Sunday, August 28, 2022

Fantasia 2022.17: Island of Lost Girls, The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai, Circo Animato, "The Cradle", Sadako DX, and Missing

I'm mildly surprised that the Schmidt family didn't make it to Montreal for Island of Lost Girls on Saturday morning. I imagine that Covid throws a wrench in that sort of thing, but I also suspect that if I'd somehow made a film with my family like this - I don't know that I'd quite call it backyard filmmaking because it's an awful big backyard - that got accepted into a major festival like Fantasia, a week in Montreal would absolutely be that year's summer vacation. I think of the Adams family with The Deeper You Dig three years ago - ike the Adamses, the Schmidts have been making movies as a hobby for a while, occasionally getting one into a festival even though it will almost certainly not get picked up for distribution or get much talked about aside from the dozens who see it in such situations. It isn't tagged with the "Fantasia Underground" label in the program, but it's underground as heck even if it's not the same tone and aesthetic as most stuff in that section. It might be a fun thing to have in the next BUFF, reaching out to family audiences.

Anyway, I would really have enjoyed the explanations of just how insane the making of this must have been, especially if they included a five-year-old shrugging off panicked questions from the audience by saying she is actually a much better swimmer than her character in the movie.

Tough-ish choice later in the day, as Heaven: To the Land of Happiness looks really good and has a heck of a cast and crew, but it might also quietly get a Blu-ray release or show up on Prime in the next few months, and the thing a block away at the Museum is kind of a tradition.

Hello, fifteen-film animation program, the thing that usually grinds these reviews to a halt even when work isn't busy! I love festival animation programs, because they often seem to be the purest expression of what people are imagining in the most concentrated forms. These things average six minutes or so and some are done by the time you've even got yourself prepared for what you're going to see.

Anyway, the guests, mostly directors, left to right: Grace An of "Baek-il", Karla Monterrosa of "Lo 100to", Omorose Osagie of "Glass Doll", Florentina Gonzalez" of "El After del Mudo", Shengwei Zhou of "Perfect City: The Mother", Sam Chou of "VRDLK: Family of Vurdulak", and "Deshabitada" producer Amanda Puga.

Many, but not all, were student films - An and Monterrosa both talked about drawing on something personal, while others wanted to make something that was far more a flight of fantasy. Chou said that he tried to make a very different film with each short, so apparently the rest aren't banter-y horror stories. Zhou mentioned that he actually really disliked doing "3D"/computer generated stuff, so it was apparently something satisfying to make that extra plastic.

After that, it was kind of an evening of avoiding things. I didn't really care about seeing the new Lena Dunham movie, Sharp Stick, so I went back to Hall for Sadako DX, even though I've never seen any Ring movie from any continent, and Dark Glasses was Dario & Asia Argento, whom I've never had any particular interest in (with the daughter kind of in the category of people whose work you don't really need to support if you don't have to), so I went with Missing, even though there was nothing else blocking its second screening.

Next up: Sunday, which may have wound up the longest day, with My Broken Mariko, One for the Road, Confession, Dobaaraa, and Seire.

Island of Lost Girls

Seen 30 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Island of Lost Girls is quite possibly the most insane movie I'll see at Fantasia this year, because, for the life of me, I can't see how the Schmidt family makes this thing safely without much more and better CGI than seems likely for this sort of backyard production. It's like Open Water except with pre-teen girls and elephant seals at various points, and then it somehow gets crazier on land.

The three girls are sisters Avila, Autumn, and Scarlet, orphans in a foster home, with Avila a fairly responsible tween while her sisters are mischievous (autumn) and pure chaos (Scarlet), with the latter two seeming to torpedo an interview with prospective adopters when they show up late. They convince Avila to sneak out to the beach, but while there, Scarlet gets pulled out in a current. Avila swims out on a surfboard to get her, with Autumn along because she's scared to be left alone, but the current takes them, and hours later, they find themselves approaching an island with a sea cave. From what they can see, it seems to be sheer cliffs on all sides, and getting to the lighthouse at the top looks like it would be daunting for fully-grown adventurers.

This family has done this sort of thing before - The Incredible Adventure of Jojo (and His Annoying Little Sister Avila) played the festival in 2015 and there's at least one other short listed on IMDB - so they presumably know what they're doing with their tools and what the kids can handle. There are a couple scenes where one or the other of the girls appears doubled, but for the most part, it's clearly them on the surfboard floating in open water or in caves tight enough that many in the audience may find themselves tense at the very thought of what a sudden surge of water could do. The work of cinematographer Heatha McGrath is not often fancy but it doesn't have to be, although going from one shot to another can get shaky and the filmmakers have a tendency to lose track of whichever girls aren't on screen when they get separated.

