Friday, August 11, 2023

Fantasia 2023 in theaters: Aporia and Mad Fate

I try to go through festivals as I see them, figuring they might fall out the back of my head by the time I get to them, but two films from the festival are opening in Boston this weekend. Near as I can tell, that's all, and nothing is coming out on disc, VOD, or any streaming service in the next week, but that can be tough to find good information on until they're available.

Anyway, more info on visitors and atmosphere when I get to the movies in the "Fantasia Daily" posts; for now, I'll just say that if you've only got time for one of these movies this weekend, I would recommend Mad Fate.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I can't speak to what sort of genre material writer/director Jared Moshe consumes in his spare time, or what unproduced scripts he has on his laptop, but Aporia has the feel of a movie made by someone who has an idea for a speculative fiction story but who doesn't really familiarize themselves with the genre because they figure it's not really important: Their movie, after all, is really about human relationships as opposed to that sci-fi stuff. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you wind up reinventing what Ray Bradbury figured out seventy years ago and fumbling the fallout.

The film starts with Sophie (Judy Greer), an overworked assisted-care nurse whose daughter Riley (Faithe Herman) has been in an even bigger spiral since the death of her father, and when she's suspended for skipping class, Sophie reaches out to Jabir (Payman Maadi), one of her late husband mal's closest friends, for help. Jabir, once a physicist in his home country before immigrating, reveals that he's been working on a machine that can send "abstract" particles back in time - and if you send them back to where and when a person's head is, nobody will be able to explain the stroke. They figure out a "safe" moment to remove the drunk driver who killed Mal, and it's a success - Mal (Edi Gathegi) is back, and only Sophie and Jabir know anything is different. But they soon discover that they've made life worse for the driver's widow Kara (Whitney Morgan Cox) and her daughter Aggie (Veda Clenfuegos), which means they've got to intervene again. Oh, and Jabir has a whole file cabinet full of serial killers and child abusers.

So, I know this isn't really that kind of movie, but once you lay this all out, I can't help but think that roughly ten years before it's possible to build a retroactive murder machine on a hobbyist budget, something like 20% of the world population would suddenly have a stroke. Maybe more, because the folks who survive to that new future would piss someone off, and so on. That's the peril of having your production designer build a machine that looks like it's put together with spare parts and scrap metal - and, yeah, it's a really great-looking machine - you can't exactly presume there's ever just going to be one Jabir who figures this sort of thing out. On top of that, science-fiction fans are going to rescue the central dilemma as a butterfly effect (articulated by Arthur C. Clarke in "A Sound of Thunder" back in 1952 and named by Edward Norton Lorenz in 1972) and perhaps be skeptical that this can be fixed by stomping on more butterflies, and you'd better hope that they haven't read Isaac Asimov's "The Dead Past" (1956) and put together than what Jabir has built actually works even better as an untraceable murder weapon if you know where someone was one second ago (relevant, because we're already dealing with Jabir's kill list). The big ideas Moshe is playing with are decades old and well-known tropes by now.

But, again, this is not that sort of movie. It's okay for what it is, especially once it starts piling multiple changes on top of one another, and the point is arguably to give the cast a chance to show their characters wrestling with the weight of the decision, and they mostly do okay by that. It's kind of nice to see Judy Greer actually get a lead role, and one that gives her something to work with as Sophie is overwhelmed by her grief and has strong feelings about both how she must make things right or feels addled by the world around her suddenly changing (or learning that it has changed without her knowledge). Payman Maadi makes an interesting counter, carrying the tragedy of Jabir's lost family but also able to make the scientist's cool calculation a bit unnerving.

The script often doesn't seem to know how to get out of its own way, though - a scene where one character tells another about the machine is weird in how it comes out of nowhere, for instance, like Moshe saw a hole that needed patching and did it in the oddest-feeling way possible. The big fault, though, even beyond how the usual tropes haven't been thought through, is that for a movie that wants to emphasize characters' emotional decisions over sci-fi what-ifs, its moral compass is really all over the place. These characters are playing god but seldom have any vision outside their own narrow desires, and the decisions made in the home stretch are framed as brave self-sacrifice but are, in effect, ways to shed responsibility for what the characters have done.

Honestly, I think I might find the end of this movie uglier the more I think about it. Aporia is well done in a lot of ways, but kind of misbegotten in others, and a defense that it makes you think isn't going to make one think better of it.

