Friday, August 04, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.06: In My Mother's Skin, Lovely, Dark, and Deep, Les Rascals, and Marry My Dead Body

Not a big guest day - Lovely, Dark, and Deep director Teresa Sutherland was there to introduce her film but couldn't stay for a Q&A. In previous years I might have said something like, man, if I had a movie at a film festival and it had two shows a day apart, I'd be there for both, hanging around to watch movies, and so on. On the other hand, almost every flight I've tried to schedule lately has either been at a stupid times or ridiculously expensive, and hotel rooms ain't cheap either. Combine that with all the stories you hear about just how middle-class people in this business actually are during the strike, and, well, I get it a bit better now.

Next up: A Chinese Ghost Story, Booger, Insomniacs After School, Things That Go Bump in the East, and Devils. And because this took such an unconscionably long time to post (some early starts and work I couldn't just half-pay attention to), I'll drop two tentative days worth of "where to say hi" in that I'm planning to attend My Animal, Killing Romance, and Mad Cats today (4 August) and God of Cookery, the International sci-fi shorts, Molli and Max in the Future, Onyx the Fortuitious and the Talisman of Souls, and Suitable Flesh tomorrow (5 August), with Piaffe noted as at being least interesting.

In My Mother's Skin

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

The sort of horror movie that can frustrate me, personally, because I've got a brain intent on decoding its uncanny events and true horror in some ways comes from how it resists being figured out or assigned values. That's especially the case when they take place from a child's point of view, and maybe part of the point of movies like this is that the world runs on rules that one can't grasp when it's not just randomly cruel.

So it is here, in the home of a comfortable family in the Philippines as World War II stretches on in 1945: Father Romualdo and mother Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez), children Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) and Bayani, with servant Amor (Angeli Bayani) looking after their needs. A collaborator by the name of Antonio has accused "Aldo" of stealing and hiding some Japanese gold as he prepares for a trip into town, leaving the oft-sickly Ligaya to watch the children. As the food runs out, the practical Tala goes to search the woods, finding a mysterious building with a Fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) who sees all through the local insects, and offers some help - and though Tala is smart enough to know these offers seldom come without strings, the situation feels desperate.

There's a strange tightness to this film, with the opening suggesting a much wider wartime-horror scenario and both the question of the gold and Aldo's absence lingering over the story but not actively engaged with. Which is not to say that individual stakes are not worth one's concerns, just that they sometimes wobble - the mix of how even children must do desperate things to survive during wartime, the sins of the parents being visited upon them, and the war perhaps being smaller than the greater forces around it don't always gel into something that really drills into one part of a viewer's mind, unless there's a specific phobia of having insects burrow under one's skin in play. The film winds up trading largely on atmosphere.

Heck of an atmosphere, though: It all takes place in and around this isolated manor that almost feels safe but soon clearly isn't: It's not a grandiose mansion, no, but the ceilings are clearly too high to be in scale with Tala and Bayani, and one can sense that a fair amount of time has passed without Aldo's presence by how the characters have rationed the food down to the last sweet potato. It's just enough for them to have felt safe before the chaotic forces of nature and decay began pushing their way in, so that even without making it a classic creepy house, the danger of the place reveals itself. It's no wonder the Fairy is able to find an easy mark in Tala, as the film's designers make her otherworldly but vibrant, with Jasmine Curtis-Smith doing an excellent job of sweetly smiling as she tells Tala that this is going to cost her dearly while leaving just enough doubt and suggesting that she's a smart and responsible enough child to handle it.

That plays off a very nice performance by young star Felicity Kyle Napuli; she's got the lack of seeming sensible and mature but revealing innocence as the film goes on, which is often the opposite of this sort of film's path, where the unsuspecting heroine discovers inner strength. The audience wouldn't be with her if she were any sort of fool. Beauty Gonzalez seems to have quite the time moving between the weak but respectable mother and the moth-possessed monster.

