Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Fantasia Daily 2014.07: The Fatal Encounter, The Huntresses, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

Probably could have gone with yesterday's Plan A of The Infinite Man and The Run since the former probably had enough time with a filmmaker introduction to get me in, but I played it safe and stuck around the Hall theater instead. Not a bad choice - I liked The Fatal Encounter a bit more than I expected, although I'd forgotten that it was one that AMC had picked up to show in their theaters but which didn't make it to Boston. You'd think opening another new theater just a few stops up the Orange Line up in Somerville would free a couple screens up to play something a little more off-beat more often, but it doesn't seem to be the case this summer.

The Huntresses was all right, but Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter turned out to be the treat of the night. This was the second festival I've had a chance to see it at and as with IFFBoston, I was initially intending to go for something else here, as it seems like a pretty good bet to show up in Boston-area boutique theaters later on. You never know these days, though - I'd kind of hope that with the Fargo TV series being really good, this would get an extra boost, but I've given up trying to figure out what gets booked and what doesn't.

Director David Zellner was on hand, although his brother Nathan was back home awaiting a new baby, which trumps even Fantasia. He had a fair number of interesting stories, such as how this movie had been percolating for nearly ten years, so that while they were able to get Rinko Kikuchi attached fairly early (big props for name-dropping Funky Forest as well as Babel), it was worth noting that they had to use translators during the initial contact but that she was fluent in English by the time filming actually started.

He also mentioned that casting Bunzo the Bunny was as tricky as any of the human characters, and they got ridiculously lucky in one scene with him: It's apparently incredibly difficult to get permits to shoot in the Tokyo subway system, so they went down there guerrilla style and basically got one take before the police chased them away and felt incredibly lucky that Bunzo cutely scampered around the seat as if to say "I'm a city rabbit" in that one shot. Another amusing location-shooting story was that they had a very traditional-looking library lined up as a location, but the place backed out when they saw the script would have someone ripping a page out of a book, which led them to shooting in a different library's new, very modern-looking building instead, which probably changed the tone of the scene a little.

I stayed in writing yesterday for the thunderstorm, but I'll be out a bit this afternoon, making the annual trip to the archaeological museum and hopefully eating an actual meal. I may make it back in time for the Prom Night restoration, I may not. Either way, the evening's films are Faults and Predestination.

Yeok-rin (The Fatal Encounter)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Palace intrigue stories, no matter what the culture, tend to develop over time, playing out in subtle ways requiring either inner monologues or exposition that doesn't necessarily fit well into a movie. There are good ones, but it's a little curious that more don't take the tack that writer Choi Sung-hyun and director Lee Jae-kyu take with The Fatal Encounter: It dramatizes what could be the final day in a young king's reign, as all the plans are coming to a head.

The time is 1777, and King Jeong-jo (Hyun-bin) is in the first year of his reign. He's progressive, as kings go, aiming to improve things for the lower classes and favoring his young advisers over the older ones, paying particular attention to his chief of the guards Hong Kook-young (Park Sung-woong) and Gap-soo (Jung Jae-young), a eunuch clerk. Naturally, this displeases the powerful Noron Faction, who were behind his father's death and have the support of Queen Dowager Jung-soon (Han Ji-min) and General Koo Sun-bok (Song Young-chang). The Norons plan to kill another king this day, but who knows if it will come from inside the palace or at the hands of Eul-soo (Cho Jung-seok), an assassin being blackmailed with the safety of his girlfriend Wol-hye (Jung Eun-chae), a palace maid?

It's a fiendishly complex plot with elements that stretch back up to fourteen years as both sides put agents in place, including children, just in case they might become useful in the future, and where different agents of the Noron Faction are unaware of the entire plan - heck, Jeong-jo doesn't know what his mother, Duchess Hae-kyeung (Kim Sung-ryoung) is doing to protect him. In fact, The Fatal Encounter plays as much as a spy story as it does a tale of tangled relationships, and it's impressive how well the filmmakers establish all of what's going on at the point when the story has begun accelerating, especially since they mostly use the flashbacks that reach into earlier years to establish relationships rather than events.