But, presuming this family wasn't actually putting their daughters in incredible danger, you really have to respect some of the bigger set pieces. There is one involving a tractor, a cave, a cliff, two of the girls, a starfish, and a crab that is legitimately jaw-dropping in its scale even as it has something straight out of a cartoon gag in the middle of it. There are people making $200M movies who could do with studying the stakes, clarity, and sense of danger of that centerpiece. A number aren't quite to that scale but are still genuinely impressive for how they obviously aren't hugely elaborate set-ups and serve to remind just how dangerous situations that the makers of big action movies frequently feel need to goosed can be.

You don't give a movie like this a star rating, because it is clearly the work of amateurs who are going to look bad when graded on the same scale as professionals: The filmmakers are often unable to manage what seems like basic shot-to-shot continuity, for instance, while the young cast is often in that zone where they're not really performers and don't have good lines to recite, but feel enough like real kids who aren't polished in any way to be authentic. Similarly, I can't imagine putting this movie in a multiplex and selling tickets, but it's a kind of amazing thing to stumble upon by accident with no idea what one is in for.

Tōge saigo no samurai (The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

A samurai film from one of Akira Kurosawa's assistant directors with the great Tatsuya Nakadai in a supporting role is not a thing one passes up, even if it does unintentionally serve as a reflection of the old ways and legends fading into history in a way that is perhaps not ignominious, but quiet. As with their subjects, this film's makers do not fear the new but perhaps are not quite up to cementing their legacy in grand fashion.

The year is 1867, and as it opens, shogun Tokugawa (Masahiro Higashide), recognizing the coming external threats to Japan, opts to cede power to the Emperor to create a stronger nation, although his allies are not so fast to do so, leading to civil war. Between the two powers lies Nagaoka, a small prefecture led by Tadayuki Makino (Tatsuya Nakadai), containing the crucial Enoki Pass. Though both Makino and chief retainer Tsugunosuke Kawai (Koji Yakusho) favor imperial rule personal, their allegiances lead them to attempt neutrality, a stance that likely will not work out nearly as well for Nagaoka as it does for Switzerland, whom "Tsugi" sees as an aspirational model.

Indeed, it is perhaps unusual in that the build-up to the final battle is perhaps its most exciting part, a lengthy middle where one gets to watch star Koji Yakusho inhabit his noble samurai, bathe in the respect and loyalty he earns, and see that his warrior's soul does not crave battle the way some other such figures seem to. He exemplifies the best of the samurai, and without a lot of posturing or stiff rectitude - or a particularly obvious monster for contrast - makes one understand that the system could have survived and thrive if more were like him. It's a performance from Yakusho that can appear effortless, with Kawai often coming across as modern and superlatively reasonable, but it's also one where the audience can see him thinking and striving to present himself as more calm and assured than he perhaps is.

As Kawai prepares for the inevitable battle, writer/director Takashi Koizumi gives Yakusho and his cast-mates small episodes to play out - encouraging a samurai who is a talented draftsman to explore his art, a visit to the geisha that Tsugi perhaps doesn't realize is awkward for wife Suga (Takako Matsu), an attempt to reason with their former allies where patience and reasonability meet their limits. They are, by and large, quiet moments, with Kawai and those around him recognizing that they stand at a crucial point in history and pondering that without a lot of pretension. Tsugi and Suga have no children, which seems a shame, although fitting, if they see themselves as a last remnant of the old Japan. There are lots of nifty little performances her, with Takoko Matsu's Suga perhaps the most interesting - she is clearly still trying to puzzle her husband out in some ways, such that after decades, they do not necessarily understand the details of their own love for one another. This may wind up being Tatsuya Nakadai's last credit - the 89-year-old legend slowed down but never stopped working before Covid-19, but that might understandably have kept him off film sets - and it's a dignified farewell if so, projecting dignity even as Makino yields the making of decisions to his retainers.

