Sunday, September 11, 2022

Fantasia 2022.20: "Boa", Yaya e Lennie - The Walking Liberty, What to Do with the Dead Kaiju?, and The Killer.

Hey, look who's back!

Writer/director Satoshi Miki cast his wife Eri Fuse in a much larger role for this than Convenience Story, and as a result she was a bigger participant in the Q&A, a reminder that she is also very funny and seems to be just as fond of kaiju movies as her husband, though they also seemed to greatly enjoy having a laugh at the genre's expense.

Which, surprisingly enough, was apparently not the case generally in Japan; he says they took a lot of flack from kaiju fans who apparently felt very strongly that you just don't do this with kaiju, and also hated the ending, as if they haven't loved movies that pulled something ridiculous out of their butts just a little earlier (and, though he didn't mention it in the Q&A, it's not like he didn't have the Prime Minister looking at a sticky note with "deus ex machina" on it at early on)!

I don't recall whether Shin Godzilla came up in the Q&A, but this movie plays as a more explicitly comedic take on some of the same things, although Miki talked about how apparently Japan is not exempt from the situation where satirists are having trouble keeping up with how feckless and absurd politicians can be. Mostly, though, everybody seemed to have a lot of fun with the movie and the Q&A, from promising that the next time he did something with kaiju, he would destroy Stade Olympique to talking about how this movie was done for Toei, but they would occasionally run their monster design past Toho to make sure they weren't infringing on Godzilla. Toho seemed surprisingly chill about it; I gather there's a lot more room for homage and fan fiction in Japanese culture, but also that it's probably good for Toho if general kaiju spoofs remind people of the King of the Monsters.

After that, it was time for The Killer, which sadly did not mean John Woo was back, but it did mean I got to see the Korean movie that opened in Boston the day I left for Montreal and would be gone by the time I got home.

And we're almost there - one last update, featuring Ring Wandering, Next Sohee, and Fragil.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Axis, digital)

This is a terrific little animated film from Colombia, which posits the boa as the king of the Amazonian jungle the way lions are often placed in that position in Africa - a fierce predator that makes all of the other animals quake as it slithers past, but when humans and their mechanized brand of violence arrive, it becomes the spirit of the place, seemingly having the strength of the whole valley - but will it be enough?

Filmmaker Nicolas Parra and his crew start from a recognition that their rain forest is beautiful in its way but it is also dangerous; every creature, human, and machine is all sharp angles that look like they can hurt you in some way, simple enough that they can stretch and twitch without any bits getting into the way. Bright colors make every frame striking, and Parra does a great job of raising the stakes continually without having to anthropomorphize the film with too-cute animals or abstracting humans as a force of nature. People are people and nature is nature, and the potential horror of the situation comes from that, not something else.

Yaya e Lennie: The Walking Liberty

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Axis, ProRes)

Yaya e Lennie has a lot of impressive animation, but also so much yelling, just a constant stream of disagreeable dialogue delivered at high volume without saying much of anything. I guess I could probably shrug and just say "it's Italian and the stereotype has to come from somewhere", but there's a stretch or three where the title characters are so busy yelling that you can't really concentrate on what they're doing, especially if you're reading subtitles.

The two title characters are a saucy teenage girl (voice of Fabiola Balestriere) and a simple-minded mountain of a man (voice of Ciro Priello) traversing a river, presumably somewhere in Europe, back from a scavenging run and looking to stay in the overgrown home where Aunt Claire (voice of Lina Sastri) raised them for a bit. But while civilization has apparently fallen, it's trying to get back up again, with well-armed agents of "The Institution" collecting children like Yaya, hoping to indoctrinate the next generation. These two want no part of that, so they retreat further into the bush than they've been before, where they encounter people who have returned to life as nomadic hunters, absurd revolutionaries, and a pleasant-looking village whose people claim that the Institution generally leaves them be, though the son of the couple that takes them in has joined the Institution willingly. But what to do when a potentially-lethal injury requires treatment only the Institution can provide?

Though not apparently based upon one, Yaya e Lennie feels like the sort of European comic album where the characters and caption boxes keep a constant stream of narrative chatter up whether the story really needs it or not, and it's not hard to see the story playing it in that format, alternating between short episodes where the pair just short of hang out and the artists enjoy cartooning them in one of the more gorgeous post-apocalyptic environments one can exist in, sometimes stopping in settlements, sometimes staying ahead of the Institute, occasionally flashing back to their Aunt Claire, and occasionally showing something bigger even if these two have little actual effect on the story themselves. The film does all of them at one point or another, but it doesn't quite cohere. The pair are the main characters of Yaya's story, perhaps, but not any larger one, and the grander-scale stories they intersect with are often frustratingly undercooked, and not just because that's all these guys can see.

