Friday, July 15, 2022

Fantasia 2022.01: Polaris and Special Delivery

Greetings from Montreal! I can't say it's like nothing's changed in the past three years, because I flew up rather than taking the bus (Greyhound has cut 75% of their direct service between Boston and Montreal and who wants to spend 8 hours in a bus with people who may or may not be masking up?), there are a lot more empty storefronts than I remember and fewer long-term rentals, and opening night wasn't quite so sold out as I remember it being in previous years for a fun, Canadian-made world premiere. Folks aren't hunkered down any more, but 20% being careful and 20% picking their spots can thin things out a bit.

But, still, it's good to be back. There were introductions in French where I only caught a few words but felt the enthusiasm, people whooping at the Nongshim ad that has been part of the sponsors' pre-roll for, like, ten years without updates (and, good sports they are, noodles handed out before Korean movies), and tons of folks coming out for Canadian premieres like Polaris.

Left to right (deep breath): The festival's Mitch Davis, actress/stuntwoman Roreigh Eftoda, Angela Kosteski (the young star's stunt double), actress/stuntwoman Rebecca Roberts, co-star Khamisa Wilsher, actress Charlene Francique, big-axe-wielding Karen Hanna, co-star Muriel Dutil, star Viva Lee, and writer/director Kristen "KC" Carthew.

You'll notice Mitch is the only man up there; this was a choice, obviously, although I don't know that it's necessarily something the film makes a big deal of, as it's very easy to assume that the character Ms. Hanna played, covered in layers of armor, wearing a helmet, might be a guy, along with others in the background. Unwarranted assumption, obviously. It changes the vibe of somethings a little, although I suspect no good comes of trying to quantify that.

This also extends to Aggie, the polar bear who appears in a few scenes, recently retired after 28 years of being a "professional bear" and spending her golden years in a Manitoba zoo. Obviously, nobody but the trainers were really allowed to get near the bear, cuz she's a bear, although Viva Lee told the director not to spoil the movie magic for us. On the other hand, it was fun to hear the special effects guys talk about performing the bear by hiding under a bear skin, to the point where Lee was calling them "Mama Bear" throughout the whole shoot.

Anyway, a neat little movie. I don't know if it will even get midnight theatrical screenings in the States, which is a bummer, because it likely plays better when it's able to overwhelm the audience a bit.

Next up, Special Delivery writer/director Park Dae-min, who had a nice little Q&A after his movie, although we were all too polite to ask the question of why this film doesn't climax with a car chase, which seems like it would be the obvious choice. It was not a particularly crowded screening - nobody who didn't want to be there in the side sections - and from the way he talked, it sounds like the film has underperformed. He responded to questions about a sequel with a mention that it wasn't a big hit in its native Korea, and there was mention of talking the movie up on social media because it was looking for North American distribution. I must admit, I'm a bit surprised that it hasn't been picked up or even released already: "Park So-dam from Parasite with car chases and other action with Korean-level violence" seems like it should be an easy sell to Well Go or some of the other guys who distribute Korean films over here.

So that's day one. Day two is likely the only other short day, and I'm figuring on Coupez! and Swallowed, though I'm tempted by the idea of seeing Hard Boiled with John Woo in attendance, even if I did just see the movie a couple months ago. We'll see if I'm up for Blue Sunshine at midnight at the time.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Frozen post-apocalyptic hellscapes have never had a lot of favor to lose to their desert cousins, even before the climate crisis made the latter more likely; they're more practical to shoot and there's probably just as many people who viscerally react to being extremely hot versus extremely cold. Still, a good iceball adventure can be a lot of fun, especially when it's this sort of go-for-broke, blood-on-the-snow adventure.

It initially introduces Sumi (Viva Lee), a girl of about 12 raised by a polar bear who seems to have some greater connection to the frozen world around her, and although she and her mama bear seem to live fairly peacefully alone, some "Morads" are nearing their territory, cutting down trees, eventually capturing her. They are not prepared for how resourceful she is or the strange healing powers she possesses, but with her previous guardian gone, she's got to make new acquaintances - like an old woman (Muriel Dutil) who operates a fuel depot and recognizes a tattoo on Sumi's palm as the North Star, or a frozen girl (Khamisa Wilsher) whose dress indicates she is from some far-off, perhaps more technologically secure, part of the world.

That she has "healing powers" might imply that she's peaceful, but, no, she is raised by a bear and those abilities come out after both she and whoever started it have had a bloody and decisive battle. For such a little kid, she racks up an impressively high body count! You can't exactly call this surprisingly violent, but I didn't realize going in just to what extent this kid was going to deal with the people who murdered her mama polar bear herself. Lee is down for it, though, roaring her mostly-inarticulate "words", grinning as she discovers music and friendship, and looking like she packs a wallop as she uses a palmful of teeth to rip someone's throat. She's in nearly every scene and never looks like she doesn't belong there.