It builds up to an impressively gory finale, albeit one that has me thinking "so, now what?" as the credits roll. Ultimately, the atmosphere and interesting images are enough.

Lovely, Dark, and Deep

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

As a person who quite likes looking at the great outdoors but finds little to be scarier than being stuck in it, I'm an easy mark for movies like Lovely, Dark, and Deep, although it seems like few ever come up with a more interesting idea than making hikers have to deal with serial killers. This one, on the other hand, has some genuinely scary material that it takes its time unwrapping, and the end result may be the best thing the genre has produced in years.

After an ominous opening that explains why there's a job opening at Arvores National Park, we meet Lennon (Georgina Campbell), a newly-transferred ranger who has listed it as her dream job ever since she signed up. Many of the other rangers seem to think something is off about her without hearing the conspiracy-theory podcasts she was listening to on the drive in, but you've got to be kind of off to spend a month in a cabin mostly contacting other rangers by walkie-talkie, though her neighbor Jackson (Nick Blood) is very friendly. What she doesn't advertise is that her little sister disappeared in this park on a visit twenty years ago, and she intends to spend her time looking for any trace, and making damn sure it doesn't happen again when someone like Sara Greenberg (Maria de Sá) disappears from her party, even though head ranger Zhang (Wai Ching Ho) tells her to stay at her station.

Boredom and intermittent strangeness can make a person paranoid or give them heightened awareness of anything just a little bit off, but the trick with a movie is to make this thing that happens over weeks happen in days. What gives Lovely the makings of a nifty little thriller is that writer/director Teresa Sutherland believably gives it a jump-start, in that Lennon is already into a rabbit hole explained by flashbacks and a constant early flirting with the line between reasonably irresponsible. This allows Sutherland to go a good long time without really getting serious about its potential supernatural elements but keeping them around so that the last act needn't feel like a betrayal, and everything winds up fitting together with a little thought.

And even when Sutherland does open things up enough to hint that there may be a pattern beyond Lennon's sister, she's smart to present even the trippiest situations filled with unsettling effects, camerawork, and editing through Lennon's prism. That's great not just because it preserves ambiguity about whether this is something paranormal or just in her mind, but because it means that no matter how strange or unreal things may get, Lennon's obsession and potential ability to find a way to channel it into something positive rather than self-destruction is going to be at the heart of it. No matter how strange things may get, this is Lennon's story, and consequential.

That calls for a pretty nice piece of work by lead actress Georgina Campbell, who manages an impressive level of intensity and obsession even though she's mostly on her own and doesn't have someone else to inflict it on or be measured by. It's the sort of thing that could lead to a lot of gritted teeth or defiant exposition, but instead you get the feeling of someone who has become capable and professional as a sort of by-product of their mania - Lennon is going to be tempted by a lot of things, but isn't necessarily going to scream about them. Interestingly, the three biggest roles are different takes on the professionalism this job in general and the unique circumstances of the park require, with Nick Blood finding a way to jump from gregarious to curt when lives are on the line, and Wai Ching Ho not necessarily having something soft under Zhang's quiet and stern exterior, but perhaps surprising empathy.

(Mai Ching Ho is perhaps the movie's most interesting casting; an accent that implies she immigrated as an adult and appearances in Lennon's flashbacks suggests an interesting backstory beyond how her life intersects with Lennon's and reinforces an idea that these parks belong to and can be enjoyed by everyone that runs counter to a potential "keep out!" message.)

There's something unsettling by the time Lovely, Dark, and Deep ends beyond knowing what happened twenty years ago or during Lennon's first summer as a ranger that's kind of clever: By the end, it has quietly articulated how one can both love the great outdoors and be wary of it, even if that's not always what is going on up front.

Les Rascals

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Typically when one calls a movie frustrating, it's a negative, something said about bad craftsmanship, but at other times, as in Les Rascals, one can take it as a sign of just how well the film has one looking at the rest of the world. Even if you don't know the specifics of how mid-1980s Paris was priced for violence, or exactly how ascendant the far-right is there now, this film tracks in a number of ways, because the where and when of such events seldom changes the forces at work.

