Sunday, July 17, 2022

Fantasia 2022.03: Baby Assassins, The Fish Tale, Popran, "Facies", and The Elderly

Welp, that's not the first time I've found myself going to a different film than I figured on to start the day, but this may be the first time I didn't realize it until introductions started.

Those introductions were Mitch welcoming The Elderly directors Raúl Cerezo and Fernando González Gómez (plus a translator whose name I didn't catch if it was offered), with Cerezo also serving as a producer for the pretty-darn-good short that preceded the feature.

I wish I liked their movie more. It looks nice (lots of talk about the cinematography being inspired by Goya's black paintings) and has a good cast, but it doesn't really hold together well enough to be scary. They built it well enough that one can see things in it that maybe weren't intended to be there - the filmmakers seemed to avoid answering a question or two in the Q&A because they maybe hadn't considered its premise while making the movie - but all in all, I think I'd have rather seen the Tibetan western.

Ah well. It's a new day, which means the International Science Fiction Short Film Showcase, The Girl from the Other Side, Next Door, and Moloch.

Beibî warukyûre (Baby Assassins)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Baby Assassins is a member of that class of Japanese genre films that aren't necessarily made more for export than their domestic market but can kind of feel that way for one reason or another with some prominent English and hitting on specific nerdy Japanese tropes. They wouldn't exist unless there was some fondness for it, though, enough that there's a market crank stuff like this out, even if this isn't exactly an example that's especially clever in what it comes up with.

It follows Mahiro (Saori Izawa) and Chisato (Akari Takaishi), two teenage assassins who, now that they've graduated high school, are expected to maintain a sort of normal life as cover, including sharing an apartment, holding down part-time jobs, that sort of thing. Elsewhere in Tokyo, a yakuza and his two kids are looking to expand their business, though it looks like someone has hired the agency which employs the girls, setting them on a collision course.

Things start out well enough with a sequence that seems to recognize the absurdity of the whole premise - Mahiro asking herself what kind of convenience store this is as she fights off some employees who are shockingly loyal to the manager she just offed - but said premise could use a lot of work. The organization behind the pair is more or less entirely off-screen, and there doesn't seem to be much thought as to why someone would go with flighty teenagers rather than seasoned, loyal yakuza killers other than there being an audience for cute girls with guns. It's a movie that could be full of fun details - the premise implies a bizzarro John Wick world - but seldom goes for that.

Most of the time, it's the sort of movie that seems to be following a checklist. There's a serviceable-enough plot, though it's a kind of casual thing to hang the tropes off. Some characteristics are fun, but they're not really connected to anything. The guy playing the yakuza father (Yasukaze Motomiya, I believe) sells the deadpan scenes where he's chastising his son in feminist terms before shifting to mad-dog mode, and Akari Takaishi captures how Chisato may be gregarious but is actually just as socially awkward as Mahiro, just in the opposite direction. It's a film of bits strung together, some better than others.

I wouldn't be shocked if it was built around giving Saori Izawa a few really good fights. She certainly seems to be the real deal when it's time to throw down, and both the opening brawl and the one-on-one at the climax are quality bits of action. She can move with purpose, sells the blow she's giving and receiving, and does plenty where it would be hard to double. Her future may be in more cranked-out VOD fodder like this, but she'll likely be a highlight when she shows up.

Sakana no Ko (The Fish Tale)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

The Fish Tale is an amiable movie that covers less ground than one might expect given its generous running time. There are some pretty noticeable gaps that writer/director Shûichi Okita needn't have made quite so obvious, and Meebo, the character in the center always seems to be doing less than must be the case. It's built to be charming, and mostly succeeds, but after a while one does notice what it's not showing as much as what it is.

After a brief bit in the present, the film flashes back to when "Meebo" was a young girl, fascinated by all manner of marine life to the point of obsession, spending hours in the aquarium, learning all the varieties of fish and drawing them on end, not even really eating anything else. Her mother indulges her to an extent that clearly causes issues in the family, and by the time she's in high school, her grades aren't good but everybody loves her manga-style "newsletters". She doesn't get into college, but still tries to find work in and around that area as an adult, eventually re-encountering folks she knew when younger who seem charmed by how she hasn't changed despite their own lives having ups and downs.

