Manhattan, Hart Island, which has been the final resting place for approximately one million of New York’s unclaimed dead since 1869: infant deaths, the homeless, the destitute, and the unwanted. Peter Koper, who came up with the original story for the film, did a feature on Hart Island ten years ago as a journalist. And he assured me that most New Yorker’s do not know this island exists. Even co-star Talisa Soto, a long-time New Yorker, admitted that she never heard of the island, nor her policeman brother. Co-writer Koper and director/co-writer Southam give the factual accounts of Hart Island an horrific twist by populating the island with sentient maggot turned flies that act as moral agents protecting the island dead against the corporate machinations of villainous billionaire land developer Rupert King (played by Malcolm McDowell).

With his background as a documentary and experimental filmmaker, Southam builds suspense methodically with a languid pacing for the first three-quarters of the film, often cutting away from the current narrative exposition to repetitive slow motion shots of three girls skipping rope, an image which connects thematically to the Talisa Soto character’s quest to trace the whereabouts of three dead girls. For the first two-thirds, Southam employs long takes to form a quiet, unhurried rhythm until letting loose with the expected explosion of action and special make-up effects after the characters become trapped in the house (a la Night of the Living Dead, 1968). This includes a slow motion, music video styled interlude, which serves mainly to feature a track by rap artist-actor Mos Def. At that point, the film becomes the standard nature gone amok fare (complete with requisite flycam point of view shots). In his introduction to the film, Southam admitted that he watched some horror films in preparation but realized he would not be able to make those type of films so went the other way, citing directors Ang Lee, Terence Malick, and Andrei Tarkovsky as touchstones. McDowell, in Montreal shooting another film at the time of the screening, joined Southam in introducing the film, and added a brief touch of class to the proceedings.

Mitch Davis watches as Tim Southam and Malcolm MacDowell introduce Island of the Dead

Perhaps no experience best represents what Fantasia is all about more than a big screen viewing of a Godzilla film. And the programmers never disappoint by offering at least one new or old film, and usually in a pristine 35mm print. In fact no one would be more disappointed if they did not show one than the programmers themselves, especially Mr. Godzilla, André Dubois. This year Fantasia presented a wonderful brand new 35mm scope print of Godzilla: Invasion of the Astro Monster (1965), which was loads of fun (plus a new 35m print of Son of Godzilla, 1967). The film starts teasingly, as the monsters do not show up until about halfway through the film. Joining Between the Moon and Montevideo for oddly located planets, Invasion of the Astro Monster features a planet hidden behind Jupiter, Planet X , run by a group of stern Devo-look-a-like men and women living in a world borrowed from leftover Forbidden Planet (1956) set design. In one of the biggest arms deals since Stalin’s exchange of wheat for weaponry, the leaders of the planet ask to borrow Godzilla and Rodan from Earth to help them defeat Ghidra, in exchange for a miracle drug. They then show their true side and attack earth with all three monsters. (Beware: annoying plot hole revelation of the kind kids never care about…and some adults. If Planet X is so powerful technologically, earth should have realized this was a scam.) It turns out the aliens have already insinuated themselves on earth -a classic 1950’s alien takeover plot.

A goofy young inventor must ‘prove’ himself to his girlfriend’s astronaut brother to gain his marriage approval. In the process he becomes a semi-hero when he discovers that the sound emanating from his toy invention destroys the aliens. As in many other SF films it is something simple and inconsequential that defeats the aliens (the common cold in War of the Worlds, the music of Slim Whitman in Mars Attacks, etc.). The pacing is on the slow side until near the end, when the three monsters are awakened from their induced slumber to trash the city. The only intrusively dated aspect of the film are the hilarious miniatures, including some featuring stiff, unmoving astronauts (a shot of them coming down the elevator shaft from the top of a spaceship; looking through binoculars out of the tank turret); and army vehicles where you can see the plastic rod underneath keeping the vehicle attached to the track. One of the ‘comic’ highlights is Godzilla doing that funny dance step that was all the rage in Japan. Which is a perfect example of how the Japanese monster films are pure theatre and as far away from realism as one can project. In the end Godzilla topples Ghidra over into the sea and Rodan flies away to return in a later sequel.

Although there were only two films from one of the hottest Asian cinema nations, Korea, both were strong entries, Lies and Attack of the Gas Station, (1999). Lies (1999) is directed by Korea’s enfant terrible, Jang Sun-woo, and is easily the most daring Korean film since his 1997 Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie. In Lies, a successful 38-year old architect and an 18-year old student meet at a hotel for regular sex. What starts out as a covert sexual fling turns into an all-consuming passion, to the point where they disavow all that middle-class society deems worthy and valuable (education, good job, money, material possession, family, etc.). In Lies sex is used as a stand in for social, political, or emotional woes, in the tradition of Salo -The 120 Days of Sodom, Last Tango in Paris or Realm of the Senses. Although the film does not go further than those in this respect, one must keep in mind the context of what historians refer to as Korea’s culturally ingrained Confucian-based gender politics, where women are seen as socially subservient to men. Within this context one realizes just how controversial the film’s text and subtext is, and how taboo is its the imagery and content:

