Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.04: Ride On, Sand Land, and Raging Grace

Festival-ing tip: The hole in the middle of the day is okay. You can get some errands run, catch up on your Letterboxd entries, really relax as you eat a meal, or the like.

Why do I bring this up, well, I knew today was going to be tight, and not just because I got Saturday's recap up just in time to get on the Metro and had to Concordia for Ride On, which I should have seen three months ago - the AMC at Boston Common still has a standee for it in the lobby! - but which didn't come to Boston. No, it's the way the end of the day shook out.

I only got a picture of Sand Land director Toshihisa Yokoshima in an autograph line, because I assumed there'd be a Q&A and didn't get one before. I was a bit surprised when Animation programmer Ruppert Bottenberg mentioned Yokoshima had been at the festival six years ago with "Cocolors", because even if I couldn't remember a lot from the movie - my brain's filing system apparently doesn't do that so well - I did recall really liking it (more reliable records say: true!). The thing that really threw me, though, was that only a few of us raised our hands and applauded when asked who had seen it. Sure, it had played as part of a shorts block, but it also indicates how this festival, especially, is kind of a living thing and those of us who have been coming forever are outliers.

And then, for what turned out to be the final movie of the day, I hit Raging Grace with writer/director Paris Zarcilla (right) on-hand, even though it would play later in the festival, because I really wasn't interested in Talk To Me (the trailers make it look like it's really good at telling a dumb story, and it's A24, so if it's actually as good as people think, it will probably hang around). It was a pretty decent choice - he had a lot of things to say about how his immigrant parents had influenced the story and how colonialist attitudes have not vanished.

That part of the day turned out to be scheduled tight, so there really wasn't any chance to make it across the street for New Normal, which is a bummer, because that only had one screening, and while Lovely, Dark, and Deep was sold out, a pass might have gotten me in. On the other hand, it is playing today and I got a Q&A.

So, today's plan is going to be a long one as some "maybe laters" catch up with an oddly uneven De Sève schedule (sometimes they start at 11, sometimes at 4): The Fantastic Golem Affairs, Stay Online, and The Primevals on one side of the street followed by Tiger Stripes and Restore Point on the other.

Long ma jing shen (Ride On)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

There are moments in Ride On where Jackie Chan feels like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and they're terrific for the same reason, a lifetime of wear atop something we are already fond of. The trouble is that there are far more where he's making a connection to his real history, and that feels more problematic. It becomes a movie where this character is meant to be humbled but still can't admit he's wrong.

Here, Chan plays Luo Zhilong, once the greatest stuntman in Hong Kong, but now living in the mainland, tending Red Hare, a horse a friend gave him in lieu of paying a debt, offering pictures and rides outside a studio instead of actually doing stuntwork. Bills are coming due, though - collection agent Da Mi (Andy On Chi-Kit) it looking to repossess his house, and the company that acquired his old friend's business believes they have a claim to Red Hare. His last two students, "Shrimp" Xia Mao (Yu Ailei) and Ying Zi (Joey Yung Tso-Yi) say he needs a lawyer, but he can't afford one. What he does have is a daughter, Bao (Liu Haocun), who is a law student and has a fiancé, "Mickey" Lu Naihua (Kevin Guo Qilin), who just began practicing. Bao and Zhilong are estranged, but she is apparently won over by the horse, if not her father.

Jackie Chan has been a lightning rod among Hong Kong film fans and a global audience that discovered him from his Hong Kong work in his later years as a result of his political alignment, but he's also at times struggled with the inevitable transition that a star who has built his career on physical prowess must make, where even if you have spent your career building up your chops as an actor and director, as Jackie has done, and genuinely want to move on to more dramatic roles as you age, it's hard not to be pulled back into old habits that have always been good to you and make a movie a less risky proposition. Chan can, at this point, play haunted and worn-down quite well - even in Western movies like The Foreigner, but there are other moments when he flashes the same goofy grin he's used for decades, and others where it feels like he can't quite put his ego aside. Clips of his most famous stunts appear at various points in the movie and aside from how Master Luo is supposed to have been an anonymous stuntman and these clearly show his face, Jackie is no longer beloved enough that blurring the line between the character and the actor necessarily does the character favors.

