Friday, July 15, 2011

The Fantasia Daily, 2011.01: King of Devil's Island and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Kind of running out of time before the media room at Fantasia closes again, so I'll make this fairly quick: Arrived in Montreal safe and sound despite missing the 7:15am bus and having to get on the 10am, which should have got me there by 5pm but wound up taking an extra hour because of construction between the border and the city (the border itself was a relatively painless experience; Canada is welcoming!). Got the key to my apartment, avoided any weirdness about payment, and bought tickets for the two shows that night. Some critics would pitch a fit about having to do so, but I don't really mind being reminded what this end of the line:

Detective Dee Line

.. looks like. Keeps you humble.

And now I've spent a perfectly nice day inside writing to earn the press pass I'm about to collect. To all those here with me, bon festival!, to the rest of you, well, you really ought to try it sometime.

Kongen av Bastøy (King of Devil's Island)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2011 in Salle J.A. de Seve (Fantasia 2011)

King of Devil's Island opens with a story of a harpooner and a whale, which it regularly returns to, but it isn't immediately certain who the whale represents and who the whalers represent, even if the story is being told in the first person. Consider that the film takes place in 1915 Norway, when this activity wasn't nearly so taboo. The point, however, is clear: A powerful opponent is not stopped with a single strike, whether on the open sea or in a boy's reformatory camp.

That camp is located on Bastøy, an island just off the course of Norway, and the two newest residents are Erling (Benjamin Helstad), an older teen who has already spent some time as a sailor, and Ivar (Magnus Langlete), a younger, less hardy fellow. The island's governor (Stellan Skarsgard) gives them the standard speech about how this is a new start and they do not speak of their crimes, assigning them numbers C-19 and C-5. He sees Erling as defiant, but perhaps a potential replacement for the current C-1, Olav (Trond Nilssen), who is set to leave the island after six years in a few weeks. Ivar, meanwhile, captures the attention of house-father Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner).

What we don't see and hear throughout the film is carefully well-chosen: We don't need to see what Bråthen is doing to Ivar; that director Marius Holst and his writers give the characters difficulty in saying it out loud is perhaps an even better way to show horrible it is, and by not showing it, the audience is prevented from associating it with the punishments doled out by the staff (which while harsh, are not meant to be sadistic) or the fights amongst the kids. We never learn the details of what any particular resident has done to be sent to Bastøy, and for all we know, the tough Erling may have the most minor of infractions despite the whispered rumor that he killed somebody. Holst and company make whether anybody is getting what they deserved irrelevant; the important thing is what responsibilities everybody has to each other and whether they are living up to them.

Full review at EFC.

Di Renjie (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2011 in Salle J.A. de Seve (Fantasia 2011)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame hits a lot of my sweet spots - it can be described as a Chinese martial-arts take on Sherlock Holmes, with a blockbuster budget, Tsui Hark directing with abandon, and fight choreography by Sammo Hung. There's a lot of potential for awesome in there, but with that comes the potential for "too much". It manages both on more than one occasion, but eventually winds up as entertaining as it so desperately wants to be.

In 689AD, Empress Wu Zeitan (Carina Lau), after serving as regent for seven years, was preparing to formally ascend to the throne, despite the objections of many to a woman taking that role, and she intends to unveil a Towering Buddha statue, 66 yards tall, at her coronation. When a foreign ambassador is being given a tour, though, disaster strikes - master Jia (Yan Qin), who had previously removed some good-luck talismans, bursts into flames for no apparent reason. Xue Yong (Liu Jin-shan), leader of the supreme court, has one theory; up-and-coming investigator Pei Dong-lai (Deng Chao) has another. The Imperial Chaplain suggests that the legendary Detective Dee (Andy Lau) lead the investigation, despite the fact that he has been imprisoned eight years for opposing Empress Wu, leading her to make sure her most trusted retainer, the lovely and capable Shangguan (Li Bingbing), follows him closely.

Now, it should be noted that Imperial Chaplain Lu Li does not give this advice himself - his Magic Deer does. Though Dee is treated as a Sherlock Holmes type who examines the evidence, takes nothing for granted, and deduces culprits logically, this version of folk hero Di Renjie lives in a world that is larger than life, often gloriously so: The chaplain can make deer talk, a poison can cause people to burst into flames like sunburnt vampires, people carry around weapons with names like "Meteor Hammer" and "Dragon-Felling Mace", and acupuncture can really do wonders for one's appearance. Little expense is spared depicting this world; every detail is attended to, and the CGI involved generally looks more than serviceable. Sure, a deer talking just isn't going to look right no matter what, and there are moments here and there that Hollywood would maybe do 10% better for twice the cost, but this is a very nice looking movie.

Full review at EFC.

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