Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Fantasia Daily, 2011.06 (19 July): Bleak Night, 100 Years of Evil, Midnight Son, and Birthright

Huh, Photobucket isn't letting me upload right now, and I'm sure as heck not going to get hit with international roaming to upload the pictures directly from my phone. Maybe I'll update that tomorrow.

In the meantime, It's worth mentioning that Naoki Hashimoto had one of the more interesting introductions and Q&As so far this festival. Like a lot of the Q&As where nobody involved seemed to be speaking English as a native language, the questions and answers sometimes only seemed related in a general sense, but Hashimoto's repeated declaration that he was trying to make a film and not a television drama was intriguingly telling. His film, Birthright, is very much the sort that many people might think of as not losing anything if seen on DVD in the living room - no vistas, minimal action, no loud, pumping soundtrack - but it's undeniably made for the theater. Things happen in the middle distance, almost like the audience has to look through the screen to see what's going on. The fast-forward button could prove to be a terrible temptation at home, but the movie must be allowed to play out at its own pace. Similarly, the sound is calibrated very carefully; at points it must seem to come from far away, quiet enough that it may not be clear what the subtitles are translating at first.

Indeed, Hashimoto mentioned that during the testing, he got frustrated by the sound of the theater's air conditioning, feeling it interfered with the movie. I don't know whether they turned it down for the screening (I didn't notice it being any stuffier in the auditorium, and I was in de Seve all day), but I loved that he was passionate and devoted enough to his film to make sure it showed right. It was one of the decreasingly few that showed on 35mm, and I almost see him delivering the cans of film from Japan himself, because it's just this important to him that it be shown right.

(As an aside, Birthright strikes me as a non-intuitive choice for a movie that might have been unusually effective in 3D; so much attention is paid to distance and space in this movie that I suspect Hashimoto and his cinematographers might be able to use those tools unusually well.)

Pasuggun (Bleak Night)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011 - Cine-Asie presents Korean Film Spotlight)

Hee-june (Park Jung-min) is a bookish kid, regularly picked on and even bullied by more popular "friend" Ki-tae (Lee Je-hoon), a situation that Ki-tae's friend Dong-yoon (Seo Jun-young) does little to stop. A familiar story - so why is it Ki-tae's father (Jo Sung-ha) who is visiting the other boys after his son's suicide, looking for answers?

That's the central mystery lurking at the heart of Bleak Night, although those searching for either a simple answer or even a conventional detective story may be disappointed. Writer/director Yoon Sung-hyun steps through a series of flashbacks and offers up plenty of clues, but the eureka moment seems determined to prove elusive. Not only is this not an investigation that can head to a definitive solution, but the best source of information is unavailable. For all that Yoon frequently plays switches perspectives and even investigators, we never see anything that is solely from Ki-tae's perspective. If we are to know his mind, it's going to be from what the other boys tell us.

Not that this seems particularly like a Rashomon situation with unreliable narrators; every perspective seems to add up consistently. Still, it's instructive to see what Yoon puts in and what he leaves out, as well as how he cuts between them. There's a huge jump in Dong-yoon's account, for instance, that may be him trying to downplay his guilt about another awful event, and the flashbacks to before Ki-tae's death can frequently be confusing, as the characters' behavior, especially Ki-tae's, can seem to change drastically between them. But that can be the high school experience, with people presenting different faces to different circles of friends and attempting to appear a bigger bully just to survive. Yoon gets that and presents it in all its confusing reality, not offering clear signals with cinematography or design but letting the audience recall these facts of life and sort things out themselves.

Full review at EFC.

100 Years of Evil

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011 - Playback in Black: The Next Wave)

In some ways, 100 Years of Evil works more as a deconstruction of the continuing use of Nazis as lurking supervillains in pop-culture than as an example of it. After all, with World War II sixty-five years in the past, even if Hitler had somehow secretly survived, not only would he be in his dotage, his history since then would have him looking sadly ineffective. This film posits that he invented the soap opera and fast food - nefarious, to be sure, but something of a step down.

As much as directors Erik Eger and Magnus Oliv have fun taking the idea apart and working it for laughs, they do so in large part by playing it straight. As weird as some of the characters in the film are, especially obsessed scientist Skule (Jon Rekdal), there are only occasional moments when things get overtly goofy. Rekdal actually gives Skule a strange sort of pathos as a man controlled by his obsession, helplessly driven to uncover lies.

Midnight Son

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011 - Visions of Vampirism)

This one was going so well before it went full-vampire by the end. Director Scott Leberecht spends the first chunk of the movie creating an interpretation of the vampire myth that seems thoroughly believable, even playing with the audience by suggesting that the presence of vampires in pop culture may be influencing pasty, anemic Jacob (Zak Kilberg) in his descent into blood-sucking. It's sad, reasonably well-acted, has a sweet little love story at the center and manages to turn the whole idea of vampires and their sex appeal on its head in amusing fashion.

And then, it's like Leberecht either forgot what he was doing with the first act or didn't realize as he was creating his set-up that it was actually a lot better than the rote story he was building. All the things that were clever and made sense get thrown out the window, the grounded bits become fantastical, and the last scenes just seem like a lazy surrender to convention.

Saitai (Birthright)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2011 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2011 - Cinema Lucida)

On the surface, Naoki Hashimoto's Birthright is the opposite of what a thriller should be: It is long, static scenes of people doing nothing and even saying nothing, with no frantic activity to be found. It's the sort of film that seems calculated to drive me up the wall. And yet, it is riveting, serving up a story that wrests incredible suspense from its very simplicity and starkness.

A young woman (Sayako Oho) comes to a seaside town and starts observing the Takeda family that lives there. Daughter Ayano (Miyu Yagyu) and father Minotu (Hiroshi Sakuma) don't notice her, and while mother Naoko (Ryoko Takizawa) occasionally seems to, she doesn't acknowledge the silent watcher. After a few days, she makes her move, donning a school uniform and meeting Ayano on the road, saying a boy at a different school wants to meet her. This gets Ayano into her car, where she is handcuffed, blindfolded, and brought to a large, empty building. The girl locks the doors and unshackles Ayano. And then they wait.

From the very start, Birthright is designed to be unnerving, with shots that place everything in the middle distance and sound that is mixed the same way, voices overheard from a distance away. The bulk of the movie has no music, and the girl (given a name on the film's website but not, IIRC, within the film itself) is far from forthcoming. It is an atmosphere set up to prime the audience for the next thing to happen, but not necessarily to deliver it. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that there really is not "next thing", and that what the audience is seeing now is in fact the point of the exercise - and if that's the case, anything can happen.

Full review at EFC.

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