The final battle is perhaps, deliberately anticlimactic: For all Tsugi's intelligence and honor, and willingness to invest in Western weapons like a Gatling Gun, he cannot overcome an opponent that outnumbers him by this much, and in 1867, a relatively random wound is going to sideline him badly. Koizumi marshals the familiar elements of the grand battle - the maps that make clear what the combatants will need to do when the camera finally arrives on scene, the tense where each soldier knows that their war can quite easily end with one shot or slash, the stoic commanders swelling with pride and admiration for their soldiers - and plays them out, but also drains much of the tension. There is not much suspense in this last stand; just the feeling that it had to be made.

The age of the samurai almost ends with a whimper here, although Tsugi has at least helped Japan be able to conceive of something else. Similarly, one can see Japan losing its last links to a defining age of cinema as Koizumi and Nakadai wind their careers down, even if what comes next is also inevitable and worth supporting.

"Piece of Solitude"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

An impressive, wordless memory piece with a man left alone in his book-filled home, seemingly only engaging the rest of the world with the newspaper and, specifically, the crossword, which may not be the greatest habit for someone in that position, as some clue winds up sending him back to memories of how he got there.

The main figure in this stop-motion tale is clay, mostly, but the dominant motif around him is paper - if you want to stretch, even the buckling bookshelves around him may be made of cardboard. It suggests a life closed off inside academic pursuits, perhaps ignoring other things around him until he was that isolated, able to form as needed into a flat, abstract world or a twisted Escher print. Books file information away, contained neatly until someone lets them out, but the crosswords, they contain words that intersect and connect one idea to another, knowledge to memory to experience until there's no way to avoid how, perhaps, he may have been a coward.

Yes, I am probably reading too much into the crossword analogy, but I love them and it's an extra way in to what could seem like a standard, familiar story about an old man with regrets.

"Histoire pour 2 Trompettes" ("A Story for Two Trumpets")

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

A delightful little film that fits a great deal of transformation and growing up into its five minutes, perhaps in part because, along with bouncy music by Chapelier Fou that pushes forward without seeming rushed, it feels like a lot of things that kids see or process as paths along the way - storybooks with a trail, board games, jigsaw puzzles, all things that a child will look at as things that lead from one thing to another, only the little girl at the center of it, breaking and making things along the way, is changing too.

Director Amandine Meyer apparently creates children's storybooks as well as short films, so it's not surprising that she knows the forms well enough to put them into motion and make them cross over, and knows when a kid watching it might enjoy a detour into some darkness. It's a neat little piece of work where growing up can sometimes be dangerous but still a magical journey.

"The Commute"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

Dang right I'm going to be fond of a movie that animates a transit map, especially since this one-minute flick is as much about the delight of transit maps as the travel itself, and how it's there whether they are apps on a phone or posters on a wall. I wouldn't be shocked if Toronto (or whichever city this represents) were to use this as a PSA on an animated billboard or the like; it's got that feel of whimsy without being a hard sell.

"Glass Doll"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

Omorose Osagie builds a nifty little tale here, a combination of storybook fantasy and post-apocalyptic tale, as the titular doll looks after her friends but also tries to find the eye that will make her whole - but what if the price is too steep?

It's a nifty-looking take on its world, something that works as both a literal fantasy and a sort of translation of what being discarded and left behind would be like for toys, with the design feeling like it would fit right into a Cartoon Network lineup. Osagie keeps the story for her short impressively tight despite it being an elaborate creation - for all that it's full of nifty detail and has fun things hiding in every corner, there's nothing wasted in the telling of the story, a perfect little tragedy that gets where it's going without any sort of unnecessary detour.

"BREAK bug"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

I hope visual effects artist Mchael Ralla used motion capture to animate his dancing robots and insects in "BREAK bug", because the film is, in its way, about a big ol' robot effectively doing motion capture from that little grasshopper, and it would be fun if this were actually that meta.

At any rate, it's fast-paced, has a beat, and while I'm not going to say whether it choreographs its simultaneous dance and action so that it it inevitably leads to a double-splat, the fact that one can see just how well Ralla has laid everything out and made it work together is impressive work as both direction and doing visual effects.

"VRDLK: Family of Vurdulak"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

This is based on a Tolstoy story from 1839, which is somewhat amusing because it is built to feel very modern and quippy and irreverent, the kind of horror that is so fond of nervous laughter on the one hand and being so dismissive of the supernatural that it's meant to be a bigger shock on the other that it's hard to truly settle into its world. Sam Chou's thriller is fun, don't get me wrong, but somehow shifting into animation exacerbates that unwillingness to simply be horrific just a little more.

