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Fantastic Fest 2013, Day Three Report: Subtitles, subtitles, subtitles

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If you couldn’t tell from the title of today’s report from Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the theme of Day Three for me could be boiled down into one word: subtitles. And if it wasn’t for one of the five films I watched today–not counting Cheap Thrills, which has its own, fuller review elsewhere in the section–the theme could’ve been Asian cinema. But alas, it was not to be. Stupid Borgman. (More on that in a bit.) Though there were fewer miracles to be had today, there was a bit of liquor imbibed, specifically a tequila-infused chocolate milkshake, which tastes as delightful as it sounds. Just like Day Two, as I sit to compose this report, I’m amazed that 15 hours ago, I was on my way to the Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline. In spite of staying either inside the theater or directly outside of it for the duration, a whole hell of a lot happened today.

The centerpiece selection of the day, Man of Tai Chi, has also inspired one of the most beloved fan events at Fantastic Fest, the Fantastic Debates. Last year may have been the pinnacle of the Fantastic Debates, as mumblecore icon Joe Swanberg verbally and physically sparred with an outspoken detractor of his, Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci. I can, sadly, only wonder if this year’s debates will be as memorable. Yes, sadly, I skipped out on the debates, because a) I’m tired, b) I had to write this report, and c) please refer to a). But Man of Tai Chi is, in essence, up for debate between Drafthouse founder Tim League and the co-star/director of said film, Keanu Reeves. Granted, Reeves only got suited up for the verbal portion of the debate over whether Tai Chi is a practice martial art worth respecting, or something goofy and worth mocking. His co-star, and the title character of Man of Tai Chi, Tiger Chen is fighting League in the boxing ring. I type these words before the debate began, but I don’t think it’s unsafe to assume that League will get beat in at least one type of debate.

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But what about Man of Tai Chi itself? This film, Reeves’ directorial debut, is a mostly biographical story about Chen’s shift into the world of martial arts via Tai Chi. In the film, Chen begins working for an enigmatic Hong Kong businessman (Reeves) and doesn’t realize until it’s potentially too late that the security-systems CEO also is the driving force behind a murderous underground fight club. (I say “potentially” because, as you may have noticed, Chen is appearing at the Fantastic Debates, so he’s doing just fine, thank you very much.) Honestly, the plot of Man of Tai Chi is not only extremely rote, but it’s not remotely what anyone watching a movie called Man of Tai Chi should be looking for. This doesn’t excuse Michael G. Cooney’s overly familiar script, which is consistently predictable, mind you. That said, what matters most in a film like Man of Tai Chi is how well, if at all, the martial arts sequences work. Though this movie doesn’t reach the intense, bone-crunching heights of Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, the fights are fairly plentiful and fairly kickass. Once Tiger is ensconced in the world of fighting random, well-built strangers for some cash, the hits do not stop. Reeves, every so often, indulges in a bit of wirework as well as a wee bit of extra-fast-paced editing, but not so much that it seriously detracts from the experience.

Man of Tai Chi is also unexpectedly quite funny, though exactly how intentional the humor is may be up to each audience member. Some of the humor is so quick and off-the-wall that it’s hard to believe Reeves isn’t doing it on purpose, of course. (The best example is one moment where, for literally no reason, there’s a shot of Reeves, staring directly at the camera, shouting and baring his teeth. It’s glorious. And stupid. And funny.) The movie toes the line between being too self-serious and just winking enough, as in a final revelation that calls to mind, of all things, The Truman Show. It’s safe to say, though, that the latter movie never would’ve worked if Truman and Christof battled with their fists instead of their minds. Man of Tai Chi is, if nothing else, a solid and confident directorial debut. Keanu Reeves has not reinvented the wheel with this film, either in front of or behind the camera, but this is the opposite of a vanity project. He knows what he’s doing in terms of pacing and staging action sequences. Whoa indeed. (What? I had to.)

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My trip into Asian cinema continued afterward, but I went back in time while staying in China. One of the most highly anticipated films of this year’s Fantastic Fest had to be Stephen Chow’s first film in five years (this time, he co-directed with Derek Kwok), Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. This fantasy adventure is about a group of disparate demon hunters united in trying to take down a series of particularly nasty animal-inspired demons, from fish to monkeys to pigs. The lead character is the most unassuming of all, Buddhist disciple Tang Sanzang (Wen Zhang), who believes that he can ward off demonic spirits by tapping into their emotional side via an old book of nursery rhymes. He’s soon teamed up, mostly unwillingly, with Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who inexplicably falls madly in love with Sanzang and refuses to accept his cold rebuffs of her advances while they fight off forces of evil. All this, plus loads of CGI action and violence involving oversized pagan animal baddies.

