Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Fantasia 2019.05: Dreamland, Chiwawa, G Affairs, and Darlin'

I left after doing some work this morning to have my company laptop say it had 27 updates to install when I shut it down. I hope that wasn't a complete mess with how my laptop will sometimes just decide not to see the internet via wifi every once in a while, leaving me with stuff half-messed-up when I turn it on again Wednesday.

After that, I was mildly surprised at the lack of Q&A after Bruce McDonald's Dreamland (his name isn't part of the title on-screen as it often was for Wes Craven or John Carpenter, but I suspect it will be marketed that way because there's a higher-profile film with that title on the way). I skipped it Sunday night figuring that everyone would stick around, but filmmaking is a job and sometimes McDonald and has to go back to the office on Monday rather than hang around and use that guest pass to see a few movies. Other folks came out to introduce it, but I guess they were off to the airport by the time it was done. Still, easiest way to fit something else in.

After Chiwawa, I took the tunnel from chilly DeSeve to Hall for G Affairs with director Lee Cheuk-Ban, star Hanna Chan Hon-Na, and co-star Kyle Li Yam-San, and they made a movie that is never going to get anywhere near the Mainland China market even if it isn't necessarily hostile to Mainlanders, or if Chapman To Man-Chat wasn't banned from having his work in the PRC (which I must have heard about but didn't remember). It was interesting to see the Q&A put into context how much of the film was inspired by the "Umbrella Revolution" of 2014, and it makes it even more interesting to me that Lee mentioned that they actually got funding from the Hong Kong government, with the HK Economic and Trade Office rep standing up and introducing herself before the show. That definitely frames the movie as a little more political than just dark, and not hiding it, which is interesting.

Last up was Darlin' with writer/director and co-star Pollyanna McIntosh, who had a tattoo from the film finished on-stage by tattoo artist Kelly Ramsey; McIntosh saw some of her Walking Dead fan-art on-line and invited her to the festival after seeing she was Canadian. It made for an unusual sort of Q&A but certainly underscored how thoroughly committed to this movie and grounded she is. There's not a moment she doesn't feel detached. She did sometimes seem a little defensive about how much humor there was in the movie, and I've got to admit I didn't much go for that, but I do think it's interesting that she injected that much into it. One thing that strikes me is that she said the only real note that Lucky McKee gave her was that he wanted to see more of The Woman (McIntosh's character) in the original draft, and for as much as I tend to really like McIntosh, following that advice seems like it's what sends the movie off the rails: Darlin's story is really good, but whenever The Woman shows up after the initial introduction, she takes the focus off of that and contributes little but a body count.

I was kind of surprised when I got out of G Affairs and saw such a relatively short line for passholders, not having realized that the film was already out on VOD. I had kind of expected this to be a harder one to get a seat for.

We'll see how that continues today, with Porno, Mystery of the Night, a decadently long dinner break, Idol, and We Are Little Zombies.

Dreamland (aka Bruce McDonald's Dreamland)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The opening stretch of Bruce McDonald's Dreamland introduces a bunch of visually striking characters against a moody environment, has then open their mouths to begin a story, and then summarily shoots them in the head. The rest of the film isn't quite that nihilistic, but it is fairly pointedly eccentric and detached. McDonald is going for a specific idea of cool here above all else, where it's more important to be stylish than tense.

And that's how you make the story of a disheveled assassin trying to rescue a trafficked kid from becoming a vampire's child bride kind of boring. It's an assembly of cinematic cool signifiers that slumps from one piece to the next, barely having enough emotion behind them to make the audience do more than raise their eyebrows. Steven McHattie has a dual role, which is fun because you probably wouldn't want anyone else playing either of those parts, but the way the film winks at it is another thing that makes a viewer more aware of the games being played than a part of them. Its attempts at satire feel more contemptuous than pointed, and it floats above the violence too easily to make the outrage motivating it actually work.

Chiwawa-chan (aka Chiwawa)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Chiwawa is structured kind of like a murder mystery, but it's 50/50 as to whether that's the direction it's going to go at any point, and that's fine. After all, it seems like the other way they could have gone with it is faux documentary, which probably would have seemed more like middle-aged folks trying to make a movie about youth, which is a trap it only occasionally falls into.