    -sex with a junior
    -dropping completely out of society, he from his work, her from school (in a scene in the back of a cab she begins to talk about the sort of things a normal girl her age would talk about and he replies, why do I have to listen to this crap!)
    -the one-sided nature of their relationship (sex, sex, sex)
    -the shifting from masochism to sadomasochism

Contrary to the Confucian ethos, in Lies the male character, an older and well-established professional, becomes weaker and more dependent on the young woman, as she grows in emotional strength. The film is serious about its social subtext, but perversely funny in its treatment of the sex scenes (representation of the sadomasochism, playful reflexivity, grotesque visual touches). And it is the humour that keeps the film from becoming stale or too one-note. Like the hilarious scene near the end of the film where the morally and physically exhausted couple walking past city workers in a park and pick up pieces of scrap wood (wood has become their preferred sex toy/crutch. As we see when he returns to his wife in the end, he is only able to have sex with some good old wood to spank his backside. Interestingly, the film begins with a reflexive streak with moments where we see a second camera but, unlike Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie, which maintains the reflexivity most of the way, the reflexive stuff stops early on and the film’s discourse becomes more traditional. The film ends with the girl going to Brazil to stay with her sister while he returns to his wife to continue ‘living the lies.’ The presence of actor Kim Tae-Yeon as invited guest no doubt raised audience interest, and may even have ‘stirred’ certain members of the crowd into going out to look for a piece of lumber!

The screening of Attack the Gas Station, directed by Kim Sang-Jin, represented its North American premiere. Attack the Gas Station is a perfect case study of the ability of recent Korean cinema to straddle the line between social commentary and popular entertainment [witness Swiri (1999), The Quiet Family (1998), Whispering Corridors, (1998) and three new films being featured at this year’s Fantasia, Barking Dogs Never Bite, (2000) The Foul King, (2000) and The Isle (2000)]. The film is a full-throttle comedy with a huge social subtext concerning youth culture, and an aspect of Korean society that is infused with the nation’s colonized/victimized history. A brief history lesson. Japan colonized Korea from 1910 until after World War 2. After WW2 Korea was divided by the allied nations into the Russian-backed Communist North and US-backed capitalist South. The US occupied the South until 1949. North Korea invaded the South on June 25, 1950, in attempt to unify Korea under Communist rule. This initiated the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. Korea was then ruled from 1961 until 1992 by non-democratic, military governments. So the specter of an oppressor has forever lingered in the Korean psyche, and this film clearly derives its energy and humor from the dynamics of the oppressor-humiliator and the oppressed-humiliated. In Attack the Gas Station a group of angry young men storm into a gas station with bats and brute force, and hold its employees and customers hostage over the course of a long night. The young men take particular delight in humiliating their victims through intimidation and physical violence. Though always entertaining, it is also somewhat disconcerting because of the constant violence, and humor that grows out of it; but the violence is being used metaphorically, as a tool to democratize. The uneasy sense I felt laughing with and enjoying the empowerment-through-violence was part of the critical process. But whether angry young teens getting off on the empowerment associated with the violence understand the subtext is another matter (I would think yes with Korean youth). In the end my sense is that Attack the Gas Station achieves the delicate balancing act of criticizing authoritarianism while exploiting it for humor. Partly because the violent characters become fully drawn out as the film progresses, and we learn where the violence is coming from. Through flashback, we learn that each member of the gang experienced traumatic physical or emotional humiliation at the hands of an authority figure. The gas station itself can be seen as a microcosm for Korea, led by the selfish salaryman type. The rebellious youths that take over represent the new regime, but also a military coup, blasting their way into the station with bats and brute force to hold everyone at bay (though no guns, thankfully). The film concludes with an anarchistic, violent free-for-all between the gang, the police, the station employees, and countless customers and civilians, which may be a veiled reference to the Kwangju Massacre of May 1980, a Tiananmen Square-like government oppression of a democratic uprising which precipitated strong anti-government sentiment throughout the 1980’s.

Contrary to Korea with only two films, Japan had the most feature films in the festival with 18 (compared to 6 for Hong Kong). Two of the most eagerly awaited, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini (1999) and Shu Lea Cheang’s I.K.U (2000)., proved polar opposite with regard their success level. Gemini was powerful, poetic, and beautiful. I.K.U. was a strained effort to raise pornography above its singular arousal purpose to a vaguely science fiction, cyber, post-gender level. With Gemini, Tsukamoto takes his art further along the lines of Bullet Ballet than the Iron Man films and demonstrates how rich a concept the theme of the döppelganger is. The film raises more questions than answers. Are there really two brothers, as the late flashback shot of two babies implies, or is this a linear event, making it the character Daitokuji’s new offsprings, and the two identical figures only psychological? The play with the double reminded me of the underrated Robert Mulligan film from 1972, The Other; and Dead Ringers (1988) on mescaline!. The opening reel, with its attention to the senses (the awful smell, rasping sounds) recalls The Ring , 1998 (at one point he is thrown into a deep well) and the Wundarlak segment from Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963). The film is set at the end of Meiji period, but the costumes of the people in the slum area have a contemporary feel. Fear is contained in the first half, with the doctor Daitokuji’s Noh-like features, and strange edits that refresh the space in unsettling ways. I was not surprised to learn that the film is based on a story by Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo, who was greatly influenced by Poe (Maybe Fantasia will one day show Kazuyoshi Okuyama’s The Mystery of Rampo (1994) as a recent retro title?) With Rampo’s admiration for Poe we can make an interesting link to the classic Poe döppelganger story “William Wilson” (which was adapted by Louis Malle in the second episode of Spirits of the Dead 1967) and read the two characters, Daitokuji (the bourgeois doctor) and Sujichiku (the homeless derelict) as one.

