Thursday, August 04, 2022

Fantasia 2022.11: "Spice Frontier", Opal, Tang and Me, Anime Supremacy!, Vesper, "What Is in the Ocean", and Legions.

Day 11 is the midpoint of Fantasia - I think I noted online somewhere between Anime Supremacy! and Vesper that I'd seen 36 features and 23 shorts to that point - and I'm doing much of the write-up for it on Day 21, which I'll probably end with 73 features and 47 shorts, hitting publish on Thursday night (which would have been day 22 if they were still adding bonus days at the last minute).

There aren't any guests to take photos of or any particularly amusing stories, beyond how I made a mid-day change much like I did on Saturday, this time because Tang and Me ran a bit longer than I thought it would and the show across the street had already started when it let out. The result was similar; I wound up really liking Anime Supremacy! even though it hadn't looked like my thing at first. As a bonus, the Brattle has announced that Kier-La Janisse will be visiting with her House of Psychotic Women reissue and screening Identikit there in mid-August, so that works out for me.

Which gives me a chance to say, right as I'm feeling it, just how glad and grateful I am to have been back in Montreal for this festival through July and into August. The last two years of it being entirely or mostly virtual have not been the same, especially for someone outside of Canada fortunate to be given access to the screening library as press and thus not getting the introductions and Q&As that went with the timed events. We are still not really past the pandemic that made it that way - one of the hosts and programmers had to bow out of the last few days with a positive test, with something similar happening on the other end as well - so I've been masked up pretty much all the time I was inside. After all, even beyond not wanting to get sick, I have no idea what I'd even do, logistically, if I came down with a knock-you-flat case of Covid or tested positive at the end of my sublet; I'm not going to knowingly be a vactor on a plane or on a bus (for eight hours!), but I also don't drive so there'd be no obvious way to get back home while keeping my germs to myself. So folks probably haven't seen how often I've had a dumb grin on my face thie whole three weeks.

I've been very glad to see most of my friends that I've met at the festival this year - hey Kurt, Paul, Gabrielle! - and hope for the best for the people I didn't see, that they're either at a spot where they just can't make it to the festival any more (family obligations, moving to a new home) or just choosing spots when they go out. There's an older gent who always sat toward the front and on the left-hand side of the theater who I didn't see at all this year. Hope he's all right, because you never know.

I've probably spent a year of my life in Montreal at this point, or am coming up on it, and while I can't say I know the city much beyond a few areas, I do love what I know. It's been kind of a bummer to see places I've enjoyed in previous visits shuttered during this one, but I've also been discovering other places; cities are like that, even when there's not a pandemic accelerating the process. I'm looking forward to seeing some other parts of the city over the weekend, seeing how they held up.

Also - I'm only at the halfway point of these recaps as the festival ends because the folks there are kind enough to accredit me as press, and the time involved trying to see everything eats into time to try and write about it. I do try to cover absolutely everything because while some media outlets are valuable to the festival because of a large reach, my value to them is presuably writing up the stuff that a larger outlet won't see enough clicks on to justify the ridiculously small amount freelancers often get on a pop culture website that expects to turn a profit. And even at that, I've expected to get dropped in a numbers crunch for a few years - even before it started experiencing day-long outages during the pandemic and then went down in March of this year with no sign of coming back, eFilmCritic wasn't a big outlet, and, well, I see the numbers on this blog and they're about what you'd expect from a wall-of-text movie review blog that is updated irregularly by a guy who doesn't self-promote much. If eFilmCritic doesn't come back, I wouldn't be surprised if I don't get a pass next year, and I'm fine with that; I'd buy one if they were put on sale to the general public and can probably afford tickets on my own, though it would be a chunk of change, since I do all right by my day job. Give it to someone younger/less male/less white, because it's not like online genre film talk needs more representation from guys like me.

I do like being in the line that gets to go in first and having the freedom to make last-minute decisions even when shows are close to sold out, don't get me wrong, so I'll continue to apply and take the pass if it's being offered. I'm a thrifty New Englander at heart, after all! I'm just saying that, in addition to this being a great festival in a great city, I am even more thankful that apparently these write-ups are valued a bit.

