Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Fantasia 2022.04: Science Fiction Shorts, "Molting", The Girl from the Other Side, Next Door, "Bug Bites", and Moloch

Hello, day that always screws the posting schedule up! You've come early this year.

Sunday was a day for guests, and though there's usually a pretty good line-up at the shorts programs, it was just Paul Arion of "Fieldtrip" this year, although he had some entertaining stuff to talk about, since his 20-minute film was in the works for five years, some of it likely pandemic-related delays, but also because they spent a huge chunk of time building the primary costume (a highly-believable environmental suit) in his co-director's living room. The original intent in making it was "special effects but not visual effects", since they knew how much time that would add, although they wound up adding graphics for the characters' heads-up displays and the like. He also talked about shooting in some of those gorgeously stark Icelandic landscapes and how a full crew has to go through a rigorous permitting process, a small project like them can often "just trespass". This included the site of an actual plane crash that was apparently never properly… Well, I don't know, is it standard procedure to have people go in, break it up, and cart everything away, or is it possibly less impactful to just leave it there than to drive a bunch of heavy equipment into the area?

Next up, more animation, as Axis programmer Rupert Bottenberg introduced the pairing of The Girl from the Other Side with its directors Yutaro Kubo & Satomi Maiya, also joined by Katsushi Bowda, the director of "Molting", the short film that played ahead of it. They found it amusing that the two films had been programmed as a pair months ago, and in that time Bowda would wind up on a project with WIT Studio, who produced both short and feature versions of Other Side, so they got together and met there prior to coming to Montreal.

This was an introduction rather than a Q&A, as I gather things were scheduled a bit tight and both brought mini posters and other souvenirs to autograph after the presentation. I didn't get in that line because I don't need more stuff that's somehow got to get packed in a way that it won't be damaged on the way home, which is a bummer, because I'd have liked to get in close for a shot of one of the stop-motion models Bowda brought with him.

The guest for Next Door was Yeom Ji-ho, who made it as his senior project in film school, as apparently the film board has a program where top students can submit proposals and, with a lot of things being taken into consideration, the top one gets the resources for a small feature. They seem to have made a pretty decent choice here; it's pretty solid work. Kind of amusing to see someone asking for words of inspiration, though - he made it through enough screening that this wasn't exactly winning the lottery, but he's still at the start of things.

And, finally, we have Mitch excited to see Moloch director Nico Van den Brink, who has had shorts in Small Gauge Trauma a few times, including one that is in development for him to remake with Sam Raimi and James Wan producing. They'd been hoping to have him in person for a while, and what better time than this? He had some interesting talk about how the folk legend in the film was invented for it, but that there were similar ones, despite the fact that passing down these sorts of folk tales had fallen out of favor for some time in the Netherlands. He also mentioned that he's got projects in development both in America and back home, and it's entirely possible he'll have time to shoot and finish another Dutch film in the time those projects the big American producers are attached to make it into production.

So, long day that gave the camera some work. Today's plans are My Small Land, Next Exit, and Dark Nature. I could fit the Jean Rollin documentary in there, I suppose, but I'm not big on artist docs in general and he's not someone I have any particular attachment to. The Roundup with Ma Dong-seok is fun; apparently it didn't make it to Montreal during its North American run a month or two ago. But, then, it'll likely already be tomorrow when this gets published, because 10 shorts adds to the writing time disproportionately.

"The Gift"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

"The Gift" is quick and basic enough to not really leave much time for "wait, what about–" when you put it in this sort of short film block. It starts with a father and son burying the latter's hamster, though a reverse shot reveals some sort of spaceship hanging in the sky behind them. Those have been around for a couple of years, and nobody really knows why. There's hints of something unexpected, but the film ends on the sort of ironic twist where it's hard to be sure.

It's not bad, pretty good for something done by folks whose IMDB entries suggest hobbyists, with quality effects work and not-bad-at-all direction.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

"S.O.S." is the sort of French comedy that often throws Americans, something kind of mean and dark underneath a thick layer of whimsy. It features a couple (Jacques Bouanich & Anne Benoît) who manage a seaside apartment building, with the UFO-enthusiast husband actually having sent a message to aliens, seeking placement as a climate refugee, though the representative and answer may not be what they expected.