The buzz surrounding the Art porn I.K.U. was electrifying. Well over one hundred people had to be turned away for the midnight screening, persuading the festival to add on another screening. Along for the electra-porn ride were director Shu Lea Cheang, an artist with a rich pedigree in political video art, producer Asai Takashi (co-producer of many Derek Jarman films), and sex star Tokito Ayumu. Looking around the crowd before the film began I noticed groups of men who did not seem like the typical Fantasia crowd. I realized then that some people would be disappointed with I.K.U., expecting but not receiving more tart than art. And yes, there were dozens of walkouts. On one level the disappointment was well earned. The film is eye candy, provocative but too visually allusive for anyone expecting to be sexually aroused. Although the film maintains a porn movie structure, there are no hard core scenes, except for one lone come shot near the end (which caused one spectator too sarcastically cheer). But disappointment gave way to frustration when we learned during the Q & A session that the film we saw was the producer’s cut, and not director approved cut (running time of 74 is shorter than the 90 listed in press release). There was a palpable tension on stage between Cheang and producer Takashi during the Q & A. When asked what the differences were, Cheang replied, “the director has vanished from this version!” Hyperbole or truth? We won’t know for 5 years (Takashi’s answer when asked when the director’s version would be released).

The film begins and ends with clear Bladerunner references: man picks up a tin foil unicorn/couple drives off into the open air freedom. In between, Bladerunner remains only in the intertitle references to the Genom multinational corporation, which replaces the Tyrell Co., with cyber sex dolls and affiliated sex toys (gun with penis for easy, rhythmic fucking when penis is not available); and with the coupling of Reiko One and Dizzy that parallels Rachel and Deckard . As Cheang said, the film is a ‘penis study’ and hyper-experimental recreation of what she sees as our continuing need of sex crutches (from vibrators to porn to viagra). The film is all texture, the lighting, color schemes, etc., as if the sexual stimulation is to be replaced by this aural, sensorial overload. Which is why I think the film would be better viewed in morsels, on DVD, or in a gallery/museum context, or better yet, online.

The film does provide a nice transsexual ‘surprise’ a la Crying Game: in the opening scene we see a black man getting it on with Reiko (sex movie actress Ayumu Tokito). The camera makes it evident that there is a sizeable bulge in his shorts. Later in the film this scene continues and when Reiko pulls down his drawers we see – surprise – a vagina. Cue audience groan. (Only later did I learn that the actor, Zachery Nataf, is an actual female to male transexxual!) And another disapproving groan for a man-to-man fellatio scene in a car (groans all round from the homophobic side of the audience?). Interactivity is evident in the way the film offers you two conclusions. One where the black man rides off with Reiko; and one where he rides off with a Japanese man.

The film’s best scene is the Tokyo Rose ‘virus’ scene where she invites a man into what seems like a computer or human play station and performs fellatio. The act is cleverly censored by the shifting light patterns that cut through the latticed walls that move laterally across frame. Ultimately I.K.U. is a theory film, with some exciting ideas but, as far as the censored version we saw, the porn structure is devoid of any payoff, making the ideas lack the necessary edge. Without the full sexual brunt the technological extrapolation of the sex toys (dolls, pistol dildos, computer analogies like hard drive and sex data retrievals) is emasculated. This ideas were better served in Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999).

My favorite Japanese film of the festival, by far, is Higuchinsky’s Uzumaki (2000). I will go as far as saying this is the most audacious, inventive film of the festival, maybe of any Fantasia festival to date. The film says nothing profound, but takes the notion of riffing to ridiculously giddy heights. The note in question is the idea of the spiral, and how a small Japanese community slowly becomes figuratively and then literally enveloped by the spiral. If it is saying anything, Uzumaki is an imaginative reworking of human obsession. But the obsession goes beyond mental. The people become spirals in one form or another, either turning into snails or human spirals. The film begins on an extreme close-up of an eye. The eye slowly closes to the rhythm of a fade to black. A girl’s voice-over tells us about the small town of Kurouzu-Cho. It ends on the same extreme close-up of an eye. Which may imply that the film within is a wild dream or fantasy of the central female protagonist, Kirie, the only person unaffected by the ‘spiral plague’. Kirie has been friends for life with a particular boy, though she is hounded aggressively by another boy who loves her.