It opens in 1977, as Ruddy, a kid from a West Indian family, and his nephew Michel run into Ahmed and his friend ready to take their own frustrations out on the black kids, at least until the chase leads them into a back alley where street tough Loki (Pierre Cevaer) and his friends opt to teach them a lesson and the younger kids forge a bond. Seven years later, Ruddy (Jonathan Feltre), Ahmed (Missoum Slimani), now going by "Rico", and three other friends are calling themselves "Les Rascals", with matching jackets and the like, with "Mitch" (Emerick Mamilonne) a hanger-on despite his brighter academic prospects, but they're mostly just punks even if they exist on the fringes of actual serious criminals - at least until Rico recognizes Loki working in a record store and delivers a beating that puts him in the hospital. Ironically, Loki seems to feel like he had this coming for the sins of his youth, but his younger sister Frédérique (Angelina Woreth) doesn't see it that way, especially once a professor asks her to see grad student Adam (Victor Meutelet) as a tutor. Adam may be handsome and clean-cut, but he's also quite skinhead-adjacent.

One of the first notes things I remembered noting during the screening was that, for something taking place in the mid-1980s, it often gave off a 1950s vibe in the costumes, decor, and music choices, and it turns out to be a really clever bit of construction on the part of the filmmakers: Though much of the early going seems to be looking to trigger nostalgia, even if it's a clear-eyed one that acknowledges racism and violence, the filmmakers remember that the early 80s had an awful lot of looking back at the 1950s - this was the age of Grease, Happy Days, and Back to the Future in America and the French have always had a fondness for that sort of Americana, despite stereotypes otherwise - and the chain formed this way has a lesson about how some dissatisfied people are always looking back, but that you can probably follow that string back forever and not find a golden age. It's no coincidence that Ruddy's family is placing their hopes in Mitch, who is breakdancing rather than appropriating rockabilly; he's the future.

If the family has a future, that is, because Les Rascals is a ticking time bomb of a movie: As Ruddy finds himself kind of adrift - he's not a great student, isn't naturally ruthless enough to be a particularly effective criminal, and can't find a job until he's completed military service that gives him qualms as a black man in a country that hasn't put its colonialist past behind it - the segments with Fred are showing just how easy it can be to slip into radicalism - and how easily calmer voices can be discarded, considering how Loki is sidelined as an influence on his sister once Adam has his claws in her. There's a sense of the whole cast being funneled toward their final confrontation.

It's a nice cast as well, especially Jonathan Feltre, who gives off a ton of quiet frustration as Ruddy grows out of youthful foolishness but doesn't have an appealing way forward, and can't quite articulate how frustrating it is that his own mother seems to think he's hopeless and thinks less of him than her other son, Mitch's father, who is in prison. He projects a fierce but not necessarily virtuous loyalty, like it's the only thing in the world he's got to cling to. On the other side, Angelina Woreth and the filmmakers exploit how quick and easy an earnest young white woman can gain sympathy to create nifty moments of tension entirely built around whether Fred will be seduced by Adam and his way of thinking, hitting sympathetic beats well enough that one maybe doesn't realize just how lost she is until it's far too late.

This leads to a finale of often-shocking violence which director/co-write Jimmy Laporal-Trésor deploys ruthlessly, taking the time to sideline the characters who have no stomach for it on-screen, and while there's often tension, it's never exciting violence that feels like a way to prove righteousness. Indeed, as it goes on, anything like Ruddy swinging his fists, screaming at the person who deserves it, will be reduced in importance, and the politicization will increase, from skinheads attacking more moderate rivals to which bits of bloodshed get used for a narrative in the media.

It's sadly familiar, of course, even across an ocean and forty years. But, then, the good old days are always just one generation back, and breaking the cycle is hard.