Anyway - I'll probably have more to say when we get to 2022.21 and along the way. For now, it's back to working my way through the schedule. Next up is Monday the 25th, with The Artifice Girl, La Pietà, The Mole Song: Final, and The Breach.

"Spice Frontier"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival: Axis, digital)

There was a filmmaker message at the end of this short that indicates it's the pilot for a series, and it could be a pretty fun one - the premise has Kent (voice of Brett Waldon), a refugee from a lost Earth, searching for spices so that he can show the rest of the galaxy the variety of human cuisine, aided by hyper-competent android (or cyborg) C-LA (voice of Laurie Catherine Winkel). In this adventure, they're breaking into an abandoned aquarium satellite to retrieve sea salt, only to find The Syndicate has also arrived.

As proofs of concepts go, this is pretty slick, with a real 1990s animated sci-fi/action feel to it and characters that play kind of broadly, but it's the nature of shorts like this; the filmmakers want to make an entertaining adventure story for people who encounter it in the wild but it's also fairly important to show the folks who might be investors why they should sink enough money for thirteen 22-minute episodes into the project, maybe in sharper or plainer terms than they might use for that larger canvas. It's fun, maybe a little bit overstuffed trying to establish more than this short itself needs, but I would enjoy watching more of it, and I suspect 10-15-year-olds really would.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival: Axis, DCP)

Opal is impressively ambitious considering the shoestring budget one likely has to make an animated feature in Martinique, if perhaps occasionally misguided and oversimplified, though I am somewhat tentative saying that, as it's not exactly material I have a lot of first-hand experience with. Even so, its intentions and unique influences made it a bit more than expected, worth a look as it sneaks headier material than expected into what looks like a kids' fantasy.

It takes place in a magical kingdom, where young Princess Opal (voice of Dawn-Lissa Mystille) is a reservoir of magic and summer never ends. Lately, though, the magic has weakened, making the place less prosperous, leading a farming family to summon The Great Iroko (voice of Alain Bidard) to investigate. In the palace, Opal is asked on a daily basis to give her magic to her father, so that the King can be rejuvenated to fight the monsters in the underworld. The Queen (voice of Heather Mystille) initially resists the Iroko's investigation, but an enchanted toy horse (voice of Kaori Ravi) soon reveals that this is not right, though the Queen's difficulty believing this of her husband may mean that she is too slow to react.

This is the sort of plot device that can sometimes be portrayed as natural and okay in fantasy settings, especially ones with a few miles on them, but hopefully register as some patriarchal and abusive garbage when looked at with clear eyes, and multi-hyphenate filmmaker Alain Bidard is thankfully very clear about it being the latter, structuring his metaphor with enough clarity that even the youngest members of the film's presumed audience can't miss. The main issue comes when the story and symbolism moves from describing situations which are often broadly similar to more personal reactions, as when Opal confronts her reservoirs of "negative emotions". "Negative emotions" is a pretty loaded term, especially when you're talking about an abused child.

That being what's underneath the story makes for a rather odd film, one that uses the language of the children's adventure but which is obviously pretty darn dark for them. Even beyond the scripting, it's also often very deliberate, every motion and change of expression carefully plotted and delivered, not quite to the point of being patronizing but such that one notices how intentional everything is. It's animation that looks smooth but does not exactly feel natural, or stylized in such a way that heightens specific things.

It's still fairly a delight to look at. The Afro-Caribbean sci-fi aesthetic is unique; full of bright colors and plenty of non-European influences in design. I especially love things like the hair that the Iroko and other members of his order sport; it looks like both a tree and antlers, and possibly lightning rods with which to draw power, making them even more larger than life than they already do. The paradisiacal fantasy kingdom is its own beast, floating islands that nevertheless feel connected rather than isolated.

Opal is a film very few would make like this, and worth a look to expand one's imagination a bit.

Tang (aka Tang and Me)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Folks have likely seen a lot of movies like Tang; for folks of a certain age, it's hard to finish reading the description aloud without yelling "Short Circuit!" It's a likable enough take on the material, though: Nice cast, a kid-friendly story that emphasizes adventure more than action, what I presume are fun cameos for J-pop fans, and straightforward sincerity as it hits its expected notes.