The craziness starts off slowly, with odd things occurring. Like a boy’s father intensely filming a snail for hours. Things change at school. Children start coming to school only when it rains, moving every so slowly, and covered in gooey substance. The first to go off the deep end is the snail-obsessed photographer father. In the first out and out surreal moment, his eyes begin to violently spin in circles. He is found dead in a box, curled up into a spiral shape. When his body is cremated, black fumes rise out of the chimney to form a spiral in the sky! Things start to go very strange at this point. People tear off their fingerprints to avoid looking at the spirals of their fingerprints. Things get so out of hand that the townsfolk must be protected against any spiral image. In one eerie hospital scene a large centipede crawls into the room, up the bed, and nearly into a woman’s ear. A reporter is quickly dispatched when his car crashes and his windshield forms a spiral crack. Not only do people turn into snails, but high angle shots show the ground of the town itself spiraling (a foreshadowing of the final transmogrification of the whole town). The final episode, a transmogrification of the town into a spiral, is an awesome visual accomplishment meshing still life, painting, and comic book visuals. The town is frozen into a spiral. People lay on the ground, their hair coifed in a huge spiral. A frightening shot sees a handful of students, their bodies twisted into a spiral mess, crawling up the school wall. Words do not justify Uzumaki‘s zaniness. Pure surreal imagination meets scientific precision. What does this guy do for an encore?

A very close second in my books was Audition, (1999) by a director who is quickly becoming a Fantasia regular, Takashi Miike. What would a Fantasia festival be like without at least one film that revels in the art of torture? Of course you would not imagine it based on the first half of the film. A nice film producer widower stages a series of seemingly benign casting calls in search of a replacement wife. He is smitten by the docile nature and ethereal beauty of a young woman named Yamazaki Asami. But we’ve seen the ad mats and read the catalogue synopsis, so we know better. And yet the shift from domestic drama to intense hostage horror, when Asami is revealed to be a raving lunatic-sociopath, is still jarring. When Aoyama takes Asami home he gets more than he bargained for. The film’s style moves from static and airy to kinetic and claustrophobic, as we move from the comforting space of Aoyama’s corporate offices to the chaotic torture chamber of his home. Aoyama is tied, gagged, and slowly tortured (what Asami does with needles is uncomfortable to say the least). The change of Asami’s character from kitten to wild cat is a telling cautionary tale on the subservient role of the woman in Japanese society. Dangerous women appear in two other Japanese companion pieces to Audition: a demented housewife named Sachiko in Yoshimitsu Morita’s The Black House, (1999) and rape victim turned complacent murderess Chihiro in Takashi Ishii’s Freeze Me (2000). The latter is a chamber piece mainly contained in Chihiro’s small apartment. A serene image of a snowy city street scene represents the small town north of Tokyo where Chihiro was raped by three men. The shot appears twice. Snow appears again in an elevator. The snow imagery connects to the titular emotional state of the central character (recalling the psychosis of the Catherine Deneuve character in Repulsion). Chihiro is now living in Tokyo, but her past comes back to haunt her as the three rapists return, one by one. But now Chihiro is ready and gets the upper hand on her rapists. Maintaining the feminist streak demonstrated in Ishii’s earlier works (Gonin 1, 2 and Black Angel 1, 2), the rapists represent the three sides of the Japanese male: the rebel, the salaryman (subservient and docile when sober, abusive when drunk) and the yakuza.

The Black House is best described as a ‘contained mess.’ It begins in a fairly realist fashion, with an insurance company that looks into suspicious claims by the Komodas family. The claims are being made by the housewife who turns out to be a serial killer, a real wacko who wears flowery shirts and uses a bowling ball as a murder tool. But the deeper they investigate, the crazier the situation gets. The film maintains a progressive breakdown of realism, until letting loose with a hell-bent ending and art direction that recalls the ‘grotto sleek’ of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Se7en, (1995) and Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin (1988). Morita plays the craziness for dark laughter, but also manages to provide some good ‘startle effect’ jolts, like the blade that comes shooting out of the mist onto the staircase after the audience thinks the wife is dead.

Another Japanese Fantasia favorite was the wildly over-the-top Dead or Alive, (1999) also by Takashi Miike. The opening and closing scenes book end what appear to be entirely different movies. The sonic paced opening feels like a trailer cut by someone high on cocaine (like one of the triads seen in the opening, who does a line of coke about 30 feet long!). A guy frantically eating noodle soup is shot from behind and the noodle comes flying out of his stomach toward the camera in slow motion! The cutting is frantic, with fast motion cinematography, slasher style heavy metal guitar, and neon lights that capture the cinematic violence of the Tokyo urban nightlife.

The ending pits a stoic, black-dressed yakuza leader against the taciturn cop out for vengeance after his estranged wife and daughter are killed in a car explosion. It starts off as a semi-plausible crime vehicle and then veers off into (literally) outer-space. Mikii almost pulls it off, that is justifying the mega mood shift, with this wicked send-up of every imaginable one-on-one confrontation you can think of (Western, Gangster, Italian Spaghetti western). The cop crawls out of a car that has just exploded, back from what should have been certain death; he rips his injured left arm out of its socket, and produces a huge bazooka from his back; meanwhile the yakuza guy has a few things up his sleeve. He pulls a large crystal (the residue of all his pent up emotions?) out of his guts and hurls it at the bazooka bullet. The crystal and bullet connect in mid-air to create a cosmic smash-up, seen from an outer space point of view! The sold-out crowd was in an uproar.