That sort of film can rise based on having a group of characters that the audience enjoys hanging out with, but as mentioned, it is very easy to so the main impression is just that Yaya doesn't think much of Lennie. The latter is too dim for banter, so even if this is a pair that loves each other, it always feels one-sided, the sort of thing that is kind of fun from side characters but gets tiresome in the center. On top of that, the filmmakers often find themselves recognizing that their wishes to just be free of the rest of the world are unsustainable but not really wrestling with it: It's nice until someone gets hurt, but they're still dependent on what civilization created, even if any organization bigger than their family either demands too much (like the Institution), is utterly ridiculous (the revolutionaries), or ultimately hypocritical (the village). There's apparently respect for the hunter-gatherer tribes, but it's the sort of respect that comes from not looking at them too closely.

On the other hand, there's the look of this movie; digital animation that feels painterly in its color and details rather than plastic. It allows the filmmakers to present a much lusher and greener end of the world than usual, a testament to the Earth eventually recovering from whatever damage humanity does to it if given a little time to breathe. The character designs have some cartoon to them even as they exist in a realistic world, often staged to downplay how Lennie is a giant until that's important so that he and Yaya can be presented as equal. There are very distinguishable differences between the different types of folks wandering this forest, and an ugliness to the "Institute" repaying humanity's mistakes that could look like grandeur from the right angle, at least to the characters in the movie.

The film is all over the map stitching this together, and I don't know that the high ideas it espouses or mocks actually apply to the given story. It's pretty enough to be interesting, but that may not be enough for a second look.

Daikaijû no atoshimatsu (What to Do With the Dead Kaiju?

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

What to Do With the Dead Kaiju? is the comedy sequel that most giant monster movies arguably need, in this case watching as the Japanese government flails at just how you dispose of a Godzilla-sized carcass. Everyone who has watched one of these movies has asked the questions, and the answers Satoshi Miki offers are entertainingly goofy.

More than a few giant monster movies have ended in the way this one begins, with news stories detailing how a blast of energy that apparently came together after all government efforts failed stopped the threat before it caused incalculable loss of life; Prime Minister Kan Nishiotachime (Toshiyuki Nishida) has even written "deus ex machina" as part of his notes. But that means that they now have an enormous corpse in the middle of a river. Thankfully, it's not radioactive, but the question is, do they try to haul it out to sea, build a tourist operation around it, or what? At first, it seems like a turf war between the Joint Security Force and the Environmental Ministry, and wouldn't you know, Arata Obinata (Ryosuke Yamada), the JSF officer running point on the ground, and Yukino Amane (Tao Tsuchiya), assistant to Minister Sayuri Renbutsu (Eri Fuse) are old friends, and more than that one. Yukino is now married to Masahiko Ame (Gaku Hamada), the PM's chief of staff. It looks like there's plenty of time to work this out, at least until one of those things nerds nitpick about rears its ugly head - the kaiju is decomposing, which generates heat, but its impenetrable skin is keeping that mostly inside, building up pressure that is starting to show on the surface as blisters. One of these things popping could be devastating to the surrounding countryside, but if the whole body explodes…

Miki has built a perfect sort of premise for this movie, right at the intersection of the things that are ridiculous to think about when watching a broad sci-fi fantasy and things that could be a real problem; you can't help but giggle at the idea even if it quickly becomes a fun mental exercise. It squeezes into the space between parody and action-comedy; there are moments when Miki is clearly spoofing specific shots and tropes, aiming at a hole in the genre, but for much of the movie, he's sort of playing it along the lines of Guardians of the Galaxy and other action-adventures with a sense of their own absurdity. There's a joke in almost every scene, but the characters are also solving fun problems that are crazy in the way real jobs are crazy. Around all that, there's a shift to political blame shifting and petty intrigue that probably feels familiar everywhere; he's probably exaggerated it some but maybe not as much as he could have.

There are moments when one might kind of wonder if the filmmakers are having a laugh at the coincidental personal drama that invests these movies (even the original Godzilla had a crucial scientist just happen to be the ex of another character's daughter), or if they're doing it because they do need an engine to run on. It's maybe the weakest part of the film, even though the cast is a bunch of entertaining good sports: Tao Tsuchiya and Ryosuke Yamada have immediate chemistry as Yukino and Arata, and are just as easy to like in their roles of "smart and capable aide who keeps the agency running" and "soldier who plugs away at a problem". Gaku Hamada makes for a fine weasel as Ame, even beyond growing the perfect mustache for the role, and if one is inclined to wonder how Yukino would up with him beyond looking for the exact opposite of Arata after he broke her heart, he at least gent to take a turn where he becomes sympathetically ridiculous.