The only time the movie trips up on that account, a bit, is as things approach the 11:15pm encounter that director Lee teased the audience with at the beginning; captions will pop up saying "three hours earlier" and "ninety minutes earlier" without breaks to re-establish just which time it's earlier than. It's a minor complaint that an attentive audience should figure out quickly enough. Lee works his ticking clock quite well, letting some subplots play out within hours while others stretch over the whole day. Things happen quickly without ever seeming rushed and flashbacks showing potential reversals come early enough that it never seems like the movie is pulling them out unfairly.

Eventually, the swords, arrows, and muskets come out, and the showdown that has been promised throughout the movie does not disappoint. It's not just that the fight choreography is excellent and the people who have to know what they are doing can handle themselves, although that's great; it's that Lee and his action crew have some great skills at making the terrain important. It's raining during the big fight, which leads to problems both in moving along rooftops or lighting a musket's fuse when out from under cover. The architecture makes it believable that the king could conceivably pick off enemy soldiers while avoiding the hail of arrows coming his way. And throughout, Lee never has to slow down to highlight the more personal layers of the fight.

Heck, in some ways it's when Hyun-bin does his best work as the king; making him both regal and not to be messed with. What goes on during the last act is in many ways the answer to the question the movie has been asking throughout - is it possible to survive as a good-hearted king, or does being relatively liberal necessarily mark one as weak in this environment? Byun-hin encapsulates that in nearly every scene. Jung Jae-young is a good foil for him, showing how Gap-soo is both the king's most trusted friend but also distant as a common servant, while Han Ji-min makes Queen Jung-soon a formidable opponent; there's no doubt that this young dowager (obviously not the first wife Jeong-jo's grandfather had) has probably been training for this since birth. Jung Eun-chae has some great moments as a laundry maid who becomes unexpectedly central to everything, and young Yoo Eun-mi is pretty terrific as a mere ten-year-old caught up in things far above her understanding.

It's mostly a nice-looking period piece as well, even if it is somewhat dark during the crucial moments. It's also missing a little bit of wanted resolution even after running a bit long. Still, it's a fun palace thriller, one that has a tendency to move when others may bog down.

(Previously at EFC)

Joseonminyeo Samchongsa (The Huntresses)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

When I was a bit younger, I absolutely ate things like The Huntresses up, and why not? It's a bright, colorful adventure starring three pretty girls who are quite capable of fighting their way out of their own jams using whimsical gadgets and weaponry. The bar is a bit higher today, not always to my benefit, but I still like this sort of thing when it's done well, and this one is good enough that I'd show it to my nieces if they were a bit older.

It posits a trio of three young women as the best bounty hunters in 17th-century Korea - fun-loving Hong-dan (Gang Ye-won), all-business Ga-bi (Son Ga-in), and team leader Jin-ok (Ha Ji-won), with former detective Mu-myeong (Ko Chang-seok) serving as their agent. Their latest and most lucrative job, though, is not to bring in a criminal but to find and safely escort a secret envoy carrying a stauroscope with vital military data safely back to the king. Thus far, treacherous Kim Ja-hun (Choi Seong-min) has intercepted all of the other envoys, and both he and henchman Sa-hyeon (Joo Sang-wook) have a history with Jin-ok.

The movie's opening gambit starts out with Jin-ok disguised as a man to get close to a target, but she and it are in full girl-power mode soon after, knocking soldiers down with combat yo-yos before making a daring escape to their cabin, where the Rube Goldberg device that converts the place into an impregnable fortress is decorated with cute accouterments. I'm probably not the ideal person to parse what sort of message this is sending to the young girls in the audience, but it seems more for them than guys looking to ogle; the team is only relying being pretty in one scene, capable without all having to be perfect all the time, and they don't stumble out of particularly feminine weakness. I like that Jin-ok being a maker isn't her defining odd trait and that Hong-dan having a husband is kind of incidental to them as a group. It seems pretty positive to me, although I also kind of wish the word "bitch" didn't appear in the subtitles as often as it does.

The ladies themselves are an enjoyable group. The story pushes Jin-ok to the front, and Ha Ji-won is up to it; she handles the heavier material that gets dropped onto her character by the end without falling into the boring intense/serious mode that often afflicts protagonists of fun movies when their plot gets darker; there's always at least an undercurrent of the energy that grabs the audience early on. Gang Ye-won and Son Ga-in get to be more purely goofy and combative as the other members of the team, funny without being jokes themselves, and capable of good odd-couple banter. They've got some fun people to bounce off, with Ko Chang-seok kind of a specialist in big, whimpering guys (here with extra funny beard) and Song Sae-byeok the obligatory boy tagging along because it's his job and he likes one of the girls. Choi Seong-min oozes fine slime as the villain.