The Yakuza leader has a son who despises his father’s ‘blood money’; and the cop has a sick child (a cliché right out of Beat Takeshi) who needs $200,000 for an operation. In between the beginning and ending the film attempts a Takeshi-tinged structure of abrupt action/in-action, even going as far as shooting several scenes in extended static long takes. Director Mikii is attempting a different take on the underworld. The slow pacing (with a myriad of characters) drags us down to the skewed, morally perverse world of the underworld (a Chinese crime lord thinks he can become God; drowns a prostitute in a tub of her own feces; makes animal porn on the side, etc.). But the representation is so skewed it becomes hard to care or understand where the characters are coming from. Unlike Audition, the radical shifts in tempo, perhaps borrowed from ‘Beat’ Takashi, do not coalesce as well here. But the manic genre or tone shifts seen in Audition, The Black House, and Dead or Alive appears to be a favorite stylistic device of Japan’s most important popular film artists (Sogu Ishii, Takeshi Ishii, Takeshi Miike, Beat Takeshi, Yoshimitsu Morita). Fantasia 2001 presents the North American premiere of Takeshi’s sequel to Dead or Alive, Dead or Alive 2: Birds, playing only once on July 25 at 7:45pm.

The theme of obsession and addiction, treated surrealistically in Uzumaki, is given the more traditional context of the vampire bloodlust in two British films, Blood (1999) and Wisdom of the Crocodiles (1999) (recently released on video and DVD with the far less poetic but narratively fitting title Immortality). I wrote about Wisdom briefly in last year’s Fantasia preview, but will repeat that it is one of finest, richest horror films to come along in years. The central character, Steven Grlscz (Jude Law), is a modern day vampire (though the word vampire is never mentioned) who keeps his cover working as a medical researcher. The film has an unusual twist on the vampire myth. Grlscz can only vampirize a person after gaining their undivided love. His body can not consume blood that isn’t fully given over to him. Which reverberates in the scene where he shows Anne (Elina Löwensohn) crystals in the human body that are produced by emotions (and is able to name each one). Where some films may be lucky to engage one interesting theme, Wisdom uses the vampire metaphor to treat several inter-related themes: salvation and evil being two. Each of the two central characters, Grlscz and Anne, perform acts of salvation. Grlscz rescues a woman from her subway suicide (only to kill her later). He rescues police detective Spall from a subway gang beating and saves Anne in the end by not vampirizing her, which becomes in effect his own suicide. His final act of salvation brings the film around by enacting the suicide of the woman he rescues in the film’s opening. Anne improvises a tracheotomy on a co-worker and saves his life. Law is one of the most fascinating vampire characters ever. Intelligent, charming, and beguiling; powerful yet fragile; sophisticated and gentle, yet a calculating murderer. There is also the subtle suggestion that he is a chameleon, picking up character or personality traits from those he ‘ingests’ or meets. For example, he rubs out a cigarette stub with his finger after seeing Spall do it; and seems to contract Alice’s asthma. The theme of evil, and its attraction, is treated in the relationship between Law and the detective Spall, which is well-written and sensitively played. In a sequence shot long take that films them walking along a street, the two men discuss the question of evil from a theological perspective, with Grlscz expressing the view that evil cuts through every heart. We see this döppelganger theme echoed in the two sketches he makes of Anne (one her beautiful self, the other a Baconesque perversion). Near the end, the film borrows a page out of Bladerunner: on the roof, Grlscz pulls Anne up from ledge, with a spike through his hand (Christ figure), which completes film’s theme of salvation.

The use of vampirism or cannibalism as a metaphor for addiction has been used on several occasions, most effectively in the films Martin (1976, George Romero), Brain Damage (1992, Frank Henenlotter), The Addiction (1995 Abe Ferrara), and Habit (1996 Larry Fessenden). In Blood, the theme of addiction becomes text rather than subtext. Though the film does not elaborate on the imagery any more than blood drinking and neck wounds, by the end the pretext of sex is dropped altogether for straight bloodletting. Some members of the Fantasia critical entourage thought the film slow, but the methodical descent into co-dependency was a necessary aspect of the film. My main complaint was not with the pacing, but with the undeveloped fascinating scientific premise. The depiction of addiction remains unquestionably powerful, especially in the culminating lovemaking/ life draining scene. But Blood does not delve deeper into the nature of addiction any more than Brain Damage, a film with a wholly different tone but with an equally penetrating descent. What it does add is the element of human-scientific interference, when the plot reveals that the central female character, Lix (Lee Blakemore), was genetically altered at birth by Carl Dayson (Adrian Rawlins) so that her blood would be a medical cure-all. Carl is able to stave off drinking any of Lix’s blood, until circumstances lead to him drinking her blood. The Fantasia catalogue notes mention that Lix’s blood is an addictive narcotic. But in fact this is only implied through the actions in the first scene, where a drug dealer comes over to Carl’s home and tests the product (her blood), as if it were a bag of cocaine. However, the scientific angle takes a back seat to the human descent into unbridled addiction. And as powerful as it is, it would have been interesting to see director Charly Cantor develop the Frankenstein-like relationship between Lix and Carl.

