Friday, July 21, 2017

Fantasia 2017.08: House of the Disappeared, Cold Hell, and Shinjuku Swan II

Having been to Australia by way of China last fall, and made sure to plan out the vacation so that I'd have enough time to make the travel worth it, I must say, I admire the heck out of people who make those long flights to appear at a film festival for just a day or two:

In this case, that's House of the Disappeared director Lim Dae-woong (center), an unexpected and unadvertised guest, so he didn't have a whole lot of time to answer questions after his movie, as there was one lined up for just fifteen or twenty minutes after. Kind of a shame, as he made a good movie and speaks good English to boot, which certainly seemed to help him engage with the audience.

After that, it was a bit of a break and then across the street for Cold Hell and Shinjuku Swan II. The first was pretty terrific, and the second was something of a letdown - NYAFF got Antiporno, and that has to have a little more of what interests Sono in it, even if it's also part of a franchise in its own way.

Today's plan - After having been away from the festival to see Valerian this afternoon, it's back on campus for Bad Genius, Lowlife, and Kodoku Meatball Machine (though I may check to see if the new screening added for Genius will let me see Jailbreak tonight and thus Tragedy Girls next week).

Shiganwiui Jib (House of the Disappeared)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

I do rather love it when all of the pieces of a ghost story, or any story that plays with time, wind up all fitting together in a way that's not just obligatory, but clever, and earns some emotional points on the way as well. The makers of this Korean film has a bit of a head start, having remade Alejandro Hidalgo's 2013 Venezuelan version, but it's just as likely you'll get a mess from that as something this tight.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, Kang Mi-hee (Kim Yunjin) was convicted of the murders of her husband Chul-joong (Jo Jae-yun) and son Hye-jo on 11 November 1992, though the body of the boy was never found. Twenty-five years later, suffering from what is presumably terminal laryngeal cancer, she is given home imprisonment, allowed to serve out the last days of her sentence in the now run-down house where it all happened, but what she discovered back in 1992 and neighborhood priest Choi (Ok TaecYoon) - her only visitor - is just finding out is that the house is haunted, apparently on a twenty-five year cycle, with 11/11 just a few days away.

I missed the original The House at the End of Time when it played the festival a few years back, so I can't tell just how much of the script here comes from Hidalgo and how much from Jang Jae-hyun, but though Jang and director Lim Dae-woong have a few stumbles in the 1992 period - the presence of a second son in early scenes telegraphs a lot of what will play out in kind of worn fashion, and the filmmakers are perhaps a little casual in how they present and use the fact that the two sons are from two husbands - but it's an impressive example of a ghost story that can keep piling more on without it seeming like excess by the time things are done, and they're able to create variety without it seeming like randomness. They're especially good during the finale, when things initially look like they'll get too loose, but instead snap into place while still having room to be surprising or unconventional.

Full review on EFC.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

The festival's website describes the backstory of what's going on in "Amy", and that feels like kind of a cheat - though director L. Gustavo Cooper and writer Peter Ciella mine some historic events for a short that is certainly quite creepy in spots, the actual short is a snapshot without a whole lot of context. We see an old woman prepare some lemonade, give it to a younger one, and then a few other things happen, but when the short hits its conclusion, it does so in a way that is random, not really spurred by what we've seen before and which leaves the audience asking what was up with that rather than carrying what was going on forward.

Still, up until then, things do seem to be building nicely, with an oppressive environment and unnerving performances from both potential killer and potential victim. There's a quickly established sense of place and danger, and seeing that this team made "The Home" (which I quite liked at MonsterFest) doesn't surprise me; it shows that they have a good eye for this kind of tight, oppressive, dangerous environment. And, to a certain extent, I do like that they didn't try to grab extra legitimacy with a note about how these things really happened, allowing their short to stand on its own as best possible.

