Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Fantasia Daily 2016.11 (24 July 2016): Holy Flame of the Martial World, Fragments of Asia, Lazy Hazy Crazy, and If Cats Disappeared from the World

Thought I'd just given up, didn't you? That would be the sensible thing, but I've got notes, I want other film festivals I apply to for credentials to take me seriously, and, honestly, I don't want to feel like I was a freeloader for the second half of the fest.

This was a pretty enjoyable Sunday, though - it started off with the always enjoyable 35mm Shaw Brothers classic, with the obligatory crazy trailer. Relatively few of those this year, at least for me, as two of the Hong Kong movies screened had already played Boston and that's where they show up.

I would hang around De Seve for the rest of the afternoon for what would prove to be an all-Asian day, continuing with the "Fragments of Asia" shorts program. Before that started, the programmers excitedly announced a special addition to the program, as Takashi Miike had given them a copy of his animated short to show during his visit. They even got to name it, in French at least, because it hadn't shown outside of Japan.

Next up, King-wei Chu introducing Lazy Hazy Crazy writer/director Jody Luk Yee-sum, a Hong Kong filmmaker who worked on the scripts for several of Pang Ho-cheung's movies and talked about how he'd been very encouraging about her making one of her own, almost frighteningly so, as she didn't initially think she was ready when she got the chance, although confidence built as she went along.

The film was introduced as being somewhat autobiographical, which raised some eyebrows when she came out for Q&A afterward, saying that it being based on her life as a bit exaggerated, though she certainly knew a lot of people involved in "compensated dating" and the like. She also talked about how she and the three young co-stars wound up bunking together for some time before the movie actually started, in order to get familiar and comfortable with each other.

After that, across the street for If Cats Disappeared from the World, a pretty charming little movie that the audience really seemed to be into. Then, I had a choice between Superpowerless and In Search of the Ultra-Sex, and opted for "none of the above" - it would be nearly an hour until the first started (with another show the next day) and the second was a thing made from cutting other movies together, and that's not really my thing. So did I go back to the apartment, get some sleep, and be ready to go early? No! I headed down to the Forum to see For a Few Bullets, because clearly what you need at the midway point of Fantasia is a way to cram more Chinese movies in.

Wu lin sheng huo jin (Holy Flame of the Martial World)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016, 35mm)

The Shaw Brothers kung fu movies of the 1980s got pretty strange - between the competition from Golden Harvest with their new young stars like Jackie Chan on one side and the western sci-fi/fantasy movies like Star Wars being imported to Hong Kong on the other, the venerable studio had to make some pretty crazy things to stand out. Holy Flame of the Martial World is not the most insane thing to come out in Shawscope during that time, it's unusual in that it plays as a pretty good movie when a lot were gluing fight scenes and special effects together and hoping that something entertaining came about.

Some eighteen years ago, a pair of married warriors (Wong Man-yee & Siao Yuk) were on the run, attempting to make sure that their martial-arts manual didn't fall into the wrong hands. Though defeated at the hands of a cabal led by Chief Tsing Yin of the O-Mei Clan (Leanne Lau Suet-wah) and Chief Ku Pan-kuai (Jason Pai Piao), their master Yama Elder (Phillip Kwok Chung-fung) beat them back and took the couple's son to raise on his own, challenging the others to a battle in twenty years time. What the elder did not realize was that the couple had twins, and Tsing Yin would find the daughter. Two decades later, Yin Tien-chu (Max Mok Siu-chung) has grown to be a master of "Devil Swordplay" and Tan Feng (Yeung Jing-jing) is a loyal part of the O-Mei clan, but with the time for the challenge Yama issued coming near, all are trying to find the magical swords hidden by Tien-chu's and Feng's parents while Tsing and Ku consolidate their power.

The quest for a secret manual or weapon is well-enough worn plot for a martial-arts movie that this doesn't sound particularly strange, but it's the crazy but weirdly consistent details that make the actual film a lot of fun: Yama's "ghostly cry", where he laughs his opponents away, is incredibly over-the-top but tremendously entertaining, but for all the silliness of this and some of the other techniques, writer/director Tony Liu Chun-ku and action directors Phillip Kwok Chung-fung and Yuen Tak are very good at staging their wire-heavy action so that the viewer laughs at the staging but enjoys the execution. It's silly, sure, but it's generally slapstick that makes the characters look formidable, rather than inept.