Beyond that, the movie often feels kind of dull and thrown together. There are a few impressive action scenes that remind you that Jackie is still kind of great at this, but not enough to make it a good action movie, and occasionally awkward fits for a more serious drama. The vibe switches from wanting to be a mature drama that deals with age and regret to kiddie-sitcom plotting and back several times. It drags at times, and there is something profoundly weird and misbegotten about a sequence about how dangerous and thrilling doing a stunt for real is where the actual stunt is obviously digital. The cast is sometimes such as to make the horses seem like the most interesting co-stars, with Liu Haocun pretty but kind of insubstantial as Bao. It's also kind of frustrating that Yu Ailei and Joey Yung get memorable introductions as Luo's students in the first act and then sort of fade away.

Maybe someone other than writer/director Larry Yang Zi could have taken a firmer hand and worked things that so that the film works in self-referential fashion, especially since there is something unexpectedly affecting when Wu Jing shows up for a torch-passing moment and the film reaches for something about how he and Jackie are different action stars for different eras. That could have been something really special, but it doesn't manage quite the level of self-examination.

And yet, I still look forward to The Diary, Chan's long-in-production drama as a director. Despite everything, it's hard not to look at Jackie Chan and want to see him reinvent himself and showcase his other skills now that the things which initially caught our attention are becoming harder.

Sando rando (Sand Land)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival: Axis, DCP)

I feel like I missed a Golden Age of shonen manga by being born too early and not really aware that these series that seemed to owe more to children's cartoons than the serious sci-fi anime that hooked my generation were, in fact, epic adventures... At least, not until they were so intimidating in scale that getting into them looked to be a major commitment that would displace a lot of other great pop culture. As such, Sand Land is a delightful find for me and perhaps others - it's obviously got the same DNA as Dragon Ball, but it's a manageable size despite being a little of everything.

It opens with an army transport of water through an endless being attacked by demons, although we soon discover that perhaps those demons have given some to human kids in a local town. The town's sheriff, Rao (voice of Kazuhiro Yamaji), a wiry old fellow, takes that it while also noting that there are birds that feed on freshwater fish nearby, and goes to the demon town with a proposal, that they find the spring that must be nearby and use it so that both demons and humans can survive. Youthful "fiend prince" Beelzebub (voice of Mitsumi Tamura) is eager to set off on an adventure, dragging reluctant gnome-like sidekick Thief (voice of Chô) along. There are dangers along the way, though which have them abandoning their vehicle and stealing an army tank to continue on - though it turns out that Rao may be more than meets the eye, which puts mercenaries and the army led by cyborg General Zeu (voice of Nobuo Tobita) on their trail.

When I say Sand Land is a manageable size, that just means it's feature-length - it's still packed full of everything, including not just a part-apocalyptic desert wasteland that includes a demon city and tanks, but a foolish capitalist king, insect men, super-powered adversaries, and enough backstory that characters will gasp at a revelation of what really happened thirty years ago. This all exists in a big storytelling stew, but the filmmakers expand things casually, seldom to the point where you question why they didn't do that an hour ago or where the entire story didn't make sense (maybe the world collapses under more scrutiny, but who cares?). Writer Hayashi Mori and director Toshihisa Yokoshima take the original manga by Akira Toriyama, which I suspect was throwing out something new and crazy every week, and make it feel like anything can happen but that they'll play square once the general vibe is introduced.

And, from there, it's fun. The character design is bold and solid-looking, and they represent their types well with solid voice acting - I kind of suspect that I've heard Kazuhiro Yamaji and Mutsumi Tamura voicing characters cut from the same cloth as Rao and Beelzebub before, but it works because they fit the types so well and can still figure out what makes them individual. There's no shame in the movie being designed for kids to the point where killing is explicitly off the table, to the point where tanks almost look like toys and their battles are mostly going to be knocking each other around. The pace is quick but never frantic, smoothly moving on to the next stage whenever the story demands it, and the action a fun game to watch play out, even at its most high-stakes.