It is kind of a ball, though, with a slick Don Bluth quality to the animation that says yes, they have inevitably been influenced by Disney but want to do something a little more intense, with enough of Tod Browning's Dracula in the DNA to feel like it's coming from the same place but not entirety trying to be the same thing. He and screenwriter Ellery Vandooyeweert do the thing where two sorts of genres intersect very well, with this foppish hero suddenly landing in the middle of a horror story while the villagers who know this stuff are annoyed with this noble dilettante, but the point is not necessarily that either is wrong to be who they are and must adjust to survive; they connect and effect each other but neither is ever exactly pulled out of their own milieu.

That's a neat sort of trick, and there's something to it - these sophisticated, devil-may-care aristocrats exist in the same world as the poor, superstitious commoners, but not entirely - although they never let it totally dominate the way that it's going to take a lot of luck and hard work to survive until morning.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

It's a genuine shock to go back into the program afterward and see that "Baek-il" is just two minutes long; for all that Grace An's twist on a piece of Korean folklore is snappily paced and doesn't particularly waste seconds as one watches it, there's enough going on that it feels broader and busier than that. She starts out with a passage stating that for these animals/spirits to become human, they must quarantine for 105 days - immediately connecting with something most in the audience will recall all too well - and then pops up "Day XX" enough times as Cat drives Bear up the wall in their isolation cave that it feels like it must go on longer. But, no, between her impressively sketched figures and great instincts for knowing when they should move and when they should stay still, she does a great job of underscoring just what a long freaking time that can be without actually making the audience wait it out to the point of being impatient themselves.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

It initially feels like we're back in the same sort of space as "Piece of Solitude", albeit with a Chilean rather than Irani spin, but it turns out that the audience is in for a darker ride than that. This old woman's hunched figure implies guilt rather than just isolation, and filmmaker Camila Donoso leans on how concrete her sins are rather than making them complete abstractions. There are portions of this film where her deteriorating mind takes her to some seemingly fantastical dystopian settings, but more often than not, her memories are all too clear, playing on the banality of evil that pervaded Chile during the Pinochet years. What she did in her time was stark - and the clay-based animation is suitably gray and grotesque - but now that she's an old woman who cannot entirely function on her own, there's a real tension between what a functional society must do for everyone and what a just one may perhaps demand.

This is, I must admit, the sort of animated short one sees in a lot of programs that exist in part to demonstrate how animation can be used for weighty topics, to the point where it's become a bit of a genre unto itself. It's almost more interesting to look at it next to other similar films in the package and see how it handles the same sort of material as "Piece of Solitude" or others - in this case, impressively straightforward and unblinking, abstracted just enough to make the audience aware of just how deliberately distanced from reality these situations are, but just removed enough that the sort of visceral horror to be somewhat hit-or-miss.

"El After del Mundo" ("The World's After")

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

Co-writer/director Florentina Gonzalez offers up one of the more compelling intersections of the supernatural and the post-apocalyptic here, presenting its ghosts as hollow sets of clothing who are in some ways continuing what they did in life and in others freed from it. Fluor is still basically still acting like a gig-economy delivery cyclist, but also more or less going where she wants, chasing new music to put on her phone, while Carlix remains at this old marine park, diligently reassembling a whale's skeleton. They meet, seemingly get on, but what comes next?

Gonzalez gives herself and her ghosts time to play with that, poking at the edges of how this world where post-millennials are continuing on in a world that's already gone might work but also teasing out a sort of hope: The world is past gone, and these two women are more or less ghosts adrift without responsibilities or futures to work toward, but they still find things worth continuing to exist for, even without it ever being likely to lead to something being fixed or remembered. There's disaffection and cynicism, but also an understanding that they go on, and do so as well as they can.

The style of the film is nifty, looking like something from the 1980s that maybe started from rotoscoping but didn't have the budget for truly elaborate animation over that; any given frame can sometimes look simple and crude, but Gonzales makes the characters' body language expressive despite the empty space where both faces and other glimpses of skin should be. The way Fluor and Carlix are both wearing tops with long sleeves with prominent cuffs at the end is a really clever bit of design, giving the illusion of hands and fingers so the audience accepts them manipulating things without actually seeing the fine detail. The music is also quite good, and overall, it's just an impressively balanced tale of how, even when nothing can be done, the way one chooses to exist can still mean something.

