Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Fantasia 2017.06: Liberation Day, Wukong and Punk Fu Zombie

There could have been a press screening in here, but did I really want to see The Endless without an introduction and Q&A from the filmmakers? No, no I did not. Besides, that was about the same time Cacao 70 opened for breakfast around the corner, and I suspect I'm going to be there a few times during this vacation.

Theater-jumping made for a rapid-fire sort of day, as Liberation Day ended just in time to get across the street for Wukong while someone from the Hong Kong government pitched it as a great place to visit and shoot movies, and then that let out just in time to get downstairs for Punk Fu Zombie.

Wukong was a bit of a surprise - I was expecting something much more serious throughout from the teaser that played before a lot of Chinese movies at AMC Boston Common, but got something a lot funnier, at least through the first third or half. I'm also surprised to look at Fandango and see that it's only playing on half a screen at Boston Common right now (sharing it with Our Time Will Come); it got a pretty big push for a fairly small booking, especially considering that it's apparently cleaning up back in China. Anyway, glad I saw it, but I'm always a bit surprised that these movies show up at Fantasia while/after they played wide releases - for all that Fantasia brings a crowd to Hong Kong action, and the city does have a Chinatown, it seems like there would be a spot at the Forum or something more often. It's also kind of amusing to see some outlets covering movies that got a day-and-date release like they're festival films just being discovered by North America; there seems to be a real lag in catching up to these releases, even a year and a half after people complained about not being informed about The Mermaid.

So, uh, I don't know who any of these people are; the guy on the left was already on-stage when I got into Punk Fu Zombie and my French sucks enough not to catch their introductions properly. Still, they were having a great time working the audience and going on about both their low-budget zombie movie and the short that played beforehand. I honestly straight-up love the enthusiasm the locals display for their films; I really should polish up my French so that I can join in a little more rather than bail before the Q&A I knew I wouldn't understand.

Then I got back "home" and discovered to my delight that not only was the Red Sox game still going on (rained in Boston, I gather), and then that NESN Go isn't blocked in Canada. Darn near fell asleep watching the game on my phone, which was neat.

An interesting day, to say the least. Next up: Skipping the big thing which will be in theaters on Friday but going for Have a Nice Day, Sequence Break, Poor Agnes, and Plan B. Shock Wave is slick, but not a great action movie.

Liberation Day

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

It is, perhaps, unfair to expect Liberation Day to be more controversial than it is, at least from one perspective: It is a documentary and it documents, in a manner that seems fair and transparent, and often entertaining. But it's also a part of a larger project, one potentially more subversive in its intent, and watching everyone involved not necessarily be timid but also not be daring makes for a film that perhaps lacks the kick that one about art-metal band Laibach playing a concert in North Korea perhaps should have.

The story made the news in 2015 - part of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's Liberation Day celebrations (marking both Koreas' independence from Chinese and Japanese rule in 1945) would be the country's first-ever concert by a western rock band, made all the more interesting by the fact that the band is Laibach, a band that first rose to prominence in 1980s Yugoslavia and has since built an identity around their use of fascist iconography in a way that often seems to blur the line between satire and endorsement. Oh, and they would be covering songs from The Sound of Music as a part of the show. Even for someone with the sort of experience working with North Korea that producer/director Morten Traavik has, that's got to be a crazy tightrope to walk.

That this is actually Traavik's fifteenth visit to North Korea is a bit of information tossed out relatively casually, followed by some amusing YouTube videos of other projects he worked on there, but it's something that highlights the almost inevitable paradox at the center of this project: The DPRK isn't going to do something like this with someone they don't trust, someone they trust is not going to push back at their demands very much, and as a result, the friction between extremely unconventional artists and an extremely authoritarian government never really materializes. There's some potentially interesting material to be found in some of that lack of conflict - there is talk about how Laibach is a band from a country that no longer exists, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc meaning these former Yugoslavians are now Slovenian, and member Ivan Novak sees the utopian elements of the place - but Traavik and co-director Ugis Olte don't particularly delve into that, or even counter those musings with how Pyongyang is something of a showcase city that gives visitors a skewed view of the DPRK as a whole.

Full review on EFC.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

You shouldn't judge a movie by its trailer any more than you should judge a book by its cover, especially the teaser-style thing for Wukong that ran before every Chinese-language film that played my local theater over the last couple of months, but it's still worth mentioning that this isn't exactly the dark, gritty Monkey King re-imagining that implied, but another oft-comedic fantasy adventure featuring the powerful but mischievous demigod, and while it's a fair question as to whether the world needs another one of those, it's at least an entertaining one, even if it does stretch its budget a bit.

It starts in the heavens, where the Destiny Council is preparing to select new immortals 300 years after the escape of a rebellious stone giant ended with the destruction of Mount Huaguo, where the Azi (Ni Ni) eagerly awaits the return of childhood friend Erlang Shen (Shawn Yue Man-lok), whose third eye stays persistently closed a side-effect of his having a mortal father and an immortal mother, only to be interrupted by Sun Wukong (Eddie Peng Yu-yan), who has climbed his way to Heaven to exact revenge for the destruction of his home. Wukong is captured, but the leader of the council, Hua Ji (Yu Feihong) places him in the custody of Azi with a "crown" that will squeeze his head painfully on demand. Undaunted, Wukong still attempts to destroy the Destiny Astrolabe, but that results in him, Azi, Erlang, Hua Ji's enforcer Tian Peng (O Ho), and mechanically-inclined Juanlian (Qiao Shan) being cast down to the crater where Huaguo used to be without their powers, finding the locals menaced by a storm demon.

Though the film opens with a bit of narration that tends toward the grandiose, it gets funny fairly quickly. The Sun Wukong introduced in the first act is not any sort of Monkey King but a shaggy guy in worn clothing strutting with a sort of goofy confidence that is both matched and complemented, an elegant princess who nevertheless is inclined to scrap. Director Derek Kwok Chi-kin and four other writers give the characters big, brash personalities and have them banter as they knock each other around with outsized weapons - Wukong's signature staff often seems like something out of a cartoon, even as it glows red through a black crust like lava. Even after they fall to earth, there's a cheeriness to how they pull together under Azi's leadership, drawing comedy not just from how Juanlian's previously ridiculed devices may be their best hope but from how Wukong and Erlang argue like children over how to best implement it and take credit.

Full review on EFC.

"À part ça, la vie est belle"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Les Fantastiques Week-Ends du Cinéma Québécois, digital)

You don't need to understand French particularly well to enjoy this combination of a bouncy chanson by Claude François with images out of a zombie movie, limited though the animation may be. It is, obviously, a goofy juxtaposition, but it would probably be fun without this particular soundtrack; director François Mercier shows some skill at getting a bit of a zing out of what is basically a comic-book page flip, and making that limited animation work: I laughed a lot more at a zombie's shambling leg being manipulated into playing as dancing than seems reasonable.

It works, no matter what the language.

Punk Fu Zombie

N/A (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Les Fantastiques Week-Ends du Cinéma Québécois, digital)

So, anyway, like I said above, I thought there were going to be English subtitles on this one. Shame on me for not re-checking the program before I left the apartment.

That said, this was never going to be my thing; I'm not big on warts-and-all parody or any form of "let's make a crappy movie on purpose", and this one crosses the fine line between a Wakaliwood-style picture that has to make everything from scratch and accept that it's just got no resources and folks doing bad dubbing because it's a joke. On top of that, it's an hour and forty-five minutes long, and that's a long time for this sort of movie. I was having a good time trying to keep track of the plot even without much French, and I kind of suspect that challenge kept me going longer until the "ugh, are we really still doing this" feeling kicked in.

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