Ken Kasugai (Kazunari Ninomiya) is in a long funk as the film opens, having skipped a job interview his sister Sakurako (Mikako Ichikawa) set up the previous day and irritated wife Emi (Hikari Mitsushima) with his video game habit and dismissed her interest in the latest model robot assistant. She also wants him to get rid of the weird robot that has wandered into their backyard, a cobbled-together thing that calls itself Tang and speaks more like a child than a machine programmed for a task. It won't stay with a local scrapyard, but seeing that it has an "Autobit Systems" chip and that the company is offering an upgrade, he figures he might trade Tang in, flying from Sapporo to Fukuoka to do so. The designer there (Taiga Kyomoto) says Tang's not one of their models, but also notes that, childish behavior aside, Tang's artificial intelligence seems to be tremendously advanced, capable of self-direction and general learning, and refers him to Dr. Rin Ohtsuki (Nao Honda) in Shenzhen. That's where they discover that, wherever Tang wandered in from, there are folks who want to get their hands on the little guy and don't seem inclined to just walk up and ask politely.

The film is based upon the novel A Robot in the Garden by English author Deborah Install, which appears to be quite popular in Japan as it has also been the inspiration for a stage musical there. It has mostly been localized, but one thing that struck me early on is just how Western pieces of it seemed - it starts in an American-style suburb and often has English labeling before Japanese, and I wonder if it's made with the idea that it might travel more than a lot of Japanese movies do. For all that the film seems to involve Ken and Tang racking up a bunch of air miles, each segment sort of feels like it could take place anywhere, give or take a local landmark or two popping out of clean, utopian future cities.

On the other hand, one shouldn't sell those cities short; the brightness of this movie's future world is a major plus, and though there may be conspiracies and danger, the vibe is generally hopeful, with Ken able to hop a few planes on short notice, kids enjoying museums, and Tang himself being cute as heck but also feeling quite functional - there are probably quite a few scenes where he's practical, although the ones where he's digital fit in fairly seamlessly. The effects work is quite good, and the filmmakers deploy them well, building up and enhancing the world but seldom actually building important scenes around a VFX overload - where a lot of blockbusters would expand the scale with dozens of evil robots and a crazy showdown on the top of a skyscraper or the like, director Takahiro Miki and screenwriter Arisa Kaneko keep things down at a level where Ken and Tang won't get lost when the stakes are highest.

They make a fun odd couple, with Kazunari Ninomiya managing to portray Ken as an underachiever who occasionally wallows in his least impressive traits, but not so far behind the audience in warming to Tang that they turn on him, while the animators, techs, and voice actors performing the little guy give rhim personality without being screen hogs. There's a mostly-fun group of supporting characters - I'm sure there's some J-pop rivalry story behind why some in the audience were laughing hard at Ninomiya and Taiga Kyomoto needling each other, but it's a fun group of scenes even without that, with Nao an energetic part of the Shenzhen sequence and Tetsuya Takeda a fine late entry as Tang's creator, although it is unfortunately one of those movies where playing the disappointed spouse doesn't give someone like Hikari Mitsushima much interesting to do.

It's an enjoyable little movie that feels built to play anywhere, especially if whoever picks up North American distribution gives it a good dub for younger audiences. That's a big if - the pipeline for these sort of big live-action adventures from Japan is built to serve a specialty crowd while this is aggressively mainstream, and for some reason the parent company never bothers spending a bit on these Warner Brothers-Japan movies even though it wouldn't take much to assure a modest profit - but it's fun enough for someone to give it a try.

Haken Anime! (Anime Supremacy!)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, ProRes)

Anime Supremacy! has the poster and maybe the premise of a zany comedy (or maybe a romance), enough that one may spend the early going waiting for it to take that path, but the filmmakers have something else in mind, something a little more straightforward. Rather than the world of anime being a backdrop, the film shakes out as an often-fascinating ensemble piece about creative, dedicated people putting their heads down and trying to make something entertaining and meaningful in a high-pressure, commercial environment. It's serious, though not grave, probably made far more palatable than the reality because it's made by people who love anime regardless.

