Monday, July 09, 2007

Fantasia Day Four: War of Flowers, Ten Nights of Dreams, The Show Must Go On, et Spiral

Updated yesterday's post with The Banquet.

I spent too long writing yesterday morning, and thus didn't get to the festival on time for Wolfhound. On the one hand, it was sword and sorcery stuff, which I don't have much particular love for; on the other hand, it was the one new Russian movie I could fit into the schedule, and I'm bummed to miss it - there's cool stuff going on in Russia right now (and has been for some time).

It did give me a chance to poke around a couple of book/magazine shops and discover that Canada/Quebec/Montreal doesn't appear to have the same love for pencil puzzles as America. There weren't even a lot of French-language crossword magazines for sale, let alone English ones, and even Sudoku/Kakuro was tough to find. I wonder why that is.

Today's plan: Oxide Pang's Diary, then Korea for the rest of the night - Once in a Summer, Roommates, and Aachi and Ssipak. This means making darn sure I wrap tourism up early on Friday, because that's the only other time I can catch The Unseeable.

War of Flowers (aka Tazza: The High Rollers, Tajja)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2007 in Théatre Hall Condordia (Fantasia 2007)

It's probably not a good idea to try to learn about a game by seeing a movie about it. Based upon War of Flowers (aka Tazza: The High Rollers), I'm dumbfounded at the idea that hwatu could consume someone's life - it looks like poker, only with smaller hands, fewer cards, and no discards. That said, with the right characters and story, you could probably make an exciting movie about flipping coins.

Kim Goni (Cho Seung-woo) starts out as a man with a gambling problem, and leaves home in shame after stealing and losing his sister's alimony payment. Driven practically to the edge, he gains the attention of of Pyeong Gyung-jang (Baek Yun-shik), who claims to be one of the three greatest gamblers in Korea (but lives modestly because he is much better at judging cards that real estate). Pyeong teaches Goni how to cheat... er, "use tricks" rather than "play the traditional way", but makes him promise to leave the life after he's achieved his goal of repaying his sister five times over. That's not happening, especially after Pyeong introduces him to grifter Madame Jeong (Kim Hye-su), the "Flower of Gamblers". Goni joins her operation, but winds up on his own after he and new comrade Gwang (Yu Hae-jin) escape a police raid. Even if Madame Jeong didn't still need gamblers for her scams, though, Goni has made enemies of vicious scarred gambler Agwee (Kim Yun-seok) and gangster Kwak Cheol-yeong (Kim Eung-su), which could place his and Gwang's new girlfriends, sisters Hwa-ran (Lee Su-kyeong) and Seo-ran (Kim Jeong-nan), in danger.

War of Flowers has the makings of a caper epic, as Goni starts at the bottom and then works his way up, if not to the top, than to the point where he's on his own. It hits a lot of familiar targets - the mentor character who teaches the audience along with the star and has an effect on the story well after his initial exit, the femme fatale, the motormouthed sidekick, the taste of a normal life, the schemes spelled out for the audience that get twisted into something else. Writer/director Choi Cong-hun (working from a comic by Ha Yeong-min) does a great job of keeping it interesting, telling the story in flashback with Mme. Jeong as our guide. Other narrators contribute toward the end, but Jeong's seductive voice adds a hint of glamour to the world of gamblers even as Goni starts out in the dirt, and the cuts to her being interviewed in an expensive dress hint that Goni will eventually transcend his humble origins to become a big deal.

Full review at EFC.

Ten Nights of Dreams (aka Yume Ju-ya)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2007 in Théatre Hall Condordia (Fantasia 2007)

The bit that opens this film has legendary Japanese novelist Soseki Natsume admitting that the book "Ten Nights of Dreams" is meant to be a mystery, one which might not be solved for a hundred years. He says this in 1906, and the maid he's addressing comments that she'd have to reincarnate to see that. A hundred years later, ten notable directors have each made a short film based on one of the book's surreal stories, and while the results must often be quite far from what a Meiji-era writer imagined, they are nearly all fascinating.

The first dream is realized by the late Akio Jissoji, and gets the anthology off to a suitably surreal start: It features Soseki himself, speaking to his wife (Kyoko Koizumi) and, in true dream-like manner, feeling unstuck in time. Jissoji frequently pulls the camera back to show that Soseki's home is nothing more than a pair of sets on a stage. It's a theme that other directors will come back to - that Soseki not only wrote about fantasies, but was himself somewhat disconnected from reality.