"Whisper Down the Lane"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

I didn't entirely see Raghad Al Barqi's short film as a game of telephone at first; the red string connecting characters came across as something more abstract even though the title was right up front while many of the objects floating in the background were means of communication. It's obvious in retrospect, although in the moment, the very concept of connection seemed more powerful to me, not so much how ideas get distorted as they go along. Ah, well.

It resolves into an intriguing short anyways, filling the screen with carefully and realistically rendered human figures and cutouts of various photographs but using the fact that this is animation and semi-abstract art to scatter them, both creating significance in how they are arranged and inviting the audience to mentally put them in some sort of order. The line often connects not phones but coffee cups, which feels like both an homage to how "telephone" is often represented by cups or cans at the end of such strings and how gossip often spreads, idly and over refreshments rather than actively, for a specific purpose. There's intriguing color coding, as if a jump from primarily-red imagery to primarily-blue is implying it's crossed a line.

It's the sort of thing that might be nifty to see in a museum installation; at just five minutes, one could easily sit through it twice, maybe picking up a bit more meaning the second time around.

"Lo 100to"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma de Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

It was vaguely reassuring when director Karla Monterrosa mentioned during the Q&A that this was in many ways constructed out of the secondhand chaos she heard other people talk about vis-a-vis their group texts, saying she doesn't really have something like this. Like, I don't either, but I hear people talk about theirs on social media like it's just an expected part of the world today. How'd we miss it?

That aside, it's a fun little cartoon, using doodles and art to illustrate the connection her avatar feels with everybody else she's linked to this way, even if they are far away and only sending these compacted bits of language and the occasional picture. On the other hand, the story itself and the way it gets buried - she's trying to communicate a broken engagement here! - is a nifty illustration of how, for as effective as this is in many ways, it doesn't always have the weight one wants. There's just no way to push across the importance of something amid the talking over each other and potential flood of far smaller issues. Like a lot of social media, it's something that feels like it should have the capacity for big ideas but can't help but be consumed by trivia, and dwelling on it for more than a couple of minutes isn't going to do any good.

"Perfect City: The Mother"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma de Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

There's some very neat stuff going on in here but the movie having a colon in the title doesn't do it a lot of favors; Shengwei Zhou has an interesting idea or three here and it's no problem that he's not exactly subtle getting them across, but it doesn't exactly feel as though playing in this sandbox more is going to reveal different nuances. It's a bit stretched as is; I don't know that I need more.

I like where his head's at, though, as a stop-motion forest spirit/creature, pregnant, starts taking in a liquid called "Perfect" - bright CGI yellow compared to the rest of the picture - and it eventually reshapes both. There's interesting stuff going on under the surface about parents striving to give their children advantages but as a result making both into something they don't quite recognize, rural people fed a steady diet of the city as aspirational that they get left behind. The visuals and how he uses them are nifty, from how the tree-creatures feel a bit monstrous to start but seem kind of comfortable once Zhou dives deep into the uncanny valley to make the more humanoid forms plastic and unnerving.

There's just a lot of it; this is very much the sort of movie where one can find themselves saying "yeah, I get it" halfway through and sitting around as it gets drawn out.

"The Principle of Sunrise"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma de Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

Every kid's first pet winds up more responsibility than expected, and that's what happens here, as a little girl takes an injured bluebird in and finds it growing to be more than she can handle, certainly within her home in the city, but returning it to nature is tricky, too.

Ye Song's movie has a nifty deadpan sense of humor and a blue color scheme that shows just how much this little creature means to its caretaker, on top of just being a cool-temperature look and emphasizing how much happens at night.

"New Moon"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Cinéma de Musée (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Circo Animato, digital)

Shorts like "New Moon" that take a monologue developed for the stage and visualize it are odd things - if it's worth adapting, the animation has a great chance of being superfluous, quite possibly detracting from the experience because it substitutes one thing for all the personal associations and such that can exist in the viewer's mind. That I can't say that happened for me here, although I do find that I remember Colman Domingo's voice more than the images that go with it.

It's a nice monologue and short, though, the sort that spends some time getting comfortable with the idea that these characters may not have a lot financially but how this doesn't bother young Colman particularly much because there's a lot of warmth between him and his mother to give him a solid foundation. One can sense him eliding the parts that are hard and seeing animators Jeremie Balais & Jeff LeBars giving a little extra vibrancy to his world.