It opens with a flashback to when Hitomi Saito (Riho Yoshioka), a young woman with a promising career as a civil servant, made a career change to start working in animation, nailing the interview by saying she wanted to make something better than Chiharu Oji's relatively recent master work. Seven years later, her first series as main director, Soundback is about to premiere in the network's prime Saturday 5pm timeslot - and another network is counterprogramming with a new series by Oji (Tomoya Nakamura). The rivalry ignites when a joint interview at a convention leaves Saito feeling belittled and ignored by the crowd, challenging Oji to a competition in the ratings, but then the actual work begins. Saito's producer is Satoru Yukishiro (Tasuku Emoto), domineering and business-first, saddling her with pop idol Aoi Shono (Marika Kono), who would not have been Saito's first choice, as lead voice actor; Kayako Arishina (Machiko Ono), a longtime production assistant just promoted to producer, is charged with keeping the difficult-to-work-with Oji on task. Both series will be using the services of rising-star animator Kazuna Namisawa (Karin Ono) and taxing the studio she works for as both series start their 12-episode runs before the finales are completed.

At times, one wonders if the film might work a bit better if it was a little less sprawling; with a tighter focus. The filmmakers clearly know that Saito is the story more than Oji; even if she is competing with and measuring herself against him, the filmmakers will almost always choose to focus on Saito and Yukishiro if scenes between the two threads would be redundant, and there just seems to be more drama there. Saito is the one discovering the compromises that must be made between vision and commerce, bearing the pressure of potentially not getting a second chance should Soundback fail, especially as a woman in a very male-dominated industry - Oji certainly isn't getting backhanded compliments like "almost cute" during a promotional photoshoot! The competition aspect gives the film some structure and adds a couple good supporting characters, but it's not balanced, and the way that the audience gets to know Saito's project so much better means that there's some weight her creative struggles with her network while Oji's are less well-defined.

This puts the job of carrying the movie on Riho Yoshioka, and she does an impressive job of making it look like a weight, at least for Saito, right from the "I must be crazy" whole-body-clench of the opening interview to every time she has to deal with some further indignity. It's not all tension and frustration - she captures the flow state where a person can feel strangely peaceful even though she's swamped in work if it's going well and rewarding - and gives Saito a slight sense of being an outsider who came late to enjoying anime. Tooya Nakamura's not foregrounded quite so much, but he's able to dig into what makes Oji an interesting character - he's got a sense of rebellious cool and probably acts out to cultivate that image at times (buying into his own press at others), intrigued by what Saito is doing with her show but not outwardly supportive. Taskuku Emoto and Machiko Ono make good foils for their directors and contrasts to each other, even though their paths cross relatively little (beyond an early meeting where Yukishiro, who produced Oji's previous series, gives her a very polite good-luck-you're-gonna-need-it). One could probably cut Namisawa's subplot from the movie, but Karin Ono supplies a vein of earnest enthusiasm the story kind of needs, and her crush on a co-worker that she fears would never work out because he's a "normie" non-fan leads to a really sweet scene.

Mostly, though, it's fun enough to watch the sausage get made. Many films of this ilk focus on how a TV show, movie, or the like must be both art and product, setting up conflict between idealistic artists and bean-counting suits, and there's some of that here, certainly enough to drive conflict toward the end as both Saito and Oji push for unconventional finales. The thing that stands out here is how, up and down the line, the film emphasizes that creative work is, in fact, work, where a visionary has to manage a team, there are thousands of details that must be tended to, and deadlines that must be met. It's not just the executives that have their eyes on the bottom line, but all of the folks working 60-hour weeks and because even their small apartments need rent paid. It's rewarding but also terrifying - you don't have to work in this industry to find the dead silence during a test screening of Soundback nerve-wracking - especially since all the behind-the-scenes stuff about how a series goes from storyboard to script through five kinds of animation to voice-over all has the ring of authenticity.

