Fantasia Film Festival Diary, Part II

Fantasia Film Festival – Diary, Part II

First Features and Unheralded Returns

Debut films were a strong motif during this stretch of the fest, and the best of these was Christopher Denham’s Home Movie, from which I expected very little of interest. The film (which, along with [rec] and the unseen-by-me Korean torture flick The Butcher makes up a verit-themed program entitled Payback in Black) concerns Lutheran pastor David, his psychoanalyst wife Clare, and most crucially their twin children (Jack and Emily, played by real-life siblings Austin and Amber Joy Williams), whose behavior grows increasingly manipulative and psychotic, as documented by a video camera originally meant to document Clare’s sessions. The film is astute in the way it spends seemingly interminable amounts of time detailing the minutiae of Clare and David’s relationship, showing, not telling us that these two are less involved with their children’s habits than thy should be. The performances are uniformly solid, and even when the film takes a turn for the ludicrously improbable in its third act, it maintains interest because the film’s sense of integrity and craft remain.

Tokyo Gore Police was a considerably less auspicious debut for director Yoshihiro Nishimura, previously known for his effects work. The film stars Audition‘s Eihi Shinna, who based on her work here simply isn’t charismatic enough to carry a lead role. Perhaps that’s because she’s not meant to be the focus, but instead the effects work, makeup and choreography, but those end up falling largely flat as well. The “plot,” such as it is, concerns “engineers,” criminals who sprout weapons from lost limbs and injuries; an arm gets ripped out and a chainsaw grows out from the socket, for instance. If that concept alone is enough to propel a two-hour film for you, then you’ll derive some enjoyment from the film, but it doesn’t stop the film from feeling like a joyless rehash of many better films like Versus or Miike’s Dead or Alive films. It also wholeheartedly rips off the propagandistic advertising featured in Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant Starship Troopers. Unlike that film, however, Nishimura doesn’t have the good sense to keep the satirical elements out of the film’s actual plot developments, turning the final act into a shallow exploration of “rebellion.” It doesn’t work.

Another disappointing debut came courtesy of thriller novelist Eric Shapiro. His Rule of Three was propped by glowing press quotes, but they’re not supported by the film, which turns out to be a complete shaggy dog story. Ostensibly a meditation on violence against women, as filtered through the experiences of three sets of people in three different incidents taking place in the same motel room, Three shows promise in its mature treatment of a serious theme, but badly bungles the execution and payoff. I was at first intrigued by the intertwined narrative strains, but gradually disappointed as its numerous plot threads went nowhere and led to the most ridiculous anticlimax of any film I’ve seen this year. A major letdown.

Meanwhile, while roughly no one was waiting with baited breath for Kenta Fukasaku’s X-Cross, but it bests Tokyo Gore Police in the J-horror funstakes. Fukasaku is best known as the son of revered director Kinji Fukasaku, helmer of the cult hit Battle Royale, among many others. When the elder Fukasaku died on the first day of filming Battle Royale 2, Kenta took over, and the resulting mess is often unfairly pinned on him. Nevertheless, X-Cross is a kinetic, senseless and thoroughly enjoyable thriller, despite a hugely strained first half-hour. Midway through the film was a sequence far more exciting than any of the overcooked setpieces in Tokyo, in which two characters face off against one another, one with a chainsaw, and the other with a giant pair of scissors. It’s a masterfully staged sequence, and combined with a deliriously over-the-top climax in which we discover that not all of the evil forces at work are necessarily allied, X-Cross feels cut from the same manic cloth as Royale, even if it’s not as emotionally compelling.

It’s also doubtful that many people were expecting a return from long-dormant cult splatter maestro Frank Henenlotter, but nevertheless his first film in 16 years, Bad Biology, arrived, complete with some of the most perverse imagery on offer this year from any film. The film is at its best by a considerable distance when detailing the trials of Jennifer, who opens the film with the most memorable set-up for a film in recent memory: “I was born with seven clits.” In fact, Jennifer is by far the film’s greatest asset; her struggle for sexual fulfillment could have been sufficient to fuel the film by itself, and been a refreshing antidote to the testosterone-fueled fare that makes up a fair chunk of the fest. Instead, we must also contend with subplot featuring a young man with his own grotesque, sentient genitalia. Since Jennifer seeks to satisfy her body’s strange urges rather than try to control or combat them (as the male, never named, does) she becomes a much more personable character despite her odder characteristics; whenever she has unprotected sex, she gives birth within two hours to something that can almost be described as a child. She’s even come up with a reason for her ailments: “God must want to fuck me,” she insists. Unfortunately, the movie never follows up on that line of thinking (save for one cursory, passing segment near the end of the film), instead focusing most of its energy on the phallus-on-the-loose.

Changes of Pace

Meanwhile, Korea and Japan each offered a character-based drama amidst all the splattery shenanigans. Beautiful Sunday, a sort of Korean hybrid of Todd Solondz perversion and Fight Club pseudo-intellectualism, failed as a film but did offer some arresting moments in its first half. Like Bad Biology, the film suffers because it piggybacks a lackluster plot onto a far superior one, only for both to fail when they become linked. Here’s we have a rote bad-cops-and-bad-robbers story, which I would like to have seen entirely dispensed with, and the much more bracing plot, involving a disturbed young man who rapes a woman, only to pursue her romantically afterwards, having managed to hide his face during the incident. This aspect of the film works wonders in making your skin crawl, but the film itself seems ill-equipped to handle the emotional firestorm it’s dredged up, preferring to rely on its duller plot. In the end, the film settles for a cheap resolution that’s both nonsensical and played out.

Much better was Japan’s Adrift In Toyko, which served as a kind of Japanese response to Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, depicting Japanese characters rather than American passers-by getting lost in the titular metropolis. Here, a down-and-out youngster, Takemura (Jo Odagiri) is pursued by a less-than-kindly debt collector named Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura), to whom Takemura owes a considerable debt. Eventually, Fukuhara offers him a million yen in exchange for Takemura’s company on a seires of walks through Tokyo, as he unintentionally killed his wife and is preparing to turn himself in. As they walk, they recount the more notable aspects of their lives, and reminiscing about old neighborhoods. In the midst of the insanity on offer from many films at the fest, Adrift was a breath of fresh air, but I suspect it’ll play out in just as charming a fashion as in any other context.

Finally, Accuracy of Death, despite its ominous title, worked splendidly as a refreshingly light-hearted take on the usually ponderous “grim reaper” genre. Chiba, one of many grim reapers, must weigh the worth of the lives of his subjects, and decide whether or not they have yet “served their purpose.” As Chiba goes from subject to subject forever followed by the rain that always falls with his presence, he attempts to discern how death fits into the grand scheme of the universe. None of this would be worth a toss, though, were it not for the wonderful work of Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers), who cannily milks his character’s all-encompassing aloofness in a refreshingly low-key manner that best brings out the humor inherent in his position. One of the few PG-13 equivalent films to play at the fest this year (along with the excellent Substitute), Accuracy will be a tad too cute and light for some, but works as a fine comic showcase for Kaneshiro.

Simon Howell

Festival du Nouveau Cinema 2008

Fantasia Film Festival diary Part 1