Saturday, July 22, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.02: The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell, The Roundup: No Way Out, "Gertrude and Ivan Party Hard", and Vincent Must Die

I arranged Thursday's movies so that other days of the week could play out a certain way, and to be sure I got Larry Fessenden doing a Q&A, and that means The White Storm 3 was seen not at the festival proper but at the movie theater they've carved out of the old forum, which is kind of the rough equivalent of the Boston Common theater back home in a few ways - it's where the Chinese and Indian and other foreign-mainstream will play, with only a few rooms upgraded, but mostly a perfectly pleasant place to see a movie. And, like that place, I was probably the only person in the room, although what did I expect for a 3:15pm niche presentation? I imagine it would have been a lot more fun at the festival, but, again, Larry Fessenden.

That gave me plenty of time to grab some chicken before The Roundup: No Way Out, which had guests!

That's director Lee Sang-yong and producers Billy Aikman and Kim Keung-Taek, who by and large were asked questions in French and thus had their answers translated in kind, which means I didn't catch a lot of it, besides the fact that it is kind of crazy that they are cranking these out at a one-a-year clip right now - The Roundup came out in 2022 and The Roundup: Punishment is expected in 2024 - and that it speaks to what capable folks, all handling different jobs, they have as producers.

For the last show of the evening, Mitch Davis introduced and chatted with Vincent Must Die director Stéphan Castang, and that was entirely in French, so I can't say I gleaned a lot from it. Indeed, the one bit I did catch - Mitch wanted to make sure he said that director of the short that played before it, Louise Groult, correctly, which had Stéphan perk up. "Louise?" Mitch looks surprised they might be acquainted - "tu connait?" - and then there was laughter, but I don't know whether it was because the French film world can be small or because he fooled Mitch.

So that was Friday; Saturday is looking all sorts of up in the air. It may start with The President's Last Bang, or may not, if you're seeing this posted after 12:30pm. After that, I'll do The First Slam Dunk, try and see if it's easier to get into Sympathy for the Devil with Nic Cage no longer there in person (and fall back to Stay Online otherwise), finishing up with The Becomers. Shin Kamen Rider has its moments, and Divinity is recommended.

So duk 3: Yun joi tin ngai (The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2023 in Cineplex Forum #19 (first-run, DCP)

Herman Yau is a guy who tends to direct wielding a sledgehammer, but this isn't a movie that particularly needs a lot of nuance. We've seen the undercover office tormented by divided loyalties before, but Yau isn't really looking for moral ambiguity here. He's just making sure there's someone hanging around to spring into action when he really brings the hammer down.

It kicks off with that familiar scenario - after retrieving a container of "ice" that has been air-dropped in the ocean just outside the Hong Kong territorial waters, gangster Hong Sochat (Lau Ching-wan) is headed back to the city with lieutenants Billy (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) and Wing (Louis Koo Tin-lok) when they are stopped by the police. A massive firefight ensues, during which Wing is revealed to be an undercover cop and Billy is shot. Sochat, Billy, and several other members of the gang flee to Thailand, where Sochat finds a way into the organization of a Golden Triangle warlord and Billy recuperates with the help of one of the villagers, Noon (Wang Caiyu) - while trying to hide that he, too, has been working undercover and it's a longtime friend and colleague of "Wing".

Undercover stories like this are often built as chess matches, but the Detectives have little means to affect the action for much of the movie. What that does is kind of make this a movie where Lau Ching-wan's gangster is the one driving events most of the time, while Au Chi-yuen ("Wing") is away from the action and Cheung Kin-hang ("Built") is injured and mostly sidelined. It's not a bad strategy, actually; Lau obligingly plays to the rafters (I swear there's some Brando in his accent) and handles the action as he uses his exile to worn his way into the local drug transport operation. The filmmakers could have made this a straight gangster picture, if they were so inclined.

The rest of the movie is fine, though; Aaron Kwok and Wang Caiyu are a pleasant enough pair, with Wang able to play Noon in a way that's not condescending despite her situation (she's not particularly interested in being rescued). There's a nice bond between Koo and Kwok as the undercover officers and Koo pushed back at the superiors who just don't understand real police work without making Au look like he'd be a nightmare colleague. There are plenty of flashbacks to keep the violence and melodrama levels up.

