Sunday, September 04, 2022

Fantasia 2022.19: "Love You, Mama", The Protector, Convenience Story, and Alienoid

Monday, the third week. I'm not saying it was just the locals and me at this point, but it was getting close.

Somehow got out of work early enough to make a 12:30pm show in de Seve, which apparently had filmmakers and other guests for its first show, because it's small and Canadian and when you get into Fantasia, it's a big deal. I wonder if I'd have liked The Protector more if I'd seen it with them there or if I'd have just felt worse for not really digging it. Anyway, I clearly had more hope than I did for Sharp Stick, where I apparently figured I"d be better off grabbing groceries or something, passing on a second chance to see Lena Dunham's new film without even the fig leaf of something I'd rather see more playing against it.

It still made for a fun night in Hall, though:

Welcome Convenience Story writer/director Satoshi Miki, actress Eri Fuse, and writer Mark Schilling for the first of two nights with Miki & Fuse having a movie to show. This particular project apparently started with Schilling, who reviews movies for the English-language edition of The Japan Times, and like many found himself kind of at a loss during Covid, as things got shut down and there wasn't much for him to do. As he and Miki described it, the local convenience store - or a "konbini" with a long O, as they are called in Japan - sort of became the way he and many others would pass along word to the neighbors that they were okay, with it worth noting that though they are a relatively recent import to Japan, konbini have arguably reached their ideal form there, just filled with any momentary or daily need, right down to a spare pair of underpants.

Miki, eventually, ran with that in a bizarre direction, warning the audience that what they were about to see didn't make a whole lot of sense. I've talked about a certain sort of gentle surrealism in Japanese movies a fair amount lately, not necessarily because I've seen more of it, but because it seems to fit the time, when the world doesn't make sense and you need to both acknowledge it and move through it.

It was, also, a very fun Q&A. From the sound of it, Miki knows just enough English to have a head start as he's getting a translation and have some confidence about how jokes will land, and he seemed to enjoy that folks were watching his goofy comedy closely enough to have questions about details. Q&As for foreign-language comedies or light entertainment can often get bogged down into a weird sort of formality, but that didn't really happen here.

After that, it was back in line for Alienoid, and I'm really sorry that I didn't get this far before/while it was playing in Boston, because it's a hoot and certainly as much big summer movie fun as anything else out in the late part of the season. Hopefully Well Go puts it out on disc (maybe even one of those fancy 4K UHD ones!) in plenty of time for the sequel that folks were hoping for right away.

Next up: The festival's penultimate day, with Yaya e Lennie - The Walking Liberty, What to Do with the Dead Kaiju?, and The Killer.

"Love You, Mama"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, digital)

It's kind of amusing that filmmaker Alexandra Magistro has apparently spent the last few years as Mike Flanagan's assistant, since so much of his output has been about people either unable to process grief or doing so only through the influence of the supernatural; that's one hundred percent what is going on here, with Madeleine Arthur's Rachel packing for what is apparently a short but momentous move - from her childhood bedroom to the house's finished basement - but can't do it; her father (Matt Biedel) recently died in an accident and she's terrified that she or her mother (Samantha Sloyan) might be next.

Interestingly enough, Flanagan is credited as the editor on IMDB, a bit surprising because this short is twenty minutes long and doesn't exactly have that much going on. I try not to be a minimalist or crank about wanting the minimum running time and not one second more, neither the slow revelation of why Rachel is so traumatized or the repetition of it appears to do that much to flesh out the depth of her despair, mostly hitting the same points repeatedly The repetition probably makes the performances seem a bit more one-note than they actually are; everybody is perfectly decent but doesn't have a whole lot more to show you after ten minutes or so, at least until the finale.

One thing I'm curious about is how of-the-moment it's meant to be; my notes initially presumed that the father died from covid and I was mildly surprised to see that not be the case. It kind of changes the whole feel of the thing, because the mother-daughter arguments hit differently depending on whether they're inspired by something almost totally random and a virulent disease, and the fact that the media has more or less erased overt representation of covid makes it trickier, because one can't help but apply that lived experience to what one sees. It makes "Love You, Mama" fine when taken at face value, but maybe something else when it links to other things in a viewer's head.

The Protector '22

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, digital)

The Protector is not a particularly good movie, but it's the sort where one can see the better movie everyone involved could make with this if they were more seasoned or had more resources and time to work with. There's a fair enough idea at the center, but the movie feels like a first draft, just getting everything down with the idea that the sketchier bits will be fleshed out in later revisions. Unfortunately, the second pass or on-set chemistry that would solidify the film does not seem to have arrived.

After a brief flashback, it introduces 21-year-old Evelyn (Chelsea Clark), recently released on probation after ten years in juvenile (and presumably adult) detainment. Keeping her nose clean for a year should be easy; she's got regular appointments with therapist Dr. Flora (Rebecca Jenkins) and a job arranged for her at the local deli/bakery/diner, located in the town of Wilfrid, which hasn't had an actual crime reported in ten years. Sheriff Gordon (Andrew Gillies) is always stopping in to make sure she knows they're watching to make sure she doesn't break that streak. But as she nears the end of her probation, more and more is starting to seem not right: The strange book about a mythic "Protector" left outside her door as an apparent birthday present, the strangely high percentage of her first dates that are no-shows, and the fact that this ten-year lack of criminality comes after the "Bigfoot Murders", where dozens of miscreants were all killed practically overnight.

