Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.10: Ms. Apocalypse, New Normal, Tokyo Revengers 2 - Part 1, and Empire V

Always awkward when the official account for a movie follows you on social media, faves and retweets all your posts about the festival, gets a lot of buzz from very enthusiastic programmers, and then you show up and just don't like the movie much at all. Figure I'll get an unfollow for it.

Not from Ms. Apocalypse writer/director Lim Sun-ae, though, there for her second day and had a pretty good film with her. One issue that was brought up was that there isn't a whole lot of representation for the disabled in Korean film (see also: everywhere), although one thing that I found kind of interesting was that I don't think Cho Yu-jin's affliction was ever actually named in the film, although Lim did specify muscular dystrophy in the Q&A. Interesting choice, that; I wonder if it was just a case of not wanting her to explain her condition when there are other, less sympathetic but more individual parts of her personality to highlight, or if it gave the filmmakers a little wiggle room with diagnoses.

I skipped a slot in the middle of the afternoon to get some fish & chips at McKibbins, amused by how, despite their being the official pub of the festival at least since The Irish Embassy burned down and my seeing their same promo before films at least 300 times, conservatively, I had never stepped foot in the place. I may not do so again, as I'm not a drinker and the food was just fne, but I can at least cross it off the list.

(I was kind of surprised to see another location, apparently larger, near the hotel/dorm where I was staying; I'd assumed it was a neighborhood business and now, like, did they expand from the one near Concordia to the one near UQÃM or vice versa, or is this a place that has locations all over Canada/Québec/Montréal and I just thought it was local? That sort of thing can throw you!)

The thing I skipped was A Disturbance in the Force, the documentary about the Star Wars Holiday Special; I've seen too many fandom-oriented documentaries at Boston Sci-Fi and music docs at IFFBoston that were fine but not really interesting, esecially if the subject matter doesn't, and I can't say this thing held any fascination for me, no matter how much I enjoy Star Wars. So I sat down to eat and ran some errands to make sure I had breakfast stuff on-hand at the hotel room instead. My friend Paul, who programs a theater in upstate New York, saw it and shrugged, saying it wasn't great, but he figured he could sell some tickets, although he was kid of surprised that the screening wasn't better-attended, but it's a different world than when we were younger - where once folks may have sought this out from vague memories and the desire to have even a little more material, there is now so much Star Wars that you have to choose what to care about, and the Holiday Special can properly be regarded as a memory-holed dead end.

No guests for the next movie, because it was a last-minute substitution - My Worst Neighbor was, for one reason or another, no longer able to play the festival, so another Korean film, New Normal played in its place (there were noteworthy sponsors for the Korean film series this year, so there are likely reasons for not just treating it as a free slot). This was fine by me; I hadn't been able to fit it in earlier in the week and it looked to have roughly the same vibe. Made for a relatively small crowd in Hall, though, as I figure most folks who wanted to see it had six days earlier.

(The online program shows a short, "Uberlinks", as playing with the film, but my notes have no record of it; maybe it only played with the first screening.)

Director Tsutomu Hanabusa and prodcuer Naohito Inaba (second and third from left) were there for Tokyo Revengers 2 - Part 1, and as you might expect, there wasn't necessarily that much to say afterward, what with Part 2 scheduled for the next night.

Finally, Mitch Davis and Viktor Kinzburg toalking about EMPIRE V, which fills out that big Russia-shaped space on one's Letterboxd map nicely, and which had gotten a hard,enthusiastic push from Mitch in particular and certainly worked to attract some attention, especially with talk about how it had been banned for being too enthusiastic about taking on the oligarchs, but, man, you could feel Mitch's boundless enthusiasm clash with the reality of just how tough a slog this movie can be. One can absolutely see where a programmer's enthusiasm would develop - when watching the screener on a small screen, you would absolutely want to see some of it blown up to the size of a small building, and it's certainly got more ideas up its sleeve than the average blockbuster, but it can be dull to the point of sapping more life than its vampiric characters.

Which does not, oddly enough, make for a bad Q&A! Mitch's enthusiasm was still there after the film, and it is sufficiently strange that Kinzburg couldn't help but have interesting stories, starting with actually having a grant from the cultural ministry that got yanked(*) to and having to make up the rest with crowdfunding and other investors. They also wound up doing some guerrilla-style filmmaking in that they got drone shots in places where even much less paranoid cities than Moscow would prefer you not fly drones; if you want aerial footage of the Kremlin and Red Square, you just have to factor losing a few octocopters into your budget. One of the signals to Russian viewers that these vampire oligarchs have incredible power was apparently that they regularly drove in special lanes meant to be reserved for the military, and, no they did not get permission to do this. More prosaically, the film needed poetry at its climax, and though the source novel was written by a famous poet, he made a show of not wanting to interfere with Kinzburg's vision… and then sent verses in at the last minute.

(*) This was actually a pretty important issue for the festival; during the introduction Mitch noted that they said no to several Russian films, some I believe from folks who had previously had work in the festival, because they had received government funding and they could not, in good conscience, be responsible for money going back to the Russian government.

