Horror, fantasy, Hong Kong action, animation, strange documentaries, gored-up science-fiction, Japanese Pink films and martial arts flicks are just among the many genres Fantasia has covered in its fourteen years of programming. Famous for being the largest genre film festival in North America, Fantasia is packed with Canadian, North American and worldwide feature-length premieres as well as shorts. Since I have attended the festival every year since the very first, I decided it would be fun to come up with a list of my 50 favorite films. In no particular order, starting with the first five years of the festival, here they are.
Pi was an almost unclassifiable sleeper hit that emerged on the arthouse circuit in 1998 and Fantasia was proud to present the world premiere. It ventured into a unique theme that had never been dealt with in a film before, and although the plot is eccentric, Aronofsky’s message was simple: life does not fit into neat patterns, and complete control is impossible. It didn’t take long to realize that Aronofsky would be a director to look out for. In fact, he directed my second favourite film of the past decade (see my list here), The Wrestler, and like that film, Pi works first and foremost as a character study of an obsessed individual whose single-minded goal blinds him to everything else in life.
A Gun for Jennifer
A Gun For Jennifer is a pseudo rape and revenge/vigilante flick centered around a team of female vigilantes. Think I Spit On Your Grave but with actual feminist appeal and blessed with the seedy look that instantly recalls Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45. The film initially had funding from an overseas investor, but it turned out the money used was embezzled, and the producer and director had to use credit cards to finish the film. The film continues to remain without an official DVD release due to unpaid music rights. A Gun For Jennifer also has my favourite tagline in the history of grindhouse cinema: Dead Men Don’t Rape.
In the early 90s, South African director Richard Stanley was a young director with a short but promising career directing music videos and documentaries. After finishing his first feature length film, the cyberpunk splatter flick Hardware, Stanley started working on his dream project Dust Devil: a horror film very loosely based on the Nhadiep, a Namibian mythical serial killer. Dust Devil is one of the most original and profound pictures ever screened in the entire history of the film festival. Visually speaking, Devil is nearly flawless, and Richard Stanley’s eye for composition and his ability to build up mood are forever burnt into the imagination of devoted cult followers such as myself. Devil is a remarkable horror film that successfully mixes graphic gory realism with a supernatural mythology and the Spaghetti western iconography with African spiritualism. Cut from 120 minutes to a trifling 86 minutes, Dust Devil was butchered into incoherence by the studios and only recently found a proper DVD release. Thankfully, Fantasia’s fans had a chance to see the original cut on the big screen back in the late 90’s. Earlier this year, Sound On Sight devoted a chunk of its radio show to the director. Listen to our special on Richard Stanley here.
Day Of The Beast (El Dia De La Bestia)
Former comic book illustrator Alex de la Iglesia took Spain by surprise in 1991 with his short film, Mirindas Asesinas. Four years later, he returned with his feature-length debut Day Of The Beast – a tongue-in-cheek thriller which picked up no fewer than six of Spain’s Oscar equivalent, the Goyas. Spiked with extreme violence and over-the- top performances, The Day of the Beast mixes comedy, horror and a considerable amount of dark humour to the story, without ever feeling like a parody or spoof. The film’s shocking and darkly comic opening sets the tone right away, and it’s a testament to the director’s talent that he is able to continuously up the ante as the film progresses. For fans of the genre, it was a nice a welcome addition to the festival’s many surprises throughout the years and considering it does not have a North American release, it made the big-screen viewing experience most memorable.
To be honest, I don’t remember much about Airbag except that it was a wild attempt to beat Quentin Tarantino at his own game, and it was partly in Portuguese. Perhaps that’s why it was my among my five favourite films of the first two years of the fest since I am Portuguese and Tarantino was at the time my favourite film director. Unfortunately, I have never again been able to track this film down even though it is considered to be among the biggest action movies in the history of Spanish cinema. This hallucinogenic road movie/thriller has an odd mix of grotesque and weird comedy, dazzling cinematography, a complex plot line and a knack for unfolding the narrative with genre-mixing anarchy.
Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991)
Based on a hyper-violent Japanese Manga, Rikki-Oh is one is of the most outrageously gory films you’ll ever see – so much so, it ran into huge censorship problems in many countries as a result. Directed by genre specialist Ngai Kai Lam, (The Seventh Curse, Saga Of The Phoenix, Ghost Snatchers), Riki-Oh features more violence than several European cannibal thrillers combined: crushed heads, exploding bodies, exposed brains, disembowelment, decapitation, suicide, manual organ removal, and more. The Story of Ricky has the honour of being the first totally sex-free Hong Kong film to receive a Category 3 rating (equivalent to the 18 certificate here), making it something of a unique viewing experience.
Ashes Of Time
In Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-wai brings a distinctive style and worldview to the wu-xia genre – a genre that usually focuses primarily on action and swordplay. Packed with pitch-perfect performances (from an all-star cast), stirring music and hypnotic images (lensed by longtime collaborator Christopher Doyle), Ashes Of Time is poetic, maddening, beautiful, astonishing and surreal filmmaking. Considering the film’s imagery is its most striking asset, it was a pleasure to see Ashes at the old Imperial Theatre, with its beautiful full balcony.