The best moments of the film are the early scenes of Anne adjusting to Carl Dyson’s family environment. The first time she awakes in her room, to slowly examine her new environment, moving her lithe nude body in child-like amazement, recalls the somnambulist walks of the daughter in George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959). And then her interactions with Carl’s 10-year old boy (with the implied sexual overtones, like when she slips into bed with him), and the cat and mouse nature of her relationship with Carl’s wife. The ‘real time’ scene where Carl sucks the lifeblood from Lix, with the naturalistic slurping sounds and Lix’s suicidal moans, felt like the natural place to end the film. The scene ends with a slow fade to black, but then fades back in, which emitted groans from some audience members. Like Lies, Blood deals with co-dependency and how sex becomes pushed to the side for the real thrill: SM in Lies, blood drinking in Blood. Highs of a different order.

Fantasia has always made a concerted effort to expand its Asian parameters, and this year presented for the first time a film from Thailand, Nang Nak, (1999) as well as two from India, the Bollywood extravaganza Muthu (1995) and the arthouse The Terrorist (1998). Nang Nak was a wonderful surprise, playing to a packed house and proving that cinematic morsels can be unearthed in every corner of the world. Nang Nak is a beautiful meditation on death, loss and the necessity of “letting go” of the material world when one’s time has come. The film borrows from Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic ghost story Ugetsu, (1954) the premise of a husband, Mak (Winai Kraibutr), returning home from war to belatedly discover that his wife, killed during his absence, is a ghost. (No doubt this general story is common to most if not all Eastern traditions.) What director Nonzee Nimibutr adds is that the wife, Nak (Intira Jareonpura) was pregnant and that the child is also a ghost. At first blind to the ominous warnings (rats infesting his house, a spider that crashes into his door) and then unwilling to abandon his love, Mak is convinced that he must abandon his unholy alliance by the community. Only after a village priest performs an exorcism that casts away Nak’s spirit presence, is reconciliation and acceptance possible. Shot entirely in location, Nang Nak derives its essence of non-confrontational drama and acceptance of the natural process from Thai folklore and tradition.

The Terrorist came loaded with a pedigree, having so strongly impressed actor John Malkovich that he went to great lengths to single-handedly promote the film in the US. The film is the directorial debut of the well known Indian cinematographer Santosh Sivan, and a showcase for the enchanting presence of young actress Ayesha Dharkar as a 19 year-old revolutionist Malli, who embarks on a suicidal mission of martyrdom to assassinate a visiting diplomat. Over the course of the film’s 95 minutes we set sail on a subjective journey of Malli’s political re-awakening and transformation from fervent, ultra-nationalist terrorist, to pacifist-humanist. Although the journey brings Malli in front of her target and the film ends before her decision is taken, the film leaves no ambiguity in terms of where it stands. Everything in the film remains unnamed: terrorist group, nation, country, political party. Sivan’s project is not political but humanist. Although I have strong admiration for the film’s fervent anti-nationalism, I had difficulty with its method. For the majority of her journey Malli is shot in close-up. The decision to focus on Malli’s face may be justified by the subjective discourse, and you can argue allows us to better observe her inner turmoil. But the close-ups are also artfully composed and aestheticized. To the point where in some shots I felt like I was watching a Vogue cover, with Dharkar made-up in designer sweat and choreographed hair. At some point into the barrage of close-ups I became self-conscious of her beauty and forgot all about the film’s political virtues. I much prefer Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s treatment of the same theme, transition from violent to pacifist activism, in A Moment of Innocence (1996). I should also mention the stunning experimental short by Duraid Munajim, Entropy 1, that screened before The Terrorist. Just when you thought the time-lapse city film was exhausted (Koyaanisqatsi 1983 and Powaqqatsi 1988 by Godfrey Reggio, Baraka 1992 by Ron Fricke), comes this little 6 minute gem which combines Munajim’s spellbinding celestial- imagery with David Kristian’s electronic sounds into an entrancing trip that brings the cosmic metaphysics of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s (1968) stargate scene down to earthly delight.

One of the best Hong Kong films this year was Johnnie To’s The Mission, (1999) which does a number on the Hong Kong gangster-action genre, mainly by slowing things done to make the ‘hang-time’ between action the main focus, rather than the action. When a major Triad leader is nearly assassinated, he entrusts the 4 best bodyguards in the business to protect him, Francis Ng (Roy), Anthony Wong (Curtis, the leader), Mike, and Shin (the youngest). The four individualists slowly grow to respect each other and make a formidable protection unit. The down time moments, when they hang around the triad leader’s home or in his office, are close in spirit to the Italian Mafia film tradition, like The Godfather series or Scorsese films, only there the hang-time is usually spend with the family. There is one great ‘hang time’ scene in the triad leader’s office where they are so bored that they spontaneously begin to play soccer with a paper ball. When their mission is over —eliminating the gang that tried to kill the crime lord— the nature of their loyalty is challenged. Shin has slept with the lord’s wife, and he must be eliminated. Curtis seems adamant on the point, while the others plea for his youthful ignorance. Shin is murdered in a shootout at the restaurant but the end reveals a false bullet that was part of a set-up so that the restaurant owner would have witnessed his death. The film is less effective after the mission is completed, simply because their characters are not developed beyond this narrative function, and the film’s central tension was in the enforced, temporary partnership of the four characters.