Instead, the filmmakers take pains to avoid letting a plot reveal itself too clearly, observing a bunch of kids in their early twenties as they live life fast and with abandon, sometimes seeming to leave relatively sensible narrator Miki a step or two behind. It allows them plenty of time to play, although sometimes the film seems to be as much about the last generation's issues as Gen Z's (which is hardly unique to it; a lot of folks seem to have trouble realizing that there can be a big gap between 20- and 30-year-olds today). Or maybe it's not; I'm too far from that.

It's got a couple of impressive ladies at the center, though, with Mugi Kadowaki as the searching Miki and Shiori Yoshida as the title character. Between them, they're not exactly an unreliable narrator but the fact that there's always a bit of envy to Miki plays out in how Yoshida often plays Chiwawa as a little too bright, like Miki resents her but also can't bring herself to speak ill of the dead. In some ways, that unacknowledged competition is the thread that connects the movie, and that Miki has won by default can sometimes turn out to be very hollow.

G Saat (G Affairs)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Well, that's kind of g-ross.

Awful g-related puns aside, there's an impressive race between outrageous events and striking style at the start of this movie that almost blunts them both, taking a while to find some sort of equilibrium. Once it does, the story kind of cruises for a while, jumping back and forth to let the environment sink in. It sometimes feels like the filmmakers came up with a fairly simple, if nasty, crime story and then worked out how they could obscure it but spent less time on how to reveal it. I'm still not sure if one character survived, even when you set the last scene aside as deliberately symbolic.

As a result, I'm not sure that this works much more as a story than as a lot of button-pushing, although in a place like Hong Kong, there's probably a lot of value in occasionally making sure you can still do that. It can certainly feel like a primal scream at times, with its teen characters feeling almost nothing between abandonment and crushing authority from those supposed to help them, which certainly seems even more relevant than it has always been today. There's even precious little relief from the other people connected to the tight father-stepmother-teacher-student chain revealed by the end, making for a resolutely dark ride.

Darlin' (2018)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Darlin' is a weird one, strange enough to make me wonder if it would play better or worse if I'd seen the previous films in this somewhat loose series. You don't actually need Offspring or The Woman to make sense of it, but even so, it's not hard to sense that something isn't quite right here, like it would be a stronger movie if it were more free to be entirely its own thing or a more direct continuation.

The title character (Lauryn Canny) starts the film almost feral, led to a hospital by a similarly naked and uncommunicative woman (Pollyanna McIntosh), where she's able to make at least a small connection with one of the nurses (Cooper Andrews). The hospital has recently been taken over by a Catholic organization, which means that Darlin' is soon transferred to St. Philomina's Group Home for Girls, where Sister Jennifer (Nara-Jane Noone) has been asked to make a special project of her by the bishop (Bryan Batt), who sees the opportunity to reform this wayward child as a way to secure publicity and funding. Everybody seems to avoid being too curious about Darlin' or her history as she swallows the nuns' indoctrination, which means that The Woman lurking in the shadows and wanting her back is just one of two surprises lurking in the corner.

This is Pollyanna McIntosh's third time playing The Woman, this time around taking over as writer and director, and she seems to recognize that the things which were horrifying and transgressive in the previous films may not still have the same kick in the second sequel - cannibalism is still objectively awful, of course, but I imagine that someone doing watching these films back-to-back will mostly be critiquing the quality of the gore effects by the time The Woman kills her first person in this one. So she's smart to switch it up and focus on a situation where the abuse takes a different, more insidious form, and her script is pretty clever about how she sets it up: An early comment by the nurse about how St. Philomina's didn't even respond to the interest he and his husband showed in adopting and the pointed hanging of a cross in the hospital's lobby turn out to be important signifiers in how people who talk a good game about righteousness can often stand in the way of doing good, and it's built so that, while viewers can use the Catholic Church's specific scandals and beliefs as a shorthand, it's the general idea of religion reasserting dominance in spaces that had previously become more secular that plays as the true danger. Darlin' is in many ways a blank slate - but just as crucially, in many ways not - which means the way in which this trend imprints on her is fascinating and sets up the last act very well.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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