Friday, September 22, 2023

Fantasia 2023 in theaters: It Lives Inside (and Creation of the Gods Part 1: Kingdom of Storms)

I should really be caught up to It Lives Inside by now and the degree to which I am behind in reviews these days has me worried that I might have some Covid brain fog or whatever. I feel like I've grown much worse at focusing as I've gotten older.

Anyway, I'll circle back around to the Q&A for It Lives Inside eventually, but the crowd seemed to be into it a lot more than you might think from some of the ratings I've seen; I dug it.

As for Creation of the Gods, which I saw as part of an early Imax run, it all but sold out the big Imax screen at Boston Common, and if I wasn't the only person there who needed subtitles, it was close. I'd forgotten just what a long gestation period this has had; I believe it started shooting almost ten years ago, soon after Wuershan's Mojin movie, intended to be the first of a trilogy that was all shot at once, Lord of the Rings style, but it had financing and pipeline problems as far as post-production was concerned even before Covid. This first film, at least, doesn't look any more compromised than the typical big-budget Chinese fantasy, although it may be a situation where the box office from this will be feeding post-production on the rest. For what it's worth, it's got at least two mid-credit stings and there was a screen that had some English text for "Creation of the Gods Part 2" that looked like the title card for this one, although I couldn't suss out a subtitle or release date.

The credits were mainly Chinese, but I spotted James Schamus's name early on, though it's not clear in what capacity; his IMDB page doesn't list this

I wound up liking It Lives Inside more than Gods, but both are interesting options for a weekend full of "sure, we've got a screen for that" releases.

It Lives Inside

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 August 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

It Lives Inside is a classic-style "monster brought here from abroad" thriller that thankfully puts its Indian-American characters at the center rather than making them mentors whose warnings are dismissed before inconveniently dying, which doesn't happen as much as it used to but is still more common than you'd like. The filmmakers don't always hit their marks but the movie has a strong enough center to get past that and become a solid monster movie.

Meet Samidha "Sam" Avasthi (Megan Suri), a thoroughly assimilated teenage daughter of Indian immigrants who has little time for the traditions her mother Radha (Sangeeta Wylie) finds important, preferring not to do anything that might might make her seem strange to white best friend Kitty or crush Russ (Gage Marsh). She and another Indian-American classmate, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), used to be inseparable, but of late Tamira looks enough of a wreck that concerned teacher Joyce (Betty Gabriel) asks Sam to find out what's wrong. The answer? Tamira is carrying a glass jar that she claims contains the evil spirit that killed their neighbors, the exact sort of thing that a girl like Sam who doesn't want to be seen as a weird foreigner is going to dismiss until it's too late.

The center of this movie is undoubtedly lead actress Megan Suri, who ably embodies all of the things about teenagers, in particular fully-Americanized children of immigrants, that make them so amazing and so frustrating: Sam is smart and self-aware enough to take initiative but volatile enough to do the wrong thing in ways that can really gum up the works, and Suri does a very nice job of making the audience able to empathize even when they can see her doing something dumb or unkind. Suri and writer/director Bishal Dutta clearly know what makes a good horror heroine, with her rough edges all things that can become something else; a viewer can see that she's got the potential to swing a mace at an invisible demon even if she's also really not there yet at the start.

When that demon does reveal itself, it's enjoyably monstrous, a giant that may once have been human but has both shed its skin to bones and replaced it with cancerous hate. It's mostly realized practically, so it winds up being tactile enough to make folks getting run through or thrown around hurt. It is, perhaps, fully invisible or in the shadows for a bit too long, and its choices of who gets killed immediately and who is tortured are seemingly more what the movie needs at the moment than anything consistent. Dutta does not exactly reinvent the wheel with this pishach, staging chases where sinks into shadows or attacks invisibly in ways that will be fairly familiar to a lot of horror fans, but those pieces are effective, with darting cameras and nervous potential victims keeping the viewers on their toes. One may snicker a bit about how incredibly obviously haunted one house is, but that doesn't make it less creepy.

The film can be a bit thin otherwise; one character who seemed at least potentially important early on just disappears halfway through, and the material with Sam and her mother butting heads can at times be frustratingly formulaic. No, teenagers and their parents who disagree on many things but share stubbornness are not going to be particularly witty or creative in how they clash, but they often seem to be going through the motions a bit, especially since there's no way that the movie doesn't have Radha's knowledge of their homeland's tradition and folklore be a key part of arming Sam to fight the demon. Give Sangeeeta Wylie credit for playing the sort of mother who can fight with her daughter non-stop and then pivot to that sort of thing; there's also some nice support from Mohana Krishnan, who does a nice overwhelmed terror as Tamira, and Betty Gabriel for making sure that every time Betty goes above and beyond to be useful to the story comes off as her being a teacher who is very involved with her students.