Full review on EFC.

"Korogashiya no Pun" ("Keep on Rolling!")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, HD)

Takashi Miike always finds some way to surprise at Fantasia. Sometimes it's turning out a great family film, sometimes it's doing something as conventional as Shield of Straw. This time, it's not just adding a cartoon to the Asian Shorts block at the last minute, but having it be the most upbeat, charming thing on the list.

It's a cute little stop-motion short about a dung beetle who really likes rolling stuff around well beyond being a dung beetle and that sort of being their thing, leading to a lot of slapstick as he attacks other round things, meeting his match in a giant (by his scale) hamster. It leaves him to "pooped" to pay baseball with his other insect friends. I've got no idea whether this short is connected to something else (the Fantasia website says it's a tribute to Puchi Puchi Anime, but it must be some sort of side characters if so), but it's a fun group of creatures doing amusing things, with Miike and his collaborators sticking just enough jokes into five minutes to let it be cute rather than frantic and get genuine laughs from each one.

"Report About Death"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

This short film looks like the sort of thing that your better-informed friend might share on social media to explain a difficult concept or advocate a position on same, and I mean that as a compliment: If that's what filmmaker Kim Jin-a was going for, she hits the target squarely, perfectly capturing the infographic-like visual style and quick but not rushed pacing, making sure that there's a poppy moving picture with every fact delivered with great assurance.

The gag, then, is that she's talking about the most universal subject of all, albeit in a way that we almost never do - matter-of-factly, whether discussing the biological and chemical processes involved or the various belief systems and rituals that have sprung up around it, and we are not used to that. Cho Hyun-ji's voiceover is instructive and never sarcastic but not cold or condescending, and while Kim's visuals can easily swing to morbid or darkly comic, they are generally entertaining without making her film a gross-out piece or a satirical attack.

You'll learn something, you'll smile, you'll generally enjoy yourself. It may be the weirdest praise I'll ever give a short, but if I ever find out that I've got something terminal, this will probably be one of two things I'm certain to post on Facebook in the lead-up (along with a request that anybody with the intent of saying "I'll pray for you" donate a dollar to cancer research and do a hundred times as much good). It's not the sort of thing we should need an animated short for, even if we kind of do.

"I Can See You"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

A spiffy little animation from Gu Jie that starts building tension almost immediately as a skilled archer practices seemingly much longer than anyone else... or is he?

Gu does some nifty things here, finding ways to create a jittery live-action feel that lets the camera take a quick peek over the shoulder while also using the abstraction of animation to make the world shift under his feet. There's a nervous energy to the film that the music and sound design adds to, along with the very simple design that initially hints at there being nowhere to hide until a little bit of shifting perspective suggests that there is, in fact, a bit more. The red streaks that show up later are striking.

There's some great silent storytelling, too - without any dialogue, Gu gets across that the archer is exceptional enough that perhaps nobody could be targeting him but himself; it's all body language, glimpses of something seeming strange, and hints that nevertheless get this very specific idea across. That's in addition to just making the action fast-paced and tense, a nifty bit of work.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

Though I've watched a bunch of movies from South Korea over the years, there are a bunch of details about everyday life that I'll miss because they're either very specific or something kind of unpleasant that doesn't fit into entertainment, even if your entertainment is cynical crime dramas. "Retriever" has a couple of those, and while I'd seen how the homeless seem semi-officially allowed to shelter in Seoul's subway stations at night in Seoul Station a couple days earlier, I'd never heard of the Cho son jok, ethnic Koreans from China treated with suspicion and derision when they come to the ROK to find work.

That's where this short gets its protagonist, beaten up because other homeless people see him as lower-class and this a fair target, eventually hatching a scheme to find a dog at a rescue shelter and sell it to a disreputable butcher under the table. Of course, nor only is nine-year-old former guide dog Bori not really the sort that makes a good stew, but he just may unlock some sort of attachment in the hardened, desperate man.

