Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fantasia 2010 Catch-up Part 05: Brass Knuckle Boys, Love in a Puff, Woochi, Symbol

Looking over my notes for these movies:

* I said Brass Knuckle Boys had "two hugely funny scenes" in the original capsule, which I kept for the new one (that's how you can write a semi-coherent review two months after the fact: keep notes and do a quick first draft/outline much closer to the date). I have no idea what the first was, and I hope I didn't spoil the second too much.

* Looking at the character names for Love in a Puff - who in hell names their kid "Eunuch", even as a "Western name" in a Cantonese-speaking region? Sure, it's an obscure enough word that maybe he doesn't get teased in grade school, but when someone does know it, the taunting will be vicious.

* When I looked at what I'd written, I said "I guess I'm going to have to punt Overheard". Then I look at my notes and stuff starts coming back to me. Then I start to write, and move on to Woochi.

* The confusion mentioned in the Woochi review? All genuine and present when I first saw it, and not a result of just getting around to writing it nearly two months after seeing it. Still darn funny and a good adventure, though.

* I wonder if Symbol will show up anywhere in the U.S. As much as I dig it, I also note that the really weird stuff from Japan - Survive Style 5+, Funky Forest, and this - can be a really hard sell. Still, I strongly suspect that when people ask me what I remember from this year's trip to Montreal around Thanksgiving or Christmas, the films I mention will be the screwy ones - Symbol and Rubber. And, for those of you who have seen Symbol, there will be a tiny bit of spoiler-ish discussion after the eFilmCritic review.

Anyway, with this, I official reach the end of Fantasia reviews done from memory. 65 in two and a half months isn't a bad count, with six more coming via screeners (2 for second views, 4 for being unable to fit into the schedule), a few reviewed when they arrived in Boston, and a total of 9 punted due to drowsiness/waiting too long/not being in final reviewable shape. Not my busiest year, but respectable, I think.

Of course, the screeners will have to wait - I finished Fantasia just in time to start on the Boston Film Festival, although that's a much more lightweight assignment.

Shonen merikensakku (Brass Knuckle Boys)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

Brass Knuckle Boys has two hugely funny scenes, including a flashback that is among the best rock 'n roll movie jokes I can remember. They're both in the beginning, though, and there's still the better part of two hours to go after the bit with the guitar-smashing. And while the movie still has plenty of amusing bits, that's a long time to go on after hitting the high point.

We start off with Kanna Kurita (Aoi Miyazaki), a perky young talent searcher for a record company who is really just absolutely no good at her job. She's got a positive attitude, though, so when she brings her latest YouTube find in to her boss Tokita (Yusuke Satamaria), she's all smiles and no hard feelings as she prepares for her inevitable firing, especially since what she's found is a punk band and they work for a pop label. The good news, though, is that Tokita used to be a punk rocker himself, back in the day, and these "Brass Knuckle Boys" ("Shonen Meriken Sakku", or SMS for short) remind him of the rock of his youth, and he dispatches Kanna to sign them. The bad news is that SMS is the rock of his youth - bass player Akio (Koichi Sato) is now a bartender in his mid-forties, and hasn't spoken to the guitar player, his brother Haruo (Yuichi Kimura), since the band broke up twenty-five years ago; Akio just posted some of their old videos for fun. But both drummer Young (Hiroki Miyake) and disabled, incomprehensible singer Jimmy (Tomorowo Taguchi) are up for a reunion tour, and after a few miscommunications and deceptions, that's what they've got, with Kanna stuck riding herd on them.

There are large parts of this premise that are comedy gold, and when writer/director Kankuro Kudo is satirizing musicians the music industry, the movie is fairly clever. I love the banter between Kanna and Tokita that opens the film, and the aforementioned flashback with the smashing guitars is just about the funniest thing I've seen in a long time; it's got a killer moment when the audience laughs because it knows that Kudo is about to do something horrible. Moments like Haruo wandering on stage, casting a disdainful look at the label's most popular act (a bland boy band that sings about playing video games) are pregnant with the possibility of the movie really letting people have it in fine style.

