Saturday, September 18, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.07: Indemnity, Hold Me Back, and Ghosting Gloria

Yikes, has it been a month? I can't even say it's been that busy at the day job and outside of movies, but sometimes you just can't get traction. I hope I've got some good notes here. Anyway, this is roughly the one-week mark for the festivals, right about where I usually start falling behind at Fantasia because there is Just So Much and I'm stupidly trying to do regular work at the same time. It's good to see that even restricted to press streams and such, I'm still kind of on schedule for being late.

I didn't see these all in the same day even if they're grouped that way, and this is out of order for how they were released to Fantasia viewers in Canada, you could have had this as your Wednesday there. It wound up being a sort of 1+2 day, where a couple of the movies make a decent double feature and the other is kind of separate.

The "other" one was Indemnity, which is a streaming-quality action/adventure from South Africa, and kind of interesting for how it wasn't that long ago that RSA filmmakers were talking about how there was no arts funding for much other than apartheid dramas and not a lot of venues for something commercial. This is slick and kind of empty-calorie, with some visual effects bits stretched, but that's kind of okay. As much as you'd like a film industry to be all brilliance, I suspect that there are more chances to create something great when there's an infrastructure cranking out disposable product like this than when anyone who wants to make a movie has to build up from scratch.

Watching RSA movies is kind of an odd experience at times, because at this point in its history, it feels kind of off to the rest of the English-speaking world, which it is maybe half part of, given how characters in this movie tend to bounce between English and Afrikaans pretty freely. It's not like the USA/UK/Ireland/Canada/Australia/New Zealand are homogeneous, but they do run together a bit, while every once in a while South Africa will show that the place's architecture hasn't entirely left its history behind. The mix of languages can be odd, too, especially in translation: It's weird to hear a character say "cloak and dagger" in the middle of some Afrikaans but have it subtitled as "obscurity", like someone didn't recognize that the phrase was borrowed from English to start with.

Also curious for outsiders is when an Afrikaner villain starts doing the "my evil plan is actually being done for the common good" monologue and lecturing the hero, who is black, about how this will enable them to expel the "colonizers" and reclaim Africa for Africans, completely without irony. I suppose, in its way, it's no stranger than my calling myself an American or some of my countrymen being up in arms against immigrants, although that last bit is dumb too.

"After" that, it was two movies about single women in their early 30s who start out not particularly interested in romance, which is kind of refreshing even if they do sort of become romantic comedies . Hold Me Back is particularly interesting in that regard, because I feel like I've been reading frightened "young Japanese people just not dating" stories for twenty years but never seeing it in the movies I watch, and while it's not really that - it sort of resolves into Mitsuko having had bad experiences rather than focusing on her career - it's closer to it than anything else I've seen. I really like Non as Mitsuko, as well - between this, Princess Jellyfish< and The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8, she's staked out a nice space in terms of playing cute oddballs.

As for Ghosting Gloria, I kind of have to talk myself into liking parts of it, because it's got some major consent issues in it's "woman just needed to have sex with the right man (or ghost)" story, and it feels like it could have avoided them. It also could have done a lot more to make use of its gorgeous bookstore location(s); the filmmakers seem to overlook how much Gloria seems to like being a bookseller as opposed to it being a boring retail job until the last act, which is a shame, in part because both the big shop and the smaller one seen toward the end are really charming places. The former may be a chain, but it's got labyrinthine nooks and metalworks and an open elevator cage.

Next up: Road trip!


* * (out of four)
Seen 10 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

It doesn't seem like very long ago that I was watching a South African crime movie at Fantasia with the director talking about how it was almost impossible to make because the only source of funding was the government and all they wanted to do was prestige apartheid dramas, although it can't have been too long before District 9 happened. Times have changed enough since then that at least a few sleek, commercial films like Indemnity are coming out; and if they're not yet exactly great yet, you can at least see some potential.

Cape Town firefighter Theo Abrams (Jarrid Geduld) survived a major blaze but his PTSD has restricted him to desk duty, although he has bristled at seeing his therapist (Susan Danford). Elsewhere, a former employee of shady corporation M-Tech (Abduragman Adams) and a hacker associate are looking for Theo but are just as happy to make contact with his wife Angela (Nicole Fortuin), a respected reporter, about the strange list of men all across Africa found on the company's serves, over half of whom are either dead or in prison, that includes Theo's name. It's the sort of trail where the target is alerted early, and leads to Theo being on the run for murder, pursued by Detective Rene Williamson (Gail Mabalane), who can see something doesn't add up, although her superior Alan Shard (Andre Jacobs) mostly seems to want the case closed fast.

