Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Fantasia 2020.11: Undergods and The Paper Tigers

This would have been a pretty good Sunday, I think, especially if the cast and crew of The Paper Tigers were to be on-hand. The Paper Tigers was also where I got to a point where I was really looking for good, straightforward stuff and prioritized that over some of the trickier material I could have been asking for over the last few days of the festival. You get to a point where you just want to have fun, you know?


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

If the world is going to hell, it's going to hell in different ways in different places for different classes, and they all may as well be living in different worlds. Or at least, that's the apparent idea behind Chino Moya's Undergods, a set of three or four stories that may be set in the same decaying world or may just be stories the people in those worlds tell each other, but who can tell these days?

In a dystopian world, K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig) collect the bodies they find on the streets, selling the live ones to a sweatshop. Elsewhere, Ron (Michael Gould) and Ruth (Hayley Carmichael) appear to be the only residents of an apartment tower, at least until charming Harry (Ned Dennehy) knocks on the door, saying he's locked himself out of a flat on a different floor. In a storybook city, businessman Hans (Eric Godon) is offered what seems like an incredible opportunity by a foreign engineer (Jan Bijvoet), but when he copies the plans and turns the man down, daughter Maria (Tanya Reynolds) is kidnapped, forcing Hans to recruit her artsy new boyfriend Johann (Tadhg Murphy) to help rescue her. And just as middle-manager Dominic (Adrian Rawlins) is starting to curry favor with his boss (Burn Gorman), his wife's long-believed-dead first husband (Sam Louwyck) reappears, and Rachel (Kate Dickie) immediately devotes herself to his rehabilitation from crippling PTSD.

The niftiest trick Moya manages here comes from how he connects these various threads, very carefully creating fictional space between them until the characters in one stumble into another. At that point the audience can be forgiven if they think this is part of a parallel-worlds fantasy setup (and to some extent it may be), but soon characters from the most seemingly out-there portion are just popping up in the most bougie and familiar, and it suddenly becomes a different story. Sure, there's just enough distance that one can construct some sort of off-screen portal between worlds, but the very effort of doing that world-building on one's own indicates that it is probably unnecessary and counterproductive - despite the way each group of characters sees the others as part of some world so unfamiliar that it may as well be imaginary, the simpler answer is that this is all happening together, and may be more connected.

Full review at eFilmCritic

The Paper Tigers

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 September 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

Just about everything about The Paper Tigers is mainstream cinema comfort food, but it's that sort of thing done pretty well: Yes, there are a lot of stock pieces in it, and they don't always fit together perfectly, but there's also good chemistry among the cast, not much wasted time, and a finale that delivers the goods without making the audience wish they'd had more of that stuff before. It's the sort of movie often dismissed for being predictable, although few filmmakers put it together as well as Quoc Bao Tran does here.

Twenty-five years ago, teenagers Danny, Hing, and Jim were big into kung fu, learning from a martial-arts master and practitioner of Chinese medicine who, rather than opening a school, taught those "Three Tigers" and worked as a cook. The friends had a falling-out soon after graduation and soon drifted apart, to the point where they learn that Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) has died just before the funeral. These days, Danny (Alain Uy) works for an insurance company and often disappoints son Eddie (Joziah Lagonoy) and ex-wife Caryn (Jae Suh Park) on the days he has custody; Hing (Ron Yuan) is limping and receiving workman's comp after a construction job left his knee messed up; and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) is teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, his trips to Chinatown long in the past. And that would be that, except that Carter (Matthew Page), Danny's would-be rival back when they were teenagers who has stuck with martial arts in the meantime, suggests that this was something more than a heart attack, and Carter's teacher (Raymond Ma) doesn't exactly say his student is off-base.

Where things go from there isn't particularly surprising, but Tran's script is impressively assured in how it follows the template and not too pleased with itself for how it diverts from it. He's got enough confidence in his characters to hang out and wander up a blind alley or two and even kind of make what is more or less a way to kill some time as the audience gets to know the characters and to keep things from moving forward too quickly. He also doesn't feel particularly compelled to set things up in the obvious way, as he introduces Danny in the present by having him not even think of getting in a fight when he has a confrontation. He also recognizes that the film doesn't need to run on conflict between the protagonists or to make people villains who don't need to be.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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