Filmmaker Kim Joo-hwan has seemingly looked under a rock to find this story, choosing as his protagonist someone many in his audience might try Doubly hard to ignore, and neither the director nor star Moon Sun-yong does much to hint that there's any particular nobility hidden there. Through much of the movie, they do an impressive job of giving some low-level stimulation to the audience's instincts to look away and feel ashamed by it, showing injustice but making its victims unheroic, making sure his accent is thick and odd enough that even those of us who don't know Korean might get the idea that he sounds kind of illiterate. In some ways, it's easier to connect with the dog, a working animal kicked to the curb when no longer needed, racking up medical bills that can't be paid at the vet. Kim plays with the idea of them being outcasts in a thoroughly unsentimental manner, and in doing so earns every scrap of empathy that they eventually receive.

"Mu-jeo-gaeng" ("Throttled")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

Mermaid horror stories are a venerable genre, although in recent years they have become just ubiquitous enough that the surprise of something often considered cute and/or sexy being used for something potentially gruesome is gone (although that may be a fairly recent thing anyway). It's easy to see why, though - it's not hard to scrape the cheerful exterior away and see stories about men keeping and abusing a beautiful topless woman, not embarrassingly disfigured bit unable to do anything on her own while trapped in his bathtub or elsewhere with dry land on all sides.

"Throttled" is certainly along those lines, although it doesn't do much with how these fantasies often stay in a seemingly benign place with the man thinking he's being a good guy by rescuing the mermaid. Kim Je-hyeon's animated short makes her Intriguingly alien from the start, with obvious gills and the lower half of an octopus rather than a fish or dolphin, but it doesn't mess around with the fisherman who finds her, either; his curiosity is predatory, and the frequent stillness to the animation is pointedly unnerving, emphasizing people regarding each other rather than acting or connecting.

Things get ugly later on, of course, and Kim makes the sort jump into full horror enthusiastically, mixing the animation style up a little bit to show that the very environment is going to turn. The latter minutes aren't gleefully nasty, but they certainly don't hold back. This basic story has been told before, quite a bit, but Kim's commitment to the dark elements makes his fairly memorable.

"Keep Going"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

There's a line in the credits of "Keep Going" indicating that Kim Geon has done more with the post-apocalyptic setting and characters, although I have not yet followed up on that (see: the Facebook page). I probably should; for a student film, it's impressively stylish and, while open-ended, it tells its own tale without getting caught up in something bigger.

It is the tale of Yeon-hee and Margo, 40km from a border they need to cross in a land that has been devastated by the Robot Wars, a bad situation to be in because the pair are tethered to one another, Margo's power core keeping Yeon-hee's heart beating, and nobody else is terribly fond of robots. It's a simple way to get things moving, and Kim makes good use of it both in moments of contemplation, when the girl probably not old enough to remember what sort of cataclysm made people hate robots (they are, after all, so useful!), and in action. Staging a simple fight scene is not an option, as any distance the protagonists get from each other is dangerous even if not limited. Throw in how Chou Bae-young and her co-stars seem to know what they're doing, and things are in good shape.

It's also a good-looking movie; though ruined-future movie are popular among those with low budgets because locations aren't that hard to find and you don't need to build a lot (physically or virtually), Kim does better than most at making the most of what's available and making Margo and the other robots look good, crafted with an eye for aesthetics but also worn down. The picture looks dirty, but never careless; it's definitely the sort of short film that could bear expansion to feature length even while being satisfying as-is.

"Mitsuami no kamisama" ("Pigtails")

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Fragments of Asia, DCP)

The centerpiece of the "Fragments of Asia" piece in part by dint of being the longest, it would also have been the one that had the highest profile if not for the last-minute addition of something by Miike, as director Yoshimi Itazu has some pretty high-profile credits as one of the main animators of Miss Hokusai and The Wind Rises, and with Production I.G. behind it, "Pigtails" certainly has a head start on being sharp and polished. It's not necessarily a huge surprise that Itazu seems to have picked up some other skills as well.

