Thundering Genres & Writhe Darkness: The 2010 Fantasia Film Festival – Feature

Embracing the genre basics always requires a global saturation especially in this day and age because different perceptions steeped in culture produce different ideas of psychology, personality, sexuality and action.

Fantasia Film Festival, a growing, well-programmed confab steeped purely in films and not in the networking that tends to fund it at times, is grown with exceptional faith out of Concordia University in Downtown Montreal.

However snagging certain film ideas while also being risky (besides SxSW, it is the only festival seen in North America to take a chance on the polarizing “Serbian Film” which had Austin in an uproar in March) is essential to gaining edge to a film festival.

Twisted Seduction“, a film actually created and based out of Montreal, has the different ideas that made “The Killing Room” [Sundance 2009] and “Exam” [Santa Barbara 2010] effective: a simple story set in a small space that requires little money, distinct performances and a twist that, while seen before, has an idea all its own. Directed by Dominique Adams, the movie works because, while having a mainstream bent to it, it doesn’t go overboard on the violence, gore or the like (which too has its own place). The thriller is purely psychological for the most part and the reverse functionality is especially interesting under the direction of a woman. The impact of certain ideas of want, need and underlying emotional and psyche-based factors can be seen on the surface but are undeniably believable across the board despite a thriller ending (which in all aspects was not overwhelmingly needed because the film already worked simply on its own merits). While the lead actor’s English delivery in the beginning reflected as stilted, his charm glows in the lead actress’ venom that converts to love which, while quick in certain contexts, is not beyond rationality.

I Heart Doomsday“, again shot completely in Montreal, has an askew view of the world that at times rings true despite its overtly independent roots. Shot more like the regression of “Dark Star” with director Patrick Downing admitting the labratory was filmed inside the Theatre Ste. Catherine, the film connects with the brashness of a student project and with a texture of imaginative thinking without the technological advancement which have made such interludes like “Monsters” [at LAFF 2010] possible. The story here revolves around a scientist who endeavors to find his lost love Tatiana but cannot proceed into the outside world because of his own sociological and/or psychological problems so he must create a robot whose amnesiac target falls in love with him. The film is convoluted to the say the least with a lack of redeeming value despite the fact that it was actually made.

The next two pictures, made in South Korea, again show that country’s undeniable ability to make mid-studio level pictures with an underlying guise running about 20 years behind Hollywood. This dictates why their horror and action seemED so fresh is because it is us in the US back in mid to late 80s. Asia is beginning to approach the early 90s (in terms of their style) which here showed a pullback in filmmaking creativity in terms original thinking which is reflective in Korea’s two of romantic comedies interluded here which seemed a little off the mark.

The Naked Kitchen“, which again highlights a big element in Asian culture revolving around importance of food in movies, uses the plot crux of a love triangle involving two chefs and a wife whose infidelity goes against her cultural values. While the moments of brevity and comedy progress, the brutish reality of the aggressor shows that the primal urge is united among all modern cultures but because of the changes in women’s rights, the unbalanced nature of the fight reflects in a different way making the resolution infinitely more complicated. The original image that truly anchors the film revolves in a scene in a parking garage coming out of a grocery store where the invading aggressive chef sings to the married wife in the parking lot with the husband watching in abject disbelief from a slightly hidden car. The effect is simple but effective despite a harrowed ending that really doesn’t effectively draw the points to a close.

Scandal Makers” works at a slightly better clip as a family comedy interspersed with nuggets of drama and music interludes. The story follows a successful radio jockey who was formerly a rock musician now living the cool life with hot girls showing up for midnight flings until an unknown daughter and grandson show up at his doorstep. Hijinks ensue but the reality of the situation creates an effective bond that quite works between the grandson and his 45-year-old grandpa as the kid runs interference at school for a 28-year-old teacher that his old geezer pappy likes. The mathematics get a little screwy at times but it is these moments between these two characters especially playing cards or when they are both overwhelmed by two different girls at the same time that the strengths of the picture truly shine. The latter part of the picture turns into more of a drama though the idea finally of this stubborn girl calling for her daddy when her child is lost definitely resonates well despite the comparative lack of reality (especially when it turns out that the kid phoned 911 because he lost his relatives).