The film contains one amazing traditionalist set-piece in the Tseun Wan Plaza, in a scene where the bodyguards sense danger and rely on their instincts to siphon out the intruder. Johnny To holds moments in air, with characters posed a la Michelangelo Antonioni (Red Desert 1964), waiting for the assailants to make the first wrong move, waiting for an opening. To dollies his camera back to reveal the chess-like positioning of the characters, or dollies laterally to place them in the mall’s vast, open spaces. An extremely entertaining film, with the To maintaining the line between classical representation and self-parody.

Another Fantasia highpoint was the screening of the original cut of Donald Cammell’s Wild Side (1995), hosted by the man who supervised the re-edit, actor/editor Frank Mazzola. The re-edit involved putting back the non-linear narrative structure (a Cammell trait) and adding 23 minutes fo footage. The result is that the lesbian relationship between loan officer Anne Heche and crazed financial racketeer Bruno’s (Christopher Walken) wife, played by Joan Chen, which was sensationalized in the cut version, is now placed into a proper emotional context. The emotional core of this stylish character study is the desire of “crossing over to the other side” (to quote Bruno), which takes the film back to the 1940’s/50’s classic Walsh/Huston film noirs where characters trapped in a nihilistic underworld dreamed of an escape to a pre-envisioned paradise (Sterling Hayden’s rabbit farm in Huston’s Asphalt Jungle, Cagney’s ‘top of the world’ in White Heat; Bogart’s mountainous retreat in High Sierra, etc.). Frank Mazzola’s director’s cut reinstates the elliptical, retroactive cutting style (predicated on character emotions rather than narrative coherency) that caused tension between Cammell and his one-time co-director and friend Nicolas Roeg, who often took credit for this cutting style after achieving the success Cammell never attained. One of the key lines in the film comes from Walken’s eccentric millionaire financial racketeer Bruno: “Life is extreme. It is black and white.” Depending on how you read this, but the sexuality and morality of the world presented here is anything but black and white.

Frank Mazzola introduces Wild Side

Those who have come to love Walken’s histrionic performances and eccentric characters will not be disappointed with his cigar-chomping sociopath Bruno. Never more so than in the hilarious ‘bendover’ scene where Walken comes ever so close to sodomizing undercover cop Steven Bauer, to avenge Bauer’s near rape of the Anne Heche character. The scene is played out as a comedy team routine, like a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler with the homo-erotic angle cranked up to 11. (And which also recalls Eddie Murphy’s delicious Honeymooners routine from Delirious, where he ‘outs’ Kramden and Norton….“Norton, bendover Norton.”)

The love triangle represented in the film between the Walken, Chen, and Heche characters seems to have biographical touches. In reality, China King left Donald Cammell for a younger man. In the film Heche leaves Walken for a younger woman. While the lesbian relationship between still closeted Heche and Joan Chen is one of most romantically enchanting on screen: their initial meeting and subsequent lunches (where Cammell/Mazzola cut across different lunches in continuous effect); the dressing room scenes, where single primary colors dominate the respective backgrounds in shot reverse shot exchanges. Heche plays the inner realization of her gay attraction so well, with proper groans, moans, eye stares, etc.; while Joan plays the passive seductress role equally well. The film ends with Bruno saving Bauer, and Chen and Heche driving off together (yet another Bladerunner resonance).

The oddball German film Tuvalu (1999) is an adult fable about pure love and tradition surviving corporate greed. It features some stunning cinematography by Emil Christov, which alternates black and white with color gel shifts from one shot/scene to the next (from bluish, to brownish, greenish), and effective art direction which saved the film from its precocious storyline. The Russian actress Chulpan Hamatova is stunning as Eva, the young actress/love interest to Denis Lavant’s Chaplinesque pint Anton. Tuvalu takes place in a non-defined temporal post-apocalyptic space, where a ‘public’ pool building is the only free standing structure amid the flat, desert-like landscape. Anton’s Lyle Lovett/Eraserhead lookalike brother is the villain who lusts after Eva and wants to condemn the pool and have it torn down to establish something more lucrative on it with his company. But the inspection, which is hilariously sabotaged by the good guys, passes. The sabotaged inspection is of course a well-worn classic comic device, seen in Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985), The Kingdom (Lars von Trier, 1994) and Britannia Hospital (Lindsay Anderson, 1982). Even after the pool passes inspection, Anton’s brother goes crazy and destroys the building with a demolition ball. Meanwhile Anton and his cronies salvage the old motor in the basement (the buildings metaphorical ‘heart’, while its shell/body is destroyed) and sail off into the sunset with the motor in tow. The film was shot in Bulgaria, which explains the post-war, east-European look and feel (the post-communist hold-over economy [“Technology System Profit” as the catchword]; the bureaucracy; constant government inspections; old mechanical-industrial technology, etc.).