The tone shifts wildly from moment to moment in Journey to the West, a comic retelling of one of China’s most revered novels. Chow is, for the majority of the film, able to balance the teetering changes pretty well, but he steps wrong, if slightly, in the first 30 minutes. The first big setpiece, which takes up a good chunk of that time and is almost perfectly entertaining, features a shocking misstep: at one point, Sanzang fails to save a toddler from being killed by a fish demon. Only a few seconds before that, he was dealing with a cowardly Taoist priest, and seconds later, there are more gags to be laughed at. It’s not that the humor in this movie doesn’t work; sometimes, at its height, the script calls to mind Monty Python sketches, which is a pleasant surprise indeed. But it’s hard to emotionally invest in this world or its characters when they serve mostly as comic props. Sanzang is legitimately broken up about not saving the child, but his tearful outburst is quickly played for laughs because of how histrionic he is. There’s no shortage of interesting, if wholly cartoonish, action in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, and Stephen Chow fans will likely not be disappointed. But the tone shifts were simply something the movie couldn’t handle fully.

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It’s hard to say if the third movie of my day, the Dutch film Borgman, had tonal shifts as much as it had a singularly baffling attitude it wished to maintain for its two hours. As I walked out of the theater, I was reminded of one of the great gags from The Simpsons (yes, I know, there are countless such gags). It’s when Homer Simpson, circa 1990 or early 1991, is seen watching an episode of the cult drama Twin Peaks. A man and a horse are dancing in this parodic moment, and Homer is enraptured. “Brilliant,” he chuckles. Without taking a breath, he says, “I have no idea what’s going on.” Such was the case with Borgman. From scene to scene, this warped film held my attention, holding out the possible prize of explanations for the mindfuckery occuring throughout. But there’s not much in terms of hard answers in this uber-adult fable. A lot of things happen in this movie, and there are teases about what could be causing all of them to transpire, but if you’re looking for answers in Borgman, you’ll need all the luck in the world to find them.

A long-haired and bearded man named Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) is rustled awake from his literal underground lair (a hovel he’s created directly underneath a forest in the Netherlands) by three men, including a priest, who all brandish weapons and are clearly prepared to use them. He alerts two of his compatriots, also underground, that it’s time to move. Soon after, Borgman stops at a beautiful house and garden; he asks to be let in to take a bath, but even though the patriarch of the family (Jeroen Perceval) violently refuses, his wife (Hadewych Minis) allows Borgman in. Soon, she’s turning a blind eye when her three kids encounter Borgman. Then, she’s letting him stay in their summer house. Then, she gets frostier with her husband, perhaps because of some vicious dreams she has at the same time that a naked Borgman hovers over her in the bedroom, despite her apparently not realizing it. And so on.

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I would like to tell you that I know what the hell was going on in Borgman, but I don’t. As I spend more time away from the film, the more dissatisfied I am with its lack of definite conclusions. (Though I did not say it, I was absolutely thinking as the last shot appeared on screen, “This can’t be the ending. This isn’t the ending. This…dammit, that was the ending?”) Writer-director Alex van Warmerdam crafts a compelling and consistently screwy environment, one in which Borgman’s associates also include two terse women who serve mostly to take out any perceived threats to…whatever it is that he wants to be done. Bijvoet and Minis are both very good in the film, though arguably, Minis is the lead and handles the burden as well as she possibly can. Even though the greater forces at work in Borgman–it is hard to imagine that one of his hunters in the first scene being a priest isn’t on purpose–may go unexplained, the way that Marina changes her outlook on her family is so gradual that Minis makes it almost totally plausible. But the movie itself lacks any attempt at answering all the questions it poses. For sheer, inexplicable weirdness, Borgman is just fine. For anything else, it’s a frustrating headache.

My next film of the day was the exact opposite of a headache, thank goodness. Confession of Murder, a new action thriller from South Korea, has an almost disturbingly novel concept that’s played to a nasty and satiric hilt: a serial killer brutally murders a handful of women in the late-1980s, stopping in 1990 and disappearing. The murders go unsolved past the 15-year statue of limitations. In 2007, two years after the statue expired, a man (Park Si-hoo) comes forth in a press conference to say that he’s not only the guilty party, but that he’s just written a tell-all book about his vicious past. Lt. Choi (Jung Jae-young), the cop who couldn’t catch his quarry back in 1990 and got an unpleasant scar on his cheek to boot, is immediately suspicious of this author-turned-national celebrity. Even more, some of the victims’ family members are furious to see the man turn his life of crime into one of fame and fortune, and plan to do something to remind him of all the hurt he inflicted. If, of course, he’s the man who inflicted it.

