Friday, August 03, 2018

Fantasia 2018.21: What A Man Wants, Madeline's Madeline, Big Brother, and Saint Bernard Syndicate

Day 21 is the official closing night of Fantasia, and it included an email reminder that, really, you're not getting into Mandy with your pass, although we had been told that they would be admitting press to Big Brother, and tickets could actually be refunded if you came to the box office with it and your pass. I never got around to it, but it's not like I'm in a position to really resent having paid an extra ten bucks Canadian.

Most of the day was spent catching up on things that played earlier, including a pretty specific lesson in maybe not watching stuff unless actually looking forward to it or curious. Having kind of endured a Josephine Decker double feature at Fantasia two years ago, and then something similar that she appeared in at IFFBoston last year, I was pretty much in "nope, not again" territory when Madeline's Madeline was booked for IFFBoston in April, happy to have my scheduling simplified. Then I saw it was playing here, and not really against anything I hadn't seen. I begged off Monday because if it ran a little late, it might bump into Tokyo Vampire Hotel (not necessarily great prioritization itself), but Wednesday, it was either see it or kind of feel like I'm stealing my press pass. I realize that this is irrational, but I always say that they don't give me the pass not to review movies. Of course, going into it with that attitude, I was pretty predisposed to notice everything I didn't like, much more than the many things it does well.

But, hey, they let us into the world premiere of Big Brother, with director Kam Ka-wai (right) on hand to introduce it and answer questions. Donnie Yen couldn't be here, as he's currently shooting something in Paris, although he sent a video apologizing (dude: never apologize for being in Paris) and hoping we enjoyed what was pretty clearly a labor of love for him. I did find myself amused that the parent who is very concerned about his son going to a foreign university specifically mentions Boston, and that in the film Yen's character gets in trouble at school in Hong Kong and is sent to America to get straightened out, while in real life he got in trouble at school in the Boston area and was sent back to China to get straightened out.

No, I will not rest until my town claims him as the favored son he should be.

After that, going across the street to DeSève for The Saint Bernard Syndicate was kind of odd - it started late because the previous film ran long, which got us a little restless in line despite the fact that the folks here were either the folks who didn't want to do the alleged insanity of Mandy or were chill about not getting in. It turned out to be an odd way to end closing night of the festival, very dry and kind of ambivalent at points.

But, of course, that's not really the end, as there was a bonus day added when the full line-up came out. Next up are Piercing (assuming dialing into work is done by then), The Field Guide to Evil, What Keeps You Alive, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, and Brothers' Nest. Detective Dee 3 is pretty darn good, and The Fortress isn't bad either.

"Poisson de Mars"

Seen 1 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

So, there were no English subtitles on this, which means I didn't catch the bit about how everyone was planning a practical joke on the poor depressed guy. I thought the final scene was about nobody wanting to eat the pie because the mother was known to be a terrible cook or something.

I laughed at times, based on what I could catch with my terrible high school French and sight gags, but you'll understand if I don't actually rate this!

Ba-lam-ba-lam-ba-lam (What a Man Wants)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Somewhere in What a Man Wants is a really delightful farce that knows what to do with its women and plays with the dissatisfaction at its center in a way that heightens both its farce and possibilities. Instead, it bogs down for a while before getting to the really fun parts, and reduces interesting women to a way for the male characters to come around to something conventional.

It's still above-average, in large part due to a cast that can handle fully situation with sexy aplomb and also shift to something serious without losing what makes them funny. There's a good feeling of melancholy to bits of its setting, but not enough to make things mainly sad, and some genuinely great comic bits. The opening is a great efshort on its own, for instance, and the middle segment when things start to really click into place is brilliant - it probably should have been more of the movie.

Madeline's Madeline

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Well, that's me done with Josephine Decker.

I don't want to be. There are some terrific performances to be found in this movie, a pretty decent core story, and moments that feel like something approaching self-awareness. As with her previous work, I can see great talent and potential there. I want to say nice things.

But she can't just get out of her own way! She's not as terrible as she once was of loving it when shots go in and out of focus, but she still does it a lot, and it's not as revealing as she seems to think. Instead, it just gives me a worse headache than any 3D or hyperactively-edited film ever has. She also puts characters at the center whom the audience recognizes as being full of shit but lets the rest of the cast lag behind, and frustratingly backs away from the film's, brief, beautiful clarity in the last act to finish on more improvised, theatrical nonsense.