He is, for instance, very good at not so much misdirecting the audience on where the story is going but in allowing it to get there by an unusual route. It starts off looking kind of traditional - the pretty young woman who nevertheless lives alone and isolated, the shy boy who delivers her mail but is too shy to speak - even if it is told from the point of view of various inanimate objects around her tiny house. There's a charm to those characters, seeing life through the lenses of what a hatrack experiences but devoted to the pigtailed girl of the title, and a sweetness to the girl and her only contact with the world, even after the camera pulls back a little more and things are revealed to be less idyllic.

Sadly, the original manga that this is adapting does not appear to be available in English, because it's a pretty great story, and Itazu, screenwriter Miho Maruo, and the cast & crew do a fantastic job of creating a yin-yang of sweet fantasy that has a seed of horror inside and vice versa over the course of the film. It's also very impressive how what seems like a clever but minor moment in the opening minutes of the film, and does it in a way that is not just crass irony or obvious restatement of a theme but an intriguing comment on how sometimes, rather than necessarily becoming desensitized to something terrible, we in the audience can be okay with it from the start, simply dependent upon our definition of personhood.

Tung baan tung hok (Lazy Hazy Crazy)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

Jody Luk Yee-sum has co-written some bawdy comedies in Hong Kong, so it's not surprising that one of the most memorable bits in Lazy Hazy Crazy is the one that comes off as a crude joke. It's not exactly representative, though, as the film as a whole turns out to be one of those coming-of-age films that seems kind of alarming to an older/male/foreign audience member like myself, even if the characters do seem more or less able to deal with what's thrown at them with fairly good humor.

It follows three teenage classmates, each neglected or unsupervised to a certain extent: Tall, confident Chloe (Koyi Mak Chi-yee) not so obviously, perhaps, especially in comparison to Alice (Fish Liew), whose parents have divorced and decamped for Bangkok and Ngai, leaving her working as a "hostess" at a karaoke bar and doing enough "compensated dating" that she's known around school by a fairly vulgar nickname. She may still be higher on the social totem pole than Tracy (Ashina Kwok Yik-sam), a bespectacled Filipina whom everyone expects will become a maid like her strict grandmother and most other immigrants from the Philippines. They're the sort of trio that has just enough in common to get lumped together, but that doesn't mean their friendship is easy or natural.

It is, in fact, often highlighted by cruelty; Chloe especially can be the sort that builds herself up by pushing those around her down at times, whether by reminding Tracy of her low position in the pecking order or treating the escort work Alice does to survive as something of a fun adventure. There are times when the operative message seems to be that kids need friends, so they must initially take what they can get even if it means that those friends actually thinking well of one another has to come later.

Full review on EFC.

Sekai kara neko ga kietanara (If Cats Disappeared from the World)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016, HDs)

There probably is not quite the same philosophical divide between West and East - or more specifically, America and Japan - as there has been at other times in history, but the different priorities at the hearts of the cultures are a large part of what makes it so interesting for me as an outsider. It is, whether deliberately or not, an inversion of an American classic, although one need not get particularly analytical to enjoy it - it is a sweet movie that finds ways to charm despite its sad premise.

It opens by introducing us to a young man (Takeru Satoh), about thirty and delivering the mail for a living. While out on his route, he has a seizure, and the doctor gives him some bad news: He has a brain tumor, inoperable, and he doesn't have much time. But maybe he has more than he thinks - as he despaired of what to do next, a doppelganger appears and tells him that he can have another day, but something else musty new removed from the world to compensate each day. Telephones, for a start. But here's the rub: He met his first girlfriend (Aoi Miyazaki) because she called a wrong number, and everything else this devil takes to extend his life is going to take a chunk of his past.

The movie is, in this way, the flip side of It's a Wonderful Life, with the protagonist's continued presence in the world coming at a price, not just to himself, but to the whole world. The contrast in how the American film values a specific individual over the crowd is perhaps most visible in who makes the offer to change the world and keep them around - a man who claims to be a celestial being but needs the help of the self-doubting man and his exceptional goodness, versus his own mirror image, selfishly telling him to do whatever it takes to hang on. It's not a perfect comparison, but given how central movies are to the relationships between the younger characters - Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together (apparently called "Buenos Aires" in Japan) play important parts - it's hard to believe the filmmakers and original novelist Genki Kawamura didn't make the connection at some point.

Full review on EFC.

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