What's clever, and sometimes a tricky thing to reconcile, is that the concept is something to be taken seriously and that there's a (sometimes literally) cutting set of observations being made about bourgeois hypocrisy but the film is such a bunch of pastel colors, with even the bad things in pleasing compositions. Filmmaker Sarah Hafner will also take the chance to do any bit of amusing slapstick that presents itself; even if it's jarring and an interruption. I really enjoy and like what she's doing here in a lot of cases, like the way she'll use piles of plastic water bottles big enough to seem obscene without making the image of pollution ugly; it's over-the-top enough to check off "looks harmless but we know it isn't". Like a lot in this mode, though, it's full of distractions and kind of exhausting as it arrives at its point.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

"Heartless" has one of those Twilight Zone scenarios that initially makes one wonder how you even get to the starting point - Haukur Björgvinsson posits a place where everyone's romantic relationships are reassigned every seven years, with those who resist being sent to the massive Egg that hovers ominously near the town, where their attachments will presumably be purged over the cycle. For Gunnar (Jóhann Kristófer Stefánsson) and Anna (Bríet Elfar), in their first relationship, the upcoming lottery is as fraught as might be expected.

Interestingly, Björgvinsson doesn't do the "you don't want to go back to how things were before, with society tying people to abusive partners, do you?" thing at all, which is an interesting choice, though this relatively short film could perhaps use that sort of an injection of reasons to consider this relationship lottery from a perspective other than Gunnar's anguish. On the other hand, Jóhann Kristófer Stefánsson does give good anguish, his adoration of Anna seeming to fill him almost too bursting without seeming overplayed, powerful enough that it's very easy to assume that Anna feels the same, although I suspect that a second viewing will show Bríet Elfar playing Anna more sad for how this guy she genuinely likes is about to get absolutely crushed.

It's a rich premise, and while I'm not sure that Björgvinsson has done the best possible job of extracting a story that explores it while also standing alone, but it's still not bad at all.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

Has it really been long enough that someone could possibly be reinventing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind without knowing that they're doing it? Not that the idea was entirely original then or that Kryzz Gautier is the first to do so since, and her take on it is interesting for its differences - Kaari (Lorena Jorge) & Grace (Wilder Yari) not being heterosexual makes the relationship dynamics different, and the clean aesthetic implying hints at it perhaps being the tested, regulated future of that movie's world - its "technically, this is brain damage" line is legal boilerplate. It's got a couple of nice stars in Jorge and Yari, and Gautier avoids giving the audience too close a look at their memories so that they can communicate what they've lost and how themselves.

It has another one of those set-ups whose arbitrariness makes itself a little too obviously known - why four memories that can only be accessed with permission? It would be one thing if the nature of those memories seemed to have some purpose, but there's not enough time or detail for that. This also seems to be the least interesting portion of the story, compared to either coming to the decision to forget or trying to live without a huge chunk of one's life.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

At three minutes long, it's almost absurd to give "Struck" a rating or even a review, and it's even weirder to see Hulu and 20th Century Studios logos on it. What are they going to do with it? Is it the result of some sort of contest to create a pitch reel for a potential film or series?

Although, if that's what it is, it's one I'd be curious about. Writer/director Nichola Wong establishes just enough of characters and premises and teases more in those three minutes to put a lot of series that spend a 90-minute pilot episode to get the audience to the basic premise that they knew from reading the show's listing to shame. It looks pretty nice, too. Which makes it an odd duck - there isn't much of it and it doesn't feel complete at all, but it's still impressively efficient storytelling.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

"Till" has a fascinatingly dystopian premise, in which the title character (Ulrich Matthes), determined to no longer be sufficiently useful to society, is expected to be replaced with an artificial intelligence, one which presumably executes using his brain as a platform. It might, in some ways, be a better version of him, although in others not so, especially since most of his memories will be lost; in this future, they're not so big on feeding an algorithm uncurated data as we are now.

