Saturday, August 07, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.02: Broadcast Signal Intrusion, Seobok, Escape from Mogadishu, and The Suicide Squad

I can't be in Montreal, but…

I had the idea of figuring out how many spots in my general area had this bit of French-Canadian cuisine on the menu while covering Fantasia last year and having a "poutine of the day" to go with the festival, but never followed through, and I won't necessarily be doing it more than a couple of times over the next few weeks - there are more than a few places with poutine on the menu in the Boston area (and even around Davis Square), but mostly as a two-person shared appetizer and I don't really like it that much. I'm also not going into places that are mainly bars just to get some fries & curds.

That said, this "Big Poutine with Pork Belly" from Saus hit the spot between two movies at Boston Common; their fries are genuinely terrific. I felt okay with hitting even though I was technically taking time off work to cover the festivals because Escape from Mogadishu would be the New York Asian Film Festival's opening-night movie later that evening in Manhattan and The Suicide Squad had a Fantasia-sponsored preview at the Imperial Theatre on Wednesday, the night before the festival started, in part because director James Gunn is a long-standing friend of the festival, first bringing a movie there back in '97 with Lloyd Kaufmann. I kind of wish I liked this one more, but, hey, I kind of got a chance to vent about what I think the issue with DC Comics and their movies is over the last decade or so.

As for the genuine festival material, I found both Broadcast Signal Intrusion and Seobok interesting and a bit frustrating in similar ways: They're full of style and you can see the lines that the filmmakers are trying to follow, but they skip enough steps in the case of Intrusion or go too hard-boiled in the case of Seobok that it doesn't quite work. Those aren't indefensible choices in the least, and I could probably talk myself into thinking they worked if I'd run into someone enthusiastic after the screening, but I'm alone in my apartment, so that didn't happen.

Anyway, if you're north of the border, Broadcast Signal Interruption and Seobok should still be available on the Festival's VOD; the other two should be playing in plenty of theaters on both sides, although the big DC Comics tentpole is going to be on many more screens than the Korean import.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, IndeeTV)

Broadcast Signal Intrusion shows how thin the line between "good thriller" and "bad mystery" is, and how that can mostly be a matter of perspective. The filmmakers do a pretty terrific job of building atmosphere and laying out intriguing pieces, and if you mostly just want to feel a movie, it's successful more or less right up to the end. If you enjoy solving a puzzle, or more often vicariously experiencing someone else figuring something out, it may eventually turn sour.

It opens in 1999, with James (Harry Shum Jr.) working nights in a TV station, moving their archive from analog tape to DVD-R, checking to make sure that the contents are what they say. He stumbles on a night in 1987 when the station's signal was hijacked by some creepy figure in a rubber mask, which he learns is an unsolved mystery, the "Sal-E Sparx Incident", which happened two nights a week apart, with the FBI and FCC confiscating much of the evidence. Fellow A/V enthusiast Chester (Arif Yampolsky) gets him video of the other example, and he contacts Dr. Stuart Lithgow (Steve Pringle), the FCC bureau chief who investigated the incident at the time. Lithgow lets slip that there were rumors of a third incident in 1997, and it seems like it can't be a coincidence that it was the day after James's wife Hannah disappeared. Also unlikely to be coincidences: The young woman (Kelley Mack) following him and the message on an electronic bulletin board hinting that there's more information to be found.

Director Jacob Gentry and writers Phil Drinkater & Tim Woodall set up an intriguing set-up here, but it's one that may be too good a mystery for James to actually solve. It's not long before the sheer number of people who don't just get inserted into the story but seem to insert themselves to both point James in the direction he needs to go and tell him that no good will come of going there is more than the story can bear. It's the sort of thing where, once the situation becomes a bit clearer, viewers may find themselves scratching their heads, wondering why these guys are making so much effort to do things whose entire point is to lead a sleuth back to them - indeed, the way that they know the right moment to do so can almost seem like omniscience even as their ability to trash an apartment but leave the incriminating evidence where James can easily find it suggests something else - and if you're trying to make sense of it, very frustrating.

Full review at eFilmCritic


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

Lee Young-Ju's Seobok is a story that's been done a fair amount and is on the one hand a strikingly impressive case of the benefits of stripping things down and on the other a warning that when a filmmaker does that, there should still be something a little surprising up his sleeve. I love the bits where there's no messing around, and would love them more in a movie that isn't so resolutely working off a familiar template.

After an American researcher (Paul Battle) is assassinated by a drone strike, former intelligence agent Min Ki-Hun (Gong Yoo) is contacted by his old boss, Ahn Ik-Hyun (Jo Woo-Jin) for a seemingly simple job, escorting clone Seobok (Park Bo-Gum) from the Seoin Research Institute's off-shore laboratory to a secret bunker, lest the terrorists get him too. The scientists there (Park Byung-Eun & Jang Young-Nam) give him the creeps, and Seobok himself is unnerving - he looks about 20 but was gestated 10 years ago, and apparently has some sort of mental influence on things around him - but Ahn has offered a heck of an inducement: Treatment from Seobok's unaging stem cells to cure the glioblastoma that threatens to kill Min within months. The transport inevitably gets attacked, leaving Ki-Hun and Seobok on their own, not certain who to trust.