"The Cradle"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, digital)

This is a nifty, atmospheric little piece where I don't know that I necessarily got the program's description from it - yes, that could be what's happening in retrospect, although I maybe saw "weird shut-in spinster" more than "witch" - but it doesn't much matter. Massimo Meo spends a fair amount of the short running time making the audience aware of what's missing, from not showing this old woman's head to the empty cradles to the faceless dolls, and that sense of incompleteness builds up quickly over the film's short running time. Throw some spooky photography that injects a bit of twitchiness into an orderly routine and sounds from outside drawing closer, and you've got a short, solid creeper.

Sadako DX

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

So, this franchise was a big deal back in the day, huh? I get that, like The Grudge, this series has perhaps not gotten bigger with subsequent entries, but rather seen its budget and attached talent slide so that it will continue to make a profit even as ticket sales diminish, but still, this is bad enough that it's hard to see where the original appeal of The Ring was. As someone happening on this for the first time, I can sort of see how there might have been something to it, but it's a shadow of its former self if so.

As it opens, the news is reporting a wave of sudden, inexplicable deaths, and some are just putting together that it resembles the "Ringu" phenomenon of 25 years earlier. A Tokyo news program runs a panel discussion, featuring Ayaka Ichijo (Fuka Koshiba), a grad student who has tested for Japan's highest IQ at 200+, playing the skeptic and Kenshin (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) arguing for musical explanations, and giving Ayaka a copy of the original tape of Sadako, which her kid sister Futaba (Yuki Yagi) digs out a VCR to watch. Elsewhere, a more social-media savvy young man, Oji Maeda (Kazuma Kawamura), is attempting to help someone who has seen the Sadako video survive, only to find it now kills in 24 hours rather than a week, and they all come together to try and figure out how to keep themselves, their loved ones, and maybe all of Japan alive, as a viral video can spread much quicker in the 2020s than the late 1990s.

Something in Ringu touched a chord in people the first time around, and one can see hints of it here, even if it also feel enough like the Ju-on movies (to the point of the haunting being described as a "grudge") that one wonders what was in the water back then. Unfortunately, so much of Sadako DX feels like the laziest take on half-decent ideas. It seems like there should be a solid foundation for picking the story back up at this time, with both bad information and an actual virus spreading as they are in the present day, but screenwriter Yuya Takahashi never gets much further than saying "this is like a virus, so maybe we should inoculate in the same way", which is an interesting idea but one the filmmakers can't commit to without random twists to sap it of its power. There's also some of It Follows in the film's depiction of Sadako which is apparently new, but it doesn't seem to add much, instead diluting a horror icon until she is practically not there.

All the characters are the most bland stereotypes of basic types, with Ayaka in some ways the most frustrating, because Fuka Koshiba seems like she's capable of more than this, but she's written and directed like Takahashi and director Hisashi Kimura have never actually met someone who is good at science or methodical in their problem solving and can't quite conceive of them as fully human rather than Mr. Spock. Kazuma Kawamura is a different set of self-aware ticks rather than a character, and it's hard to tell whether their anti-chemistry is a sort of choice - the filmmakers are playing this for much more comedy than is apparently typical of the series - or just two people who don't click on-screen. Hiroyuki Ikeuchi at least brings the sort of comfort veteran character actors tend to, but none of this group have interesting stories to plug Sadako into, and none are able to make the audience find them interesting without her.

Meanwhile, Sadako doesn't even look threatening, with the filmmakers going to the well of "this hallucination is just someone in an incongruous wig" so often that the monster becomes a joke. Beyond that, this is such a basic, direct-to-video-looking picture that it's all but impossible to imagine Hideo Nakata or Gore Verbinski ever touched this franchise. It's almost all shot in the most generic possible locations with seemingly no thought to how the lighting might give it some atmosphere. As a result, the scariest part of the movie is probably the original VHS footage (or Kimura's recreation thereof). It at least has some style 20 years later, and a hook the folks making this one can use, even if they've only got fragments of ideas for what to do beyond having teenagers ask what VHS is.

Not counting foreign remakes, this is the producers' second revival of the series (a "Sadako 3D" cycle came out in the mid-2010s), and it seems like the filmmakers make every mistake one can make in doing so: It's youth-oriented but connected to backstory from a film that came out 20+ years ago, too eager to make jokes to really commit to being scary, springing from ideas its makers seemingly don't have the vocabulary to express, and cheap-looking and amateurish on top of that. I suppose there could be Ring fans looking for another hit, no questions asked, but I'm not sure who else this is going to impress.