Filmmaker Marc Philip Ginolas has Matthes and Till approach the idea with a sort of melancholy, back up at the idea of being considered less useful and not wanting to die, but perhaps not entirely in disagreement, as if he on some level understands he's been wasting his life of late and it may be too far gone to turn around. There's a bit or two in here about him trying to preserve something of it, in analog human fashion, which gives the film a bit of plot to keep things moving forward and helps set the mid-twentieth-century-bureaucracy tone (I kind of wonder how many people involved with this film remember the divided Germany and draw from it), but ultimately lets it settle back down into the intriguing mix of whether this is a situation that calls for rebellion or well-negotiated acceptance.

"Anima Possession"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

"Anima Possession" proves surprisingly fascinating because it goes to the expected places for a short film about a woman (Hedwig Tam Sin-Yin) unsatisfied with her robot lover (Fish Liew Chi-Yu) despite "Tammy" being built and configured to her exact specifications. Maybe, it's suggested, what you really want is a girlfriend without a control collar - which sounds good until another robot girl shows up, looking for an arm to replace the one removed because her dead master had a disability fetish.

Though filmmaker Wai Mo Chan seems to be a new face, there are other names in the credits who may be familiar to fans of Hong Kong cinema even beyond stars Tam and Liew, and they seem to be having fun doing something where the reception in China doesn't matter in the sort of independent short that's clearly low-budget but kind of well-appointed because the professionals involved know their stuff. It's transparently queer and fairly openly admits that the only resolution is to become more so. It also has fun with its sci-fi bits as characterization, as Tammy's complaints about the "add-ons" that her (former) Master has installed not being things she wanted slyly reflects her own frustration at not knowing how to function the way people expect her to herself (welcome to humanity!), and the way that the robots communicate non-verbally is both logical and symbolic of a deeper connection.

This is good enough for me to wonder about where its director fits into Hong Kong cinema going forward - can someone new pull off the same sort of "one in Mandarin for them, one in Cantonese for me" the way someone established like Fruit Chan or Pang Ho-Cheug does (or, in the latter case, did before imploding his career)? Maybe not, but at least they did come up with this.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

There's always one short in these programs where, even without being told, it's clear that some of the folks involved are not students or hobbyists but professionals who, even if they aren't sneaking equipment and/or processor cycles from their day jobs, certainly know how to get things done. In this package, that one's "Fieldtrip", which follows a military contractor whose ship home crashes upon takeoff for home and the deluxe retirement package they've been working for. The sole survivor, with a damaged suit, must get to a resupply base before considering his next move - no small feet considering they've just finished mining the planet.

Savvy viewers will immediately guess what "retirement" actually means in this context, and they're not exactly wrong, but filmmakers Paul Arion and Soren Bendt seem to be fan enough of the genre to set things up so that this doesn't really matter - whether you get there ahead of "Q" (Laurentieu Ciucur) or after, or if Arion & Bendt have something different in store, can wait while their resourceful engineer faces off with nifty variations on the classic hostile-planet bits, niftily staged in such a way that they also tell the viewer just enough about how things work to set up a terrific little ending.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival: Axis, digital)

A nifty little short about a protean mass making its way through a museum or archive, absorbing what it finds, forming a cocoon, and emerging changed, over and over again, many transformations seemingly necessary to get to the next step, frightening and scaring the automata tending the place, on the way to… what?

It's a question that's sort of easy to overlook because Katsushi Bowda's animation is so delightful, 15 minutes of stop motion where something familiar can persist even though the most radical changes of the strange invader. One of the delights of this form of animation is that it frequently doesn't mind showing its gears and mechanisms on the one hand while being impressively smooth in the same set of frames, and "Molting" hits the right balance of immersing the viewer and dazzling them at the technique throughout.

As to what Bowda is trying to communicate, I see a story about treating education as a scavenger hunt - you may only be trying to learn what you need for some purpose, getting through the numbered doors, but that approach is destructive and leaves nothing new in its wake. Ultimately, knowledge is transformative, and can't help but leave its user changed - whether they're looking for it to or not.