Die Hölle (Cold Hell)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Cold Hell is a wonderfully grimy thriller which gets right down to the business of a woman with a crappy support system to draw on for help trying to defend herself from a determined serial killer. It doesn't over-burden the audience with too many subplots or go overboard in fetishizing the crimes, but just does what it promises in ways that are occasionally astonishing but always determined.

Its heroine is Vienna taxi driver Özge Dogruol (Violetta Schurawlow), ethnically Turkish but an Austrian citizen, on probation for drug possession and with good reason to have a chip on her shoulder for everyone but cousin Ranya (Verena Altenberger) and her daughter Ada (Elif NIsa Uyar), and her latest bit of overzealous sparring with a guy who didn't want to practice with a woman has gotten her kicked out of her muay thai gym. Her problems get bigger, though, when she comes home and sees a particularly grisly crime scene through her bathroom window, and with the way the light works, the killer (Sammy Sheik) maybe gets a better look at her than she does at him. Though detectives Steiner (Tobias Moretti) and Petrovic (Stefan Pohl) inform her the M.O. indicates a serial killer, they don't offer much protection, a potential disaster when Ranya's boyfriend Samir (Robert Palfrader) - also Özge's boss- kicks her out, and Özge's apartment is the first place she and Ada think to go.

While the story is one built around thrills and revenge, there are long stretches when it is simply about Özge, a survivor who feels more damaged than she actually is and as a result is extremely reluctant to trust anybody. The abuse she has survived in the past comes out later, and it's interesting to consider what Martin Ambrosch's script implies as a result, starting from how quickly she asks for police protection despite the fact that we've just seen how physically fierce she can be, and how she won't open up about why even when it would certainly smooth things along. It's almost entirely communicated by lead actress Violetta Schurawlow and how she will often stay silent and deflated in the scenes where the audience wants her to show the spine she does in other moments. She sells the sort of closed-off self-reliance that Özge must embody without making her entirely hard, and gets across a very capable urgency in a crisis workout seeming like she really knows what she's doing. On top of that, she manages the physicality necessary for the action like a pro.

Full review on EFC.

Shinjuku suwan II (Shinjuku Swan II)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Maybe it's just a filtering effect - Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono makes enough movies that only the really good ones make it to American festivals, theaters, and home video - but I can't recall ever being bored by one of Sono's films before, certainly not the way I was by Shinjuku Swan II. Maybe he's at that point in his career where he's having a harder time producing outrageously creative material on a regular basis but still needs to pay the bills (and, as you get older, those bills get larger, requiring more and better-paying work), but whatever the reason, this sequel feels like the first time he's truly mailed it in.

A big part of it is that it's concentrated on a lot of the details of the "scout" business depicted in the franchise, from which organizations are protected by which yakuza groups and how the business works, especially in terms of the country's liquor distributor supporting clubs and whatnot. Maybe if you're getting 20 pages of the manga every week, it holds greater fascination, or if this story comes relatively quickly on the heels of a revisit to the first, the details will still be fresh and hold one's interest. But it's also impossible to omit that this is a relatively sanitized continuation of the story told in the first movie, where new scout Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gou Ayano) occasionally had to confront that the girls he recruited to work in the clubs of Shinjuku were not necessarily just going to have fun, but were being exploited. That angle is barely visible here; a new client's debt is mentioned but plays out off-screen, and the eventual climax of half the story is a beauty pageant with relatively little irony to be found. Ayano seems to carry a little more burden at the start, but it's quickly pushed aside.

The other half of the story, involving Tadanobu Asano as the head of Yokohama's main scout agency, is even more dreary, playing out in the background, waiting for a moment to take on more pivotal part at the end. Like Sono, Asano is a guy with a long history of interesting projects who seems to be doing less exciting work these days, and he's barely got anything interesting to do here. There are moments toward the end, when Asano and Ayano get a fight scene that careens all over the place and the pageant just gets peculiar, where you see hints of the creative anarchy that Sono usually brings to a project, but for the most part, this is just a sequel that adds a new foil, strips out the hard parts, and elaborates on the relatively unimportant details of the first, and everyone involved deserves better than that.

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