Thursday, August 10, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.07: A Chinese Ghost Story, "How to Get Rid of Your Cheating Husband", Booger, Insomniacs After School, Things That Go Bump in the East, and Devils

Not seen until a couple days later, but those "Lost Cat" signs are some clever viral marketing for Booger and a colorful way to spruce up some shuttered storefronts, including one which I think was another regular Fantasian's favorite coffee shop.

Anyway, there's Booger writer/director Mary Dauterman (on the write) with the festival's Justine Smith, talking about how, yes, this film takes place in a very specific part of Brooklyn because that's where they live, and that the Booger we see on-screen is her cat half the time and a couple of "professional" cats at others, although I gather the pros were only marginally easier to work with.

Here is some of the line-up of folks who made "Things That Go Bump in The East", a pretty good turn-out considering how much we're talking about short films made on the other side of the planet, here. From left to right - and apologies for where my notes are bad - we have "English Tutor" producer Jung Jongmin, cinematographer Paik Won-jo, and writer/director Koo Jaho; "You Will See" co-star Chng Min-Si and cinematographer Perrin Tan; "Foreigners Only" cinematographer Ali Ejaz Mehedi and director Nuhash Humayun; "Tang" filmmaker Kim Min-jeong, and host Steven Lee. Nuhash Humayun also had a feature in the festival, and was one of the most voluble folks in the Q&A, joking about how this was all based on a real thing in Bangladesh and how he's not necessarily immune to the pressures involved, as the "fake" North American accent he was using wasn't exactly how he spoke at home.

Finally, we wound up the day back across the street in Hall with director Kim Jae-Hoon there for Devils, which had a lot of people talking about it being gorier/more violent than usual, enough to make me wonder if maybe Korean movies have been smoothing themselves out for a more mainstream/international audience? I mean, I haven't really joked about a movie having a Korean level of violence lately, sure, but Project Wolf Hunting wasn't that long ago.

Next up: A quick detour into Fantasia stuff coming out over the next week, and then Hippo, Baby Assassins 2, and Where the Devil Roams as part of the next "regular update". As I post this, the festival is over, but I've got plenty of Letterboxd entries to expand and shorts to write up.

Sien lui yau wan (A Chinese Ghost Story)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Fantasia Retro, 35mm)

This movie really is just a classic of pulling one crazy thing on top of another that looks like just another briskly zany Hong Kong horror-fantasy-comedy, although if that these things were a dime a dozen I've admittedly got to rack my brains a little as I consider how many of the similar movies I'm thinking about came afterward and tried to imitate what this team did exceptionally well. If this movie's not best-in-class, it's right up there.

After an opening where a scribe meets his end at the hands of a ghostly dancing woman, the film introduces Ling Choi San (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing), a shabby traveler who just barely passes a number of dangers and indignities as he makes his way to a town where he's expected to collect a number of debts, as well as swordsmen Yin Chek Ha (Wu Ma) and Hsia Hou (Lam Wai), who have a long rivalry and have chosen the haunted grounds of the Lan Po temple on which to duel. When the broke Choi-San is directed to the temple as a place to sleep without paying, they expect he won't return, but he serendipitously evades some ghosts and throws another, Lip Siu-Sin (Joey Wong Cho-Yin), off with his general decency, to the point where she finds herself unwilling to murder him. Of course, she is by far the most sweet-natured supernatural entity on the premises.

Of all the things that work just a little bit better than could be expected, the not-so-secret weapon is Leslie Cheung, who takes the stock character of the nice but inept twit stumbling through the crazy situation and makes him a genuine heart of the movie hero even though Yuen Kai-Chi's script never actually makes him better at fighting or doing the sort of magic that dispatches supernatural villains. That is a lot more rare than you'd think for the number of these movies that have this naif at their center, but Cheung has the sort of natural sweetness the part needs and an ability to handle tragedy when it becomes clear that Siu-Sin's best ending might be reincarnation rather than resurrection. He and Joey Wong play off each other very nicely at that, she's believably a reluctant monster. Wu Ma, meanwhile, is a counterpart to them falling for each other with bombastic delivery and pragmatism about how she's a ghost and part of something that could cause disaster and he's just a goober who will likely be no help at all.