It's pretty basic direct-to-video material, plot-wise; even when it gets weird or high-concept, it does so in fairly familiar ways, and it often doesn't quite seem like writer/director Travis Taute has a great handle on what might be intriguing and what doesn't quite work. It's the sort of movie that has a massive continent-spanning conspiracy but still feels the need to kidnap Theo's son Wesley (Qaeed Patel) to make sure he's got motivation, along with a conspiracy that seems huge and hyper-competent when they're lurking in the shadows but sloppy once they start trying to murder loose ends. There are moments when characters all but turn directly to the camera to make sure that the audience is included when Theo is being lectured about how PTSD and trauma are real and need to be dealt with like other health problems.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Watashi wo kuitomete (Hold Me Back)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

Those of us inclined to follow links to Japanese lifestyle stories when we come across them feel like we've been reading about young people - especially women - opting out of the dating pool and what a demographic time bomb that is for the past twenty years, although it has seldom seemed like those women have shown up in exported pop culture as protagonists. Hold Me Back does offer up a romance that the audience can get behind, but it's a relatively rare movie in that it's as interested in its protagonist being single as not.

That would be Mitsuko (Rena "Non" Nounen), who has one of those "office lady" jobs seemingly as much about meeting eligible bachelors as becoming a skilled administrative assistant but isn't committed to either, even at 31. She fills her time and enjoys her freedom, taking art classes, fretting a bit whether it's odd to go to amusement parks on her own, finding herself amused by the crush colleague Nozomi (Asami Usuda) has on handsome but vapid Carter (Takuya Wakabayashi), and exchanging postcards with an old school friend, Satsuki (Ai Hashimoto), who has settled in Italy and has invited her to come for Christmas. She enjoys cooking for herself, and as a result runs into Tada-kun (Kento Hayashi), a somewhat younger salesman who regularly visits her company, at the local market. They hit it off, even if Mitsuko isn't looking for romance.

At first, it seems like Mitsuko isn't quite alone, talking with "A" (voice of Tomoya Nakamura), who initially seems like an especially helpful personal digital assistant, with "A" standing for "answer", but in their very first conversation, Mitsuko says "you're me", and it makes for an intriguing sort of dynamic. Mitsuko isn't presented as someone with a split personality so much as she mostly asks A what norms and expectations are so that she can put that in a corner and do what she wants. It's why A is silent in Italy, for instance, and it lets writer/director Akiko Ohku (adapting Risa Wataya's novel) get a bit abstract toward the end as she confronts both her past and future, because there's trauma in the past when A was in charge and she mostly did what was expected, but things can't go forward with Tada-kun if she decides she wants no part of it.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Muerto con Gloria (Ghosting Gloria)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Vimeo via Roku)

There's enough about Ghosting Gloria that is really clever and funny that the movie being built on a foundation that is, at best, questionable as all heck shouldn't really be necessary. A viewer can deal with that in a couple of ways, depending on their temperament (lamenting that some might be too circumspect for a sexy comedy or saying that the film tacitly acknowledges its issues), if one is so inclined, but one can't help but wonder: Why couldn't a film which is smart and creative throughout do better in one of its biggest moments?

That moment is its title character's first orgasm; Gloria (Stefania Tortorella) is thirtyish, works in a Montevideo bookstore, and isn't exactly a prude but is still annoyed by the continuous sex of her newlywed neighbors on the floor above her inherited apartment. It gets to the point where she decides to rent the place out and move into a spot that her oversexed friend and co-worker Sandra (Nena Pelenur) knows of, cheap because previous resident Dante (Federico Guerra) recently died there. It turns out, he's not entirely gone, and one night he moves from just knocking things over to making some aggressive moves on his new roommate. After that, Gloria knows what she's been missing, and even tracks down a way to make Date visible to her, but is he a lover worth defying nature for, or maybe just what she needs to be ready when Ángel (Marco Manfini) walks into the store and appears to be the direct opposite of most of the appalling customers?

How that first supernatural sexual encounter lands for a viewer will probably color the entire rest of the movie for the audience, and it's going to miss the mark for plenty. Married directors Marcela Matta & Mauro Sarser stage the scenes leading up to it more as standard horror where the destructive poltergeist adds rape to his bag of tricks, and it's frustrating that it didn't have to be this way; it shouldn't take much of a shift to make the sequence more clearly built around Dante's clumsiness and Gloria's repressed desire colliding. If one is generous, it's not hard to see how the film is about someone being overly-romantic about the first person to make her feel a certain way, even if he basically sees her as a way to self-gratification and he can't be part of her life (because he's dead). Sarser and Matta do good things with that idea, but the way into it pushes things just a bit too far.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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