Full review at EFC.

Chi ming yu chun giu (Love in a Puff)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

Pang Ho-cheung made Love in a Puff during post-production for Dream Home, and though there are some certain stylistic ties - the groups huddled together for their cigarette breaks that are central to Love in a Puff show up in Dream Home, both start by telling us something about Hong Kong that serves as a major influence on the action, and both make a point of their timeframes while doing this or that to avoid being strictly linear - they wind up causing opposite reactions. This is the one that's romantic and charming.

Jimmy Cheung (Shawn Yue) is a young guy getting his start in advertising; Cherie Chu (Mirian Yeung Chin-wah) is a little bit older, selling cosmetics in a retail shop. They're both smokers, and Hong Kong's tough anti-tobacco laws cause people in the same area to congregate in small groups that have little in common but their addiction. Still, they hit it off, and while Jimmy is single (the humiliating story behind that is a popular one among their group, at least until Jimmy shows up), Cherie isn't, although her boyfriend Carl (Wong Tak-bun) will soon start to wonder what is up with the texts and calls from the new man on Cherie's contact list.

Love in a Puff takes place over the course of a week - an unusually specific week, mid-February of 2007, and in some ways, that feels awfully short; it requires that Jimmy and Cherie (and Carl) to go through a fair number of relationship stages in a relatively short period of time. Of course, that's part of what's clever about the movie - Pang shows how modern communications can accelerate romance and other relationships for good or ill, and how such things are now a part of modern life. There's a little thread about how Cherie considers changing her mobile phone provider to get more favorable rates on texting and calling Jimmy, and though a big deal isn't made of it, it's a nice little detail.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

At first, it seems hard to take an action/adventure story where one of the villains is a giant bunny rabbit seriously, even when you're talking about a movie as whimsical as Woochi. Sure, the giant rat goblin, that's one thing, but the rabbit?

The goblins first show up at the turn of the sixteenth century, looking for a magical pipe created by the Archgod. They are defeated and imprisoned by three lesser gods, and the pipe split in two to prevent any further danger - one half being given to sorceror Hwa-dam (Kim Yun-seok) and the other to another master (Baek Yun-shik) - but when he ends up murdered, suspicion falls on Jeon Woochi (Kang Dong-won), his mischief-making student who embarrasses the nobility into behaving justly along with his transformed-animal servant Chorangyi (Yu hae-jin), and he is magically locked in a tapestry. But 500 years later, the goblins are free, and the gods know that the only one who can fight them is Woochi. Of course, they're fully acclimated to the twenty-first century...

And, really, that's just the half of it. Writer-director Choi Dong-hun has stuffed a lot of story into this film's two and a quarter hours - that description doesn't mention the nobleman's widow (Lim Su-jeong) who seems to have gotten her wish to be reincarnated as a commoner, working as a personal assistant for a bossy actress (Yum Jung-ah), or the mythology, or the gods' plans to double-cross Woochi. It's pretty dense for a lightweight family adventure, and while I suspect that some of the mythology is information that any Korean schoolchild would know, there were other bits that weren't nearly so clear - heck, by the end, I wasn't sure what one character's deal was - reincarnation, amnesia, possession, just being too old to remember back five hundred years, or something else? And Choi certainly takes his time during the Joseon-era scenes - it goes much longer than that sort of prologue usually does.

Full review at EFC.

Shinboru (Symbol)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

It's been a while since I've seen a movie from Japan that is as thoroughly demented as Symbol, which means it's been a long time since I've seen any movie as crazy and trippy as this. Writer/director/star Hitoshi Matsumoto also did Big Man Japan, but from what I've read that's positively conventional compared to Symbol.

