Imagine the gnome from Amélie was still sending out travel photos, only, instead of visiting tourist landmarks, he was posing at crime scenes. Such is the droll wit of Liza, the Fox-Fairy. The feature debut from Hungarian director Károly Ujj Mészáros is awash in bizarre and curious pleasures. Perverse, hilarious, and poignant, this absurdist fairy tale still features one of 2015’s most touching love stories.
Amélie from Hell. Perhaps that’s the best way to describe Liza, the Fox-Fairy. Like Amélie, Liza (Mónika Balsai) wants to be the plucky heroine who meets the perfect man and lives happily-ever-after. She slavishly memorizes a Japanese romance novel, hoping the words will magically change her fortunes. Sadly, fate has other plans for her. In this case, fate is her imaginary friend, Tomy Tani (David Sakurai); the mischievous ghost of a long-dead Japanese pop singer from the 1950’s. Tomy entertains Liza with a succession of pop ditties while she toils as a nurse to her paralyzed, asthmatic benefactor, Marta (Piroska Molnár).
Alone and desperate on her 30th birthday, Liza decides to make some changes. She consults fashion magazines, raises the hem line of her skirts, and flirts with Marta’s hunky nephew, Henrik (Zoltán Schmied). None of this sits well with a jealous Tomy, who wants Liza all to himself. He mercilessly punishes any man who takes an interest in her, including a kindhearted police detective named Zoltan (Szabolcs Bede Fazekas). As the misfortune and carnage pile up around her, Liza comes to believe that she is a fox-fairy; a demon from Japanese folklore that kills any man unfortunate enough to love her. Only her own death or the selfless love of a pure heart can release her from this curse.
The genius of director Károly Ujj Mészáros’ surrealistic fairy tale is how deftly it mixes black comedy, whimsy, and unabashed sentimentality. A self-aware narrator chides the director for revealing information at inappropriate times (“Stop! This is stupid!”). Fallen male suitors are immortalized with white tape outlines on Liza’s floor, while Tomy delights in torturing astronauts in outer space. Yet, despite all the wackiness, there is an unapologetic sweetness that keeps the emotional storyline in the foreground. Detective Zoltan, who endures all manner of painful (and hilarious) physical trauma, has the same dogged determination of any classic leading man, minus the chiseled good looks and intoxicating charm. Even the fiendishly-clever trickster, Tomy, loves Liza with such unadulterated passion that you almost sympathize with his dastardly schemes.
The soundtrack, too, echoes the mishmash of tones and styles. Japanese pop songs accompany not only dancing and frivolity, but grizzly acts of murder and mayhem. Even the commercial jingle for Liza’s favorite restaurant, Mekk Burger, becomes an addictive theme song that will embed itself in your brain. Mészáros seamlessly blends sound and image to create a story that is both quirky and familiar at the same time.Mónika Balsai is completely enchanting as Liza. She has an unassuming beauty that allows her to steal a scene without overwhelming it. She’s also a gifted physical comedian who can be irrepressibly goofy while still making your heart ache over her loneliness. As the delightfully-wicked Tomy, Sakurai sings and dances his way into the blackest part of your heart. Instead of using “Stuck in the Middle With You” to accompany his coup de grâce, Tony would probably choose “Jaan Pehechan Ho.” Hey, why not try to lighten the mood when you’re killing someone, right?
Always heartfelt but never saccharine, Liza, the Fox-Fairy is almost an embarrassment of cheeky riches. Károly Ujj Mészáros is never content to settle for the obvious resolution, always packing a few surprises in the corner of each scene. If Liza has a flaw, in fact, it’s being a bit too irreverent at times. Still, this irreverence helps it avoid much of the cloying sentimentality that plagues most self-aware films (including the aforementioned Amélie). This unconventional love story offers hope to the hopeless and a lesson in realism to the idealistic. To everyone else, it offers one charming, perverse thrill after another.