It's also got some really nifty monster effects in its dessicated mummies, who maybe don't always look great when seen in full, but the filmmakers really maximize their effect when they are introduced, making a scene organized more around comic beats than actual scares still feel sinister and dangerous. The delight taken in the film's special effects work is probably a big part of why the film is often associated as much with producer Tsui Hark as director Tony Ching Siu-Tung, although his work is nothing to sneeze at; he The film is full of fun bits of supernatural madness, including demon weddings and the confidence to do almost zero effects when characters open a portal to another world because there doesn't really need to be something cool there and it would just distract from the thing that's going on and what's up next.

And, yes, there's flying martial arts; Tony Ching started his career as a director with Duel to the Death and is one of the action directors here, and the action always plays as pretty substantial: Even as Wu Man, Lam Wai, Lau Siu-Ming and others are leaping at each other and trading blows with swords as they go by, it seldom feels like there isn't effort behind these impossible showdowns, as opposed to people flying and posing at each other for energy blasts.

All in all, It's a confident, entertaining movie that really nails what makes the genre work at its best.

"How to Get Rid of Your Cheating Husband"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival Underground, digital)

There's an "oblivious-influencer" dynamic to this movie that I don't quite get - insert humblebrag about not watching the kind of short internet videos in question here - but which is kind of amusing regardless, like these two are so far up their own tails that the fact that one friend's husband was another's boyfriend even registers as weird and uncomfortable. Like, it's not so much that they should hate each other rather than him, but that they don't even seem capable enough of extending their awareness that far from their individual selves.

It's kind of the most memorable thing about the short, really; that vibe (combined with German actors who I suspect are exaggerating odd accents when speaking English) is far more memorable than any twist or line that arises out of it.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival Underground, DCP)

On the one hand, I always feel embarrassed during this festival about taking days or weeks to get reviews posted. On the other, circling back a week later and comparing what stuck with me to what is in my notes and quick entry on Letterboxd is often clarifying and an odd contrast: For example, a week and a half away from Booger, I had almost completely forgotten that there was a fantasy/horror component to the movie, which speaks to how well the rest of it is done, considering the festival where I watched it.

"Booger" is the name Izzy (Sofia Dobrushin) gives to a stray cat that showed up in the apartment she shared with longtime best friend Anna (Grace Glowicki) a couple years back and decided to stay over Anna's initial objections. But now Izzy has died, and while Anna is trying real hard to hold it together, she can't afford the rent on her own, Izzy's mother Joyce (Marcia DeBonis) is in and out to pack up her daughter's things, and Anna's boyfriend Max (Garrick Bernard) is kind of pissing her off by acting even more broken up about Izzy even though they were never really friends without Anna as an intermediate. On top of that, when Anna tries to get Booger to stop gnawing on a plant, the cat bites her and bolts out an open window, and if it wasn't bad enough that Anna lost Izzy's cat, it's starting to look like that bite is making Anna take on some feline characteristics.

So, if I don't remember much of the whole "turning into a cat person" thing, what did stick in my mind. Well, Grace Glowicki as Anna, mainly; she's in nearly every scene of the movie and gives a performance that stacks all of Anna's emotions rather than switching between them: Weird cat stuff on top of her clearly using her lost cat to keep from collapsing from the loss of her friend on top of the sort of grief that leads to other forms of denial to how she was maybe not entirely sure of herself before all this. She's sort of on her own for much of the movie, although one noteworthy element is just how well she pairs with Marcia DeBonis in navigating the empty space that's supposed to link them; DeBonis's Joyce is obviously devastated while also giving the impression that, at her age, she's encountered death a little more and understands the emotions around it better. It's also impressive just how strong an impression Sofia Dobrushin makes as Izzy in quick bits of random vertical video from the girls' phones, enough to get the impression Anna kind of orbited around her and make other remembrances ring true.