The film plays out in two separate locations. In Mexico, a poor but honest man who wrestles lucha libre as "Escargot Man" (Luis Accinelli) prepares for his next tag-team match, with his son (David Quintero) cheering him on, his daughter (Adriana Fricke) looking to find a life that suits her more than her current profession (nun), and his wife (Lilian Tapia) understanding but weary, especially with their son skipping school and being teased for having a lame luchador for a father. And then, well, elsewhere, a Japanese man in a bathrobe (Matsumoto) awakens in a white room that is completely featureless except for an outcropping that looks like a really funny-looking switch. Touching it causes the walls to sprout dozens more (and reveals to the audience that, yes, they are what they look like, which is odd, because I'd always imagined cherubs like the ones they're attached to to be more or less sexless). Pressing any of those causes something to come out of the walls. Can this man use these things to find a way out? And if he does, what's that got to do with the luchador?

In case this point has not been made clear enough, Symbol is downright peculiar. It is also gut-bustingly hilarious. The scenes inside the white room are an improbably but perfect alchemy of absurdity, surrealism, and slapstick. With no-one to talk to, Hatsumoto's character is soon engaging in every kind of silent comedy imaginable, from broad pratfalls to little bits of prop comedy to letting us just admire the confusion and frustration on his face as he simultaneously acclimates to and is driven mad by his imprisonment. Initially, Hatsumoto and co-writer Mitsuyoshi Takasu use the scenes in Mexico as buffers, allowing each little silent comedy routine to stand on its own without bleeding into or being directly compared to others, while also allowing the audience to be surprised anew by this type and level of strangeness. Of course, to be fair, there's something more than a little off-kilter about the Mexican scenes themselves.

Full review at EFC.

... So, back from reading about Symbol on eFilmCritic, and figure that this here is the forum in which to discuss what I think the film is about, or at least what I take away from it?

Anyway, though the film is loaded with obvious religious symbols (lots of angels of different varieties), my outlook on it is to look at it as being about science and technological advancement. In the first section, "The Education", Matsumoto learns about critical thinking and problem solving. Although he initially concerns himself with simple matters of survival, he eventually learns to use the elements in his environment as tools, and use them together in order to solve problems. In "The Implementation", he takes control of what is hidden behind the walls, the angels (now seraphim rather than cherubs) which represent not necessarily the supernatural, but the basic forces of the universe. In "The Future", he becomes literally godlike, taking on the appearance commonly used for depicting Christ, soaring into the air, causing chaos in the world on a whim, emerging into a scene straight out of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This is the course of humanity's progress as a tool-using creature: We first needed to learn the very concept of not just tools, but how to think, how to correlate cause and effect, and how to build and use machines. The next step after that is to climb, trusting in what we as a species has learned before and building upon each discovery to move upward. Granted, using angel penises as handholds seems a little bizarre, but it makes a sort of symbolic sense - angels are agents of the divine, although the we as a species must overcome certain taboos and trepidation before making use of the natural forces and knowledge increasingly at our disposal. As we do so, we no longer need to touch them directly - we learn abstraction. Just as Matsumoto no longer needs to actually diddle angels directly to move forward - he levitates and waves in the direction of what he wants done - we are reaching a point where we individually don't need to directly understand our tools. Few reading this on a computer are likely several layers away from the actual work being done; most no longer understand basic (or BASIC) programming, much less the machine code used to build an operating system or the logic used in synchronizing a network, much less what goes on inside an integrated circuit. We are gods now, waving our hands and watching incredible things happen.

Of course, it's not without consequences. As Matsumoto ascends into godhood, he causes chaos in the normal world. Random, frightening things happen to the luchador, his family, and others around the world. Fine control is going to take a while, and this power may initially be available only to a privileged few. We can now have a massive effect on the world without truly understanding the power we wield, as any news story about global warming will tell us. Should we be able to do so? It doesn't matter; we will.

And the reward may be to start over again, on a larger scale; like the Starchild in 2001.

At least, that's what I see there. I imagine that someone less prone to taking religious/spiritual/superstitious symbols and applying them to a natural world may see it differently.

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