It's also just a fun thing to look at; every human, demon, and machine has bold enough lines that the introduction of something fragile-looking hits harder, with the visuals right at the point where a kid can understand that, say, Beelzebub may look like something grown-ups tell you is scary but is obviously cheerful and mischievous, while adults shouldn't feel like they're being talked down to. Yokoshima and his crew stage action in something close to classic anime fashion, preferring to give viewers the lay of the land and cut rather than use a swooping virtual camera most of the time, which keeps the style cohesive rather than muddled.

I'm not diving into all the Dragon Ball after this, but I'll probably pay a little more attention when the next thing like it shows up. Who doesn't enjoy big freewheeling adventure that finishes without having to buy 100 volumes of comics?

Raging Grace

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Most festivals don't necessarily give awards for "favorite character", but if Fantasia did, I wouldn't bet against the Grace of this movie's title winning it. She's an indispensable kid in a movie that quickly gets into grown-up horror, a big part of why the movie can keep the audience laughing in genuine fashion before that becomes nervous and then unnerving.

Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla) is the daughter of Joy (Max Eigenmann), a Filipina woman who has been in the UK without proper documentation for years, working under the table as a cleaner while trying to scrounge up the money that a fixer (Oliver Wellington) demands before straightening out her visa and citizenship. Indeed, she and Grace are technically unhoused, spending the summer sneaking into the homes of various employers who have gone away on vacation. The latest offer seems too good to be true - a manor house where Joy can have an actual room, though she still opts to sneak Grace in in her luggage. Grace, however, is a nosy troublemaker who soon begins to suspect that their employer Katherine (Leanne Best) is poisoning her comatose uncle Nigel Garrett (David Hayman), and while Joy doesn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, it eventually begins to nag at her.

It's not unheard of for a thriller/horror piece like this to start out as door-slamming farce, where writer/ director Paris Zarcilla build multiple comic scenes out of Grace sneaking around a room's furnishings or up stairs while trying to stay out of Katherine's line of vision, or gags where Joy casually sits her daughter in a closet. There's props to this, sure - Grace's pranks where she switches food containers has an obvious parallel, and her being a girl who cried wolf keeps things simmering for a while - and there's a contrast to all the stupidly racist things employers say and do around Joy. Still, a lot of people making unambiguous comedies don't set up and execute jokes nearly as well as Zarcilla does here.

He's also undeniably on point when it comes time to get serious, though; every belittling thing Joy goes through eventually winds up having an even darker mirror image, and Grace's frustration at being hidden away erupts in a bit of cruelty that seems like too much, except that it also highlights just how someone a smart and independent as this little girl can maybe be manipulated when the film takes another big turn later on. And there are some good, big turns, although they never feel particularly out of left field. Zarcilla is quite good at hiding the next awful thing in a temporary victory.

I suspect that he and his cast have fun inverting certain tropes as well, especially in how Max Eigenmann gets to play Joy as sensible and grounded, though understandably tense and occasionally on the believable edge of a stressful collapse, while the various white Britons start as a montage of ridiculous caricatures before Leanne Best brings it to the next level with Katherine, riding the line between being obliviously and deliberately awful, while David Hayman gets a late start but makes Garrett a roller-coaster ride of a character, though all the pieces fit together exactly. And Jaeden Paige Boadilla is a delight as Grace, adept at the physical comedy and able to capture how she's a great, if frustrating kid while still tapping into deep frustrations.

Thrown together, it makes for a terrific little thriller that, while it may have a moment or two of talking a little directly to the audience about the real-world situations that inspired it, also does a terrific job of connecting the absurdity and danger of its situations on its way to a classic spooky-old-house climax.

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