Monday, November 26, 2018

Fantasia 2018 Catchup 02: Being Natural, Neomanila, I Have a Date with Spring, The Vanished, Hurt, Under the Silver Lake, People's Republic of Desire, Cam, and Kasane

This is taking embarrassingly long - 9 reviews since the first catch-up post almost two months ago is a crappy pace, but it's been a busy year and there aren't enough people on eFilmCritic covering mainstream films, so I feel weirdly obligated. Good thing my notes and Letterboxd first drafts are holding up well so far. Looks like end-of-year is going to be an optimistic target.

Of course, if some stuff keeps getting pushed out, that might not be so bad. Under the Silver Lake, for instance, was going to come out during the summer, then got pushed to December, but now is scheduled for 19 April 2019, which may be a whole year on the shelf, which feels like it must be frustrating for all involved. Still, that's not the only one with a release coming about right now - People's Republic of Desire starts making its way into theaters on 30 November, with a stop at Boston's Brattle Theatre on 11 December, with guests present; Cam has already popped up on Netflix, which I guess is a fair place for it.

Being Natural

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, digital)

Before it takes a turn for the weird, Being Natural is kind of a low-key charmer, playing as a group of guys in late middle age growing closer, even though those bonds are not exactly of the strongest material. It's pastoral but not over-romanticized, as these things can sometimes be - indeed, not doing so is a good chunk of the point - enough that the satire can perhaps be missed right up until filmmaker Tadashi Nagayama pulls out the sledgehammer.

It introduces late-middle-aged Taka (Yota Kawase) as a bongo-playing oddball, acting as caretaker to his ailing uncle, which gives him a bed to sleep in and a little money from his extended family who don't exactly want to take on that responsibility themselves. It's the kind of arrangement that by its nature can't last forever, and when the old man dies, Taka goes to work at the family's fishing pond with his cousin Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa) and their friend Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), whose market was put out of business by a new supermarket, and things seem nice. Except the train from Tokyo has just disgorged the Kurihara family - husband Keigo (Kanji Tsuda), wife Satomi (Natsuki Mieda), and daughter Itsumi (Kazua Akieda) - come to the country to live a less artificial life. Satomi has always wanted to open a café in a traditional Japanese house, like the one Mitsuaki owns but hasn't really seen any need to kick Taka out of yet.

You can't really strip the entire movie down to Taka, Mitsuaki, and Sho, but there are long stretches where it's tempting to try. Yota Kawase and Shoichiro Tanigawa make a genial odd couple, with Tanigawa's Mitsu showing his age a bit more with a hint of drag in his step, coming across as both endearingly square and kind of prickly (he'd moved to the city when he was younger and isn't entirely excited to be back). Kawase embodies a certain sort of lazy eccentric as Taka, funny but kind of petulant, able to get the audience in his corner because he's able to needle someone without really being mean and because he's the one who is having his circumstances upended. It doesn't hurt that his flaws can seem relatively minor compared to Tadahiro Tsuru's Sho, who is more openly angry and impatient, deployed in quick bursts.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I wonder just how this crime flick plays in its native country, where the sort of vigilante killing at the center is a Thing That Happens rather than something as far outside the norm as it seems in North America. Is it just piercing rather than shocking? Or is it even that - maybe it feels like a well-made thriller that contains nothing that an observant person wouldn't expect.

Things center around Toto (Timothy Castillo), who may still be a kid, but who doesn't have the luxury of being an innocent any more than anyone else in the slums of Manila. He smuggles a razor to his brother Kiko in jail, and runs errands for gangster Ringgo, although he also goes to church, if only to meet girlfriend Gina (Angeline Andoy). Recently orphaned, he is taken in by Irma (Eula Valdez), a one-time friend of his mothers, who has a small pest-control business, and it's not just four/six/eight-legged nuisances she exterminates: She and partner Raul (Rocky Salumbides) are freelance killers given missions by a man they refer to only as "Sarge", and their newest target is Dugo (Jess Mendoza), the next man up from Kiko and Ringgo. Toto can get them closer and, indeed, wants to help, although he doesn't realize just who this new surrogate family has killed in the past.

There's not much light to be found in Neomanila; the whole city seems run-down and oppressive, the sort of place where the sun only comes out to remind people that they can't afford air conditioning, and it's easy to despair because there is no escape from the gangs and violence. Director Mikhail Red and his co-writers make sure that criminality infiltrates every facet of these characters' lives, with Irma's pest-control shop only briefly more than an ironic front for her other activities. Even Gina, who initially looks like she could be the good part of Toto's life, being pimped out (something revealed so casually that one can't really even be surprised for more than a second or two). It's the sort of environment where extrajudicial killings naturally arise because even if the police are clean, it's almost impossible to conceive of any institution not being tainted, or there being any other framework that functions.