With “Serbian Film” likely alienating viewers left and right with its Canadian premiere, “Variola Vera”, a 1982 opium on a smallpox outbreak in a hospital, brings to mind an effervescent tinge of “The Andromeda Strain” [1971] with some of perspective of “Silkwood” [1983]. While the cry of creditability on the Soviet side of the equation at the time is distinct, the result, with the exception of some government band-standing at the end, seems to show a rather visceral idea. Looking at this earlier picture can provide slightly better perspective to “Serbian Film” (though with that film, bad taste becomes simply a matter of conscience). However, as a Serbian writer/critic attending the fest related after the screening. the sardonic element of the Serbian culture has not yet found a balance seemingly moving towards “the dark” of the society which is indeed their right (but not the only option). Like other global films around the early 80s, there is a sense of foreboding awry in “Variola” but also hope which ultimately redeems (though the actions of many characters are called into question). The repetitive melody of an Arabian flute which signals the unleashing of the new strain is repeated in ominous fashion and indeed makes the intensity of the film all the more real.

“Fable: Teeth Of Beasts”, a late night entry, shows an element of tenacity and boldness on the part of its filmmaking but is too mired in its own mythology to truly make an acceptable statement. Like “I Heart Doomsday”, it shows Fantasia’s intent to show all elements of genre perspective but the moments of distinctness here are sometimes lost in bad sound, lack of production value or just bad effects. Once in a while though, there are moments of filmic brilliance which is accomplished by a simple crane shot or similar technique. The lack of equilibrium in the film is mirrored also by the story’s lack of punctuation. One of the better scenes inside a vampiristic bar is wonderfully lit and viciously claustrophobic while the meanings of the character are crystal clear since they have the interaction of a confined space. Unfortunately most of the film takes place (and was shot) in a massive underground abandoned railway station in Buffalo which simply by its structure creates a lack of intensity. This location is magnificent but also probably a death trap due to asbestos. However there needs to a balance between ambition and simple tenacity. A fight sequence punctuated in the blue light on a crane has moments of Hollywood shine added with the reality that these two massive guys are actually hitting each other. Ultimately the resolution of “Teeth Of Beasts” is too convoluted to rescue itself which, more than likely (as referenced by the director at the Q&A), was the long post period of 4 years which, while  it obviously enhanced the process, took perhaps a grounded element away from an already dense though unwilling film.

Space Battleship Yamato: Resurrection” is a title heard over the years, specifically but not confined to the lost films of coolness like “Starblazers” and the like. While the production of a live action film in Asia seems to be currently in play, the realization that this was indeed a large budget anime sequel based in space set the thoughts aflutter since it is rare to see this kind of anime on such as a large screen as at the main hall at Concordia. Very few times ring to mind (“Innocence” [Cannes 2004] and “Robot Carnival” and “Akira” [Fort Lauderdale Film Festival 1992]). Looking at the audience one can truly see what is working but also the far ranging influence that “Star Wars” has had across the word. Though the film’s idea harks back to “Titan A.E.”, Don Bluth’s largely forgotten but interesting space opera, the visuals here show a basis in classical ideas, not the least are helped along by the essence of classical score. Scope is of necessitation in these type of films and while some of the plot points (specifically concerning family) are lopped by the wayside, a large imperial accustation seemingly aimed at the US (guised as the “S.U.S”) is remarkably clear and perhaps, at times, rightfully so. The thinly guised ideas provide a solid backing though the battles seem overwhelmingly lopsided despite their grandiosity. The coloring, especially using dark reds in the black star universe, gives the ode of deep space a different tinge. The final battle which involves a inter-dimensional riff is cool simply for the physics alone. It will be interesting to see if this kind of recent 2D animation would need or want to be realized in 3D. The potential is there but it might overwhelm the material. The melodrama, as is partial to many anime from Japan, has its overwhelming softness at times or simply obviously statements (“We will save mankind…again”) but much of that is forgivable in the progression of this kind of pop art.

Black Lightning“, from a distinctly different sociological structure, shows the Russian culture moving into more populous filmmaking. With the stability of the country (though still shaky) starting to show more luminosity, Russia is beginning to reflect its maturity in its filmic exports. Like “Hipsters” [Provincetown Film Festival 2010], there is an undeniable hope that seems to inhabit the film. “Black Lightning” is the story of a Volga car that is turned into a secret weapon by the Russian government. It happens however into the hands of a high school boy who delivers flowers. The car uses a nano energy source which enables it to fly much like the DeLorean from “Back To The Future”. After the father of the lead character dies at the hands of thugs and his son’s own shortsightedness, the hero vows to protect those who need help. The crowd inside the massive hall at Fantasia responded with elated applause at many points throughout the movie proving its cross-cultural appeal. The film blends the mythology and story throughlines of both “Spiderman” and “Iron Man” within a sociological perspective to be understood throughout Russia (and, by extension, the world). However it is those moments of sheer wow and cleverness that got the claps moving the most. Whether it was saving of the would-be girlfriend of the lead character by thwarting her death from ice as roses fall upon her to the sideswipping of a massive truck so it doesn’t hit a baby, the inventiveness of the FX allows for some interesting moments. This is not rocket science and gets its humor enough to truly cross borders despite what some may consider a cheesy lead object of progression (aka the Volga). However, as usual, successful material is always based in something familiar.