The cat-person story is what sells the movie, though, and even if it falls away when considering what makes this a noteworthy film, in the present one may find oneself wondering if maybe writer/director Mary Dauterman over-committed to the bit, just a little? For as much as I loved the central performance and the sharp way that it looks at grief, there comes a point where I'm a little more tempted to groan and wonder just how many things along these lines that they intended to do, especially when the expressions of it get a little more grotesque than just Anna's habit of licking at the hair that dangles to her mouth. It's not just kind of nasty, but a viewer can kind of feel early on that this isn't really going to be a film where the end is a complete physical transformation or Anna otherwise losing her humanity.

The execution of those things is often pretty strong, though, almost all done with body language and just unwavering dedication to doing this thing, no matter how weird or gross it may be. Still, I think the line which stands out the most is "she was going to leave me?", which changes the grief in a way the audience immediately understands and makes both Anna and Izzy more imperfectly human without ever having to tear either down, even if there's another, more consequential moment that upends the story more.

It's a really impressive little movie in a lot of ways, even if I do worry that the next person I recommend it to won't realize what they're in for.

Kimi wa Hokago Insomnia (Insomniacs After School)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival Underground, DCP)

Is there something about the manga magazine to movie pipeline that enables Japan to send two or three pretty darn good coming of age stories to this festival (which mainly features genre cinema) every year when it seems like this is a genre we barely do in America? Do these movies play theatrically and do well? I'm so curious, because even something as specific in its details as Insomniacs After School is going to be universal to some extent.

It opens with high-school student Ganta Nakami (Daiken Okudaira), who wanders around at night unable to sleep, only to find himself crashing during school hours, thinking he's the only one like this until, sent up to the school's disused observatory on an errand, he discovers Isaki Magari (Nana Mori), a bubbly, popular girl, napping there in a storage locker. They quickly bond over their shared affliction, though school nurse Kurashiki (Yuki Sakurai) informs them that 1 in 4 Japanese have some sort of sleeping disorder, and suggests they re-start an astronomy club to legitimize the use of the room, putting them in contact with graduate Yui Shiromaru (Minori Hagiwara), who led the club the last time it existed and won an award for her astrophotography, though Isaki doesn't take to the technique nearly as well as Ganta.

One thing that I particularly like is that, despite what that last sentence may imply, it's not long after the moment when one recognizes that the movie is kind of built around the boy's perspective and interest that it finds a way to give the girl something that could, eventually, be more hers than his. In some ways, that's the bare minimum, but it's important: A lot of movies don't manage that, and it's very welcome, especially when a person has seen a lot of them and can sort of spot the point where one character may wind up the means for the others to learn a valuable lesson, which is fairly adroitly handled here.

The very appealing leads are a big part of why this is another strong entry in the genre: Daiken Okudaira, for instance, is likable and earnest enough as Ganta but does capture that even a genuinely decent-hearted person can tend to make things about himself, both in terms of being a bit selfish and overreacting when things go wrong, while Nana Mori brings the stubbornness and perhaps desperation behind Isaki's cheerfulness. There are also a bunch of supporting characters who carve out individual places and personalities in pretty limited time, particularly Minori Hagiwara as the nurse one suspects has some sort of similar issues of her own and Haruka Kudo as Isaki's sister Saya, who feels more like a genuine sibling with whom one has a complicated relationship than is often the case in Japanese films (often, there seems to be an age gap or implication that brothers and sisters inhabit different worlds that isn't present here). That includes parents who, even when they're not around much, at least feel like a daily, concerned part of their kids' lives.

Co-writer/director Chihiro Ikeda, for the most part, avoids much in the way of filigree; the film is cleanly shot and generally opts for characters telling each other things rather than flashbacks, because in most cases the fact of someone opening up about what happened is actually more important than its details. They're good at making the quiet emptiness of these towns at night beautiful but also just a bit off; it's nice for Ganta and Isaki to have special space, but less so that they need it. The locations, from the high school with the unlikely observatory to the old ruin Ganta uses as background for a photograph (one of the few times the film gets fancy or clever with its shooting), are enjoyably specific.

It is, as per usual, a very direct film aimed at teenagers like its characters, but it does that very well indeed.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

A young man wanders through an empty school building, inescapable music in the air, but when he finds the person playing it, it only makes things scarier.