It's not a healthy way to grow up or live, and an even worse way to grow up. You can see that in the faces of almost everybody involved; there's an air of resignation that seems to hang over nearly everybody that Toto meets, although the gangsters tend a bit toward paranoia. It hasn't quite completely set in for Toto yet, but Timothy Castillo is able to show it making inroads in muted responses and unfocused bitterness, chipping away at his natural instinct to trust . He's not beat, yet, but he's having trouble figuring out how not to be.

Full review at EFC.

Na-wa-bom-nal-eui-yak-sok (I Have a Date with Spring)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Despite I Have a Date with Spring being a jumble of dark wishes from depressed people as the world is about to end, or at least stories of such things, it's interesting that the connecting thread is not so much self-destruction or loneliness as much as people just looking for a respite: The rest of the world being evacuated or raptured away is not initially to be questioned lest the quiet vanish.

It is framed, somewhat, by the story of Lee Gwi-dong (Kang Ha-neul), a filmmaker who has not been able to actually make a film in the past ten years, and who has gone to an isolated spot in the woods to write a screenplay on his birthday - only to be interrupted by a woman (Lee Hye-young) with a fair-sized and devoted entourage. From there, there are other tales of people initially celebrating their birthdays alone: Teenager Lee Han-na (Kim So-hee) is an outcast at school whose eccentric neighbor (Kim Sung-kyun) offers her a ride home; 57-year-old professor Jeon Ui-moo (Kim Hak-sun) is celebrating alone (aside from a phone call from his mother who lives overseas) when he finds an ailing, disoriented girl (Song Ye-eun) in his classroom; Ko Su-min (Jang Young-nam) is overwhelmed and doesn't even have the day acknowledged by her busy husband and demanding child - not what she expected as a student radical in her youth, although a chance encounter with frantic Park Mi-syun (Lee Joo-young) brings some of the old time back.

All three (or four, including Gwi-dong) are at least partially looking to be left alone, even if they haven't voiced the desire out loud, and some force or another has granted their wish - it seems as though they have just missed some sort of call to evacuation, because aside from their new companions, the space around them is suspiciously empty. It makes the individual stories work as variations on a theme, especially since director Baek Seung-bin and co-writer Yoo Ji-young are fairly relaxed about how the various threads fit together: There could be some planet-wide disaster, Gwi-dong could be trying out variations on a theme, his visitors could be telling him stories, or any combination of those cases, with the actual movie the viewer is watching maybe or maybe not the end result. It kind of doesn't matter; as it slowly becomes clear that there's not really a mystery without a single point of convergence to be revealed here, there's a bit more importance given to how the characters are mostly just grasping in the dark. It makes some of the stories a little stretched at times, but does well to focus on their individual introspection.

Full review at EFC.

Sarajin Bam (The Vanished)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The Vanished almost seems too simple, with all the conclusions to be drawn from the available evidence made quickly, and most of the time used to hopefully shake some new information loose. The trick is seeing how long the filmmakers can tease that out, since it would seem everything will fall together as soon as the last puzzle piece shows up. That director Lee Chang-hee keeps it a great deal of fun until the credits roll is a pretty good job of juggling and knowing when to pay off and play against expectations.

Or that he's got a good template to work from. It's been long enough since I've seen The Body - the Spanish film he and his crew remade - that I can't rightly recall exactly how closely the plots match, but it's worth noting that if you dig around for that review on this site, you'll find words awful close to that paragraph, which I scribbled down as my first impression immediately after the festival screening only half-conscious that I'd seen the original. It's a fun coincidence, indicating that Lee and his team certainly knew what worked, but I suppose it also puts the lie to one of my usual complaints about this sort of thriller, that most people aren't predictable enough for intricate plans dependent upon others' reactions to work.

It opens at 8:10 in the evening at the South Korean National Forensic Service's headquarters, which is a creepy enough place to be patrolling as a guard even before the power goes out. When it's back on, one of the cabinets in the morgue is open and the body of Yoon Seol-hee (Kim Hee-ae), a pharma company heiress, has disappeared - and if you believe a freaked-out guard, gone on a little walk. The detective dispatched, Woo Joong-sik (Kim Sang-kyung), is a mess, but one doesn't necessarily send the top man to what looks like a distasteful prank. Seol-hee's husband Park Jin-han (Kim Kang-woo) is informed - the poor grieving professor has gone straight from the funeral to the apartment of student and mistress Hye-jin (Han Ji-an) - and doesn't like Joong-sik's theory that maybe Park didn't want a coroner to discover she didn't die of natural causes. Throw in a theory that Seol-hee was cataleptic rather than dead, a mysterious document in the hands of her lawyer sister, some more blackouts, and a boss who was ready to suspend Joong-sik anyway (he is a loose cannon), and it's going to be a long night.