Seobok is more hostile than is typical for these movies, where the norm is more of a childlike curiosity than Park Bo-Gum's cynical teenager, and while that's an occasionally interesting choice, it doesn't exactly challenge Gong Yoo's cynical spy for much of the movie. They rankle each other, but they don't make good fits for each other's blind spots, mostly arguing over details and which practical concern should direct them. Gong gets to be exasperated and Park aloof, at least until their time on the run connects to their respective tragic backstories, and they do it well, but there's no contrast.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Mogadishu (Escape from Mogadishu)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2021 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

Ryoo Seung-Wan's Escape from Mogadishu is primarily being touted as an action movie, although it is more a film that meticulously builds up to the big action sequence at its climax. A minor distinction, perhaps, but it doesn't hurt to set one's expectations accordingly: It's not a non-stop thrill ride (and it's worth noting that the original Korean title is just "Mogadishu"), but Ryoo sure knows how to let the audience leave the theater on a high note.

Ryoo opens by reminding the audience that, during the 1980s, neither South Korea nor its northern neighbor were part of the United Nations, and with the African continent having the most votes on that matter, both countries are making major charm offensives. In 1990, that means Ambassador Han Shin-Sung (Kim Yun-Seok) and Secretary Gong Soo-Cheol (Jeong Man-Sik) are awaiting the arrival of Counselor Kang Dae-Jin (Zo In-Sung), whose diplomatic bag contains a number of "gifts" for Somalia's leader (Kang is also clearly working for the KCIA), only to be waylaid by rebels on their way to meet President Barre. They suspect the work of North Korean Ambassador Rim Yong-Soo (Heo Jun-Ho) and Kang's opposite number, Tae Joon-Ki (Koo Gyo-Hwan), and plant a story implying that North Korea is supplying the rebels. Whether they are or not, the rebels make it into the capital city near the end of the year, trapping the missions in their embassies while they try to find some way out of the country with flights grounded and communications out. And when the DPRK mission is forced out of their building and unable to take refuge with an ally, the ROK embassy may be their only hope.

There's a lot going on here, and you could probably make a fairly interesting dark comedy just about how the Korean embassies in these countries try to outmaneuver each other, deal with the absurdity of there often being no Korean visitors or interests beyond UN votes to assist, and have internal conflicts. At times, it seems like Ryoo is going for something like that - not comedy, per se, although he does open with gags about Han's chronic tardiness and does have a memorable moment built around how his generally nice wife Cho Soo-Jin (Kim Jae-Hwa) is sort of presumptive in her Christianity to the point where it annoys the other women there, just sort of doing a lot of procedural cloak-and-dagger set-up to make sure the audience understands just how difficult it is for the two missions to trust each other even in the middle of a life-or-death crisis, although there's also something enjoyably ironic about how Mogadishu is that movie until outside events send it in another direction.

It makes for a couple of very nice performances by the actors playing the ambassadors, and how they come at their roles from different directions. Kin Yun-Seok's Han is introduced as fairly lightweight, not exactly mocked, but one can easily see how this guy winds up assigned to an African backwater even though he's put in the time to make it to the level of ambassador, which also makes him an interesting clash with Zo In-Sung's Kang. Zo often comes off as playing things a bit broader than the rest, a smirky hardliner maybe not accustomed to accountability. It's worth noting that Koo Gyo-Hwan plays Tae as a mirror, maybe not the greatest performance but a clever indicator that the ROK and DPRK were sometimes more alike than different in this era. On the other hand, Heo Jun-Ho's performance as Ambassador Rim is one of the film's greatest pleasures - what plays as a gruff adversary early on grows more experienced and dignified as the film goes on, his irritation at the South being johnny-come-latelies to Africa early on highlights how humbling it is to ask Han for help later.

(It is worth noting that the film's treatment of Mogadishu and Somalia itself is not nearly so generous as that of the diplomats from the DPRK and their families. The closest thing to a Somali character who isn't corrupt or treacherous is the comic-relief cabbie at the beginning, with even the embassy's driver presented as a dangerous rebel. It's an admittedly a dangerous, violent situation, but there occasionally seems to be unneeded effort expended in making the Somalis nothing but obstacles to the Koreans.)

For someone mainly known as an action guy, Ryoo holds back until relatively late, although both the initial attack on the embassy car and a fight between Kang and Tae are fairly well-done. Still, he's clearly going for broke with the last mad multi-car dash through the city, from how he spends time building up to it with the parties doing their best to armor the cars with books and sandbags to the ominous image of rebels picking up their guns as daily prayers end and what head start the group has managed evaporates. After that, Ryoo and his crew do a terrific job of switching between wide-open shots that let the audience see where the bullets are coming from and tight reaction shots. They throw in missteps to show how half the people driving these cars are not exactly experts, and make sure things get a little less comfortable when one car gets separated from the convoy. The makeshift armor probably proves far more effective in the movie than it would in real life, but the tension is that much higher because what the audience sees is not the typical huge numbers of misses around the occasional broken window, but things getting shredded because when this many people fire this many bullets, a fair amount are going to find their mark. It's a terrific sequence, and Ryoo takes the time to make sure that the audience can't entirely decompress afterward because there are a few plot threads that need some resolution, although it's just enough time that the adrenalin hasn't entirely left a viewer's body.