Filmmaker Tarun Thind jumps on some pretty common nightmare elements and executes them well, from the unnerving setting with endless hallways that never seem to lead outside to how discovering a musician rather than just something on the PA only makes it worse to the final overload. I suspect that it might have worked even better for me if I had recognized "God Save the Queen" as the tune being played on Indian instruments; knowing that, it works even better as an idea that this definitionally British thing is pervasive even now, having wormed its way into South Asian culture even where it's incompatible and done damage whether one tries to resist or not.

"Two Side"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

What initially simply looks like a case of school bullying reveals itself as something more sinister, the student at the center starts cracking up.

This is a really nifty short that, perhaps, hints at a sort of cycle of predation on top of the main character just losing his mind, as its animation piles symbol upon ambiguous symbol, with mirrors and masks, the latter literally having two faces. The crime at the center definitely happened, of course, but the implication is that the victim had done the same thing at some point, and so on up and down the line; it just turned out worse. Visually, the film is a treat - all that imagery is great to look at and director Luo Mingyang is terrific about jumping from one perspective to another in both smooth and abrupt fashions.

"English Tutor"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

Looking to earn some extra money, a college student (Lee Do-Eun) takes a job tutoring So-yeong (Oh Chae-A), but both the student herself and the obsession of her mother (Seo Hye-In) to hear "just one word in English" soon becomes exceptionally unnerving.

Overall, an impressive horror story that doesn't really mess around with subtlety - both So-yeong and her mother are creepy from the start, both made miserable in their own ways from the pressure put upon them, and Lee Do-Eun has a quick descent from someone approaching a job casually to realizing that when you are brought into someone's home, there's a good chance that you'll encounter all the associated issues within. Writer/director Koo Jaho escalates quickly, so that it's quickly chasing the Tutor outside and offering up a bloody result.

"Foreigners Only"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

A man looking for an apartment (Mostafa Monwar) in Bangladesh finds himself thwarted by numerous openings that are apparently available only to foreigners, building to an obvious solution.

Well, maybe not the obvious solution, as the ads for "Fairosol" skin lightener in the background are apparently only slightly exaggerated from the real projects on offer in South Asia, but the obvious horror movie one. Writer/director Nuhash Humayun is not particularly subtle here, but given how pervasive some of this is, subtlety is not really called for: Between the pervasive advertising and a landlord (Iresh Zaker) making sure that he explains his rationale in clear English (as opposed to Bangala), presenting it as an aspirational issue that nevertheless reveals the sort of combination of snobbery and self-disdain that leads people to diminish themselves. The ultimate solution is gruesome and should logically be fooling nobody, but that's the sick humor of it - people will respond to a surface trait no matter how nasty what's underneath is.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

Well-enough made to feel closer to "a real movie" than machinima (I've seen Unreal Engine credited in enough actual features to recognize how blurred that line can become), although its basic survival-horror material, short runtime, and lack of dialogue tend to leave it open to interpretation while not giving one a whole lot to interpret. I think it's mostly a nightmare of a woman who feels she is somehow inauthentic after losing a lot of weight or otherwise re-shaping her body being chased down by grotesque, fatty monsters and shed skins, though this doesn't seem to be as prevalent a theme in Korean cinema as it had been in previous years. It's fine, and I suspect younger audiences who can engage more emotionally when they see something that looks like a videogame will probably enjoy it more than I.

"You Will See"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

In this one, Gwyn (Chng Min Si) comes into possession of a camera that seems to have a mind of its own as she pushes herself further to capture something meaningful.

The thing that resonates me here is the way that carrying a camera around can mess with your mind in a way that having one as part of your phone doesn't; you're constantly looking for a shot rather than capturing one opportunistically, but also often feeling that you don't necessarily have the right to it, that the striking image you've chosen to capture and save and maybe sell or present often comes from someone else. That's the thing that writer/director Kathleen Bu and actress Chng Min Si capture very well here, from Gwyn's nervousness and urgency to things like the camera straps digging into her shoulders, like it's enslaving or capturing her rather than just functioning as a tool.

"Night of the Bride"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

"Night of the Bride" is a premise that could turn into black comedy with relatively little effort - a young woman (Gurleen Arora) has been kidnapped with the intent to marry her to a desperate mother's son - but writer/director Virat Pal mostly chooses to be relentlessly straightforward in the film's grimness, even if it starts with the odd image of a woman being made up while tied up, like all the questioning and trying to talk one's way out of it happened before that point and now there's just desperate pleading.