Full review at EFC.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Hurt plays fair enough as it warns the audience that it's not necessarily telling the story they think, and that it's going to be inward-looking, but is that really enough to make up for switching so much out late? On top of that, there's the question of just how vigorously the filmmakers intend to bite the hand that feeds them by making a horror movie about how horror movies are problematic. Would Blumhouse really make a movie about how horror movies are more trouble than they seem?

Probably not, but it nevertheless finds an interesting angle in today's self-aware horror world by starting with - well, there's a prelude of sorts, so eventually getting to - Rose (Emily Van Raay), a woman who became a fan because of the man who would become her husband (Andrew Creer), getting really into it, and then having Tommy return home after time in the military and clearly not yet ready to see sudden noises and mutilated bodies as something fun again, despite it being Halloween. Things are tense at a get-together with Rose's sister Lily (Stephanie Moran) and her husband Mark (Bradley Hamilton), with a trip to the local haunted house and hayride serving s a tipping point.

Writer/director Sonny Mallhi displays an interesting sort of wary fondness for his genre as the movie starts - his pastiche of slasher films may be a bit exaggerated but it's also kind of good, enough so that a viewer might feel a little disappointment upon discovering that it's not a "real" part of the movie. It meets the audience on their own turf, establishing horror as good entertainment rather than a campy strawman. Still, you wonder about slasher movies being a thing little kids can just pull out of their pocket and watch, and Rose's enthusiasm is right on the line between mostly harmless fun and off-putting. It seems like a slower, more methodical build than horror movies that go meta usually are because it never goes out of its way to prove its bona fides or cast its heroes as outsiders. This stuff is mainstream here, even if some folks are a more into it than others.

Full review at EFC.

Under the Silver Lake

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

What an absolutely bizarre tall tale of a movie, filled to overflowing with impossible connections, revelations that don't necessarily mean anything but create a feeling of resolution, and utter pop-culture absurdity. I suspect people will be digging through Under the Silver Lake for months when they can do so at home, connecting references and finding themes, once it is bounced from theaters because it is the sort of strange that makes one suspect the filmmakers went down the same sort of rabbit hole as the characters and still haven't come out.

The main guy plunging down the rabbit hole is Sam (Andrew Garfield), who came out to Los Angeles to make it big, somehow, but doesn't seem to have chosen a field in which to do so, and is now five days away from being evicted from his apartment. That's when he finally meets his pretty neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) and they seem to hit it off watching How to Marry a Millionaire. The next day, Sarah is gone, and Sam is certain that she didn't just move out in the dead of night like many would-be actresses behind on their rent. But while the police are searching for vanished mogul Jefferson Sevence, they're not going to spare the effort to look for Sarah on Sam's say-so, and he doesn't so much have clues as he does random bits of information that his brain sees as coded messages. Following them leads him to bizarre people and places, but does the trail lead to Sam - or is it even a trail?

That's the material for a good shaggy-dog story, with each new chapter somehow managing to be more absurd than the rest but also seldom feeling like writer/director David Robert Mitchell has taken an abrupt, unwarranted turn into impossibility. In fact, one might argue that it works because as each new revelation and seemingly random character appears, it is offering Sam some kind of explanation, and while the details may be ridiculous or seemingly impossible, it feels like progress away from not knowing, both for him and the audience. Mitchell may have his audience shaking their heads in disbelief, but he's careful never to just throw things at the audience randomly, and he is constantly tying the seemingly impossible conspiracy Sam's chasing into the ways that the audience already thinks of Los Angeles as weird anyway.

Full review at EFC.

People's Republic of Desire

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

Us older folks should probably be paying much more attention to the cultures represented in this documentary, both online and Chinese, than we do; both are huge, misunderstood, and often dismissed. I'm not sure I truly understand it now, but I've got a better handle on what I don't know, and got some interesting stories to boot.

Take, for example, Shen Dan, a twenty-something singer in Chengdu; "Big Li", a comedian in Hebei; and Fan Yong, an 18 year old "diaosi" (Chinese slang for a low-mobility loser) in a factory town. All are livestream hosts on the YY platform, monetizing their internet celebrity from both small fan donations and larger gifts from "Tubao", described by some as having money but no culture. YY has exploded in recent years, to the point where there are trainers, managers, and syndicates sprouting up, as well as an annual competition to see who can get the most views and donations on one busy day. It's a boom-and-bust business that was new enough as director Hao Wu started shooting that nobody knew how to navigate it just yet.

These livestream hosts are not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon, of course; the West has its own YouTube celebrities whose popularity baffles the parents of their generally young audience and who can see their streams go from hobby to lucrative business to albatross depending on the site's monetization policies. As with a lot of things, though, the Chinese version seems accelerated, as these new means to have a voice and make (or spend!) some money are pounced upon by people without a whole lot of pre-existing ideas about the proper way to do this. The story Wu seems to be showing us most is one of how instant fame, in any medium, consumes the authenticity that initially gained someone an audience, and few know how to navigate that, either in terms of staying true to themselves or making their hobby into a small business - although there's plenty of space for the possessiveness of fans and how the people that make a platform like YY viable literally beg for money.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Though I often lament the fact that impressive films wind up either funded or gobbled up by Netflix, it's worth noting when something like Cam comes along and seems like a natural fit for it or some other streaming service, not because it's in any way lower-class than something released theatrically, but because it's very much of the online world, and its plentiful thrills come from knowing how that world works and tapping into the fears around it.

Specifically, the film centers around online adult entertainment. Alice (Madeline Brewer) - screen name "Lola" - is a camgirl whose cheery online persona is not far removed from who she is off-camera. She works out of her apartment though colleagues Fox (Flora Diaz) and Princess (Samantha Robinson) have a bit of dedicated studio space, and though Lola is rising in popularity on the site which hosts them, they all grouse a bit on how effortlessly this seems to come to Baby (Imani Hakim), this site's #1 star. She's careful with how she engages fans like "Tinker" (Patch Darragh) and "Barnacle Rob" (Michael Dempsey), and while her brother Jordan (Devin Druid) knows what she does for a living, her mother (Melora Waters) does not. It's working out pretty well for her, until she finds herself locked out of her account, and not only is tech support not helpful, but a doppelganger is broadcasting on her channel.

The thing I like most about Cam (at least as a person whose day job is in software development) may be one of the smallest and dumbest parts of it, but I can absolutely believe a certain thing tripping things up because some developer didn't take that a user might do something ridiculous into account. We aren't lazy, but we've often got no idea what's a likely situation worth prioritizing. That is not the piece of the film's authenticity that matters most; screenwriter Isa Mazzei has worked in this business and has experience to draw on. Her first-hand knowledge gives the film an impressively grounded perspective that movies about sex work or online commerce often lacks; it all seems to fit together in tidy, unforced fashion, and that lets the more unlikely parts play out.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Kasane is not exactly subtle with the archetypes it plays with, announcing them in big, bold capital letters as the title character progresses from one stage of the film to another, giving the audience whiplash and making them pause to say "wait, what?" multiple times. But a fantasy that takes place in and around the theater can work with melodrama, and this one certainly does. It feels like it could become a huge cult film if it can get in front of people.

Kasane Fuchi (Kyoko Yoshine) lives a lonely life due in large part to the nasty scar on her face, a cruel irony considering that her late mother was an actress famed for her beauty. What agent Kingo Habuta (Tadanobu Asano) approaches her, it seems like a cruel joke, but he knew her mother and about the special lipstick she gave to Kasane - the one that will allow the person wearing it to exchange faces for twelve hours with someone she kisses. Habuta has a client, Nina Tanzawa (Tao Tsuchiya), who is very pretty and well-aware of that but whose acting ability is not nearly at the level it needs to be for a production of The Seagull directed by the legendary Reita Ugo (Yu Yokoyama). Kasane is a prodigy, so Habuta proposes an arrangement. It doesn't exactly take into account the attraction between actress and director, and definitely doesn't take into account...

Well, let's stop there, because the movie has not one but two crazy, huge-stretch plot devices, and while the twist at roughly the halfway point is not bigger, it's roughly the same order of magnitude, and two big things like this is more than one generally lets a movie have for free. It is, however, a fantastic way to swerve once the audience picks their jaws up off the floor - the script by Tsutomu Kuroiwa has already made the necessary Cinderella references so it's not too much to make the leap to fairy tales that more directly involve kissing. More than that, though, it allows the filmmakers to shake up the story in interesting ways, closing the gap between the shallow and cruel Nina and the shy, exploited Kasane to a point where the audience's sympathies can be as fluid as the characters' identities, and the revelations that Nina digs up with time on her hands get to be enjoyably lurid without the movie having to lean too hard on how surprising or shocking even a cynical viewer might find them.

Full review at EFC.

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