Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Fantasia 2022.21: Ring Wandering, Next Sohee, "They Call It… Red Cemetery", and Frágil

Well, this is it, and while I haven't been taking a while to get this last one posted on purpose, it's a bit of a bummer to be done with this festival again until 2023. I mean, obviously I have to come back home at some point, and I'm sure everyone involved with the festival can use the rest.

Nice day, though, starting with the observation that Ring Wandering could also have been the title of Sadako DX, through an impressive closing night film, to finally hitting the wall for real during the last feature.

So, one last guest:

July Jung here with her film Next Sohee, and as you can see, she won the Cheval Noir, which continues to surprise and please filmmakers with how terrific a trophy it is. She talked some about how the film was inspired by a true story that got under her skin. I haven't seen her first film, A Girl at My Door, but it almost looks like Bae Doo-na could be playing the same character in both, disgruntled police detectives, with her character in this one apparently just back from an assignment in the country, which was apparently what Bae played in that last one. Different names, though.

Amusingly-to-me, I took a note during the film and later tweeted afterward that it's crazy to see time march on and now Bae Doo-na is in the "world-weary police detective" stage of her career, which is in part because of how filtered her career has often been as it gets in front of my eyes: I see the early art-house oddities she did in Japan, The Host with Bong Joon-ho, the stuff she did with the Wachoskis, and that gets screens and festival slots on this side of the Pacific because it's unusual and noteworthy, but the steady work is TV and smaller moves built around a crime, and it just doesn't surface until one of them (like this) is unusually good. But it means you might see someone aging into that all at once rather than over time.

Once that Q&A was over, I headed out and saw that the passholder line for Bodies Bodies Bodies was already stretching out of its corral. Well, I figured, it was opening in Boston that weekend, so I might as well head across the street and see the underground queer Portuguese comedy, which probably wouldn't be.playing anywhere and might be very difficult to find on streaming. It was, to put it mildly, not really my thing, and I wound up kind of frantically taking notes to try and stay engaged but it was still a struggle.

Maybe I would have been better off back in Hall sending the festival off with a bang, but you should only go so far trying to script your festival experience. That I finished stretching a bit too far out of my comfort zone may not finish the story of this return to Montreal being delightful and reinvigorating quite the way one might hope, but it's still pretty thrilling.

Next up… Well, we're done! Although I may have a very niche sort of bonus post coming up if I can get some stuff to work.

Ring Wandering

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

As it goes on, Ring Wandering does an odd sort of metamorphosis in how it changes from one sort of film to another without necessarily putting a distinctive twist on either, but impressing for how artfully filmmaker Maakazu Kaneko and his team navigate these paths. The film is quiet, charming, and built out of canny misdirections that coalesce into a different final picture than the obvious without being self-consciously outrageous.

Sosuke (Sho Kasamatsu) has a manga he wants to create, a tale of a hunter obsessively chasing a Japanese wolf, and while he is carefully scouting and sketching the setting, there's no way to capture the animal, which has been extinct for over a century, though a kid he meets thinks he can find one. Back in Tokyo, he works in a crew digging a foundation for a new high-rise, discovering animal bones a couple meters down but keeping it quiet, both because that's the sort of thing that can get a job shut down and because they may be the reference he needs. Returning to the site after hours, he meets Midori (Junko Abe), out looking for her brother's dog. She sprains her ankle, so he helps her get home, to a neighborhood that is strangely quiet, her parents waiting with a late dinner.

I find myself fascinated with what this is ultimately trying to say because it is easy to construct a plot which would have Sosuke actively accomplishing something, but instead the film reaches its end without moving in the direction of what the plot seemingly should be. There is something beautiful in the way that it does come together, that this is ultimately a story of finding self-confidence as opposed to figuring a mechanism out in order to defy fate. There are not clear parallels between the various threads, despite several characters pursuing a canid of some sort. The ultimate smallness of the story, and the ones not told, describe a small, personal lesson that applies to Sosuke but not necessarily anybody else. The world may not owe or provide explanations, and time down that rabbit hole is time wasted.

