Fantasia Film Festival diary Part 1

Fanatsia diary, Part I…

With a program encompassing over 100 genre films from nearly every corner of the world, this year’s Fantasia Film Festival promises to be the most ambitious yet. Famous for helping to disseminate foreign horror films – particularly, through hardly exclusively, Japanese and Korean – in North American markets, Fantasia has always been a film lover’s dream, even if its quality levels can’t possibly stay consistently high with such a densely packed schedule.

The Asian Contingent

It’s obligatory that Takashi Miike must make an appearance in some form at a genre film fest that relies heavily on foreign titles – since Miike has a massive following and makes several films each year – and appropriately enough, his Sukiyaki Western Django graced the fest’s opening night, along with Quebec fantasy film Truffe, which was not screened in English. Django is Miike’s love letter to the spaghetti western complete with an all-Asian cast speaking phonetic English. Actually, that should read almost all-Asian, since Quentin Tarantino makes a fairly irritating appearance as a fighting master (!) with a taste for the titular dish. The film is complete fluff, but it’s artfully crafted fluff – even the silliest scenes are artfully staged, and the film’s senseless momentum never lets up. Expect left turns – including a schizophrenic ex-sheriff, at least one explicitly anachronistic reference, transvestitism, and a gatling gun, among others – but also expect a gentler sensibility reminiscent of Stephen Chow’s genial kung-fu films. While it’s fair to miss the psychosexual antics that mark Miike’s best work, Django manages to entertain without pretense, and does so in style.

Other Asian frivolities didn’t fare as well; Negative Happy Chain Saw Edge gets off to a rollicking start, with a teenaged girl fighting a giant hooded figure who falls from the sky with a chainsaw, and quickly devolves into rigidly typical Japanese preteen fare, complete with an awkwardly long music video sequence and a forced “tragic” backstory for its underwritten characters. Similarly perfunctory was the Korean melodrama A Love, whose plot – boy swears to protect girl, boy and girl are forcibly separated, boy must right what’s wrong – rings hollow with familiarity. The festival organizers lost their “official” copy of the film shortly before the screening, so it was saddled with the least comprehensible subtitles – courtesy of an Altavista rush-job, apparently – that I’ve ever witnessed. A sample: “girl” became “bead,” “shake hands” became “pull hook,” and many mentions were made of a character or concept named “turnip” but it never became clear who or what it denoted. Most left the screening within the first five minutes when it became clear that the dialogue (if not the plot) would be hopelessly cryptic, but I derived a kind of absurdist pleasure from trying to wring out meaning from the Dadaist poetry that flashed onscreen. “BE a knife,” indeed.

On a more substantial note, the best Asian film of the fest so far is likely Yang Hea-Hoon’s directorial debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door. The film, which revolves around the lasting effects of high-school bullying, suffers from a lack of strong characterization, but gamely makes up for it with a sense of unpredictability that’s been missing from many of the films that have been showcased at the fest so far. It careens past its expectedly violent climax to deliver a poetic dénouement that includes a sly bit of dream-logic / magic realism. It also contains two scenes that are likely to stay with the viewer – a tortured shuffle across a frozen lake, and a love scene accompanied by incandescent Christmas colors and a quiet guitar – besting many Western efforts at beautifying youthful romance without robbing the scene of its intimacy. It’s far from a perfect film but it’s certainly a noteworthy debut for Hea-Hoon.

Bullies and Outcasts

Bullying also factors into the fest’s best film so far, the Swedish horror-drama Let the Right One In, which is already being optioned for a U.S. remake by J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot. That’s a shame, because Thomas Alfredson’s original is a simple, quiet story about the preadolescent love of one shy outcast for another – it just happens to feature bucketfuls of blood and gore. The film may be too quiet and slow for the fest’s die-hard horror contingent, but I found it to be thoughtful and resonant, particularly when developing the burgeoning relationship between its sickly, brooding protagonist Oskar and his new friend of dubious origin (and ambiguous gender), Eli. Oskar lives in constant fear of their peers, as schoolyard activities are fraught with danger thanks to his outlandish, quiet nature. Eli may provide an escape. I found myself longing for more of Oskar and Eli’s interactions whenever the film spent more than a few minutes with the town’s concerned adults. It might not be the masterpiece some have hailed it as, but it’s certainly not hyperbole to label it the best vampire film in years – especially since there haven’t been any decent ones in a very long time.

Also on the Scandinavian tip, The Substitute, which revolves around a group of young teens who struggle to combat their evil alien teacher, hearkens back to American family films of the 80’s like The Goonies or The Dark Crystal in its refusal to shy away from scary or violent material while still maintaining a sense of fun and wonder – it might be the fest’s most flat-out enjoyable film, providing you’re willing to put up with a rating lower than “R.” Like Negative Happy, it revolves around a young protagonist with a tragic history, but here it feels appropriate and maturely handled. Better yet – even as the film’s sense of danger escalates, with its titular villain (fiendishly rendered by Paprika Steen) revealing her very Dark City-esque motives, its sense of humor and fun remains, never letting itself get too grim or too self-serious. The effects are convincing and effective, and it’s refreshing to see a kid-appropriate film with a sense of barbed wit and black humor.

