Monday, July 24, 2017

Fantasia 2017.11: The H-Man, Broken Sword Hero, What a Wonderful Family! 2, and The Sheriff in Town

Lots of guests one day, nearly none the next - although, to be fair, I bailed on what was probably one of the centerpiece, guest-intensive things of the festival as I skipped King Cohen because I figured it would run into The Sheriff in Town. It turned out that I didn't really love that one - it's a clever idea and you can constantly see what it's going for, but only clicks about half the time - but I don't regret the choice that much; I'm weirdly incurious about the history of cult movies and people behind them, especially if they're of relatively recent vintage. So, sure, I would have loved if the presentation on Ishiro Honda that preceded The H-Man had been a little more focused and mapped out for the time it had, because I'm just as fascinated by the other material that goes with the story of Honda's life and work, but I'll happily give a seat at the Larry Cohen tribute to someone who is really excited about being in the room.

Today: Junk Head, The Laplace's Demon, Love and Other Cults, and The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio. Most Beautiful Island is good enough that I'm tempted to see it again with the director in attendance, you all already know what Terminator 2 is although an early look at the 3D conversion/restoration might be neat, and Q: The Winged Serpent is a thoroughly bizarre thing on 35mm.

Bijo to ekitai ningen (The H-Man)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Ishiro Honda, 35mm)

Probably my only 35mm throwback at Fantasia this year, it's a bummer that the print was dubbed in a way that probably couldn't have sounded great in 1959, much less 2017 (if the idea of a sub is to make it easier to swallow, what was with the stereotypical accents except when Chikako is singing?). It is a bit of a minor work from the director of the original Gojira, but kind of fun as a genre mash-up in ways they didn't do as much at the time when the original genre films were thriving, a cops & criminals picture that suddenly takes a detour to a mysterious ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and then deals with gangsters and oozing monsters in equal measure.

Literally oozing; "H-Man" is a viscous radioactive liquid that may or may not have any memory of being human, and while it's weird and a little creepy, it's only immediately threatening once in a while. It's a good thing that everything about the rest of the movie, from the cops to the crooks to the psychedelic burlesque at a nightclub, is kind of neat and off-kilter, and probably more fun with a subtitled print.

Thong Dee Fun Khao (Broken Sword Hero)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action, DCP)

What makes a great martial arts action movie? The obvious first part of the answer - "great martial arts action" - is right there in the question, but while fans will often accept other deficiencies if a film delivers that, they often want a little more than just the promise of another fight in between action scenes. Broken Sword Hero takes a stab at delivering that, but unless one is particularly invested in Thai fighting techniques and history, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

The film introduces the viewer to Thongdee (Buakaw Banchamek) as an adult running from a horde of pursuers, but quickly flashes back to him similarly on the run as a kid, when he's called "Joi" and bullied by the governor's sun Cherd. They're still enemies as adults, when Cherd (Nantawut Boonrubsub) and his uncle Panritdeja pursue Thongdee to a boxing camp. The pair's pursuit spurs Thongdee to move on, studying various martial arts at other camps, with young Boonkerd (Vannapoom Songsuparp) tagging along. They make a number of friends both in training and on the road, with Thongdee particularly taken by Ramyong (Sornsin Maneewan), who leaped from a caravan to defend her sisters from apparent Burmese invaders, and as a result attracting the attention of her uncle Rueang (Phutharit Prombandal), who has an important position in a different governor's staff.

The festival program hints that the star of this movie, Bukaw Banchamek, could be the next Tony Jaa, and he certainly seems to have the muay thai bona fides to pull that off; a four-time champion and solidly built dude (who also played professional soccer), there's little surprise when he jumps into a fray and starts trading effective-looking blows or just lays someone out quickly. He can certainly move and perform the athletic feats necessary. Charisma-wise, it's kind of hard to tell how he'll shape up given more acting roles, but he looks like he might make for a good "inexperienced guy befuddled by weird situation" sort of hero.