The film also handles its different environments and the transitions between in striking fashion, maybe not exactly letting the audience feel unsure about the transit between Sosuke's world and Midori's for far longer than might seem logical, but giving its characters reasons not to assume something extraordinary is afoot as one time becomes another in the dark. It's laid bare in the modern daylight, which is not exactly harsh, but revealing and unmysterious. The extended sequences inside the manga are kind of fascinating as well - the first, toward the beginning, seems a little off, amateurish, a good idea not quite executed right. The second, inked with a makeshift but meaningful tool, is filled with lush, beautiful compositions. Something clicked there.

Kaneko keeps things fairly quiet in between, but he and his cast have a good grasp of the way that this sort of low intensity can be used, establishing Sosuke's self-doubt but not exactly playing him as introverted otherwise: There's a pleasant sort of back-and-forth with a co-worker about various types of manga (it's neat to see working-class people talking about art seriously), and a genuine spark between Sosuke and Midori; Sho Kasamatsu and Junko Abe quickly home in on how these two are fundamentally similar but also very different, with Abe and the actors playing Midori's parents doing well playing just off enough that the audience notices it but still concentrates on how they have more in common with Sosuke than not. Kasamatsu does well to play Sosuke as a step behind many viewers without seeming slow, because he doesn't realize he's in a movie that's at least partly a fantasy.

That's important, because there are days when I watch a movie such as this and get frustrated at missed opportunities, and how the pieces laid out in front of the viewers don't quite fit together the way they seemingly should. I'm not sure whether it's the day or the film in this case, but I like how this all connects just fine.

Da-eum So-hee (Next Sohee)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Movies are not necessarily the best way to depict the interconnected ways in which the world is seemingly rigged to make good people miserable; they're designed to mimic being there, and the issues July Jung looks at in Next Sohee are built to be things people experience obliquely, a little bit at a time. It means that she's got to stop and explain on occasion, but she's still got a fine knack for putting her characters through the wringer in between.

When the audience first sees Kim Sohee (Kim Si-eun-I), she's doggedly practicing dance moves, stumbling frequently but not without ability. She's not going to make a career out of it - she is a pet care major at a minor vocational school rather than a student at a performing arts academy - so the externship she is placed in is presented as a real opportunity. It's a call center job for a company that contracts with a cable & internet service (pointedly not part of that corporation), and it's miserable, reciting scripts seemingly designed to anger customers, with co-workers competing for bonuses that somehow never seem to come through. If it's already wearing manager Lee Jun-ho down, to the point where his replacement is making everyone sign NDAs, what chance does Sohee have?

The film has two clear acts, each designed to enrage the audience in a different way. The first half is told from Sohee's perspective, and that opening bit does a great job of setting the tone, highlighting her exuberance and willingness to get back up, with Jung getting a lot of mileage from how she serves as a sort of audience surrogate in that phone bank, rolling her eyes, questioning why they can't just cancel the service of callers looking to do that rather than trying to upsell them. Kim Si-eun-I's performance is winning and has bits that bring a smile even as the film turns more grim, and the tone-deaf nature of this semi-automated method of continuing to extract money from customers is recognizable as the sort of thing that gets on one's nerves but maybe just short of evil. The audience is going to pull for Sohee as long as they can, and they'll be able to.

Still, she's going to break down, and it seems to happen quickly. Kim Si-eun-I and Jung don't actually have Sohee change overnight - the audience has been watching the light go out of her eyes bit by bit - but they stress that losing Manager Lee is a breaking point, and that she has trouble reconciling what she's part of. They change the way she interacts with the other characters here, and for all that the film is still from Sohee's point of view, the view gets a little wider; and the audience gets the sense of how she is perhaps not the only one being broken here - dance partners are being bullied, co-workers are cracking, she's arguing with longtime friends. This may be a coming-of-age story, but there's no wisdom to be found in its lessons, and Sohee appears to be unusually capable of seeing that.