It makes a certain amount of sense - Madeline is not "cured" of what ails her at that point - but it goes on and on, the work of a filmmaker who has just not found the point where abstraction helps to say what you mean, rather than takes away from it.

Taai si hing (Big Brother)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Big Brother is corn of the highest order, and it probably won't be long before Hong Kong film fans watch it with more than a bit of irony, laughing at just how unrefined it can be at times. And that's fine, if not necessarily what the filmmakers were going for, because while the script is heavy-handed, the cast plays it with a relatively light touch, so it's an entertainingly cliched uplifting teacher movie rather than a sneer-worthy one.

The new teacher is Henry Chen Xia (Donnie Yen Ji-dan), who has never held the job before, but what is apparently an exceptional reference letter convinces principal Patrick Lin (Dominic Lam Ka-wah) to hire him as Liberal Studies teacher and assign him as homeroom teacher to Class F-6B, where all of the kids that the system has more or less given up on are. Five stand out - Jack Li (Jack Lok Ming-kit), who is always checked out because he's supporting his grandmother with his part-time job; Gladys Wang (Gladys Li), who wants to be a Formula One driver but whose father ignores her in favor of her younger brother; Faiyaz "Gordon" Ahnan (Gordon Lau Chiu-kin), a third-generation Pakistani immigrant with a talent for music; and twins Chris Guan (Chris Tong Kwan-yiu), a passionate gamer, and Bruce Guan (Bruce Tong Kwan-chi), who keeps their alcoholic father off Chris's back despite his own ADHD. The school on the verge of closing because of its low test scores, and a mobbed-up local developer is already making plans to buy the land after that happens.

Henry Chen hasn't always been a teacher, of course, but it's oddly relieving that the revelation that he's not some sort of undercover cop or a guy with some sort of secret agenda never comes. His backstory is instead pretty much what one would expect, and it allows writer Chan Tai-li and director Kam Ka-wai to not waste much time on Henry being won over, and a quick montage of him reading the students' files lets them quickly explain what their issues are. There's nothing in the film that is treated as a particular revelation - most folks watching it, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere, will recognize these as issues that they're aware of but don't give much thought to because they're out of sight, and even the somewhat more arcane question of "teaching to the test" is handled without a lot of speechifying. There are, perhaps, a few instances where the filmmakers could have built things in a way that has them practicing what they preach a bit more: Gladys's story involves her not being given attention because she's a girl, and the movie follows along by only having one out of four or five characters of any import be female, and while Henry's classes celebrate critical thinking and broad knowledge over focusing on the MGE, the students' part of the climax is basically about passing the test and not how they manage it.

Full review at EFC.

Sankt Bernhard Syndikatet (The St. Bernard Syndicate)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The director of The St. Bernard Syndicate has spent much of his career doing "satirical documentaries", and one wonders if he may have had that in mind for this film as well. The subject matter is certainly ripe for such an approach, but in a bit of irony, it turns out that taking a scripted approach allows him and his collaborators to hit upon something that feels a little bit more real.

In the film, Frederik (Frederik Cilius) has what sounds like a solid business idea - not just breeding selling St. Bernard dogs in China, where the middle class is exploding and the breed is a potential novelty - but creating a subscription revenue stream by handling food, veterinary appointments, and the like. His family has been breeding the dogs for generations, but his father (Flemming Sørensen) refuses to invest, saying he has no head for business. The only person from his old, "elite" private school interested is Rasmus (Rasmus Bruun), but he isn't nearly so wealthy as Frederik thinks and has just had a rather disturbing medical diagnosis. Maybe that's why he accompanies Frederik and his big, friendly dog Dollar to Chungqing, looking for adventure and accomplishment, nursing a crush on translator Beyond (Li Boyang) and negotiating with local investor Mr. Ling (Lee Liheng).

It would be easy, perhaps, to make a movie about the dodgy business on all sides as people from around the world try to exploit China's new prosperity, and there's a lot of the eyebrow-raising material that could have been done with director Mads Brügger's usual method of operation; there's a lot of low-key horror that likely comes from a lot of research and effort to make things authentic. It's an oft-fascinating look at both successful businessmen and those who would pose as such operating in their own interests and basically trying to put one over on one another. It's the wild east out there, business-wise, and the groups of amoral hucksters roaming the land are intriguing subjects.

Full review at EFC.

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