“My Neighbor Zombie”, by comparison, is an independent anthology of sorts that boasts itself as Korean’s first zombie foray. The key in successfully executing such a plot progression in Korea is finding a balance of stories that relate with the country’s ideals but also with its cultural nature still intact. The first two stories interrelate with the baseline of families and social relationships but without an overwhelming sense of the cinematic. “Runaways” has a couple whose male entrant has been fighting off being a zombie for some time. His wife does not want to leave him and finally drinks of his blood. The physicality is over wrought and eventually they run outside to a sticky end. “Mother I Love You” has a devout daughter feeding her fingers one-by-one to her zombie-turned mother who is kept in a locked back room. This interrelation of Asian culture shows the tendency of the caring of elders to the last breath which is not as much reflected in the West. The daughter finally takes a young soldier hostage because of his bad timing but eventually must face her end.

“Age Of Vaccine” (as the third story) starts the dark edge inherent in the mythology behind the film’s through-line which involves a virus. The point however is never brought to an edge. The virus is supposedly created by a scientist called Park who develops an anti-vaccine but, despite this, leaves most of his government attackers in this sequence to a rather grisly death. The last story of the film is the most effective because it finds balance in its humor, drama and cinematic superlatives…and it mostly takes place in only one room. A man, who has survived and been rehabilitated from being a zombie, is tracked down by a daughter of a family he killed. She wants his blood. When she finally corners him, another man [thinking like a “buckaroo”] appears appending to his own sense of justice but turns the tables saying that he too is a former zombie. The question becomes one of blame and forgiveness but with a sense of archetypes thrown out the window. With the addition of decent acting and the basic but effective “Adiago For Strings” underscore, the potential rings through. The anthology thrust is a smart idea but requires more of a bridging mechanism to make it truly work with only the final moments here making the grade.

Bodyguards & Assassins” won many Hong Kong Film Awards at the end of the last year involving its re-creation of the revolution against the Qing Dynasty. While a period piece of sorts, its utterly undeniable modern sensibility and lavish production design pushes it leagues above the rest. Unlike some Hong Kong films which fully lavish only on fight sequences, this outlay works because the drama and acting is inherently balanced with the action. While the establishment and characters and motives show a texture of storytelling and inventiveness, it is the last hour when a distraction to a true meeting of revolution comes about that really makes the film work. The loss of a son, the betrayal of a mentor and sacrifice for the greater good are all themes examined at length. The reason they work so well is that the characters are so utterly defined (even within all the supporting roles). When these people die (and many do), there is a sense of connection. Whether it be a massive street brawl [for the film, an entire portion of the old city of Hong Kong was recreated] between two men or a opium addicted master who must fight off dozens of assassins, the thrust is there. The key though is that, in basing the film on a real story, these men are not infallible and eventually can be taken down which epitomizes their courage. The two aforementioned sequences are epitomes which allows the movie’s final moments (which themselves are an ode to Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”) to really bring the functionality of the narrative together. Like Michael Corleone at the end of “Godfather III”, you feel a father’s ultimate suffering (though it is because Wang Que-Ki, as a lead actor, is so formidable as this powerful man who must both show courage and vulnerability). This is a Hong Kong film that functions above the rest because it is both local and global, entertaining and poignant.

Eve’s Necklace“, on the other end of the spectrum in the fact that it uses no humans on-screen at all, approaches the genre structure from a concept point of view using mannequins as lead actors. At first slightly jarring, the structure and style takes on more subtle tones (sort of like ventriloquist puppets) where it becomes the structure of the narrative. This is helped by two specific aspects of production: namely black and white shooting and the inclusion of a discarded Bernard Herrmann score from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain”. While the initial dialogue structure leaves much to be desired, as the narrative progresses (especially into its final moments), it does adhere to a specific 50s structure of the genre. The director pointed out at the Q&A that certain angles had to be done just right to afford elements of supposed movement. Interestingly enough certain human elements seem peppered throughout the production though most may be just tricks of the eye. Far away shots like a male mannequin standing outside a car or the lead female character wrapping her hands around her knees seem almost real (and they may be) but that is the crux and interest of the movie. The climax (aided in no small part by the score) has a definitive tension to it which is a credit to the filmmakers since these are inanimate objects whose emotions are only inferred by their pose (and to a lesser point, the voice actors). The director also imparted that the voice recording sessions were done in a day but inside the different places the film is set from the bedroom to the bathroom to the car. “Eve’s Necklace” might not be the most accomplished film but, in terms of its dexterity and concept, it definitely sets itself apart from the norm.