Guan yu wo han gui bian cheng jia ren de na jian shi (Marry My Dead Body)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

There's a really strong "sure, why not?" vibe to this that I really like even if it may be kind of iffy in some areas - it's willing to go for the joke and surprisingly good at selling it when it's out there. The high concept and the cop story don't really feel like they belong together at times, but the filmmakers execute well enough to realize that they've actually got a situation where people will accept "it's fate!" if they don't abuse it.

The cop in question is Detective Wu Ming-Han (Greg Hsu Kuang-Han), who is homophobic enough after busting a gay man in a gym's locker room for it not to seem like a good look, especially to co-worker Tzu-Ching (Gingle Wang Ching), who is exceptionally competent but mostly gets assigned to duties that highlight how good she looks in her uniform. After they run down drug dealer A-Gao (Chang Tsai-Hsing), Wu picks up a red envelope while gathering evidence, only to find it was planted by an old lady (Wang Man-Chiao) looking to arrange a "ghost marriage" for her gay grandson Mao Pang-yu (Lin Po-Hung). Not going through with it would be extremely bad luck, even beyond being reassigned to a tiny police station, but when Wu discovers he can see and hear "Mao-Mao", they decide that the best way to get him to reincarnate is seeing to his unfinished business, either with boyfriend Chen Chia-Hao (Aaron Yan) or tracking down the car that hit him, which turns out to be tied to the crime boss Tzu-Ching and the rest of Wu's former colleagues are investigating, Lin Hsiao-Yuan (Tsai Chen-Nan).

Writer/director Cheng Wei-Hao is likely best known for directing the first two movies in Taiwan's The Tag-Along horror series, but is obviously going for a much lighter sort of ghost story here, hitting quite a few familiar beats: Wu talks a lot to someone everyone else can't see, while Mao tries to help by giving him information he couldn't actually know, at least once he's through making Wu squirm for being a prejudiced jerk that he doesn't really want to be attached to. Some of the jokes about gay guys and straight guys have whiskers on them - Wu comes off as the sort of man who likes to dress to impress right up until it's time for Mao to sadly shake his head, for instance - but there's also some kind of interesting material about how Taiwan actually making same-sex marriage legal kind of messed with a culture built on the assumption of being an outsider.

Making a movie is in large part execution as much as creativity, though, and a lot of this one is just plain done well. Take that car chase in the first act, for instance; it has a really good rhythm even if it also feels like a lot was built inside a computer; it went from storyboard to shooting to effects very well indeed. Cheng and his co-writers have a good handle on how to manage a zany but friendly tone without making the audience balk at taking shortcuts, both in how it quickly establishes that most everyone here from cops to grannies treats homophobia as, at best, embarrassingly old-fashioned and in how it uses the same sort of supernatural belief in fate that weds Wu and Mao to tie the pieces of its story together without relying on lucky coincidences. Bits like how actually possessing someone isn't good for a ghost keep things from being too easy but also lead to enjoyably goofy things like the visual of Mao taking a deep drag of burning incense to recharge and reform.

Greg Tsu and Lin Po-Hung make a likable enough odd couple; their scenes together are better than just being perfunctory but they fall a bit short of actually growing into buddies rather than people who don't actually dislike each other. They're likable enough once the initial friction is past, and Hsu has Wu grow out of his bad habits nicely. As is often the case, the supporting characters often get to have more fun: Wang Man-Chiao seemingly has a ball as a matchmaking-granny stereotype who is aggressively up for applying that to Mao, while Gingle Wang is exceptionally good at having Tzu-Ching know she's much smarter than a himbo like Wu without pushing it past where it's funny.

One kind of wants more of Gingle Wang despite also being glad that this isn't a movie about a gay person helping two straights get together, and the fact that someone like Tzu-Ching simultaneously gets a lot of attention and overlooked does pay off. The resolution may ultimately be a little long on "okay, I guess that happened", but what can you do when one of the main characters was dead to start with? This sort of broad comedy didn't need more weight at the end than that anyway.

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