Monday, August 22, 2022

Fantasia 2022.16: What's Up Connection, Whether the Weather Is Fine, and The Witch Part 2: The Other One.

I should have made some notes on just why things dragged out my mornings, because on this day it knocked out the first movie of the day (not that I was really that excited about an underground-fight-club movie), and then the second film of the day was something I'd already seen (Shari is pretty nifty), and then as it approached 5pm, I realized that What's Up Connection, which caught my eye on the schedule, would actually stretch past the start of the next movie in Hall, which I'd figured to see because the one in de Seve had a later show. Ah, well, might as well do three movies instead of two today rather than potentially five rather than four on another, especially because the schedule might be tight.

Amusingly, I hadn't really looked up what sort of movie I was into, figuring it was crazy Hong Kong/Japan action, and then saw Camera Lucida programmer Ariel Esteban Cayer get up and I realized it was a different sort of film. It wound up pretty decent, but it was a kind of weird intro; Camera Lucida can seem like one has wandered into a different festival from Fantasia's genre stuff, and the intro was talking about this whole movement and set of less-known filmmakers like we'd all been attending a series on this at the Harvard Film Archive or the like. Not bad, just odd, before getting to how Cayer is also one of the guys behind Kani, a new home video distributor for this sort of film (I've got one, Be Natural, and they did have cool stickers for this one).

The day eventually ended on The Witch: Part 2: The Other One, which is one of those cases where a film that had distribution but apparently doesn't hit Montreal during its spring run - does Well Go just not get along with the guys who book the Cineplex in the old Forum very well? Usually, it gives me a little flexibility; this time, since it didn't play Boston, it got locked in early. Surprisingly, it never occurred to me that it didn't play Boston not just because it's a sequel to something that had limited availability (this seldom stops Chinese movies, for instance, or Korean ones with Ma Dong-seok), but because it's maybe not exactly great.

No guests, again. After this, we head into the last weekend of the fest, with Island of Lost Girls, The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai, Circo Animato, Sadako DX, and Missing.

Tenamonya Connection (What's Up Connection)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Fantasia Retro, DCP)

What's Up Connection is a genuinely mad little film that threw me for a couple reasons, the most important probably being that "character is most important!" is so often treated as holy writ in terms of making and discussing movies, and filmmaker Masashi Yamamoto seems barely interested in such things. Apparently he was more interested in the evils of capitalism, although maybe not as much as he was interested in just seeing what he could do in making a movie split between Japan and Hong Kong on a shoestring and embracing the chaos that ensues

It starts out following the Chi family, particularly Gau-Shul (Tse Wai-Kit), who is in his late teens or early twenties and has a house because in this part of Hong Kong, if you build a house, you claim the land, so his family has grabbed a strip. Each has, somehow, won a free vacation, and Gau-shul is looking forward to his trip to Japan with girlfriend Yu-Chan, only to have her dump him before he leaves. The company handling the tour on the other end is awful fly-by-night, with guide Yumi not speaking great Cantonese or English and just starting that day to boot. Soon enough, Gau-Shul gets his pocket picked, but even when they track down thief Akane, she's spent all his money. He does get back to Hong Kong, where he discovers that a multinational corporation has been buying up large chunks of the neighborhood with the intent to build a new World Trade Center, with Gau-Shul's mother in particular rallying to stop him.

For some reason, Yumi and Akane are along for the ride, perhaps because Yamamoto was making the film for a Japanese audience and didn't want to jettison his Japanese characters, and while it seems like the heart of the film could be why Yumi sticks around Chi Gau-Shul and helps out his family even though he's still sort of pining for Yu-Chan. She's probably got the best actor in the film playing her and she's just kind of hanging around most of the time because this isn't really a film where relationships matter in the way you'd expect for independent films of this scale.

(Note: As near as I can tell, few members of the cast other than Tse Wai-Kit have been credited in other features, and this Reiko Arai is probably not the same actress who was active from 1950 to 1974; hopefully the upcoming Blu-ray release will make this clearer!)

Instead, the director seemingly wants to say something about international capitalism and consumerism, but hasn't really thought much about any sort of thesis beyond generally being against it. If there's a specific satiric target, it's a bit unclear thirty years later, and there's something a bit unbalanced in how the big businesses are mostly sort of realistically bland while the Chis and their alloys are colorful and eventually resisting in ways that are larger than life. Those bits of the movie aren't on the same page, and while Yamamoto is trying a lot of different things in different areas, it leaves a lot of times when it's fair to ask where he's going with this.