And Yau doesn't stint on the action; things kick off with a massive confrontation between the gangster and police that very quickly advances to cars just flying through the air. It's not quite nonstop carnage, but this is not a movie with a big innocent bystander population for most of the run time, so there's no reason not to go full auto and have plenty of grenades and occasional rocket launchers in use. It's staged well enough to not just be about the sheer amount of ammunition, most of the time, right down to how Lau and Koo have a pretty decent one on one in the middle of the truly gigantic carnage at the end.

Subtlety and depth left this series (a brand name rather than an ongoing story) behind long ago, but if what you're looking for is some basic Hong Kong violence, let it not be said that Herman Yau doesn't know what to do with a quality cast and a decent budget.

The Roundup: No Way Out

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festiva, DCP)

Honestly, Korean movie criminals, what makes you see a guy shaped like Ma Dong-seok (aka Don Lee) in a room and think that this is a problem you are going to solve with punching?

The actor's character Ma Seok-do, a former boxer who became a cop, is now working homicide, and his team finds themselves called to the scene of a relatively minor case - a woman who feel from a hotel window - only to find she was dead before she fell, killed by an overdose of a drug called "Hiper". Following the trail back, they discover that local games, Japanese yakuza, and a division of crooked cops are all involved in this trade and scrambling for 20kg of the drug, which had a street value of some $300M.

The big guy's production company is rolling these out one a year at this point, and you can kind of do that when you're this focused on giving the audience what it wants: Ma is amiable, there's a criminal organization or two with enough members that folks will be running into his fists for 100 minutes or so, and the filmmakers never forget that giant stunts and set pieces are actually kind of antithetical to the series's appeal. In some ways, this movie is a bit over-complicated despite its simplicity - Detective Ma has something like six people under him, and there's maybe one gang too many - but the filmmakers keep things running smoothly. There's really only one surprise early on and not a lot of details that will be truly important ten minutes later.

Mostly, folks are there to see Ma punch some fools, and he obliges. His Seok-do is the kind of performance that looks easy because Ma is a movie star and finding the right tone to toss off one-liners, play self-deprecating while still being cooler than those around him, and seeking that something is an effort despite him being a cartoon tank is what he does. The filmmakers supply him with some good sparring partners: Munetaka Aoki and Hong Joon-young as yakuza enforcers who are fast enough to inflict some damage, especially since the former carries a katana, and give off the right sort of arrogant disdain for subordinates and rivals. Lee Jun-hyuk is more an oily, sneering bit of scum. Jun Kunimura shows up on the other side of phone calls and I hope he's around with more to do next time.

I think I said something along these lines with the last Roundup, but it applies here as well: There's not a lot of suspense in these movies, not even as much as introducing likable supporting characters and putting them in danger. The cases are built in a way such that they can come down to fist fights, with some knives and sword thrown in to create something that looks like a challenge and mysteries that can be solved by making sure suspects don't want to be punched again (i can't really defend police brutality as a running gag being being impressed at how good the filmmakers are at it). They're about the satisfaction of a mild-mannered guy punching things that need punching through a wall, and deliver that precisely.

The ending credits tease a fourth entry in this series that started with The Outlaws, "Punishment", coming next year, and I'll probably be able to copy and paste large chunks of this review when writing about it. This team doesn't reinvent the wheel, but they do keep things rolling.

"Gertrude et Yvan Party Hard"

* * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festiva, digital)

Man, parties in movies look like awful, miserable experiences, enough that I wonder if people really enjoy them or if they convince themselves that they do because there might be a new friend or some sex on the other side of one. I suspect that's what the short is playing with - both Gertrude (Baptiste Carrion-Weiss) and Yvan (Lou Franco) both seem out of sorts before they meet, her kind of bored and him trying too hard, but there because it's what folks their age do - but what to do with that?