Totsukuni no shôjo (The Girl from the Other Side '22)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival: Axis, DCP)

I was quite fond of the short-film version of this previously made by the same creators, and while expanding it into a feature inevitably causes some dilution, this still retains the core of what made the original so appealing: A monster who still retains some vestige of his soul, a young girl more afraid of loneliness than anything else, and the look of a storybook which only enhanced the feel of a dark fairy tale.

That girl is Shiva (voice of Rie Takahashi), somehow still alive after a slaughter on the border between Inside and Outside, found by a nameless Outsider that she eventually calls Sensei (voice of Jun Fukuyama). The pair bond, though it would be dangerous for them to touch despite Sensei assuring her that he is different from the others and cannot spread the Curse. They are happy with each other, the doting Sensei finding it easy to remember some lost, forgotten humanity by caring for the girl, but borderlands are full of dangers from all sides.

It's the style which makes the biggest, most consistent impression, even when filling the screen with detail, it's the sort of clean look that one often finds as an illustration in children's books, clean with striking contrasts between light and dark, but not so much that it's something abstract. The filmmakers play around with the visuals a bit, but it all keys off the charming core with friendly villages and forests paired with the contrast between a sweet girl whose boots imply mischief and a horned creature whose silhouette is nevertheless dignified. The animation is sometimes allowed to be a little fuzzy, but that just adds to the handmade feel of it.

Attempts to expand the story are a little iffier: World-building involving human treachery and the difference between "Insider" and "Outsider" fills in a few blanks but also makes it feel like there are loose ends. The voice acting is solid, though; while the short did without dialogue, Fukuyama and Takahashi fairly quickly become the voices that the characters have in my memory of the first one, and having the characters speak doesn't reduce a story previously told visually to words and details now that the option is available.

I suspect that this is still a fairly condensed version of the original manga (it clocks in at a tight 70 minutes), but it certainly captures the essence of this sort of fairy tale without much waste.

Next Door '22

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

It maybe gets a little extra credit in my mind for being a student film, albeit one given some extra funding as part of a special program, but Next Door hits an impressive balance between being a clever setup and featuring people who are only clever to a believable level. So often folks are secretly geniuses or it's all a master plan, but filmmaker Yeom Ji-ho makes this an impressively honest mess his first time out.

It's not the first attempt for Chan-woo (Oh Dong-min), who has been spending five years trying to pass the entrance exam to the police academy, now down to his last few won to the point where he's asking a friend to spot him the $10 processing fee. Sure, Song-ho says, but come to dinner with the guys tonight. Chan-woo agrees, but there's also drinking, and he really can't hold his liquor. He wakes up the next morning in the apartment of neighbor Ko-hyun (Choi Hee-jin), subject of many noise complaints, a bruise on his forehead, and a body on the floor in a pool of blood. As circumstances conspire to keep him in there, he'll have to get a head start on using what he's been studying to figure out what happened and how not to take the fall.

The film is perhaps at its best in the first half, when its would-be detective backs himself into a series of corners and is puzzling his way out on his own, fighting his self-doubt as much as the traps he finds himself in. Yeom writes Chan-woo as the sort of guy who makes up bad raps to psych himself up and is still enough in student mode that it's easy to see him thinking aloud to work something out, and Oh Dong-min takes full advantage, making Chan-woo dorky but endearing, an average-level puzzle solver rather than someone so drawn to the intricacies that you worry there might be something wrong in his head.

More characters get added to the mix eventually - otherwise there will come a point where he can just walk out of the room and be done with it - and it turns out that having more concrete adversaries doesn't necessarily make for more compelling conflict, especially in a late coming turn that will likely make the audience wonder if Chan-woo or Ko-hyun has ever watched a crime movie before. Even then, though, I am kind of intrigued by some of what Yeom plays with, particularly the idea of how you reinvent the femme fatale for an era built for Instagram cuties and crypto schemes. Choi Hee-jin plays it with an intriguing lack of subtlety that feels like it could either be clumsy or her knowing just how much effort a girl with her looks needs to expend when dealing with guys as awkward as Chan-woo. Maybe not quite there, but it's something to build on.

The finale gets even messier, maybe not quite hitting the right balance between an escape and an implosion as everything goes to hell, but the film has built up enough goodwill by this point to have momentum to get across the finish line. It's strong for a debut, enough so to make one curious where Yeom goes next with this experience under his belt.