From real children to overgrown ones, one of this year’s major docs is Second Skin, a surprisingly inclusive look at the world of MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, like World of Warcraft or EverQuest) addicts. When I say inclusive, I mean that the film doesn’t seek to mock its subjects mercilessly – although that would have been easy to do – but instead seeks to understand their addiction and place it in a greater societal context, as well as examining its greater implications. The most striking example of this approach is the inclusion of a segment on China’s “gold farmers,” who number around 100,000, and who work tirelessly in poor conditions to earn as much digital currency within the games as possible in order to sell it back for real money to a principally North American population of gamers – it’s a striking example of outsourcing, and an illustration of the way these “artificial realms” reflect and interact with our own. In examining the individual gamers who spend the majority of their time engaged with their avatars, the film is eager to draw a line between those who stay addicted and risk losing everything, and those who accept responsibility in their “first” lives when it eventually beckons. The film runs a bit too long, and belabors a few of the same points a little too often, but for a first feature doc it is well-balanced and never feels cheap or exploitative.

The Festival Bubble

One of the unfortunate realities of film festivals is that not all of the glowing writeups that appear in your program can possibly be true – and indeed, two films in particular turned out to be crushing disappointments. The first was What We Do Is Secret, a shockingly conventional biopic about seminal L.A. punk band The Germs whose lead singer Darby Crash became one of rock’s least noted burnouts since his deliberate heroin overdose was taken on the same day as John Lennon’s murder. The film does manage to wrangle some grim irony out of that particular circumstance, but that’s the only part of the film that connects with the viewer on a human level – the rest is out-and-out idol worship. In terms of approach, it splits the difference between the two Manchester-based biopics, 24 Hour Party People (in its relentless namechecking and depiction of the L.A. scene’s other bands) and Control (in its retracing the steps of a self-destructive young man), but without the charm of either.

It also shares with Control fact that its actors also perform the music, although here that’s far from difficult, given their deliberately amateurish approach. Control had the advantage of being based on a source that was not necessarily kind to its subject – his widow’s memoir – but here everyone involved seems desperate to do little but eulogize and fawn. Shane West, as Crash, comes across petulant and whiny for much of the film’s second half, but he can’t be faulted for it, because that’s likely exactly how Crash was, given his young age and the need for attention that (relative) stardom can foster. Nevertheless, his often irritating behavior makes it more difficult to tolerate the way the film lionizes his memory. It doesn’t help that in the few intimate glimpses we get with Darby – most of them with obsessive fan Robbie – are quickly scurried off the screen, probably due to gay panic in the editing room (they certainly don’t hesitate to showcase us a female extra’s full-frontal nudity late in the film). This squeamishness epitomizes the film’s safe, “made-for-TV” aesthetic – a descriptor that is entirely unbefitting for any film covering such volatile, provocative territory.

Meanwhile, Dario Argento’s final film in his “Mother” trilogy, Mother of Tears, is by some distance the flat-out worst thing I’ve seen here, a film so colossally awful that many festival-goers were howling during its supposedly-gravest scenes. I don’t want to harp on this for too long, so I’ll just say this: it might be true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when he starts to forget the old ones (in this case, pacing, atmosphere, thrills…) it might be time to put the damn thing down.

Also disappointing, although not on the same scale, was Spanish thriller Before the Fall, which started out with grim promise and ended up somewhere deeply regrettable. There are too few films where the apocalypse is not only a threat but a pressing inevitability, but for now I’ll settle for Don McKellar’s Last Night. Fall gets a lot of initial mileage out of the doomed atmosphere that scenario brings, but its plot hinges on far too many unlikely character quirks for the plot to remain in any way tenable. Meanwhile the film’s feel shifts abruptly from a doomed slow burn to a ludicrous serial-killer chase-fest, which feels like a waste of time given the greater events at work. I was interested to see a rural Spanish take on the end of the world – as opposed to the universally American spectacles we’re regaled with every summer – but Before the Fall’s tonal inconsistency and gimmicky characterization destroyed it long before any asteroid could.

The festival hype did herald one worthy Spanish film, however: [rec] is indeed the year’s scariest film to date. It gives the already-tired “verité horror” genre a swift kick in the pants while providing just enough wit and humanity to keep the proceedings from getting too grim. To discuss the film’s plot would practically be a disservice to it – mostly because the film is largely plotless, as most great horror films are. It’s a tightly wound house of horrors, with the viewer planted in its center, unable to escape. The only recent film of comparable intensity would be 28 Weeks Later, but even that can’t match this film’s fever-pitch final reel, in which both claustrophobia and energy are ramped up in obscene amounts. The film is aided greatly by a sterling lead performance by Manuela Velasco as the TV host who is pushy at first by trade, and then by necessity. Try to catch this one before the already-filmed U.S. remake can spoil the fun.

More as the fest continues.

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