I do kind of wonder about the themes of it all, in the end - both anime are, at various points, about young heroines sacrificing years of their lives and autonomy for their quests, though the filmmakers don't make a highly visible point of connecting that to the massive amount of self-sacrificing crunch that goes into making them. An American film might be more ambivalent about this, depending on where it was made, though this project finds more nobility to it. It's there, at least, and the clash between heroic ideals and workplace exploitation probably represents reality more than fans of any form of entertainment care to admit. Anime Supremacy! is fairly honest when it's on point, and it's on-point a lot.

(Though, as an aside, I do wonder a bit about when Mizuki Tsujimura's original novel was written and to what extent timeslots and the DVD/Blu-ray sales mentioned in the coda are still a major driver in Japan - the film mentions streaming but seems to take place in a television industry that seems a few years out of date, at least in the US!)


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Vesper often seems like a bunch of interesting post-apocalyptic world-building looking for a story. Some of its details are novel, some are rote, and at times the fact that the former are so impressively realized is all that's keeping a viewer from losing interest in yet another grimy dystopia where life is cheap and even moving in the direction of a better situation happens very slowly, if at all. It's not a bad bit of science fiction, just dark and grim and not marrying that to a particularly exciting story.

The character Vesper (Raffiella Chapman), a 13-year-old who is a prodigy with genetic mapping the way a modern teenager might be a computer wiz or gearhead, because that's a necessary skill in a world where mutated plants and animals dominate the ecosystem and the seeds sold by the oligarchs in their mushroom-shaped Citadel arcologies have highly effective terminator genes. It also lets her make tweak the life support system for her father Elias (Edmund Dehn), who came back from serving as a Citadel soldier paralyzed, though they gave him a hovering probe drone he can teleoperate (her mother, like many, has broken and joined a group of silent nomads). Some ingredients need to be sourced from Elias's brother Jonas (Eddie Marsan), who runs the nearest settlement with an iron fist and has a monopoly on trading with the Citadels. Into that falls Camellia (Rosy McEwen), a girl traveling to another Citadel with her father when their glider crashed, and whoever can get them back, whether it be Vesper and Elias or Jonas, stands to profit - for one reason or another.

There's a lot of fun-sounding sci-fi concepts in that description, but the fact that half the characters are related doesn't actually increase the melodrama - which is already not what it could be with Elias basically lying in bed, writhing in pain - and for better or worse, filmmakers Kristina Buozyte & Bruno Samper don't exactly jazz up Vesper's experiments so they look more cinematic than actual science, other than placing them in a dark room partially lit by bioluminescence. Citadels sometimes loom in the background, but most of the story takes place in run-down outbuildings and a swamp with exceptionally dangerous plant life. It's dangerous, but feels small, and there's a real shortage of ambition, not just in the story, but among the characters. Jonas is the most villainous local figure, but he's the sort of mean and petty that calls itself pragmatism, not grandiose. Elias seems to be begging for the sweet release of death. Vesper's primary project - reversing the seeds' terminator genes so that farmers don't have to pay the Citadel through the nose every year - is extremely important but not similarly exciting. And for a large chunk of the movie, Camelia kind of gets left behind in Vesper's shack as she sneaks out to steal something, just sort of waiting for something involving her to happen.

It is still gorgeous, for certain conceptions of that word - not everybody is going to be into nasty biological stuff, after all, and this is a movie where even things that seem like they would logically be purely mechanical have some sort of squishy material inside. It's all effectively designed and deployed well, as are the Citadels' exteriors, what we see of their tech, and the visuals of the ultimate direction the film takes. On top of that, most will probably agree that the drone is the film's breakout star - a seemingly plain cylinder with a face apparently painted on by Vesper when she was just a little kid, audiences will dig it even before the filmmakers make it clear that Vesper's robot sidekick is actually her father, trying to protect her more aggressively that either his failing body or this easily-damaged machine will allow, and then this simple thing becomes poignant.

It's not hard to grow fond of Vesper herself or Camellia - Raffiella Chapman and Rosy McEwen form a quick friendship that doesn't rely on obvious friction because of their different backgrounds, with Chapman hitting how Vesper is smart and daring but also acutely aware of how dangerous everything around her is. Eddie Marsan is probably the most familiar face in the cast, and he's a good choice for Jonas - he's a lean guy who doesn't dominate a scene physically but can conjure up something truly monstrous when asked, and that's what he does here. Jonas could be more interesting, but Marsan gets the job done.

