Thursday, July 13, 2006

Fantasia '06, Day 7: Zombies & more

The review of Azumi 2 is up.

A sign of a good vacation is when you have to buy a new pair of shorts because you packed assuming that there'd be a day or two of rain, and the weather is being extremely co-operative.

Spent yesterday poking through the Underground City a bit, which is neat, although not quite so neat as the travel guides make it sound. Had lunch/dinner at Les 3 Brasseurs, and now need to figure out how to make a flamm, which is like a pizza only without tomato sauce and on a thin, crepe-like crust. It's yummy.

The movies were pretty darn good - Tokyo Zombie featured Tadanobu Asano with a goofy afro, which is worth the price of admission on its own, and SARS Wars was another zombie comedy which just shows how mercurial the Thai censors can be - they get all worried about showing a nipple, but the amount of blood and guts and off-color humor is truly astonishing. Blood Rain could use a little tightening up, as it was the screening where I felt the most drained, but it's a nifty period crime piece regardless. Ils hasn't even opened in its native France yet, but should be a big hit - it's a tight, taut suspense picture.

Today's plan: La Musée Juste pour Rire sounds like fun, along with the Black Watch Highlanders museum and the Cinerobotechnique. Should be light on the movies - just Necromancer and Frostbite; I've seen A Chinese Tall Story and Behind the Mask and have little interest in either White of the Eye or Strange Circus.

Tokyo Zombie (Tokyo Zonbi)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2006 at Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival 2006)

In addition to being very funny, Tokyo Zombie is educational. I learned that it is possible for an illegal garbage dump in Tokyo to grow so large that it becomes a veritable mountain. I learned that if zombies ever attack, jujitsu is probably the most effective means of self-defense. If there's too many for the jujitsu to work on, try to be swarmed by older zombies, for reasons that become clear toward the end. I was reminded that kids listen to everything their parents say. And, of course, there is a lesson in the true value of friendship.

But mostly, the movie is just silly. Near the base of "Black Fuji", an illegal dumping ground where trash, chemical waste, and inconvenient corpses are disposed of, is a small fire extinguisher factory where Fujio (Tadanobu Asano) and Mitsuo (Sho Aikawa) practice jujitsu when they should be working. While disposing of the body of a manager who discovered their goofing off - these things happen - they witness the bodies buried within Black Fuji coming back to life (all the microbes and toxic waste must have mutated or something) and decide to high-tail it north to Russia, where they'll practice their jujitsu and maybe come back when their fighting skills are so good they can defeat the entire zombie population. They pick up Yoko (Erika Okuda) when they stop to raid a convenience store for supplies, but don't actually get out of Tokyo before the zombie hordes drive them off a bridge. Flash forward five years, and the rich have cordoned off a section of the city and send slaves to battle zombies in the arena as the Romans once sent Christians against lions. They don't like watching Fujio, though - with his jujitsu, the zombies are finished off too fast!

As you might imagine, Tokyo Zombie more closely resembles Shaun of the Dead than Dawn of the Dead. Where Shaun was a romantic comedy at its heart, Tokyo Zombie is basically a buddy movie. Fujio and Mitsuo are a pair of genial slackers who would be quite content if life consisted of noting more than hanging out together and practicing their moves, and in a way, the dead rising gives them an excuse to do so. They bicker, of course - Mitsuo is middle aged and cranky while Fujio is about as smart as a gifted rock - but it's friendly bickering; Yoko will supply the acrimony.

Read the rest at HBS.

SARS Wars (Khun krabii hiiroh)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2006 at Théâtre Hall Concordia (Fantasia Festival 2006)

SARS was a major health scare a couple years ago, but the panic seems to have died down a little, to be replaced by worry over avian influenza. This seems unreasonable to me; as much as I'm sure bird flu is to be taken seriously even if you are not a bird, does it have the potential to kick off a full-scale zombie epidemic the way SARS apparently does? I doubt it.