The action is plentiful and fun, especially since all of the ladies are more inclined to wade in there to swing swords and throw punches rather than hanging back or sneaking around. Director Park Je-hyun fills the screen during melees, and he's also pretty canny with ramping up the seriousness of it; while the early scenes are mostly just knocking people around, they are using the sharp part of the sword later. They're still fun, creative scenes - even the big final confrontation between Ja-hun and Jin-ok has the latter swinging from the masts of a ship using her yo-yos - so it's not like everything has become deadly serious.

As much as I appreciate things staying upbeat, the movie does occasionally walk a thin line between bright and garish. Some of that may be a matter of taste - twelve-year-old girls could very well love the look of this movie - I do think it looks kind of chintzy in spots. It's got the feeling that bits which slowed things down were cut out, especially in terms of giving Hong-dan and Ga-bi their own side-stories, leaving a bit of a visible gap when they're referred to in the end. There's a pretty harmless-seeming gag that I wouldn't be shocked to see cut for American release because blackface sets some people here off even if it's not actually mocking.

I smiled more often than not, and while I didn't love it, I'm probably two or three times the age of its mostly-female target audience. It's cute and fun, and that's all it needs to be.

(Previously at EFC)

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

As much as people lauded Fargo when it came out, it was a singular, stand-alone picture that did okay at the box office as opposed to a blockbuster, so two different spin-offs of sorts appearing nearly twenty years later has to be considered kind of peculiar. Even more so: Both this movie by the Zellner brothers and Noah Hawlsey's semi-sequel television series leave the original more or less alone and are excellent besides.

In this story, a Japanese woman (Rinko Kikuchi) finds a copy of the movie on VHS and, apparently taking the "this is a true story" opening text at face value, starts obsessively trying to figure out how to find the buried million dollars. Isolated at work - most women have moved on from "office lady" jobs one way or another well before 29 - and awkward in her personal life, she retreats further into this fantasy until she spots a chance to go to America and seize it.

Something isn't quite right inside Kumiko's head, and it doesn't much matter what it is, clinically; this isn't a movie about the way one escapes from mental illness, or even about how distorted the world seems from within. Much of it is spent showing how, one way or another, people can't see or ignore the signs of such issues, complaining when Kumiko doesn't fulfill their expectations but not doing anything to address the root causes. And while some of that seems to be the result of Japanese societal rigidity, it's not much different when Kumiko arrives it America, where even the charitable and well-meaning people are often thinking about how helping Kumiko when she's in obvious distress reflects upon themselves. The one person who tries - a kindly police officer played by director David Zellner - is simply unequipped to deal with what confronts him.

Those are all people who are just passing through, though; it's Rinko Kikuchi who is in every scene and never less than excellent. She gives Kumiko a constant, quiet sense of torment in how she's frozen, seemingly unable to engage with the world beyond the necessities, but she's also never a simple blank. There's confusion and anger on her face even when she seems to be staring emptily, and the moments when she briefly breaks out of that state seem amplified, whether in terms of being joyous or heartbroken.

She does this in two very distinct milieus. The Zellners - in an interesting parallel to how the Coens were credited on their earlier films, David directs, Nathan produces, and they write together - and cinematographer Sean Porter create a sharp dividing line between Tokyo and Minnesota, with the former being drab and austere, corralling Kumiko into tight spaces (it's no wonder she seems kind of furious when her rabbit doesn't immediately take to his newfound freedom) and rigid conformity even when there is some breathing room; her red hoodie sticks out as something that just doesn't belong. Minnesota, on the other hand, is overwhelming in its vastness; the white snow stretches to the edge of the screen and whips around to create a sense of danger, almost as if the space and adventure Kumiko wants is cruelly rejecting her.

The filmmakers based their story on a well-known urban legend, so the audience likely has a good idea how it ends, even though it's no more a true story than Fargo was. Knowing where this is going doesn't hurt the movie at all, though - it just makes the basic fact that people won't notice or can't do anything when Kumiko's trouble is there to see all the more tragic.

(Previously at EFC)

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