A film with no pretensions other than thrills and spills was the American zombie horror film The Convent (2000). As director Mike Mendez said in Q&A, it was a film made with the horror fan in mind. This shows because the film never condescends and attempts to instill some genuine fear and not just play the retro laugh angle. The opening prologue has a biker woman entering a convent, blowing away about a dozen nuns, and torching the convent (We can count John Carpenter’s Vampire (1999) as the first in a long line of filmic allusions). The film cuts ahead 30 years to the present, where the standard young- protagonists-enter-the-condemned-haunted-site plot. Alongside the young couples is a group of wannabe Satanists hiding inside the convent, attempting to summon the evil one with the sacrifice of a virgin. Surprisingly for them (but not us wily veteran horror fans), they succeed and all hell breaks loose. Cue the references to Demons (Lamberto Bava, 1985, containment, rock music, heroine enters on bike to kill nuns), Hell Night, (Tom DeSimone, 1981) and Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi, 1987, trick happy ending). There’s even a Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpagh, 1969) dialogue reference when the heroine from the prologue, played by Adrianne Barbeau, initiates an attack with the words, “Let’s go”. It was nice to see Adrianne Barbeau back in a horror movie. Mendez said that they wrote the part specifically with Barbeau in mind. Perhaps, but her lines were so cliché and delivered with so little fire, it felt more like she was walking through the role on her way to the bank. The film ends with a page out of Carrie. The traumatised heroine rests in bed, comforted by her mother and family dog. The mother leaves and we cut to the dog: his eyes turn demon-like and he attacks the girl (The Beyond, Lucio Fulci, 1980). A straight comic scene is lifted from Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, 1992): drugged out dude guy enters chapel to the music of Gary Wright’s retro hit Dreamweaver, replete with disco ball and red/blue lighting effects.

Mike Mendez and writer/producer Chaton Anderson gear up Fantasia fans for The Convent

A horror film with far more pretension and seriousness is the Spanish film The Nameless, (1999) directed by Jaume Balagueró. In style and tone, The Nameless recalls two earlier Fantasia entries, Augustin Villaronga’s 99.9 (1997) and Pupi Avati’s Arcane Enchanter (1996). Though not as eerie as the latter, The Nameless attempts the same slow build-up, spending much of its screen time with tortured characters, until the payoff. The tortured soul in this scenario is a woman named Claudia, who is barely over the trauma of her child’s death, when she must confront the possibility that her daughter is still alive and held captive by an evil cult called The Nameless. But unfortunately, in this case the payoff does not do full justice to the buildup. The payoff rests on what may be the ultimate perversion: the daughter, indoctrinated by her Satanist captors to lure the mother to them, deceives her captors by killing herself rather than her mother. The film ends as she claims her mother’s love firmly, then turns to place gun in her mouth, pulls the trigger, and the image cuts to black. This is a horrifying prospect for any parent. She has already suffered the trauma of her daughter’s death, and now must re-visit the pain. However, the film deals primarily with the supernatural. The main problem rests in the articulation of the Nameless, the ‘ultimate evil’ cult with links to the Nazi’s and their experiments in ‘human pain tolerance/management’. The cult idea is great conceptually, but every necessary concept in horror cinema, as profound as it may be, needs a personification of that the evil (think Hannibal Lecter, Kevin Spacey in Se7en (David Fincher, 1995), Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962). They have the makings of a great one in the creepy Santini, with the scene in his sanatorium, but his presence is too fleeting. As they are characterized, the cultists do not live up to the horror of their ideal.

Julien Fonfrède on stage with Jaume Balaguero and producer Julio Fernandez from The Nameless

I also felt the film relied too much on sound/music effects to achieve the mood that could not have been attained in less intrusive ways. After the opening scene where the child’s body is found, nothing of any frightening consequence happens, except for those annoying fast motion flash frame intercuts of the daughter. (The point of which, according to director Balagueró, is to link the dual stories of the film: the mother’s trauma and the daughter’s evil indoctrination.). You know a film is in trouble when it resorts to characters senselessly walking into a situation to simply die. First the journalist, who gets attacked and ‘stripped” to get at the essence of evil; then the jaded ex-cop; then the mother. I preferred the far more surreal, Freudian mind trip provided by Balaguerós short film Alicia, where another girl gets ‘lost’, this time in the mechanics of her own pubescent mind (first menstruation; kidnapped by scuba divers and placed into the lap of a disgusting blubber man/woman, whom she suckles).

Over 8,500 words later and I have not even discussed the scintillating presence of Lau Ching-Wan and his actress/wife Amy Kwok at Fantasia 2001, or the guest appearance of Eric Idle during the special “Evening with Terry Jones.” For these moments I will let photos tell the story, for Fantasia 2001 is upon us, and another sterling lineup of Asian and International horror, science-fiction, and anime. Judging from the snazzier, full color layout of the 2001 program, Fantasia has finally found some corporate sponsorship, which will hopefully ensure a healthy future for Montreal’s only horror-fantasy festival. Hey guys, with respect to the catalogue, how about an index and page numbers next year!

Photo Gallery

Lau Ching-Wan with Amy Kwok

On Stage with Julien Fonfrède

Eric Idle Joins Terry Jones on Stage

The Fantasia Night Owls:

In Chinatown for a post-film snack

At Luba Lounge

Fantasia 2000: Looking Back

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 5, Issue 3 / June 2001 Festival Reports   action film   canadian cinema   fantasia   hong kong cinema   horror   japanese cinema   korean cinema   spanish horror