And yet, I still found myself kind of delighted by the end, just by the sheer "sure, why the hell not?" improvisational feel of the movie. It's probably not completely made up on the spot, or even mostly so, but it sure as heck seems insanely random, from the point where it seemed completely impossible to shoot a street scene without everybody deciding to talk to the camera, leading to the film becoming a documentary about people living on the street in Osaka to just randomly switching in different actors (apparently the actress playing Akane wasn't available for part of the Hong Kong shoot) to the utter madness of the last act. Few films are actually made up as the creators go along, but I suspect that a lot of independent films find themselves boxed into corners logistically and opt to shoot and edit around what they can't do rather than plow through.

And, it's worth mentioning, the film is frequently very funny. There's a bit about how getting some pay-per-view porn in one of those infamous Japanese capsule hotels is probably not a great idea and some entertainingly goofy physical comedy. Yamamoto also seldom ends up getting stuck when he suddenly dials things up to eleven, quietly getting back where he can spring something else on the audience without appearing to reverse course.

I don't want to say this is less a story than a vibe because the vibe is all over the place, but it is impressive anarchy, the sort that another underground Japanese auteur, Seijun Suzuki, was known for. Film is generally too collaborative with resources too tight to feel this random without also being an obvious disaster, and that's something worth checking out.

Kun maupay man it panahon (Whether the Weather Is Fine)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

There's something potentially powerful about walking through a devastated landscape, pondering what the loss of all this means or potentially just trying to survive, but it kind of helps if the character at the center grabs one's interest early. It does, eventually, have something to say about what all this means for Miguel, but it takes a while to get there, maybe asking the audience to look for what happens rather than what does.

As it opens, 2013's Typhoon Haiyan has nearly leveled Talcoban City on the island of Leyte in the Philippines, and as the camera descends on Miguel (Daniel Padilla), sprawled out on a couch in a building whose roof has been blown off as if he'd slept through it. His girlfriend Andrea (Francinne Rifol) soon finds him, and with the word being that another storm is coming, they start out looking for his mother Norma (Charo Santos-Concio) and evacuation to Manila. Angela is by far the most intense of the group, drawing a gun and making a man slaughter stray chickens for them, while Norma insists on detouring to find out what happened to her ex-husband, who left her and Miguel for another woman years ago.

Like the horror movie where nobody seemed to sweat in 100° weather a couple weeks earlier, I found myself transfixed by how the protagonists never seemed to get particularly dirty walking through a coastal city destroyed by a hurricane for a few days. Extras did, but is this a situation where continuity would just have been too time-consuming? Not that continuity is exactly a major issue for "magic realist" tagged films, but it's an odd thing to note in the middle of a film where everyone around this trio are disheveled and look like they've been through something. It sort of brings into sharp relief how this sort of movie makes a natural tragedy into background for these characters' personal issues.

It would be one thing if there were something to hold on to here, but the three main folks all seemed to be going in different directions, and Miguel at the center is so frustratingly passive that Andrea has to hang it on him, and it's easy to feel like it's to no apparent end, that there's a big space in this movie where some sort of core should be. It's not entirely untrue - I spent a lot of time wondering why I should be interested in this configuration of characters. It took a bit of time for the theme of abandonment to truly sink in - it starts from having the very roof over Miguel's head torn away, and there's the sense that he needs Andrea to take him in hand because he's quite possibly not as important to his mother as her ex-husband, while anybody who can leave Talcoban is expected to. A disaster lays bare that some seemingly nice people will easily slip into robbing others at gunpoint, some will go to ground, and others will just flee. Miguel was probably aimless before Haiyan, but its aftermath leaves an even more open question of just what his center is.

This sort of interior question doesn't particularly manifest outwardly, unfortunately; Daniel Padilla and Francinne Rifol give the impression of the pair balancing each other out, and Charo Santos-Concio presents the older woman carrying sorrow well enough, but they never quite make one want to know more. It's still often a striking movie, though: That early drone shot where the audience first sees Miguel digs its way into one's head well, and the sequences after that, showing this part of Talcoban as one of those neighborhoods where buildings bleed into each other in in every direction, emphasizes what a free-for-all the aftermath is. There's a feeling of disconnection that never quite trips into "ethereal", even in moments that bleed into the fantastic.

Writing this review after-the-fact, I'd be interested in giving Whether another look if it came my way again; there's more there than made a conscious impression on me at the time. Still, I suspect it will play much better for Filippinos and other Pacific Islanders, for whom Haiyan's devastation is something that was experienced first-hand rather than just the idea of a disaster that upends one's life.

