Friday, August 14, 2009

Fantasia Catch-Up #03: Book of Blood, Instant Swamp, Secret Hot Springs Resort

There's no particular effort being put in to group the films in these catch-up posts any way but chronologically. I'm putting off the ones where I have screeners or other opportunities to see until a bit later, as there's a bit less worry about their details falling out the back of my head. Book of Blood slipped just because I hadn't tagged its entry into the blog properly, although it doing so does create a sort of commonality between the three reviews here.

All three are, in one way or another, second passes at something I'd seen at Fantasia either last year at this, and thus set up comparisons in my mind. Book of Blood is an adaptation of one of Clive Barker's "Books of Blood", following last year's The Midnight Meat Train; Instant Swamp is the next film by Satoshi Miki after last year's very nice Adrift in Tokyo; Secret Hot Springs Resort is the second film in the "Beyond the Pink Curtain" series that I saw, after the previous day's Gushing Prayer.

In the first two cases, I think they are somewhat weaker works. Book of Blood, despite having a few nifty images, has an enthusiastic craftsman behind the camera - John Harrison certainly expressed appreciation for the source material and said he was down for adapting more - but The Midnight Meat Train had Ryuhei Kitamura. Kitamura's a controversial figure among those who know of him, but most will also admit that he has the sort of raw talent that makes you understand why Lionsgate stuck his name on the trailer for the movie (when they were going to actually release in real theaters): Even the majority who don't know his name might expect to later on. Kitamura's movie was a calling card announcing his arrival in North America with every frame; Harrison's was competent.

EFC doesn't have partial-stars so it looks like I gave Adrift in Tokyo and Instant Swamp the same rating there. Here, the difference shows the benefits of using a somewhat more graduated system (or the pitfalls of assigning numeric values at all): Adrift In Tokyo and Instant Swamp are somewhat similar films in tone and production value, but where Adrift would find little ways to exceed expectations, Swamp generally only managed to meet them. That's better than most films, but means it's not quite as good as its predecessor.

Secret Hot Springs Resort, on the other hand, I found a little more interesting than Gushing Prayer. Both were head-scratchers on some level, dark enough to make me wonder if people really watched them for, you know, a good time, as I had been given to understand a pink film's purpose. In the end, my preference came down to which story interested me more, and that was Hot Springs. Prayer seemed much more symbol than story, which generally isn't what floats my boat anyway.

Getting back to the Barker films, I'd be interested to hear what fans of Barker thought about the two adaptations. As I mentioned in the capsule for Book of Blood, I went to The Midnight Meat Train as a fan of Kitamura, liked and reviewed the movie as such, and found myself a bit thrown that 90% of the reviews that appeared when it actually hit (some) theaters and home video were approaching it as a Barker movie rather than a Kitamura one. I wonder if fans of the author might wind up liking Book of Blood better, as it is a relatively straightforward horror movie compared to the stylish Midnight Meat Train.

Book of Blood

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I am not a particular fan of the horror genre. I don't disdain it or dismiss it; I think it gets a bad reputation at times. But I am by no means an enthusiast. Last year, The Midnight Meat Train excited me for being Ryuhei Kitamura's English-language debut rather than being the adaptation of a beloved Clive Barker story. I only had the vaguest sort of idea what Barker meant as a brand name, quite frankly. After watching another adaptation of a story from Barker's "Books of Blood" series a year later, I'm starting to understand and appreciate it a bit - although this film's director, John Harrison, is no Ryuhei Kitamura, resulting in a much weaker film.

Book of Blood adapts and combines two of these stories, "The Book of Blood" and "On Jerusalem Street", with one serving as a framing sequence for the other. In the framing sequence, a bounty hunter/assassin by the name of Wyburd (Clive Russell) tracks down a horrifically scarred man, who tells us the story of how he came to be hunted. It involves a pair of paranormal investigators - university lecturer and best-selling author Mary Florescu (Sophie Ward) and technician Reg Fuller (Paul Blair) - who discover a haunted house in downtown Edinburgh and set out to investigate, recruiting one of Mary's students, Simon McNeal (Jonas Armstrong), whose family tragedy apparently makes him sensitive to the occult. As they spend their nights in the old, evil house, certain things naturally start to happen - colleagues become attracted, hints of fraud appear, as do incredibly power manifestations.