Unfortunately, he doesn't get a whole lot of chance to really play a character in this picture, because despite the plots that sort of develop around the edges, there is really nothing to this movie but boxing. Thongdee goes to one boxing camp, spars with the master's best student as an audition, trains, gets into a bigger fight, and then moves on to the next one. It's not even really a case that he seems obsessed with becoming known as the country's best fighter or the like, or that he's always in immediate danger of discovery; there's just no drive to get from one situation to another (Cherd sort of disappears as a factor at one point, and it's not like he's missed, but it's an example of how what's important aside from Thongdee learning to fight fluctuates semi-randomly in this movie). He accumulates a few sidekicks almost randomly, and though they're often pretty good ones - there's even a nice moment when a fighter kicked to the side for losing one fight joins the group and Thongdee recalls that happening to him without it having to make it into the dialog - the star isn't quite actor enough to make it feel like a makeshift family rather than other guys hanging around.

Full review on EFC.

Kazoku wa tsuraiyo 2 (What a Wonderful Family! 2)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Yoji Yamada is obviously not going to make as many What a Wonderful Family! movies as he did Tora-san entries; production moves slower these days even if I suspect that he is writing what he knows in terms of infusing these comedies with themes about the challenges of aging as well as the sillier bits of farce that push the plots forward. But I hope he keeps going; I've grown fond of the Hirata family and love the studio-era traditionalism found here.

This one follows up on the first, probably a year or two later, and for the most part everything is as Yamada left it - Shuzo Hirata (Isao Hashizume) and his wife Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) did not wind up divorcing, but they do spend most of their time doing their own things. Eldest son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura), his wife Fumie (Yui Natsukawa), and their own sons Kenichi (Takanosuke Nakamura) and Nobusuke (Ayumu Marumaya) still live with them, but youngest son Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has married Noriko Mamiya (Yu Aoi) and moved out. Fumie notes that Shuzo's car has a fresh dent or two on it, and suggests his daughter Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima) talk to him about giving up his driver's license, but everyone is kind of afraid to confront him about that. Meanwhile, as Tomiko takes a trip to Scandinavia to see the Northern Lights, Shuzo and lady friend Kayo (Jun Fubuki) encounter one of his old high school classmates, Ginpei Maruta (Nenji Kobayashi), handsome and from a successful family back in the day but living alone and working a road crew at the age of 73 now.

Full review on EFC.

Boangwan (The Sheriff in Town)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Filmmaker Kim Hyung-joo has a pretty great concept for an action-comedy here, as the cop who breaks all the rules actually gets fired for a botched investigation but becomes something other than a P.I. who has crawled into the bottle, but you've got to be true to the references you make, and if you start out specifically name-checking Chow Yun-fat in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, that's the scale you should probably be working on. It's a fun story, but don't promise a riff on John Woo's best if what you've got is something closer to a 1980s TV spoof.

Five years ago, Detective Choi Dae-ho (Lee Sung-min) charged into a situation without waiting for back-up, hoping to get closer to meth kingpin "Popeye" by capturing his lieutenant Shin Il-sik (Jeong Man-sik), but instead his partner was stabbed, Il-sik got away, and the police only captured frightened mule Koo Jong-jin (Choi Jin-woong). That gets you fired, but five years later, Dae-ho isn't despondent; he's returned to Kijang, Busan, a pretty easy-going beach town where he's gone into business with brother-in-law Deok-man (Kim Sung-kyun) and become the unofficial sheriff. He and his "Voluntary Crime Prevention Group" are looking askance at the "Beach Town" development, and it only gets weirder that when it turns out to be funded by Jong-jin, who after serving two years struck it rich in the traditional medicine business and credits it all to the kindness Dae-ho showed the night he was arrested. But with meth showing up in Kijang just as Jong-jin shows up, Dae-ho can't help but be suspicious - or does he just want to see some real action again?

Even when this sort of crime story is played straight, the cop is frequently the least entertaining part of the movie, and while that's not entirely the case here, Lee Sung-min never quite clicks as Dae-ho the way that Choi Jin-woong does as Jong-jin. Choi's part is the rare comic performance that is funny foot just how level it is rather than how it shifts in tone and manages to maintain that over the course of a feature-length film, with Choi always finding the point where Jong-jin is hitting his exaggerated bonhomie in a way that is not normal but not really deadpan, and it's never not funny. This is, perhaps, because it is in large part a response to Lee getting increasingly frantic as Dae-ho, but Lee doesn't have as many gears as Choi does, so the build-up of Dae-ho's suspicions isn't quite the escalating tension it could be.

Full review on EFC.

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