The second dream comes from Kon Ichikawa, in which a samurai (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) is briefly visited by a wise man who challenges him to find enlightenment on a deadline. Presented as a silent film pastiche, it playfully tweaks the idea of enlightenment and understanding as something that can be strived for.

Takashi Shimizu is up next, and as you might expect from the man behind the Grudge franchise, his third dream is a nightmare, as a grotesque child leads Soseki through his wife's dream about broken idols and miscarried children being reincarnated in her womb. Shimizu draws upon Soseki's life from after the publication of Ten Nights to add an extra level of eeriness, and also demonstrates that he's well able to create scares without relying on his usual standbys. He also has room for a little wit, as his Natsume ponders that he cannot remember his own childhood clearly, and his own children sometimes seem alien to him.

Full review at EFC.

The Show Must Go On (Wooahan Segye)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2007 in Théatre Hall Condordia (Fantasia 2007)

Being a gangster sounds cool until you try to make a career out of it. Maybe the money's okay, but the hours stink, it's awkward when your daughter's teacher asks you what you do for a living, and the lack of insurance really causes trouble when getting beaten or stabbed is an occupational hazard. It's no wonder Kang In-gu's wife wants a divorce.

In-gu (Song Kang-ho) isn't thrilled with the way his life is going, either - his daughter hates him, the boss's brother is a screw-up, and the construction job he's just muscled his gang into controlling is causing problems, both with a rival gang and with the workers (though he gets along well with his opposite number in the other gang; they've been best friends since elementary school). He'd quit, but he also wants to buy one of those Western-style houses in the suburbs, but can he really afford it if he goes straight? Being a gangster is all he knows.

Someone coming to The Show Must Go On expecting a comedy will probably be a bit disappointed; although it functions as a sort of parody of the gangster movie genre, writer/director Han Jae-rim opts to rely less on jokes and more on simply sucking the glamor out of the activity. Someone like In-gu is likely never going to become chief, so he's basically stuck in a middle management position, with all the aggravation that entails. One of the funniest sequences has In-gu trying to handle a labor dispute only to find that the contractors know full well that the mob needs them working more than they need publicity, and that their construction equipment trumps the knives and bats the gangsters bring to intimidate them. The audience winds up just feeling sort of sorry for In-gu, especially since the incident leads into another trip to the hospital. A life of danger and violence seems much less sexy if there's a good chance of one's wife and daughter waiting outside the emergency room door becoming a regular event.

Full review at EFC.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2007 in Théatre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia 2007)

Spiral is about as thin as a feature film can be, to the point where I think that maybe there's not a feature's worth of material to it. I wonder if it wouldn't drift into obscurity, even by festival-circuit standards, if programmers didn't find it to be an interesting counterpoint to Hatchet, a slasher flick with which it shares a star and director that has been doing the midnight-movie rounds at the same time.

While I'm told Hatchet is a funny, high-energy piece, Spiral is fairly somber. Mason (Joel Moore) works in an insurance company call center, his only friend his boss and high-school classmate Berkeley (Zachary Levi). Mason likes jazz, and painting, and is carrying some bad memories around. His last relationship has just ended, but a new girl has taken interest in him: Amber (Amber Tamblyn) works in the same call center, likes the spot that Mason had staked out for eating lunch by himself, and certainly doesn't mind that Mason lets her chatter on without complaint. She seems oblivious to how creepy everyone else finds Mason. It doesn't escape the audience's notice, though, that the sketches and paintings Mason starts making of her after they start dating are eerily reminiscent of the ones he removed from his apartment earlier.

The film is a nice calling card for Joel Moore, who stars, co-wrote the script with Jeremy Boreing, served as an executive producer, and directs along with Adam Green (since Moore is in nearly ever scene, Green served as the on-set director with Moore handling the rest of the work). Mason is a good character for him; Moore's hangdog face and deep voice hint that there's something tragic hanging over him that makes the audience want to understand why he's so cut off. Most of the people at his workplace are put off by him, but one can see where people would occasionally be drawn in, too. As the movie goes on, there's an occasionally scary edge of anger in his voice, and he's got a line at the end ("how can you tell the difference?") that drives home what kind of anguish his particular troubles must be.

Full review at EFC.

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