The mystery hanging over the town is the sort where a lot of people wind up playing things kind of close to the vest lest they give too much away, but even if they weren't I suspect star Chelsea Clark would stand out from the crowd. Sure; she's cute to the point where none of her first dates making it to the restaurant for plot reasons threatens suspension of disbelief, but she manages to communicate how Evelyn needs to fit into this town rather than making waves even though it is boring at best and actively resents her at worst. She can summon enough fire to get the audience to buy into a violent past even if she seems pretty restrained in the present, and she seems to have the best idea of what to do with herself physically at any point. She might possibly get more out of a few extra takes or a better script.

Unfortunately, it's a dumb movie, full of people not even asking obvious questions and the sense that any attempt to fill the backstory in further would collapse what logic the film has. It's the sort of rickety plot where the filmmakers seemingly choose to set in the 1990s not because they have anything specific to say about the period or is for the imagery, but because mobile phones, social media, and the like would make keeping Evelyn in the dark too difficult. There are glimpses of a side-story that are so carefully sequestered from Evelyn that one would presume there's an in-story reason, but if there is, it's not provided, letting the audience wonder why characters didn't just go at things more directly.

It's particularly frustrating for how you can see the outlines of something potentially interesting underneath, if filmmaker Lenin V. Sivam had chosen to focus on it: For all that the people in Wilfrid talk about "no crime", this hasn't made the town a particularly pleasant-looking place to live, especially since there is apparently drug dealing, prostitution, and perhaps worse operating just outside of city limits; you can take drastic action to get the numbers down or redefine what you've been counting, but that doesn't in and of itself make life better. It's sitting right there but Sivam seems more interested in trying to build clockwork than express an idea, to the point where Evelyn's big declaration at the end sounds good, but it's not really what the movie has been about.

I often find myself thinking of movies like this as "practice movies", with everyone involved honing their skills relatively out of sight, not expecting a hit. When one occasionally comes out good enough to be accepted by a festival, it's good encouragement for its makers and others to keep working, even if it does wind up hard to tell from the actual sleepers once it's on a program or on a streaming menu.

Convenience Story

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

It's odd to have the director say "this doesn't make a lot of sense" before a screening, but also kind of reassuring for a movie like this particular oddity. It's meta in a way that indicates someone at play, though not quite either an easter egg hunt or a trap for those looking for too much significance. But on the other hand, what about the world today isn't surreal and not quite sensible?

Shinjo Kato (Ryo Narita) is a screenwriter who has had a few things produced but hasn't exactly hit the big time, struggling with his latest, even before he overhears producers describing him as a dinosaur who can't write women. When his actress girlfriend Zigzag (Yuki Katayama) calls to have him look after her dog Cerberus during an audition that takes a turn for the weird, Kato gets frustrated and rents a truck to abandon him in the country. A change of heart leads him back out to retrieve the little guy, but when it gets late and the truck breaks down, the only place around is a convenience store in the middle of a field, minded by Keiko (Atsuko Maeda) and her husband Nagumo (Seiji Rokkaku). Keiko offers to let him stay overnight if he helps out, and sure, why not? Beats the one he was at earlier which didn't have the right brand of dog food, but did have some sort of wormhole in the beverage case and not much time to question it before the car smashed through the wall.

Even if what Miki is playing at is fairly specific to the life of a writer, most in the audience can recognize where the fantasy is coming from - this ideal place that not only offers every material thing he's looking for, down to the finicky Cerberus's favorite dog food and his own favorite snack, but the screenplay idea he needs, an eager lover, and an environment conducive to writing. It maybe isn't real, but as escapes go, it's what he needs. The trade-off, perhaps, is that this world is surreal - Nagumo has to become downright weird in order for Keiko's interest to continue making sense - and the place is never completely disconnected from reality. The guy you've rented the truck from still wants to get paid, the producers are on the phone, and all the little accommodations that made things easier make it harder to escape

Mostly, though, it's funny, with an odd coterie of supporting characters, a view of the process of making movies that is bizarre but not exactly pointed satire, and some extremely screwy images. Miki borrows tropes but goes his own way with them, not settling for easy parody or reference (at least, not reference to something I'm aware of). The way he uses Yuki Katayama's Zigzag is a lot of fun, in that normally she'd be the crazy and/or shrewish girlfriend holding Kato back due to some sort of misplaced loyalty, and she often seems to slot into that role, but the cuts to her broad, ridiculous asides get big laughs that allow him to be quietly weird in the store.

There's something sinister underneath it, as is often the case with this sort of movie; especially with Ryo Narita playing Kato right in that gray area between the everyman one roots for and a selfish dink whose comeuppance one enjoys. A surreal comedy can become a horror story once one tries to start connecting threads and getting to a point where the characters have to do something to get back to normal or to the next stop. Miki manages to get just serious enough to make some things happen, but still keep things light.