"Bug Bites"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I feel like I could almost repeat my brief review of the director's previous short verbatim; this, too, is a sort of punchline short that ends on a neat bit of practical effects. I suspect it's especially satisfying for film and horror fans who are prone to get into the weeds a bit and know of what they speak: As unabashedly modern as the setting is, director Daniel DelPurgatorio and cinematographer O'Connor Hartnett certainly make the effort to make it look like it's shot on 16mm or cheap 35mm stock, and the way it's staged and acted - sort of like a giallo where intonation is kind of weird because everyone presumes they're going to be dubbed by someone whose delivery winds up being kind of odd itself - makes it feel like the sort of short where they just showed up at someone's apartment to shoot, but the finale says they clearly did not.

I don't know that it totally handles the swing between unnervingly creepy and "wait, no, really, what the heck?" - there's a gag bridging those tones that just keeps going well past the point of being funny because DelPurgatorio and co-writer Anthony R. Williams apparently couldn't find a punchline - but it still winds up the sort of thing that grabs a very specific spot at the intersection of "knows their filmmaking" and "mind goes to weird places".


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Though I'm one with the tendency to overthink horror most of the time - I like well-thought-out mechanisms and monsters that represent things - I do kind of find myself appreciating that to the extent Moloch is that, it's sort of secondary. Director Nico van den Brink and co-writer Daan Bakker have made a movie that rings true enough for people to project their own fears onto it, but is mostly just a good time that's going to involve something supernatural and knives.

After all, it's already happened at least once, as a flashback features a ton of blood seeping into the basement pantry where a young girl is giving the mouse that lives there a treat. Thirty years later, Betriek (Sallie Harmsen) has a little girl of her own, Hanna (Noor van der Velden), a busybody mother (Anneke Blok) starting to have some health issues, and her father Reol (Fred Goessens) all living in the same family home. It's near a swamp where a local eccentric has suddenly died, somewhat ironically - there's an archaeological team there unearthing "bog bodies", naturally mummified corpses in extraordinary condition despite being centuries old. She winds up mediating between the locals and the scholars a bit, as her former career as a touring violinist means she's got the best English and the team's head, Jonas (Alexandre Willaume), doesn't speak Dutch. They hit it off, though Jonas finds it hard to believe the locals see Betriek and her family as more cursed than catch - that is, until a member of his team with no history of violence attacks the family in their home, and both the local legend of Feike and what they're unearthing suggests there may be something bigger afoot.

The filmmakers kick things off with a big, delightful piece of haunted-house creepiness - the opening shot of this modest house is perfectly dark and foggy with music that leaves no doubt that this is a bad place even before the walls start gushing blood - so it's kind of impressive just how quickly and easily they settle back into something mostly comfortable. As much as the intrigue about the strange deaths and how they may connect to the paranormal or an ancient legend is never far from the forefront, the film seems to be fueled by the chemistry between Sallie Harmsen and Alexandre Willaume more than anything else. They have these smart folks light up around each other with the mystery feeling like a mutual interest rather than an excuse to pair them.

The mystery and mythology that the filmmakers build is, I suppose, as close to a fair-play mystery as something involving ancient spirits and a pagan god can be, although it may wind up a little more opaque than necessary by the end: Bakker and van den Brink lay all the pieces out plainly enough but there's no really good point for a detective to point out what was a red herring and explain what was really happening, so they skip it. There's a bit of wondering what's being accomplished by all of this at the end and a sense that maybe the mythology fits together rather loosely, but never enough to actually stop things dead. This isn't really a murder mystery, after all, even if it maps to that genre surprisingly well.

No, it's the story of a curse, and van den Brink proves quite good at taking the seemingly innocuous and twisting into dangerous territory before one is even quite aware what has happened, playing the genre elements mostly dead-straight despite how light things often are between Betriek and Jonas. There's sometimes shocking amounts of blood and enough control of the atmosphere that he doesn't have to revel in mutilation or gore to get a good shock.

It's solid, well-built horror that doesn't have a specific bigger point to make, but still gets its jumps and creeps honestly.

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