A lot of that is fairly standard-issue haunted house stuff, and for a great deal of the time, there isn't much more than the gruesomeness of the events to distinguish Book of Blood from something as thoroughly underwhelming as, say, White Noise. You've got the same cobbled-together equipment which is placed just outside of where it can do any good, obvious arguments and jealousies, and a photographic trick (in this case, a sickly green tint to the picture) meant to cause unease. It's executed in a relatively able manner, but seems awfully familiar.

Full review at EFC.

Insutanto Numa (Instant Swamp)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

I watch and review a fairly broad range of films, and when people ask, I generally say that I approach all of them the same way, and try to treat them the same regardless of origin or genre or style. Most well-rounded film fans say this, and we generally mean it. You still have to wonder if there are little prejudices in there, though. For instance, I found Instant Swamp an enjoyable, mostly charming little movie. I have to admit, though - if you took the same script, translated it into English, and shot it in America (or England, or Canada, or, god forbid, Ireland...), my reaction might be less warm and fuzzy and more "being peculiar doesn't make you interesting".

Meet Haname Jinchoge (Kumiko Aso), and occasionally eccentric but focused editor at a Japanese women's magazine which is seeing its circulation numbers fall. She's getting the usual static from her mother Midori (Keiko Matsuzaka) about still being single, but she's about to have other problems - like mom falling into a coma, and finding out that her father may not be who she thought. The most likely suspect appears to be Noburo Jinchoge (Morio Kazama), aka "Mr. Light Bulb", a drifter running a junk shop. Haname won't broach the subject directly, but does wind up hanging out there a lot, where she meets young, spike-haired electrician Gas (Ryo Kase), and Iiyama Wakoko (Shoko Aida), a middle-aged bride-to-be who thinks that only a fortune-telling machine she saw in her youth can resolve her nagging doubts.

Is Haname quirky? Oh, yes. She has the sort of aggregation of odd habits, unlikely personal history which spawns same, and baby-girl-voice narration describing them, that tends to make me scream when the character is played by, say, Audrey Tautou. There are mitigating factors other than my being more tolerant of this sort of thing when it comes from Japan than the west, though. For one, the film doesn't paint her as a pure and innocent free spirit whom the audience must love. She can be snippy, and snorts at others' belief in spirits and superstitions. This is sort of contradictory at times, but Kumiko Aso mostly makes it work, especially in the beginning of the movie when we can see the goofiness give way when she needs to be the level-headed one. A bit of sarcasm can come out, but not to the level of meanness, and her eccentricities don't seem like an alternate personality or make the audience wonder how she can function in the world.

Full review at EFC.

(Maruhi) yu no machi - Yoru no hitode (Secret Hot Spring Resort)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival: Behind the Pink Curtain)

The "Behind the Pink Curtain" series that is currently playing repertory theaters and bookings in the west (including Montreal's Fantasia Festival) is a testament to how certain types of porn have a degree of acceptance in mainstream Japan, or at least aren't very far in the fringes. There are limits to that, of course, and it wasn't always the case. 1970's Secret Hot Spring Resort: Starfish at Night is a look back at a previous generation of dirty movies, with all the skin included, of course.

There were no pink theaters in postwar Japan, or at least not in the small towns. Thus, as with the stag films in America, pornographers would travel from town to town, shooting and selling stills, arranging underground screenings of their movies, maybe filming, all while avoiding the law and, if not affiliated, the yakuza. The folks just blowing into town are a small, independent unit: Jiro Hisao (Jun Yoshida) is the director and sometime male lead, Suzume (Reiko Ohtsuki) is the female lead, and Torikin (Yuichi Minato) the guy who handles the business dealings. Hisao has ambitions to shoot a more ambitious samurai film, with a story as memorable as the sex, and Torikin sets out to recruit some local talent, including Kayo (Tomomi Sahara), a sweet maid at the resort who is drawn to the camera, though she's assured Suzume will be her body double.

If director Mamoru Watanabe and writer Atsushi Yamatoya (writing as Wataru Hino) have any particular nostalgia for this era, it is well-tempered with realism. Jiro and Suzume live hand to mouth and mere steps ahead of trouble, and although it's not always referred to directly, both are starting to feel the squeeze porn puts on people of advancing age: Suzume may keep herself in fine shape, but lines are starting to show up on her face; Jiro may consider himself an artist, but he's not building any sort of reputation. Torikin is younger and doesn't intend to stay small-time for nearly as long as Jiro and Suzume have, especially not for little things like loyalty and honesty. And Kayo is obviously in for more than she bargains for.

Full review at EFC.

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