For all its shortcomings, It Lives Inside pays off with a boss battle that nicely combines Sam focusing her mind to defeat a creature that feeds on toxic emotions with actually slugging it out, and an epilogue that has a bit more substance than just setting up one extra scare. Some of the connective tissue is almost thin enough to snap, but the pieces it's holding together are strong.

Feng shen Di yi bu: Zhao Ge feng yun (Creation of the Gods Part 1: Kingdom of Storms)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2023 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax Xenon)

After watching Wuershan's long-gestating first Creation of the Gods film, I felt the need to go back over what I said about the director's previous films to see if I should be a bit disappointed by this one or nod and say that it being an impressively-mounted mess is about what I should have expected. It's great-looking, full of big adventure and grandiose scale, but also feels a little hollow. I get the feeling that 30 years ago, Tsui Hark would have made a much more fun version with 2% of the budget.

As it opens, the Shang army has traveled north to deal with Lord Su who has refused to pay his tribute, with Prince Yin Shou (Fei Xiang aka Kris Philips) leading the Hostage Battalion - 800 sons of lords meant to keep them from getting out of line - including the highly loyal Ji fa (Yu Shi) and Yin Shou's own son, Yin Jiao (Luke Chen Muchi). They chase the Su family down to the Xuanyuan Tomb, where they disturb something dark, and the lord's daughter Su Daji (Na Ran aka Narana Erdyneeva) awakens from her suicide very different indeed, soon feeding Shou's ambitions to be King himself. This will place a Great Curse on the land, leading the mystic immortals of Kunlun to dispatch one of their number, Jiang Ziya (Huang Bo), to deliver the new King a holy artifact, the Fengshen Bang, with fellow immortals Nezha (Wu Yafan) and Yang Jian (Sha Chi) along for protection - although Ziya is soon convinced that Shou cannot be trusted to use the Fengshan properly.

That's a lot, and there's more, and the two mid-credit teasers suggest that the sequels will be even more packed with lore. As a result, Creation is too often the sort of blend of fantasy and mythology that has scale but not weight: The Great Curse doesn't seem to be hurting the parts of the setting we can see too much (palaces are isolated from that sort of thing), with prophecies, magic items, and strange creatures that don't raise as many eyebrows as maybe they should for their rarity and danger are all part of the scene. There's betrayals and plots and cutthroat politics that maybe play better if you've been more immersed in this material earlier (for example, including Nezha as a supporting character is sort of like having Hercules show up in a Western fantasy without explaining his mythology). But what's it all about? Early on, there's this sort of nugget of an idea that a dynasty destroying itself so destabilizes the world that new gods must be created to heal it, but that at best seems like one of the many things that hopefully pay off in part 2. It's genre material that is so busy moving around that it never has much at the center.

Part of the problem is how dull the likely heroes are; Yu Shi and Luke Chen Muchi don't have much chance to differentiate Ji Fa and Yin Jiao in the early going, coming off as blandly noble in much the same way, easily upstaged by the immortals even though this is the pair's story as much as it is anyone's. There are hints of potentially interesting directions to go - Yin Shou's own son seeing corruption that hostage Ji Fa, desperately loyal to too many masters, cannot confront, for instance - but they don't have enough to do to demonstrate the basics of their personalities through action.

The movie's got villains, at least - Yin Shou is a pretty standard emperor who rises through treachery, but he's established as a genuine maniac early on and Fei Xiang gives him major "of course I can do this, I'm king!" energy, a monstrous true believer who briefly seems genuinely sad to kill a hostage soldier who has been nothing but loyal to the dynasty early on. only reveling in it later. Shou is no Macbeth, but Fei plays how ambition and power bring corruption to the surface well, while Na Ran makes the leap to delightedly enabling this much earlier. Together, they can manage both a delightfully manic musical interlude and a relationship that's a little more interesting than the two alpha villains awaiting the chance to betray one another and size sole power.

And, of course, Wuershan and his team can still put together really pretty pictures, the calling card of four previous visually-stunning films. It's a little unsteady - the overwhelming construction of a massive sacrificial pyre is juxtaposed with some really terrible compositing as Ziya almost blunders into being trampled by elephants - but there's seldom a feel that Wuershan is holding back and saving budget for the climax, even if the film could probably stand to be a little less pretty as it claims the kingdom is suffering under the Great Curse. And for as good as much of the big finale is, some of what he chooses not to show plainly is very frustrating: A decapitation deserves a chance to have emotional impact, rather than being edited into uncertainty, even if the censor board won't allow one to be too graphic. I don't know that we ever get a clear shot of the fifteen-foot-tall statues that come to life and start chasing the heroes, instead either framing too tightly on Ji Fa at ground level or overwhelming with fiddly little details. Let us gawk and be impressed!

That wish for the movie to just let the awesome bits breathe highlights where it succeeds and where it fails as much as anything. As with a lot of fantasies, Creation of the Gods works best when it lets the audience bask in something they can instinctively understand, blown up larger than life, but stumbles when it overwhelms with details and explanations kept off-screen for too long.

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