I wish Vesper as a whole were more interesting; it's designed so well for what it is and that hovering drone could be a sci-fi icon if more people were aware of it. This sort of post-apocalyptic world calls for an epic quest or a genuinely grand conceptual hook, and the movie just doesn't have one.

"What Is in the Ocean?"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, digital)

Preston Moss's "What Is in the Ocean?" starts out as a pastiche of mid-century educational films and quickly breaks the fourth wall with the surreal idea that the scientist delivering facts on marine life realizes that his life is a few short minutes restarted every time someone watches the movie, fleeing despite the narrator and the editor being able to catch up with him. Moss and actor Christopher Wiley are clever to skip past this being kind of curious or funny to him, quickly shuffling toward a confused existential crisis that he can't really begin to comprehend that's tragic and pitiful. The comedy is the arch narration trying to help, after a fashion, absurdity distracting from horror.

This sort of story more or less has to zoom out at some point, and when it does - well, it's ultra-weird with some winks at this actually being a relatable situation. It's not necessarily a great bit - it's foreshadowed to not be totally random but might be better off coming totally out of left field. Definitely screwy enough to be funny but not necessarily guaranteed to actually hit an audience that way.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Not, perhaps, the best films with which to conclude a five-feature day, especially when #4 didn't exactly leave one revved up and ready for more. It's the sort of movie that's got a lot going on but not as much happening, especially before it decides to actually get into a fight with evil.

Antonio Poyju (Germán De Silva) was, at one point, Argentina's greatest bruja - though he had a more grandiose term for it - and it runs in his blood, with his daughter Elena initially appearing as though she could be even more powerful than him. While the twentieth century had no shortage of demons to vanquish, the one that had the most impact on Poyju's life was the Kuorayara, a jungle spirit who killed Elena's indigeneous mother and stole a necklace from Elena that represented her faith. After that, she no longer fit in the jungle, and Antonio returned to the city, an embarrassment when his daughter was a teenager and now trapped in a mental institution because that's apparently where they send a person who claims to be a demon-slayer when things go south. Elena (Lorena Vega) isn't visiting him, but her nice lawyer husband Warren is doing the best to get him out. He had better hurry - the Kuorayara has returned, and still has the Poyju family in its sights.

There's good material in here, but writer/director Fabián Forte seems to spend the bulk of his time in the least interesting period and situation, when Antonio is an old man in the asylum, sort of plotting his escape but also spending a lot of time with the inmates' theater troupe, who have decided that Antonio's stories would make a better play than what they would normally do, even if that leads to a lot of infighting among unstable people about authenticity and ejecting of directors, while the subject of those stories often sits back and watches with some amusement. It is, perhaps, the natural inverse to what happened with Elena - where she lost her faith and burrowed into bourgeois "normality", these people whom others call mad gained the ability to believe in things beyond the normal - but Forte not only doesn't draw that line, but he spends so much time on the inmates arguing about minutia and so seemingly little on Elena's present (really, anything after the time between when Elena was little) that it's hard to integrate the latter into the story, while the former just feels trivial and obnoxious in its presentation.

It didn't have to be; Germán De Silva gives a dry, entertaining performance, his Antonio too aware of the hidden supernatural world to truly be concerned with the petty concerns of a bunch of madmen or sweat Elena's desires for a normal life too much. He's funny even when the intended comedy around him is not landing, and he handles the moments where the audience may be wondering if he's been reduced to something less than his true self to a force to be reckoned with quite nicely.

And when it comes time for Antonio and Elena to face their demon and slay it, Forte doesn't screw around, paying off all the shadowy, mysterious teases from earlier on with gory confrontations that prove plenty cathartic. The horror action in this movie is by and large practical and messy, possessed of a nasty sense of humor but still taking itself fairly seriously regardless. Forte may have jokes, but he's also going to give the audience reason to be invested in the finale.

The film has large chunks of screwing around with things that don't really matter, and as such never quite manages the scale implied by its multiple time periods and powerful monsters. It's like some subplots got out of control in the filmmaking process, and Forte couldn't entirely push them back.

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