(Amusing credit note: Somewhere in the scroll at the end, either important enough that someone decided to subtitle it or written out in English to start, is someone who served as the "Supervisor on Series World View", and I've got no idea if this is somebody whose job is to wrangle the continuity of a 25-year-old series on its second wave of legacyquels or someone poring over the script to make sure that the dark comedy isn't too far out of line.)

Sagasu (Missing)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Shinzo Katayama's Missing has a couple of distinct directions it could go after it hits its first climax, and they represent an interesting choice in how a writer handles deepening the story at this point - lay out a longer path for the sleuth to follow, which makes the whole thing more prone to collapse, or build out to the sides in a way that makes for deeper complexity but less intriguing mystery. There's no right or wrong way to go about it, although those entirely drawn in by the film's genre hook may wish the filmmakers had kept things relatively simple.

It begins by introducing the audience to Kaede Harada (Aoi Ito), a middle-schooler who has had to become even more self-sufficient since her mother's death as father Santoshi (Jiro Sato) has fallen apart; she's just had to pull him out of the drunk tank (again). Santoshi thinks he's figured out a way to get back on track, though; he believes he has spotted the fugitive "No Name" (Hiroya Shimizu) who has recently fled Tokyo, and is ready to turn him in for the reward. Instead, he disappears, but rather than disappear into the foster care system, Kaede is determined to find him, enlisting a boy who has a crush on her to assist.

If this were the entirety of the film, it would potentially be a pretty compelling one; Katayama and actress Aoi Ito' avoid any girl detective tropes while still making a compelling case that a smart, motivated teenager might be able to hunt down a serial killer, or at least get this far in doing so. Katayama and Ito do such a good job of keeping Kaede's eyes on her goal while avoiding the language of mysteries that she never comes across as someone with a gift who might take on other "cases" someday as opposed to a kid recklessly following a path to her father despite other adults seeing just as useless as he often was. The filmmakers create great tension in part because they don't follow certain beats; rather than dangerous narrow escapes that might show she's onto something, there's ominous implied danger that indicates she may be in over her head.

That's mostly the first half or so of the movie, before the perspective shifts and the story backtracks to change points of view, and it becomes a very different film, with Kaede mostly reduced to a side character who is maybe even less present than would make sense given what events the film is showing. It is, on its own, a kind of intriguing story, one that starts from the premise of "No Name" being the worst sort of human monster that the viewer can imagine and then expanding outward to consider how seemingly decent people can, for various reasons, get caught up in a network of actions and motivations that include a man compelled to kill. Katayama has worked some in the Korean film industry, most notably with Bong Joon-Ho, and the kind of darkness he explores is the sort that seems to pop more in Korean crime films than ones from Japan, these universal undercurrents that are present all over rather than twisted codes of honor or plain-spoken villainy. Perhaps the most memorable moment in this section of the film is when No Name encounters a suicidal potential victim and cannot himself conceive of someone wanting what he has to offer; even to him, this situation makes no sense.

Katayama and his team tell the tale in a fashion that is relentlessly grim but not gleefully so; No noirish signifiers or sleek surfaces for evil to hide behind; everyone seems to be hovering around having just enough to get by but not the time or motivation to keep it nice, either surrounded by a mess or a sparseness that is not exactly neat. There is something either tragic or rotten about how Santoshi's ping-pong center has gone out of business but he and Kaede still seem to access the building freely, like the building's owners can't even be bothered to properly evict them or change the locks until they have to (maybe they're hoping he gets back on his feet, but it doesn't seem like that sort of movie). There's a sort of rot here that manifests itself in all the linked stories - people shouldn't want to die, and a serial killer who can operate effectively enough to elude the police shouldn't be someone a 15-year-old girl can track down.

The question, then, is how well the flashbacks integrate with Kaede's mission, and while the filmmakers do eventually manage to integrate them, tying the various time frames together and eventually fitting Kaede into this world in a way that quietly and impressively raises eyebrows, it maybe takes a bit too long to fit together as it circles back to the start and reveals how all this connects. The opening is so strong and clear in its purpose even as it establishes the atmosphere that the rest of the film will work in that I suspect even those who enjoy its flavor of moral quagmire may wish that either No Name or Santoshi or any of the people they encounter as their paths cross were as interesting and immediately compelling as Kaede.

Complexity and moral ambiguity are interesting and often worth the extra work they may require, but sometimes the clear, simple piece in the middle of all that can't help but stand out.

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