Of course, when the film starts, the zombies aren't the problem - a gang of thugs has kidnapped Liu (Phintusuda Tunphairao), the teenage daughter of a rich Bangkok man. He attempts to hire Master Thep (Suthep Po-ngam) to rescue her, but he's getting a little long in the tooth for such action. He does have an apprentice, Khun Krabii (Suppakorn Kitsuwan), who has studied hard but is not terribly experienced or street-smart, but will have to do. Meanwhile, a single SARS-infected cockroach from an infected village in Africa has somehow made its way to the Thai airport, where it bites a disembarking foreigner (Andrew Biggs), who by the time he turns is in the same building where Liu is busily not waiting for rescue. Soon, a party on the first floor is filled with zombies, prompting Health Minister Ratsuda (Naowarat Yuktanan) to seal it off to keep Thailand "virus-free", although virologist Dr. Diana (Lene Christensen) thinks her experimental treatment offers a better option than killing everyone inside. Of course, she doesn't know about the giant mutated zombie snake.

This is a classic zombie set-up - heroes with access to weapons trapped in an enclosed space with the military as much a threat as the walking dead. However, director Taweewat Wantha isn't just looking to make a zombie movie; he's making a spoof film, too, with occasional shots at Star Wars, The Matrix, and others. He spends some time breaking the fourth wall, too, with comments about the movie's budget and what the censors will and won't allow. They movie is not really a parody of zombie movies; most of the time the zombie action plays straight, if over-the-top. Anything else, though, is fair game, and while the jokes are sometimes pretty obvious and broad. SARS Wars winks at the audience "yeah, we know this is silly and well-worn, but we like it, and we know you like it, so here it is at double strength".

Read the rest at HBS.

Blood Rain (Hyeol-ui Nu)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2006 at Théâtre Hall Concordia (Fantasia Festival 2006)

"CSI: Joseon Dynasty Korea"

Blood Rain has a name fit for horror and the blood to match, and while supernatural thrills are certainly one direction the story could have gone, the film is actually a mystery. It's a heck of a nifty one, too, with an atmospheric setting, an intriguing sleuth, and a conspiracy that is going to be a devil to crack.

In the early part of the 19th Century, the isolated island of Donghwa is relatively prosperous thanks in large part to its paper mill, which produces paper of unusually high quality. Mainland Korea lets them remain more or less autonomous so long as they send regular tribute. This year, disaster strikes, as the ship carrying the paper bursts into flames while most of the crew is ashore. To investigate, the government sends Lee Weon-gyu (Cha Seung-won). He quickly demonstrates his crime-solving expertise on a more recent crime, but as soon as he starts investigating, townspeople start turning up dead. The more superstitious folks on the island lay the blame on the ghost of the mill's founder, who (along with his family) was executed several years ago for his alleged Catholicism. This is of more than passing interest to Weon-gyu, as his father was involved in that prosecution.

Blood Rain resembles a pulp novel, if they'd had them in Korea's Joseon dynasty. The detective is stoic, the world view is cynical, and the murders are frequent and quite bloody. The mystery is, I think, solvable once you've got all the evidence (I don't recall any information withheld from the audience that Weon-gyu wsa privy to), but that's not the whole point. Like any good pulp yarn, the investigated incident is only half the story; the other half is the crime that daily life can be: The mill's owners are wealthy, but the workers are poor; the vast majority of the authority figures look down on the people so that even the ones who genuinely want to help; everybody has a shameful secret. The main difference is that Weon-gyu is less hard-boiled than many pulp protagonists.

Read the rest at HBS.

Ils (Them)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2006 at Théâtre Hall Concordia (Fantasia Festival 2006)

Ils is basic "there's someone or something in the house that means us harm" material. Filmmakers David Moreau and Xavier Palud don't dress it up with a lot of unnecessary frills; they just spend the film's short running time figuring out how to best put the screws to the characters and audience until it's time to roll the end credits.

After a tense opening where a mother and her annoyed teenage daughter encounter something creepy on the side of the road when their car breaks down, the film introduces Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michael Cohen), a French couple living in Bucharest, Rumania. Clementine teaches French in a local high school, while Lucas fights writer's block. Clementine passes the empty car on her way home, but doesn't think much of it. They have a nice dinner, and go to bed, only to wake up at about three in the morning by a noise inside their house. There's someone else there, cutting the power, and they always seem to be just around the corner when Clementine or Michael enters a new room.

Rumania is a nice place to set this kind of thriller. Bucharest isn't particularly close to the Transylvania region, but Eastern Europe is full of old, spooky corners. You don't need to bring the supernatural in to create a sense of danger, though; there's monsters of more recent vintage who left the country economically devastated until very recently. While Bucharest proper is fairly safe, the outlying area where the couple's house is located doesn't look nearly so prosperous; there might be folks desperate enough to go after the folks from Western Europe.

Read the rest at HBS.

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