The Disappearance Of Alice Creed“, a UK film, embarks on another of the “women-in-peril” aspects permeating the market right now. An interesting angle of this execution is the appearance of Gemma Atherton who recently made her presence known in both “Clash Of The Titans” and “Prince Of Persia”. The question posed here revolves in a certain love triangle within a kidnapping which is off-kilter from the norm and definitely more adjunct to emotional misdirects than most. The lead protagonist has the hardest angle to act in playing off two conflicting emotions. Despite his best efforts, the line is more off-putting in terms of the fact that he is playing both sides. This becomes apparent when you see him interacting with both the man and woman at the core of the story. A particularly interesting scene when the tables are turned on him after a sexual encounter on the bed (and specifically how he wrestles the gun away from the girl in question) is quite volatile. The most successful actor of the bunch is Eddie Marsan who plays Victor because he imbues the character with a viciousness and a sincerity that ultimately balances the film. However, the resolution is moderately bland at best despite its dark intentions.

Saving Grace” works much in the same structure as the previous “Alice Creed”. Enjoying its world premiere at the fest, the movie, because of a new digital projector, looked viciously beautiful with the continuing highlight of the Red working wonders despite the appearance of some stark light. The progression of the narrative along genre lines works at times against its best intention with the trappings of caricatures sometimes causing laughter as was the case with the character of Hank who laments into the arena like a leering psychopath. The notion of the lead character Clayton as a janitor who saves a former hot nurse/addict from herself seems like a ploy though the director follows it to the end. However certain story points (especially the idea of certain serial killer aspects) do not work and take away from what would have been an exceptional claustrophic thriller. Despite the simpleness of the setup, the director puts too much information into the idea instead of opting to pull back. The actress, a first timer, hits her marks with ease but not depth while the actor who plays Clayton understands his role and, in structure to “Shutter Island” allows his intentions to be misread with exceptional conviction. The aim to keep the idea on track until the very end deserves praise especially when the possibility of a true reveal is involved.

“Written By”, another Hong Kong entry, this time by Ka-Fai Wai, has more spiritual and philosophical perceptions in mind. While having certain structural environments and parallels to “Ghost Town”, the jumping alternative worlds become jumbled though their intentions (once they get on track) are actual quite interesting though their inherent meaning, at times, is lost. The film starts with a car accident as a family of four is talking about ghosts. The father/husband dies but his two children (a son and a daughter) as well as his wife survive. As much as they try over the next ten years, they cannot let him go. As a result, the daughter who is now blind says that she should write a novel to bring her dad back to life except in this one they were killed and he was left alive, blind and alone. The suspension of disbelief begins when the family starts to move in different times between their different world. Another tragedy happens which alters the state between the blind girl and her remaining family yet again. Visually and from certain existential points of view, the ideas and removal are quite interesting because it is all about ideas of perception, especially when a character cannot see anything. Ultimately, adhering, or seeing reality becomes less simple especially with a climax involving 4 different versions of the blind character. The end result of the film in terms of its meaning is quite clear and replete with big ideas despite a path that is inherently confusing.

Fantasia Film Festival, in its progression, shows the openness of structure that Montreal and Concordia University have to the local functionality of the arts. Seeing a decided cross section of the festival, the door of genre is open on all sides from anime to Asian fusion to European thriller to US conceptuals. While some films like “Teeth Of Beasts”, “I Heart Doomsday” and “Saving Grace” fall short in certain aspects, the possibility to see them offers much hope to the independent scene while the screening of other films as “Bodyguards & Assassins”, “Battle Ship Yamato: Resurrection” and “Black Lightning” show the exceptional possibilities outside North America which are not always available to the naked eye in US festivals where the market is already infinitely saturated.

Fantasia is a bare bones festival, purely about the movies but the respect among filmmakers for the confab is clear as they appear in droves for many of the films, though some (in all directness) were from the Canadian area. However that said, the festival is a persistent diamond in the rough, well-thought out but still spantaneous in many ways. It has the possibility of becoming a market of sorts which is in no small way dictated by a cool name and marketing visual angle that gets people interested more than just the idea of another international film festival. Fantasia has its concept down and, despite some slight deviations, knows itself through and through.

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