For all that it's set up that way, Polaris is not really a revenge story; it's more a surprisingly good fusion of the mythic quest and the post-apocalyptic survival story, and it's impressive how well the filmmakers make that work without a lot of communication between characters. They're mostly grunting at each other with at least three made-up languages in play, communicating in a way that's so basic that there's no need to bather subtitling it, and making leaps that really aren't supported by any sort of logic even before you start to wonder just wear Sumi's decent-fitting clothes come from. The trick is that the cast and filmmakers do a great job of making the next step feel like the next thing is what these people would do by instinct even when they're not stopping and saying "well, this is where we should go next". They resist the urges to get terribly mired in world-building but give everybody the sort of elemental personalities where one could easily backfill if necessary.

Mostly, though, writer/director Kristen "KC" Carthew keeps things moving at a nifty clip, too, with nasty action and just enough between to make them feel motivated rather than just reflexively violent. It's not deep, but it's surprisingly cohesive for also being a ride.

Teuksong (Special Delivery)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Special Delivery looks like the sort of Korean genre movie that should cross over to a global audience fairly easily - star Park So-Dam had a memorable supporting role in world-wide phenomenon Parasite, the story isn't terribly Korea-specific, the action is as well-staged and hard-edged as one could hope for. Indeed, I suspect it was built with that sort of result in mind, but for one reason or another, it doesn't quite get there, although it's still a solid couple hours for folks who like action that doesn't mess around.

Park plays Jang Eun-Ha - 28, hair dyed green, and the best driver you'll ever see, specializing in getting those looking to flee South Korea ahead of the cops or [rival] gangsters to the port in Busan. She operates out of a garage run by "CEO" Baek (Kim Eui-Sung) and immigrant mechanic Asif (Han Hyun-Min), and her latest job is former baseball player Kim Du-Sik (Yeon Woo-Jin), a person of interest in a gambling probe who wants out of Korea with son Seo-Won (Jeong Hyun-Jun) and has stolen a banking security fob granting access to $30M in the hopes that it will give him leverage on boss Cho Kyeung-Pii (Song Sae-Byeok). Naturally, that just motivates Cho to track him down more, and on top of being a gangster, he's also a crooked cop, which gives him even more resources to chase Eun-Ha, Su-Sik, and Seo-Won down. And for what it's worth, Eun-Ha is not exactly great with kids.

Get Eun-Ha behind the wheel of a car, and this movie is everything you want it to be, with the opening chase (more or less unconnected to the main story) a delightful dance, with one especially great segment establishing where she and the chasing cars are with an aerial shot before she pulls a couple of fun tricks, with all of the major chase scenes feeling very well-planned with their rubber-laying turns and sudden reversals, and enough goons chasing her that the film never has to trip her up in such a way as to suggest that she is not gifted and well-prepared. The music choices amp the excitement up a bit without undercutting it, and director Park Dae-Min builds set pieces where the speed and power doesn't really come close to leaving the audience behind despite being exciting.

Which makes one wonder, at the end, why the climax isn't a car chase. Sure, Eun-Ha has been established as so good at this that it's hard to introduce a rival late in the game without it feeling like cheating, and the film's not exactly deep enough to make a finale where this woman who has spent her life on escape attempts having to circle back to defend her home really hit (Mad Max: Fury Road managing that bit of storytelling judo is one of its bits of hidden action movie brilliance). Not that the big final throwdown is in any way disappointing - it's a nasty set of fights where one can see that every impact is going to hurt and leave a mark, quite possibly on a corpse, although the action is fast enough and switches things up so that it's not just reveling in cruelty. It's good stuff for action fans, if not exactly why one purchases a ticket for a movie named "Special Delivery".

It's a bit thin and not ideally-formed in other ways as well - it's got revelations about Eun-Ha's past and how she's connected with Baek and the NIS officer who gets added to the task force but feels like it could do more, especially since Park So-Dam clearly has the range to make Eun-Ha serious about her job, a wise-ass to the customers, goofy about her cat, and a bit of an outsider because of where she was born, but lot of that is introduced too late or referenced too casually to build things up. Much of her screen time is paired with Jeong Hyun-Jun as Seo-Woo, who does just what he's asked and does it fairly well, but you can sort of see why precocious, sarcastic kids became the trope more than ones who realistically cry and wet their pants. In another movie, Yum Hye-Ran would be a major co-star as the honest Fed who knows Eun-Ha with her investigation dancing around Cho's, but she's underused here.

None of this is bad at all - like a lot of action movies, it's pretty darn good while it's in motion and works well enough to make the times between worth it. Any disappointment comes from how this certainly looks top-of-the-line but winds up being very competent and enjoyable.

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