Interestingly, the movie opens with the quote suggesting that Meebo is either bi- or asexual, and the latter certainly seems more likely, but it's an odd thing to bring up if the film's only going to hint at it. The prelude ends in a cliffhanger that is never returned to, and the usual structure of facing challenges and being changed by them just isn't there. Meebo is who she is from roughly the age of six, and it's just a matter of the world recognizing her value.

Which is, on the one hand, kind of great - this being a fairly family-oriented movie, its eagerness to be sort of radically accepting, whether of a kid who is simply obsessed with fish, two male high school delinquents who apparently become a couple and open a restaurant together, or a single mom who was almost certainly knocked up by her married lover, is kind of wonderfully earnest. The filmmakers have a message, it's positive, and they're not creating exceptions.

On the other hand... Not a lot of consequence happens. Meebo loves fish and drawing, never really compromising that even though she doesn't ever develop the academic credentials or social instincts that she would seem to need. She's easy to root for, in part because the actress who plays her as a teen and adult, Non, seems to naturally exude the proper sort of geeky charm the part needs, but the audience knows she achieved her dreams without a lot of complicated entanglements or change. At least, not on screen, even though everyone else pointedly moves to different stages of life. It's a long movie to watch someone stay that static, no matter how likable and good-hearted she may be.

Popuran (Popran)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Shin'ichiro Ueda combines an obvious but earnest metaphor with slapstick absurdity in Popran, and does it well enough to make one wish more filmmakers were down for this sort of cheerful silliness. It may be a trifle, but it's one where everyone involved knows what they're doing and getting it done in a way that is both very silly and surprisingly sincere.

It opens with an interview that establishes both that Akira Tamagi (Yoji Minagawa) has built up a top online manga distribution company and that in doing so he left behind the girl he married when they were twenty and drove away his founding partner, at least before his highly capable assistant shoos the people interviewing him away. After a one-night stand with an aspiring artist, he wakes up to find that his penis has vanished, baffling doctors. He does find an underground support meeting, though, where he learns that not only is he not alone, but that the "Skyfish" that have been seen flitting around Japan are all male members that have abandoned their bodies, and if they aren't caught in six days, they'll die of malnutrition. And while catching an object that flies through the air at up to 200kph is difficult, the really hard part is that they seem attracted to the people and places their owners abandoned.

Straightforward? Yeah, but it's also weirdly sincere. The film may be saying something corny, but it means what it's saying, and it's not going to be misunderstood. It's generally positive in its outlook and has no shame in hitting expected notes if they feel true, but Ueda knows enough to throw a barb or two in there - a scene filled with necessary exposition tilts from sadness to despair in its final moments, and at least one segment of Tamagi's quest makes it clear that forgiveness is by no means automatic, especially given that he's doing this for selfish-if-understandable reasons. The broad slapstick leads, but the film is at least a little well-considered under the hood.

But it is delightfully goofy, with Minagawa gamely selling all of the indignities a detached high-speed penis that can still transmit pain can inflict, even if he can't quite sell Akira as being quite so awful as the premise requires. There's also a very enjoyable sort of comedic whiplash between how reluctant and deadpan the people chasing "Skyfish" are to discuss it and how completely the actual thing lacks subtlety. Ueda does enough to not actually show anything clearly that it would almost be better if he were winking at the camera in some sort of meta manner, it's so obvious where the lines they can't cross are, but he also doesn't exactly build the film around teasing Tamagi's unit (or lack thereof) with last-minute cutaways or Austin Powers gags.

This probably could go a lot harder (tee-hee) and get some even bigger laughs, but it's not really that movie. Ueda bets that more people will laugh at the idea than seeing the whole thing big as life on the silver screen, and it's probably not a bad wager.

"El Semblante" ("Facies")

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

"El Semblante" takes up the question that many have asked while walking through museums of medieval history - "what sicko even comes up with these devices?" - and posits a tragic backstory of an inventor of useful devices and charming automata forced to turn his mind toward instruments of torture by a representative of the Vatican who burned his wife as a witch and will come after daughter Elena (who has picked up where her mother left off in helping people with herbal remedies) if he doesn't comply.