Manyeo 2: Lo go (The Witch: Part 2 - The Other One)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

When Park Hoon-jung's The Witch: Part 1 - The Subversion played Fantasia four years ago, it was electrifying, throwing a lot of genre tropes together so they became more fresh than expected, before giving it an extra jolt of South Korean intensity and willingness to push genre boundaries. The crowd was excited to see what came next, and but its sequel is less Part 2 than The Other One - it rearranges what The Subversion did, and Park can still bring the big action, but it winds up weighted down by its familiar pieces rather than free to create something new.

If it has been a while since you've seen the first movie, you'll be forgiven for thinking that this one perhaps picks up right where it left off (give or take a flashback prologue), in the rubble of the secret lab Koo Ja-Yoon obliterated in the finale. But, no, this is a different lab, although the group laying waste to it didn't check to see that one girl (Shin Shi-A, aka "Cynthia") was dead. She makes her way to a road, where some gangsters who have kidnapped Kyung-Hee (Park Eun-Bin) grab her as a potential witness, though she makes quick work of them even if she takes a bullet or two. Kyung-Hee brings her to a vet she knows who has also done this sort of thing, both surprised how quickly the mute girl heals, and then back to the farm she and brother Dae-Gil (Sung Yoo-Bin) inherited from their late father. This puts a big old target on their backs, as not only is gangster Yong-Du (Jin Goo) looking to take possession of this farm to build a resort, but at least three factions with enhanced operatives of their own seem to feel this one is too dangerous to let live. And that's without considering that no nobody has heard from Ja-Yoon in months.

It's the "three factions" thing that really bogs the movie down; I don't recall The Subversion as being quite that complicated, and even if it was, writer/director Park could really do with getting where everyone is coming from straight: Bilingual soldiers of fortune Jo-Hyun (Seo Eun-Su) and Tom (Justin John Harvey) appear to be working for some international quasi-governmental unit, snotty-guy-in-a-tailored-black-suit Jang (Lee Jong-Suk) has some connection with Dr. Baek (Jo Min-Soo) from the original project, and the leather-clad "Tow" group seem like psychotic escaped lab rats, but since this is an entirely new cast outside of a couple extended cameos, establishing some motivations is especially important if anyone is going to switch sides or maybe become uneasy allies. Park builds the film as if it's the amoral secret societies of the first that struck a chord with people, rather than a girl that the audience still liked even if she had been presenting a facade tearing through those groups to protect and/or avenge the people who had shown her kindness.

This film tries to recapture some of that, and while it sometimes feels clumsy - Dae-Gil literally looks up Ja-Yoon on YouTube to suggest they could maybe exploit his new friend's abilities similarly - the smaller-stakes material gives the audience something to hook into, whether it being Park Eun-Bin's Kyung-Hee in her gratitude working very hard to shrug off how unusual "ADP" is, the siblings' friction, or the simple fun of a girl who has probably been fed protein bars her entire life discovering actual food on the one hand and gangsters watching a petite teenager throw something she shouldn't be able to budge at them and figuring they didn't sign up for this science-fiction stuff and maybe should regroup several miles away on the other. It's tough to get a read on Shin Shi-A in her first role - she handles the detached genetically-engineered super-assassin and the excited kid well enough individually but doesn't quite link them - although she and Park Eun-Bin tend to play well off each other.

Still, the action tends to be what raises eyebrows in this series, and director Park stages some quality mayhem here. It's easy for superhero fights to seem weightless, especially when one is using this sort of slick black color scheme to make sure it's clear this is Very Serious, but the filmmakers from director to cast to stuntpeople to fight choreographers strike a good balance between the action being larger and faster than life bust still easy to follow. Folks hit inhumanly hard, bounce back up, and heal quickly, but there is still a feeling of danger even beyond the regular people caught in the middle, and the guidelines for what people can dish out and take feels consistent. A lot of the action takes place at night, but it seldom feels like Park is trying to hide his visual effects in the dark so much as controlling his light and shadow to give the film a certain look and feel. The finale's got some striking imagery, some hell-yeah moments, and enough of a mean streak where characters who won't necessarily be needed for a hypothetical Part 3 are concerned to keep the audience on its toes.

Will the audience still want a Part 3 after this? Probably, although maybe not quite so much as they wanted a Part 2 after the last one. The series is still quite capable of bringing the cool detachment and furious violence, but it's at a point where it needs to be about something rather than just the surface. This movie too often felt like the same good pieces in a new order, and the next should hopefully recapture the excitement of doing something that feels new in a familiar genre again.

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