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Oh, Confession of Murder is plenty ridiculous, but co-writer and director Jeong Byeong-Gil owns it completely. The second half of the film, especially, is chock full of twists that could seem outlandish in the wrong hands. But the cast and script sell each turn so fully that it’s easy to buy. And even if the story wasn’t so engrossing and, at turns, emotional, Confession of Murder would be worth watching just for the trio of action sequences. (And, oh, if there were only more of them.) The highlight of the film is a setpiece where the victims’ family members attempt to kidnap the killer/author via ambulance, all while his security detail tries to retrieve him and Lt. Choi tries to take him in for questioning. All of this plays out on the freeway, while the killer and an aggrieved family member duke it out on the tops of the cars’ hoods and roofs. Though there’s some very noticeable CGI in this sequence, as well as the climactic chase, the gags within the chases are ridiculous and seemingly untoppable, until suddenly, Byeong-Gil pulls something else out from his list of tricks. The opening foot chase, as well, is stunning in part because the camera is used as much of a stunt prop as the men on screen. When the masked murderer jumps from the top of one building to a lower floor of another, the camera jumps with him–not seemingly, but actually–and lands with a thud. The plot around the action works well mostly because the characters in the disparate subplots, even the satiric section skewering the exclusive-hungry news media, are given a depth of development and personality not found in most American films. Presumably, hopefully, Confession of Murder will soon have (or may already have) North American distribution. Once it opens in your area or on VOD, you’ll want to watch it. To this point, it’s my favorite film of the festival.

My final film of the third day of Fantastic Fest was also, in many ways, the bleakest I’ve seen so far. I kind of hope it remains as such, because as much as I think that Fatal worked, I’m not sure it’s a movie experience I’d want replicated. After leaving, I discussed the film with Film School Rejects’ Rob Hunter, and we agreed that it didn’t feel quite like the kind of movie you’d expect to see at Fantastic Fest. Title aside, the movie is largely lacking in physical violence, and is firmly grounded in reality. Outside of a short dream sequence, there are no flights of fancy or genre dabbling at play. Instead, Fatal is a clear-eyed view of a tortured, permanently damned soul. Sung-gong is a painfully shy young man, and as the film opens, he’s being goaded and bullied into taking part in a gang rape by three of his so-called friends from school. He fights it as long as he can, but eventually, he’s prodded into the room with a faceless and helpless girl. Upon leaving, he denies having done anything wrong, but still feels immense guilt about whatever passive part he might’ve played. Ten years later, Sung-gong works quietly at a sewing machine, going home to his small apartment. Randomly, he’s encouraged to attend a youth-group meeting at a local church by some peers on a mission, and after he does, he’s shocked to find out that the girl who was so brutally raped a decade ago is among them.

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Fatal is not lacking in suspense, of course. As soon as Sung-gong meets the girl as an adult, the question of when (or if) he’ll tell her about that fateful event hangs over each scene like a storm cloud. Many times, director Lee Dong-ku is able to build tension through pauses. Whenever Sung-gong says he has something to tell his new friend, I found myself beginning to shield my face with my hands. It’s, I suppose, a testament to the power of the movie that I didn’t want to watch the most awkward and painful revelation of all spew forth on screen. Fatal‘s third act stumbles a fair bit, as Sung-gong’s search for salvation and redemption appears to become much clearer (if much bloodier). His choices may be logical in the moment, but are clearly not well-thought-out. His motivation, so clear and purposeful before, seems a bit shakier and forced in the final half-hour. That said, Fatal is an exceptionally patient film, as Lee Dong-ku lets many scenes play out in full in one take, such as when Sung-gong approaches the woman at her work, a local coffee shop. Fatal is not a terrifying film, but a cutting and raw one, more painful and cringeworthy than the more fantastical entries I’ve seen so far.

Tomorrow, I might be doing six movies, because I’m a lunatic. Unfortunately, one of them will not be the Ain’t It Cool News-sponsored screening, as I didn’t get into that one. But I’ll be checking out Blue RuinO’ApostoloMood Indigo from Michel Gondry, Ari Folman’s The Congress, We Gotta Get Out of This Place, and Big Bad Wolves. Six movies. One day. I hope to survive. But you never know.


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