The story itself is a mean little thing, as befits a tale of the Spanish Inquisition in 1692, with the sort of ending one can predict if not caught up in the story as it unfolds. The filmmakers aren't necessarily going for subtlety or new takes here - the imagery is familiar, though maybe a bit more rundown; this cruel priest is not in Rome, after all, but rural Spain and thus not as fancily robed - but they don't need to. They lay out the situation and follow it through. It may end on what seems to be a bit of a side note, although maybe it isn't; this priest's interest in "the true face of pain" seemed like an ugly quirk of a secondary character at the start, but these sickos do have a way of grabbing the spotlight.

Indeed, that's perhaps the most interesting nugget of truth in the movie, as Elena points out to her father that they are shunned more for his building these evil devices than anything her mother may have done, but the people who get off on pain and suffering manage to take and control through their willingness to inflict it, even if it is ultimately unpopular.

Viejos (The Elderly)

* * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

There are several points in The Elderly when the screen will go blank for a graphic of the temperature, starting at 39.9 Celsius (about 94 Fahrenheit) and rising, but I don't think the audience ever sees anybody actually sweat in the movie. Now, sure, maybe it's just Spain and folks who live there handle the heat better than a cold-adapted New England type like me, and that would be a petty thing to ding a movie on anyway, but it feels like a prime example of how this movie is such a miss for me - the filmmakers know what causes anxiety and fear, but are content to go with the surface signifiers rather than craft something that has a horrifying logic underlying it.

It opens with an old woman, seemingly hearing voices, falling to her death, although the framing of the shot leaves plenty of room as to whether she jumped or husband Manuel (Zorion Eguileor) pushed her, though the police apparently find nothing suspicious. Still, his son Mario (Gustavo Salmerón) worries, and wants him to move in with them, although pregnant wife Lena (Irene Anula) is far less keen, while Mario's daughter from his first marriage, Naia (Paula Gallego), is both worried about her grandfather and reflexively against what Lena is for. And Lena's right to be worried - something's not right with Manuel, and that may extend to the rest of the city's older residents.

What might that be? The filmmakers sort of play coy here; there are cryptic notes on paper and on walls about hearing voices, references to "them", a slow and eerie old song that recurs on the soundtrack, and Manuel's odd sets of cobbled-together circuit boards, but what revelations there will be are saved for the end or close to it, to the point where I found myself grumbling about someone answering a question in a pointlessly cryptic way when they had no reason to hide information (and when most movies would start having the curtains pulled back), or intoning "I will kill you all tomorrow" because the film needed a little spike of tension. The filmmakers throw in a bunch of things that cause modern angst - the indignities of aging, the heat wave, Mario's unemployment - and imply they're a significant part of the story, although it never coheres. During the festival Q&A, directors Raúl Cerezo and Fernando González Gómez said that the film had been in the works for ten years (Cerezo, Rubén Sánchez Trigos, and Javier Trigales get the screenplay credits), and maybe that's part of the issue - so many hot issues of the day and different focuses that never cohere.

To a certain extent, they can get by without it; the core cast of Zorion Eguileor, Paula Gallego, Gustavo Salmerón, and Irene Anula are a fine group, with Eguileor doing an excellent job of capturing a combination of potentially-paranormal malevolence and piggish pride, such that one can't exactly spot where one ends and the other begins, with a fondness for his granddaughter that is not overstated. Gallego, who also appeared in the directors' previous feature, has the makings of a fine horror heroine if she wants to continue on that path, nicely able to make Naia appealing despite being aloof or angry much of the time before descending into very believable terror.

And the film looks terrific; there's a difference in atmosphere between the old apartment building the family lives in and the one Manuel came from that often seems to be subtle shadings, while his room in the new place takes on the same atmosphere. It's a dark but rich palette and everything is framed well without being showy, which means the potentially-apocalyptic climax both fits in and comes as a shock. A lot of horror films have trouble making the jump from one family's problems to something much bigger, and this one mostly connects on that big swing.

Still, that's kind of a leap from "stuff too vague and muddled to be really scary" to "stuff too vague and muddled to be really scary but with some good visual effects". The Elderly has the gloss of a top-tier horror movie, but never really decides on a heart.

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