Convenience Story was written as a result of covid-releated anxiety, the sort of environment where its brand of surrealism feels natural, and it's also an ideal thing to see at a film festival, what with its inside jokes and opportunity for a self-deprecating Q&A. It may well play as a head-scratching oddity in a couple years, but in this situation and moment, its brand of eccentricity hits the spot.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

At times, Alienoid plays as if filmmaker Choi Dong-Hoon wanted to make Avengers: Infinity War but didn't want to spend the better part of a decade building up a world where a teenage superhero can run into Norse gods, wizards, and rage-monsters in the middle of an alien invasion and just went for it right away. It is just a ton of summer movie, filled to bursting, and probably has no business being as much fun as it is.

As the film tells us in its opening, an alien species has been using Earth as a prison for centuries, burying the worst of their worst in human brains to eventually pass away humanely, although sometimes they escape, taking over their hosts. That happened in 1380 AD, requiring the Guard stationed in circa 2010 Seoul (Kim Woo-Bin) to travel back using artificially-intelligent shapeshifting vehicle Thunder (voice of Kim Dae-Myung), finding that the host is a pregnant woman. The newborn baby comes back with them, and ten years later, Ean (Choi Yoo-Ri) is all too well aware that something is very strange with her "father" (and maybe her, given how eagerly Guard and Thunder discussed genetic experimentation), even before she sees the latest prison transport, which implants terrorist leader "Great Controller" into Mun Do-Seok (So Ji-Sub), whose brain cannot hold him, leading to an attempt to change Earth's atmosphere so they can live outside of human bodies, even if it kills all native life.

If Ean had been left in the past, her eleventh birthday would have been in 1391, when dosa wizard/bounty hunter "Marvelous Murak" (Ryu Jun-Yeol) is chasing demons and monsters, aided by two shapeshifting cat spirits that live in his fan, seeking a "Divine Blade" that has also attracted the attention of Ja-Jang of the Secret Temple (Kim Eui-Sung), married Sorcerers of the Twin Peaks Madame Black (Yum Jung-Ah) & Mr. Blue (Jo Woo-Jin), and Lord Choi (Choi Kwang-Je), whose daughter's wedding was infiltrated by a mysterious young woman (Kim Tae-Ri) who possesses both some sort of camouflage device and a twenty-first century firearm.

The situation in the Fourteenth Century is actually even more convoluted than that, since not only is the local Korean audience assumed to be more up on this sort of mystical martial arts stuff than a North American one would be (not unlike writer/director Choi's Woochi, with which it shares numerous elements), but there no Guard or Thunder around to talk to each other about the sci-fi material in straightforward terms that the audience can understand, just Murak and a sidekick often trying to figure out what's going on. There's also a lot more uncertainty baked into the story to counter how the film's main twist is quite frankly too big to hide completely despite there being a red herring or two: The audience knows early on that shapeshifting and possession are not just on the table but important parts of the story, but right at the center, and a further complication of how the aliens are reluctant to switch bodies because it involves memory loss could use some fleshing-out somewhere.

That Choi is basically giving the audience two related movies at once means that Alienoid is jam-packed with action that he's been given enough of a budget to do well, and while he opens with the goofy visual of an SUV flying through a wormhole in 1380, he spends most of the rest of the movie sticking to parallel tracks: 2022 is for sci-fi action, with alien spaceships appearing in the sky, streamers of electricity reaching out to lift unprepared humans into the air, and a great high-stakes finale where a chunk of the urban core is swallowed up by red gas. 1391 is for magic swords, chases where people can leap impossible distances between rooftops, and energy blasts that come out of monks' hands. Choi lets the future bleed into the past slowly enough that Murak can be a capable protagonist even if hes's a rogue who doesn't get a lot of respect, and stages the big set-pieces so that they're breezy and fun to start with, structuring it so that when the end of the movie is in sight, the stakes still feel high enough in 1391 to match the apocalyptic potential of 2022 even though the history-changing sort of time-travel paradox hasn't explicitly been placed on the table.

The cast similarly seems to be having a blast, starting with young Choi Yoo-Ri doing her level best to make it clear that, among all of the film's other genres, this film has a lot of Amblin kids' adventure to it, nailing how Ean's stubborn little girl tendencies have probably been dialed up to 11 from being raised by a robot. Kim Woo-Bin leans hard into how that alien android isn't going to act particularly human at all, a deadpan weirdo in every scene with Ean's teachers and other parents and perfectly smooth in sci-fi action. It's a fun contrast to Ryu Jun-yeol's blustery Murak, who crashes through situations with confidence somewhere between put-on and unwarranted, sharing an enjoyably flinty chemistry with Kim Tae-ri as a girl who has good reason to feel like she needs any help most of the time.

It's too much for one movie but built so that one doesn't realize that might literally be the case until the end credits are close to rolling and it's time to research whether this is a "shot back-to-back" situation or if the wait is going to be longer. A July blockbuster in South Korea, its North American release ended the summer movie season with a bang for those who saw it, and hopefully Part 2 is coming in just enough time for this to hit discs and streaming so that people can catch up.

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