Ming'on (Mad Fate)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 August2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

For all that I've seen horoscopes, fate, feng shui, and a number of similar things off that ilk used in Chinese films before, it's almost always been in fantasies, or a sign of comedic superstition or eccentricity, generally for older female characters - or at least easily dismissed as such from my western point of view. Mad Fate feels like the first time I've seen characters really take that sort of thing dead seriously, such that even if they're nuts for doing so, the film has to do so as well. And, boy, does that make the film a ride.

May (Birdy Wong Ching-Yan) seems to fit the stereotype, at first, as she's allowing herself to be buried in a cemetery for a couple of hours because her astrologer (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung) is predicting a disaster for her in that timeframe - one that being buried alive in a thunderstorm could maybe cause. Instead, she returns home to a building that houses a lot of other prostitutes, whom a veteran detective (Berg Ng Ting-Yip) has been warning about a serial killer (Peter Chan Charm-Man) in the area. In a twist of fate, the rain smears the number on an order of noodles being delivered by Siu-Tung (Yeung Lok-Man) - who looks on the killer's work with fascination rather than revulsion. The detective has had his eye on Siu-Tung since childhood - he has a history of killing animals and scarred his sister - and the chart the astrologer creates for him has murder in his future, But, the man claims, it is possible to change one's luck and fate by changing one's habits and environment.

It's madness, of course, but a specific sort, as both Siu-Tung and "The Master" are likely insane and a danger to others, but the idea that you can read the stars and adjust your living space to somehow change your destiny is no less a lifeline than anything that psychiatry can offer. It at least offers something concrete you can do, and perhaps just committing to doing that can change your habits. The desperation of these two to avoid the urges that threaten to overwhelm them is something so compelling that it's easily able to muscle a more conventional serial killer story off to the side.

And it is an awful lot of fun to watch Gordon Lam and Yeung Lok-Man work here. Lam is a Hong Kong veteran who may be doing the best work in a busy career here, creating a character who seems desperately heroic at the start, striving to save people that the system doesn't care about or believe are in danger, but that's a thin layer over his own desperation to believe that he can defy what the stars have in store for him, especially when the audience gets a glimpse of what he was and could be again if he doesn't fight what the stars have in store for him. Yeung, meanwhile, does nice work riding the line of someone who may be a sociopath but still has the idea that it would be better if he wasn't, giving little hints as the movie goes on that Siu-Tung wants to be better but is still a volatile ball of rage and violence that wants to cut things open. The performances get bigger and bolder as the film goes on, unrelenting but compelling madness. The same goes for Berg Ng Ting-Yip as the cop who is mostly professional but can't get past his fear of Siu-Tung and Peter Chan, whose killer is seemingly unburdened by worry about what he is but is still made more volatile by the sheer nuisance of the others.

Is there something to this so-called madness? Perhaps; Siu-Tung and the Master do keep crossing the paths of this killer after all, and the script by Yau Nai-Hoi and Lee Chun-Fai seems to revel in creating convincing coincidences - not so much unlikely random events, but there's a sort of gravity to the way that the paths of these four characters (or five, once Ng Wing-Sze's prostitute-with-a-gambling-problem Jo relocates from the building where a bunch of her colleagues have died to the one where Siu-Tung has taken up residence) keep bending toward each other in ways that individually seem reasonable but are a lot when added together. Director Cheang Pou-Soi does really nice work of keeping this sort of thing feeling deft and natural even as the film erupts into bloody violence when these threads do cross, making sure that the darkly comic absurdity of the premise and the dangerous mania of the execution are present in almost every scene, teaming with frequent collaborator Jack Wong Wai-Leung to make sure that the action is hard-hitting.

It's also a terrifically stylish movie, with great locations from the cemetery in the opening to the rooftop where much of the later film takes place, with the city in between often ugly and seedy in a way that seems to be trying to mire everyone in quicksand. And don't look up for hope - I don't know that there's a sky in the movie that hasn't been digitally augmented or re-composited in such a way that suggests a capricious God tormenting them with madness and danger. The film never lets up with this sort of thing, aiming to make the audience as paranoid as what they're watching. It's a more colorful hell than Cheang's previous film Limbo, but no easier to escape.

(Looking at his credits, it's no wonder that Monkey King trilogy just didn't play right!)

It is, if nothing else, as mad as the title promises, pulling the viewer along through a cosmology that is maybe not rational but does, for these two hours anyway, operate with a strange alternate logic that is just as compelling, making for one heck of a ride.

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