The aftermath of that realization shifts the point of view, with Bae Doona taking center stage as Oh Yoo-jin, the detective called in when everything goes to hell. World-weary and returning to the city after a sort of exile, Yoo-jin has seemingly been where Sohee wound up for a while, but maybe it's crushed her a little less - the other cops seem to resent her continued pulling at the threads of a case that won't lead to anything, but her resigned anger only looks like numbness. If Bae's performance looks muted, even when she's about to erupt, the audience can still appreciate her doggedness, even if it may not ultimately lead anywhere useful.

Bae and Jung manage an odd sort of alchemy during this back half of the movie, because by all rights it should become a crushing bore: Yoo-jin isn't discovering anything the audience doesn't know, either from watching the rest of the movie or from living in South Korea (or other capitalist economies where the structures are similar); spending a lot of her time following a trail from one institution to another and having someone explain that the systems she's encountering are either carefully designed to be technically legal or such that enforcement would cause a collapse with a lot of collateral damage. It's a lot of detail on how the system fails people and is seemingly designed to be too dreary and convoluted to keep one's attention, but actor and filmmaker are good at presenting how it's numbing but also managing to stoke anger despite that - Yoo-jin might not wind up radicalized by this, but she's at least guided the audience to what they should be angry at.

That isn't necessarily exciting - Jung knows these women are in a hole that is currently too deep for most people to climb out of on their own, and she's not going to make it appear otherwise in order to give her movie a thrilling climax. Still, there's value in pointing out the way that the mess is big and interrelated. Next Sohee isn't going to leave anyone feeling that a problem has been solved, but it maybe can point a viewer to thinking about them differently.

"Cemitério Vermelho" ("They Call It… Red Cemetary")

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Fantasia Underground, digital)

The great spaghetti westerns are so iconic that they can fool fans into not so much thinking that they're easy but that there's a schematic: Amorality plus widescreen framing plus a distinctive musical riff yields a moment indelible enough that it doesn't seem to need the rest of the movie around it. You see a lot more short pieces like "Cemitério Vermelho" trying to get those moments on their own than features that build up the whole world surrounding those moments, both because westerns can be a tough sell and because that steady approach is awfully fine work.

That's the sort of short this is, which isn't a complaint. Filmmaker Francisco Lacerda and his crew have found a terrific location in the Azores, and they've built a last confrontation that's good enough to skip to, packing in enough double-crosses and confrontation into its ten minutes that the audience can dive right in, not necessarily needing the two-hour simmer that would get them to the point where they're ready for the slightest twitch to lead to an explosion. Thomas Aske Berg and Francisco Afonso Lopes recall Eastwood and Wallach in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly without quite seeming to imitate them. It's the sort of spaghetti western pastiche that works even does seem as much a declaration of love for the genre as a great example of it.

Can the likes of this rise above being that sort of pastiche? Probably, although it doesn't necessarily happen very often. As much as it generally works, it's still one that feels like it's imitating a style and peeling up the edges as much as coming by it naturally.


Seen 3 August 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Fantasia Underground, digital)

Maybe I've always been an old man, but I've got the feeling that I wouldn't have like the characters of Frágil even if we were the same age; they are, almost to a one, obnoxious, juvenile supposed-adults who have more personality than drama and not necessarily a lot of that. By the end of the movie, one gets a sort of sense of how central character Miguel is maybe more fragile than his bluster, but there's not a lot to it. You can sort of infer a generic story about him being directionless and on his own because of his queerness, trying to find his tribe (despite his mother's frequent phone calls), but it's so formless that it has to rely on style to get there.

And for all that filmmaker Pedro Henrique hits the audience with a lo-fi fire hose - stylized color choices, square low-res/grainy images for that home-movie feel, animation, inventive cutting - most of the many chapters come and go without a good sting, characters popping in and out without the dynamics being that interesting. The characters are high half the time but that seldom leads to them doing anything interesting. It wants to be a hangout movie with style, but never quite finds a vibe that works.

Or at least, not for me; I readily admit that I was both a little too wiped for this sort of film at the end of a 21-day festival and this group, with their focus on drugs, booze, and "the club", just didn't seem to care about anything that interested me. I nodded off a lot, enough that I can't really say whether the movie was good or bad at being what it was going for but that it most certainly wasn't my thing.

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