Still, that doesn't make Arora's portrayal any less compelling or Harrdeep Kaur any less insane as the mother, and Pal does a nice job of keeping the noose tight, with most of the short taking place within one or two rooms, a wall of resignation among the rest of the cast that seems harder to fight than active cruelty, and a revelation or two that doesn't necessarily surprise but certainly highlights just how difficult these forces can be to resist, even when folks know they are wrong.

"Wang Shen Zhi Ye" ("A Night with Moosina")

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

A busy animated film in which a kid ventures into the forest after seeing a friend emerge changed, but there's a twisting path to getting out of both the forest and a trans stage with one's life.

Director Tsai Shiu-Cheng offers a sumptuous feast of animation, with screens full of bright colors, often crowded with objects meant to keep humans safe from all the spirits in the forest, even as the colors mute as heroine Chun Mei pushes deeper into darkness. It's an adventurous, often riotous spookshow, but Tsai has the knack for letting all that happen at a pace where the next thing is always a few seconds later than it might otherwise be, just enough to make the audience dread what comes next a little bit more.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

As much as yelling "plot hole!" is bad film criticism most of the time, there is some real "we put a lot of effort into showing that something is hard before having it be easy in the home stretch" nonsense going on here that is going to draw that complaint a lot. It maybe shouldn't really matter, because it's mostly in the service of gratuitous last-minute twists which are already kind of a lot, but it does get a "hey!" or at least should.

Two years ago, homicide detective Jae-hwan (Oh Dae-hwan) and partner Gi-nam (Kim Won-hae) thought they had tracked down a ring of serial killers, but things turned sour at the last moment. Now, Jae-hwan has a new partner in Min-seong (Jang Jae-ho), and is determined not to let history repeat when they corner the killers again after a tip from inside the group. During the chase, Jae-hwan and quarry Jin-hyeok (Jang Dong-yoon) vanish when they fall over a ridge, but Jae-hwan's car is soon found with the pair unconscious inside. When he awakes inside the hospital, though, Jae-hwan discovers that he is inside Jin-hyeok's body and vice versa, with the killer threatening to kill his family unless he tracks down Jin-hyeok's partners, so that he can extract revenge for their betrayal.

It doesn't really matter that the end is especially stupid because the film mostly runs on taking a nutty premise and then having something even crazier behind it, and that's executed in such a way to make one kind of admire the sheer audacious nature of it. The cast comes to play, with Jang Dong-yoon making meals of both Jin-hyeok's mad sadism and Jae-hwan's panic while Oh Dae-hwan makes a great leap from "cop on the edge" to sadistic manipulator; if they're not hitting the crazy heights of Travolta and Cage in Face/Off, they're in the same ballpark.

And yet, beyond the high concept, the filmmakers often seem to just go harder instead of enjoying the bold choices they make from the very start. For example, if your serial killers are already painting their victims in weird paint that glows in UV light, why also dismember them? That's taking something that could be uniquely twisted - taunting messages to the forensics guys, for instance - and replacing it with plain gore. There are a half dozen cops in the squad, but none are really memorable, and, heck, even new partner Min-seong is more or less the same guy as Gi-nam, right down to potential family connection. It's bloody, but maybe not that creative in such things aside from the one big idea that carries it for a while, when the plot gives writer/director Kim Jae-Hoon all sorts of opportunity to play with how the line between the cop and killer mindsets can be twisted. Kim's got a story that needs to be very cynical about its cops but doesn't quite manage it.

Kim does have an impressive mean streak, though which manifests itself in impressively staged action as much as so much maniacal laughter. Fights give the characters some room to move and whale on each other, and everything gets bigger and harder without hesitation when it's called for. Big storytelling swings must be accompanied by big action, and he never shrinks from that.

The movie goes from clever to dumb in a big hurry at points, obviously enough to be visible in real time rather than just on further reflection. It's manic enough to keep things going - and at 106 minutes, lean by Korean standards - but sometimes going for broke means falling short even if it's an impressive effort.

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