The Blade (Doa)
Inspired by the 1967 Shaw Brothers epic, The One-Armed Swordsman, Tsui Hark’s The Blade is a dazzling example of elevating a conventional story into something rich and strange. Though not a revolutionary landmark film of the high caliber of Seven Swords, Blade reinforces that Hark is an innovator and a visionary, and puts him squarely in the company of other Asian avant-gardists.
The Legend II (Fong Sai Yuk 2)
A sequel that is occasionally superior to the original. Jet Li returns as Chinese folk hero Fong Sai-Yuk, the well-worn acolyte of the mother of iron. The magic flying and wall running popularized in the U.S. by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is on ample display here. Watch for the most memorable scene – the chair-juggling final sequence, which alone makes it worth the watch.
Fist Of Legend (Jing wu ying xiong)
The premise is simple. Chen Zhen (Jet Li) returns home in 1937 to learn that his childhood school has been overtaken by Japanese fighters and that they have killed his beloved master. Zhen goes on a quest to bring the killers to justice in an effort to restore honour to his mentor and school. Sound familiar? Anyone familiar with Fist Of Fury should right away catch on that Fist Of Legend is a loose remake of Bruce Lee’s legendary film. I always say If you’re going remake a film, it should be better than or at least different from the original and surprisingly, Fist of Legend manages to do just that. Fist excels (as one might expect) in the many martial arts sequences and for my money is still the very best of the genre. With the combination of veteran director Gordon Chow, legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (Wing Chun, The Matrix, Kill Bill) and superstar Jet Li, Fist Of Legend is nothing short of electric, lighting up every scene and sending high voltage shock waves through the entire narrative. From the opening scene, in which Li takes on an entire school of Japanese karate students, to the final fight, where he fights the tall and powerful Chow, Fist Of Legend remains the peak of Woo Ping’s art and stands as one of Jet Li’s most impressive films – and that’s saying a lot considering his resume. Watch out for the clever homage to Bruce Lee’s famous hand vs. sword fight from the original film, only Chen Zhen instead uses his belt against Fujita’s sword.
Shaolin Temple (Shao Lin si)
Notice how young Jet Li looks in the movie poster? Well Shaolin Temple is Jet Li’s first movie (he was only 18 at the time), and it’s easy to see why he became a star with his dazzling athletics. The fight scenes are spectacular, and like the Shaw Bros. classic 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the film focuses on the training of an impressive group of heroes, each with a different style or specialty. The training scenes themselves are remarkable for the cleverness and scope of the techniques employed and Shaolin Temple might very well be the high-water mark of the Shaw Brothers martial arts film cycle.
Iron Monkey may not have the poetic lyricism of Ashes Of Time, but it offers the same kind of extended, exaggerated virtuoso martial-arts battles, campy overacting, and comic relief found in Drunken Master 2. It’s a dazzling martial arts action film and a rousing period adventure with some of the finest martial arts displays imaginable. The fights are innovative and intense, be it a one-on-one duel or one of many struggles featuring multiple combatants, and director Ping truly saves the best for last; the climax, fought on burning poles over a raging inferno and involving at least a half dozen fighters, needs to be seen to be believed. Highly entertaining escapist fare.
Drunken Master 2 (Jui kuen II)
Widely considered Jackie Chan’s best movie, The Legend of Drunken Master (released to the rest of the world in 1994 as Drunken Master II) compensates for what it lacks in plot with hearty laughs and truly spectacular action sequences. Jackie Chan ‘s ability to choreograph long, intricate fight scenes with no break in the action is sublime. It’s the film that gave Chan his reputation, and watching it at Fantasia on the big screen with 1000+ rabid fans cheering, remains to date my most memorable experience at the fest.
Hong Kong’s dominance over American action filmmaking didn’t stop visual effects wizard-turned-director Steve Wang from creating a film that not only matches the best modern Hong Kong martial arts productions, but surpasses many of them. Drive is a B-level movie in almost every sense but when you put all the moving parts together it turns out to be of high quality and a lot of fun.
Perhaps the only short I will include on my list, Genesis is by far the best to screen at the Fantasia Film Festival to date. Although he’s been making moves in film for at least two decades, Nacho Cerda remains relatively unknown to even most cinephiles. His short film Genesis acts as the final stage in Cerda’s Death Trilogy, which also includes his first two shorts, Aftermath and Awakening. Genesis is easily the best of the three. This incredibly moving and sad short centers on an artist grieving over the loss of his wife in a car accident. In quiet desperation, he finds solace in sculpture; but as his love pours over a single prized piece, a lovely woman, the man gives so much of himself to this creation that he starts to bring it to life. The idea is nothing new or novel. but the way Cerdà sells the narrative is. Genesis is a masterpiece of a short film that makes me wonder why Cerda doesn’t find more work in features. Watch the short after the break.
Honourable Mentions from the first four years of the festival:
The Animated Japanese thriller Perfect Blue.
The shocking and gruesome Asian exploitation drama Men Behind The Sun
Bruce Lee’s legendary Enter The Dragon
Takashi Miike Yakuza shocker Fudoh: The Next Generation
Dario Argento’s classic thriller Deep Red
Scott Reynold’s over-looked Heaven
Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, Kichiku prison nightmare Kichiku
Lucio Fulci’s groundbreaking Zombie
Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond
Jet Li martial arts fan favourite Fong Sai Yuk