I described the plot of Escape from Mogadishu to a friend and he asked an interesting question - what does North Korea think of movies where North and South Koreans must cooperate to overcome a shared danger (consider Ashfall as another recent example), and though I'm really in no position to know, I'm guessing a country that will jail a citizen for using slang from its neighbor's pop culture is against that pop culture showing reconciliation as possible. Which means they miss out; this particular example is slick, occasionally thrilling, and at least worth a watch.

Also at eFilmCritic

The Suicide Squad

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax digital)

The Suicide Squad is better than its article-free predecessor from five years back, but that's not exactly a titanic improvement, and it suffers from the same problem: For all that there's a solid core of comic book fans that go crazy for more R-rated power fantasies and assembling various characters in a shared universe's roster - they've probably been a big part in keeping a fair number of comics shops afloat during lean years - I suspect that most people respond to superheroics as larger-than-life expressions of ideals clashing, a grand and abstracted battle rather than a detailed and bloody one. But the latter is all that something like The Suicide Squad can offer, and the fact that James Gunn is in a better position to realize an adaptation without compromise than David Ayer was can't overcome that.

Though named like a reboot, Gunn's film is a sequel, opening with a team of supervillain prisoners known as Task Force X that includes a few of the first film's survivors - Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), parachuting into a beach on the South American island of Corto Maltese and running into a bunch of soldiers, with few survivors. Meanwhile, on another front, Bloodsport (Idris Elba) leads his team of Peacemaker (John Cena), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), King Shark (voice of Sylvester Stallone), and a new Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchoir) - plus her pet rat Sebastian - on a second front. The goal: To locate The Thinker (Peter Capaldi) and use him to get into the lab containing "Project Starfish", so that they can shut it down and destroy all records now that this island nation has had a coup and the new rulers are less aligned with US interests. The rules are the same: Those who survive and succeed get ten years knocked off their prison sentences, while any who attempt to run will find director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) quite ready to detonate the bombs implanted in their skulls.

James Gunn drops what is probably meant to be the theme to the film early, disguised as a joke: What, exactly, is the difference between Bloodsport and Peacemaker, both described as being trained from birth so that anything is a deadly weapon in their hands? Apparently, that one is a reluctant leader and the other a sociopath comes down entirely to having a daughter, because the two guys who could use a little backstory don't really get one. It doesn't really matter that much, on the surface - Gunn has assembled a pretty great cast and given them big personalities to work with, with even the returnees seeming like they've got a better handle on these guys than they did before. It's quite possible nobody has more fun playing a character in any movie than Margot Robbie does with Harley Quinn; she plays the Joker's ex big and so far off-kilter as to be sideways but still makes her feel three-dimensional. Idris Elba makes a great choice for the leader because he's got impressive chemistry with everyone, and Sylvester Stallone milks more out of a few grammatically-iffy words than seems likely.

It's good that they can put all that out without a lot of seeming effort, because Gunn doesn't figure to slow down to let them flesh things out. His movie is frantic from the start, jumping back and forth in time and barely finishing one needle drop before the next one begins, and eventually gets kind of meta about it, spending a couple minutes on how one character who gets wiped out barely had time to give his name. It's also the sort of movie that happily panders to the "comics aren't for kids any more" and "ugh, PG-13?" crowds in the bloodiest way possible, gleeful in how quickly or casually it increases its body count. It name-drops Superman in order to boost Bloodsport's reputation but without considering what this thing existing in the same narrative space as Superman and Lois Lane means for each (sure, it's technically Zack Snyder's Superman, but chasing an audience by being bigger and edgier has been a problem for DC Comics since well before that mismatch of character and custodian).

Gunn and company are still good enough at all these pieces that the movie by and large works. There is a tremendously mean-spirited bit with a hatchet that made me laugh enough to make up for the three or four similar jokes around it that don't, for instance, and as with the Guardians of the Galaxy films he's done for the competition at Marvel, he seems to take great glee in using the resources of a massive media conglomerate to bring the weirdest things in their comic-book library to life, and generally briefly enough to not wear out their welcome. He's able to sweeten the violence and black comedy enough to get the audience to feel some affection for these reprobates by the end without making it sappy.

It's a better movie than the last one in the series, but still probably not a movie that will appeal to an audience not already primed to smile at actually seeing Starro the Conqueror on-screen and killin' lots of folks. The folks involved are capable enough and move at such a clip that the audience is seldom going to check out, but it isn't such an improvement as to suggest that this sub-series of DC movies has much appeal beyond fans of the universe's minutiae.

Also at eFilmCritic

No comments: