Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Fantasia 2018.13: Chained for Life, Da Hu Fa, and Bodied

Used to be three-film days were not unusual at Fantasia, but the schedule is really packed to the gills now; it's a bit rare to have this short a day, but it's neat, sometimes, to see a theme emerge, even if it's kind of inadvertent. Starting the day with Chained for Life and ending with Bodied is a good bookend of fumbling with the idea that most of us - in particular, most of us going to movies at this festival - want to expose ourselves to more variety, but don't necessarily understand it, and it's very easy to dive into the parts that let us feel like we're being open and magnanimous, even if it can be kind of condescending. Neither really offers easy solutions, which is honest if frustrating.

In between, there was the choice between Da Hu Fan and V.I.P., and while I'd heard that the subtitles on the first made it almost unwatchable, I figured they couldn't be that bad if subsequent screenings weren't yanked (as happened with a movie in one of the first years I came). Plus, there's no guarantee I'd get to see it anywhere else, let alone in 3D, given how spotty Chinese film distribution can get. Stuff sometimes just never comes out on disc, and who knows if it will hit a streaming service outside China. So you take that compromise, kind of struggle with the movie in some ways, and at least have been able to see it.



I might have been able to squeeze another movie in there, but I was kind of worried about getting into Bodied. Didn't need to be - it being at the tail end of a year-long festival run has kind of allowed it to fade into the background a bit. Still a good crowd to see director Joseph Kahn (right, with Tony Timpone), who was here with Detention a few years ago. He points out that he only makes a film once a decade or so because it's his own money, either from music videos he directed or borrowing, and while that means he can make the films the way he wants (to the point of haranguing his screenwriter to not wimp out in the third act), it sounds exhausting.

It was interesting that he still sounded pretty enamored of battle rap even though the movie is in part about its toxicity, although I don't imagine you can make this movie without feeling like there's something worthwhile in there. He talked about having wanted to do a battle-rap movie back when 8 Mile was being made, and dropping the idea because of that, but being drawn back into the idea it worked as a proxy for social media where people were actually doing things rather than typing on phones, and a lot of his comments (like the film's plot) sort of skewed toward "what you think is an open space can come back to bite you", which seems like a less urgent message than "why do you feel comfortable saying that hting in the first place?". Of course, his experiences are closer to the actual culture than mine, so maybe I'm just the guy who is too self-reflective for his own good.

Favorite question: Cats show up in a ton of scenes, but it's not some particular bit of symbolism - apparently a cat just kept walking into the shot, and after a while they just sort of let it be.

Anyway, another short day coming up, with just Blue My Mind and Anna and the Apocalypse on the schedule, though I'll probably head out to see Salyut 7 at the Forum later. By the time this is posted, The Witch: Part 1 will have already started, so not much point recommending it; I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing Believer later.

Chained for Life

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

You can feel Chained for Life struggling with the legacy of Freaks and similar films throughout, and just the general difficulty of physical differences, and maybe ultimately not sure what else to do but acknowledge the struggle. The filmmakers are determined not to present a simple fairy tale or something which minimizes the reality of living with something that makes people stare, and as a result they wind up going around in circles a bit, making a movie about making a movie and talking about talking about disfigurement and beauty.

Fortunately, it's an appealing cast with Michael Pearson displaying the combination of charisma and well-buried frustration that makes one really want to find him a role that's not so much about his appearance and Jess Weixler giving her pretty but shallow movie star some personal growth. They don't quite come across as friends, but they're still fun to watch together.

Da Hu Fa (aka The Guardian)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Axis, active-shutter 3D/DCP)

The DCP shown at Fantasia had some pretty rough subtitles - the sort that seem machine-translated but haven't had an English speaker proofread them. It doesn't cripple the movie, but does put up a barrier, and I hope a better version shows up on video.

That hypothetical version probably won't be 3D, though, and "just look at this thing" is a big part of its appeal. The environment is like an immense three-dimensional watercolor, just a delight for the eyes, and while the character design is all over the place, it's striking and well-animated, and makes the humans feel a little intrusive and threatening without exaggerating them more than the fantasy creatures. That's great and useful, as writer/director Yang Zhigang seems to rush through the mythology at times, but you can absolutely get the impression of these strange creatures being conquered and exploited by humans just from the design.

The action and gunfire can be a little much, though. It gets the thrill of "ooh, not what I expected" initially, both for how it's staged and how intense it is, but there is a lot of mayhem and turquoise blood spilled by the end, even though the story has moved to a spot where it should probably be less indiscriminate. The filmmakers often don't seem to know how to work at a pace that isn't all-out, either, and it's kind of exhausting when there's shooting and dull in-between. Combine it with the translation issues, and it's harder to get into the story than it should be. Enough storytelling happens during action for it to work out, but it makes a 90-minute movie feel a lot more grueling.

I'd love to get a chance to revisit this, though; hopefully Funimation or maybe Olive's animation line will pick it up.

Bodied

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Bodied is a remarkably entertaining movie that is also frank as heck in its talk about race, the sort of thing that feels like it's got a 10% chance of being a breakthrough and a much larger chance of getting pilloried for moments that have been taken out of context. It isn't quite perfect, but it's funny, built to appeal to a broad audience, and may just get a thing or two to click into place for the people who watch it, and that's definitely worth a bigger-than-usual recommendation.

It opens with a rap battle in an empty warehouse, and one of the most enthusiastic people in the crowd is whitebread-as-heck Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy), eagerly explaining to girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) the terminology, mechanics, and history of the medium before running after winner Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) to get some insight on how a certain ubiquitous word starting with "n" is used with different adjectives for use in his graduate thesis at Berkley. An encounter with someone looking to challenge Behn gives Adam the chance to do his own, and he's invited to compete as a result, scoring a win with some more-than-questionable lyrics. Soon he's eagerly diving deeper into that world, not quite understanding exactly how out-of-place he is despite his own enthusiasm.

The film is clearly Adam's story, but he's never truly the hero, and the filmmakers engage in a sort of internal tug of war where they're sort of coy about this right from the start, where Behn tosses off a comment about how Adam is looking for a pass to use the n-word, horrifying Adam. He probably isn't, consciously, and there's never any indication that he considers himself better than people of other ethnicities, but he's got some deep white privilege that plays out in dead-on fashion: Shock at people telling him he's out of line, feeling that he can't be that privileged because his background sometimes works against him, but, still, not really changing, and feeling like he can go to the racist or personal material because he doesn't really grasp consequences. Director Joseph Kahn and actor Calum Worthy attacks this material in impressive fashion, always keeping the wide-eyed, enthusiastic young man up front so the jokes work, but also having a bit of hostility to pull out, so that the aggression of the competition is part of the appeal.

Full review at EFC.

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