I'm not sure filmmaker Louise Groult has any sort of great idea for that. They go through stupid reasons for rejecting each other, bloody ways to curry favor, being so phony they repeat each other's stories meant to make themselves sound more interesting to each other as their own, and ascribing their chance meeting to something more, and the actors are good enough at their jobs and the filmmaker has just enough of an off-kilter sensibility that one isn't groaning about how boring this is, but it is very familiar, a bit of stabbing aside. Overall, it's got the feel of something that seems like the funniest thing ever when you're drunk or high and brainstorming gags, but seems less clever by the time folks have actually made a movie out of it.

Vincent doit mourir (Vincent Must Die)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festiva, DCP)

The "high concept" is a tricky thing, and fickle. A big and outlandish premise can certainly help a movie stand out and potentially create dedicated fans, but going into either too much or too little detail can sink the enterprise. Usually, it's just one, but Vincent Must Die sends to have both happen.

That high concept is right in the title. Vincent (Karim Leklou) is an ordinary-enough graphic designer who makes a bad joke about the new intern and soon finds the kid attempting to beat him to death with his laptop computer - and then, a few days later, sees the accountant stab him repeatedly with a pen. His manager suggests working from home, but then he's attacked in the hallway. This sends him to the country home owned by his father (François Chattot); along the way, he encounters "Joachim DB", a former university professor who has gone off the grid as the same thing happens to him, and gives survival tips. But when waitress Margaux (Vimala Pons) doesn't attempt to murder him after they make eye contact, he begins to hope there might be something there.

It's kind of an odd thing that Joachim encourages Vincent to only communicate via various apps and websites, because the way that online conversations can suddenly erupt into rage and spiteful attacks with almost no warning was the first thing that came to mind, especially when those around Vincent respond by isolating him and making it his responsibility to not be murdered by coworkers, neighbors, or random strangers. It's not a perfect metaphor even at the start, of course, but it's the first thing that resonates and can certainly be broadened to look at other sorts of breakdowns in communication and civility that erupt in violence.

When writer Mathieu Naert and director Stéphan Castang are able to dive into it, though, the film is electric and transgressive, with the first out-of-nowhere attacks provoking gasps that are exactly positioned between horror and laughter, and other scenarios seemingly reveling in presenting themselves as things that no reasonable human being can deal with in a reasonable or fair manner. The movie announces itself and its big idea loudly, and the filmmakers do a fine job of reinventing itself as Vincent has to find new ways to survive and the landscape around him changes.

But, in ways that are really frustrating, they never find the best way to veer with their high concept. If it becomes a better proxy for modern discontent, it does so by becoming a force too general in how people are lashing out to mean anything specific. Bits of larger mythology get introduced, but aside from giving Vincent a reason to have a delightful little dog as an early warning system, they don't particularly intrigue as a puzzle to solve or a reality to navigate. There are hints of this happening throughout France, but the focus on Vincent is too narrow to explore that, and who Vincent is when people are not trying to assassinate him is never defined enough that his adaptation is particularly interesting, especially since Joachim just hands him a fair amount. There's actually a fairly long stretch in the middle before Vincent meets Margaux when he's not actually doing anything interesting and no place else for the film to go. Finally, there's a reversal in the last act that, like so much of the rest of the movie, seems more like a clever idea than anything particularly well thought-out.

And yet, for as random as the pairing may be in the story, the odd romance between Vincent and Margaux becomes the heart of the movie. Karim Leklou and Vimala Pons both latch onto how each is lonely but feels unable to find the connection they want, and they've got a way of warily but eagerly circling each other early on that feels genuine and doesn't hold back on how there are unsettling aspects to how they meet and their relationship thereafter. There's a set of handcuffs involved in their intimacy, and while the filmmakers recognize that one's mind will likely jump straight to kink, they're also a tool for safety, and the pair work when they're able to use them for both, a nervous blend of laughter and worry. By the end, one can look at them and say that circumstances can make any relationship disastrous, and the strong ones come up with plans for managing that.

It still leaves an unpleasant taste in one's mouth at times; I don't think a 2020s American movie would be nearly so willing as to position physical violence as a thing a romance must work around as this French one does, despite it being in the service of an obviously heightened metaphor. Even taking that into account, though, I found I didn't particularly care for Vincent Must Die; the line at the end of the terrific hook all too often doesn't go anywhere interesting.

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