That youthful core isn't given a lot that's particularly funny or interesting to do, just soap intrigue that never actually turns into much but keeps the film going despite it not having the budget to be two full hours of visual effects shots. One suspects that Miki is spoofing that part of the genre as well, seeing as he holds off on showing the monster just long enough for the audience to seriously consider that never showing the creature is part of the gag. Their mostly grounded performances mean that the older character actors get to have a ball as exaggeratedly petty politicians who almost all find themselves quickly embarrassed in the moments after they're supposed to look triumphant. He also builds room for a number of fun cameos for the likes of Joe Odagiri, Rinko Kikuchi, and more, with those pros taking broad characters and playing them for all they're worth, knowing that it won't start to grate before they exit the movie five or ten minutes later.

This sort of spoof isn't for everyone; according to Miki's Q&A, Japanese kaiju fans hated it. That's maybe not surprising; as even the movies and manga that laugh at genre tropes often play as more respectful and genial than Miki's tugging on loose ends (that's not entirely a Japanese thing, but it seems even more the case there), and you kind of either roll with the finale or you don't. Still, for those of us that enjoy extrapolating an absurd premise out to its even more ridiculous end, What to Do with The Dead Kaiju? answers its own question in very amusing form.

Jugeodo Doeneun Ai (The Killer '22, aka The Killer: A Girl Who Deserves to Die)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

There's a scene early on in The Man From Nowhere, another Korean movie about a man with a certain set of skills rescuing a girl from the people who have kidnapped her, where the title character disarms a knife-wielding gangster by using his wallet to grab the blade and the gangster's older, wiser partner has a look on his face that reads as "you know, we don't have to collect protection money from every shop on the street" and communicates as much to the others, who do not listen and pay the price for it. The Killer is the same basic plot but doesn't have the same sort of humanizing moments that would make it entertaining for more than the sheer violence of the impressively-staged action.

Bang Eui-kang (Jang Hyuk) lives a quiet, comfortable life these days, married to a good woman and looking after his real-estate holdings. When wife Hyeon-soo (Lee Chae-young) goes on vacation with a friend (Yoo Seo-jin), they ask him to look after the latter's stepdaughter Yoon-ji ("Anne" Lee Seo-young). Eui-kang would really rather not, but on the other hand, she's 17 rather than an elementary school kid, so he figures he'll more or less let her be - call me if you need anything and we'll tell them it went great when they get home. Of course, Yoon-ji and a friend get into trouble on the very first night, and that is when the underworld should get the hint that they'd be better off not upsetting her temporary guardian (the audience already knows as much from an opening flash-forward). They do not, of course, meaning Eui-kang has to kill his way up the food chain before she's trafficked out of Korea, with Detective Lee (Lee Seung-Joon) following the trail of bodies.

Well, one supposes that there are less violent ways of going about it, but the title of the film is "The Killer", and he's going to go with what he knows (at least it is in North America; in some markets it has "A Girl Who Deserves to Die" as a subtitle, which suggests that the original novel by that name is something a little less straightforward). Unlike a lot of films with this set-up, Eui-kang isn't particularly world-weary or beholden to a particular code; one gets the impression that he retired right at the moment when he had saved up enough to invest while he still had no record because it was good business more than anything else. As such, and with him being as good at his old job as he is, he spends most of his quest more irritated than anything else, a quiet week broken up by having to deal with first a kid and then these quite honestly tacky criminals. There's something darkly funny about it from a certain angle, but the punchline to a bunch of goons discovering what they're up against in the ten seconds before they die is more often cruel without being particularly satisfying. Director Choi Jae-hoon and screenwriter Nam Ji-woong seldom take a moment to step back and let the characters consider the absurdity of the situation or how obviously-not-worth-it this is for the boots on the ground.

On the other hand, this does let them build up wall-to-wall action, from the opening shots that tell the audience to stick around through the opening exposition because there will eventually be an ax fight to a pretty excellent oner of a hallway brawl, and more on either side. Choi and cinematographer Lee Yong-gab have a tendency to plunge the audience right in the middle of a fight or a seedy locale, making everything very much up-close-and-personal, while still getting enough on-screen to make it clear that Jang Hyuk can move a little bit, backing up Eui-kang's annoyed lack of bluster with action. He's good enough that it's believable that the bad guys need to swarm him with sheer numbers until he gets to some boss-level folks, adding maybe a bit of danger to the fights being technically impressive.

Even with all that, the film's got to eventually get to a stopping point, something that suggests Eui-kang will actually be done after he dispatches this underboss or a reason for these guys to keep at it after it's become clear that this guy will eventually put a bullet or something less refined through your skull, and that's where a lot of other decisions come to a head; the relentless action hasn't given Eui-kang and Yoon-ji much time to bond, nor has it instilled some sort of moral code in the assassin, or revealed the one that was there all along. The movie should have been building to a climax but only has the material for a final kill.

Which will probably be fine as it settles into its home on VOD and streaming menus, where a movie just needs to be something that the person choosing it wants at the moment done well - say, impressively-staged action - than work for an audience that has a broader range of desires to be satiated at once. The Killer delivers what its makers were going for, if not a whole lot else.

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