An interesting day, all around. Next up: A Sunday featuring Motherland, The Concierge, Tokyo Revengers 2 - Part 2, and Late Night with the Devil.

Segimalui Sarang (Ms. Apocalypse, aka Love at the End of the World

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Lim Seon-ae's Ms. Apocalypse winds up being quite a nice film about people who find themselves taken advantage of, either because it's their nature or a means of survival, stopping short of being cynical but remaining quite clear-eyed In some ways, the vibe is that of a found-family story where everyone is painfully aware of just how fragile and conditional those sorts of bonds can be bonds can be.

Consider Kim Young-mi (Lee You-young) as she is in the late 1990s, a bookkeeper at a local factory who werks apart from the rest in an unheated office, while her home life has her effectively the sole caretaker of an aunt suffering from dementia, with cousin Kyu-tae no help. About the only person who seems to see her is co-worker Koo Do-yeong (Roh Jae-won), to the point where she cooks the books to temporarily cover for his shortfalls, which eventually lands them both in jail. Young-mi is released first, in 1999, and the only people meeting her at the jail are Koo's wife Cho Yu-jin (Lim Sun-woo) and her hairdresser/driver Jun. Her aunt's house gone and Kyu-tae nowhere to be found, house demolished and Kyu-tae nowhere to be found, Young-mi winds up moving in with Yu-jin, who may be thoroughly unpleasant but has a spare room and, given her severe neuromuscular disorder, probably needs live-in help.

Yu-jin is, at one point, described as having a terrible personality while being a reasonable person, and there's something interesting about that because it's often a bit of freedom that being disabled takes from a person. The film seldom sets them up in direct opposition to each other, or has them in the same frame, but it's worth noting that Kyu-tae is, more or less, able to get away with being a selfish, unreasonable person, even if the audience despises him, but Yu-jin has to have some sort of heart of gold underneath it all, even if she's got far more reason to be angry at the world than he does, because otherwise the home-care people will refuse to come or they'll feel free to steal, and she's got to hold her tongue even though the world has already kicked her around but good.

Lim Sun-woo takes that part and runs with it, knowing Yu-jin cannot back down until confronted directly, but she and director Lim have a very good sense of where the line is between her harsh words for those around her being darkly comic and it being kind of pathetic, making the moments when she steps over mean something. It's a flashy performance that often outshines that of Lee Yoo-young as Young-mi, by design, but in some ways, that makes Young-mi's efforts to find the happy medium between the people-pleasing nature that has allowed people to walk all over her and the desire to lash out all the more interesting to watch. Lee captures how she knows she wants to be stronger but doesn't necessarily want to be like this without looking indecisive or excessively blank.

One thing that's interesting here is that the filmmakers seem quite conscious of how the characters are using bright colors and style to deflect, but it's very present here without quite becoming tacky. Yes, there's something obvious going on where Young-mi's world is black & white before her arrest and in color afterward, as she's introduced to Yu-jin, Jun, and their bolder personalities, but Lim gets the audience to look closer. Even the new red dye job Young-mi gets early on looks almost instantly faded, and there are other signals that the idea is to remind a viewer of movies with colorful and bright production design where characters can unveil new versions of themselves that reflect what vibrant people they are underneath while also saying that it doesn't exactly work that way. Yu-jin is always making sure she is immaculately turned out, but the audience sees her doing it, and it represents not as much her being strong as her desperate to project strength.

Which doesn't make the movie a downer. It's realistic but doesn't look at its helpful main character as a sap for her good nature, even when she's taken advantage of. In the end, she's still a bookkeeper, but she's maybe learned that keeping the books balanced means being fair to yourself.

New Normal

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Intersecting-story movies like, say, Pulp Fiction, can sometimes be fascinating for how various threads come together, or how shifting perspectives helps reassess each one, but that's a best-case scenario. Often, it kind of feels like someone emptying out a notebook of ideas that didn't necessarily work elsewhere and tying them together as best they could to mixed results, because the connections do not necessarily strengthen them so much as justify them being features rather than shorts.

In the first of six stories from writer/director Jung Beom-sik, "M", Hung-jun (Choi Ji-woo) must put her guard up when a man knocks on her door, saying he is there to inspect her fire alarms despite it being an odd hour and no email from the building management, while the second, "Do the Right Thing", has high school slacker Seung-jin (Jung Dong-won) finds helping an elderly lady get her groceries home much more involved than the minor good deed he thought it would be; third "Dressed to Kill" has Hyun-su (Lee Yu-mi) on a terrible blind date, only to see another girl in the restaurant wearing a similar outfit become the latest victim of a serial killer. They are, individually, solid enough short films, and the connecting threads that start to appear are fun, although this stretch of the movie does tend to run into the issue where, if every entry in an anthology takes a dark turn, the amount of surprise and suspense can start to wane. There's fun to be had here; "M" is a tight little one-location thriller and Choi Ji-woo is great in it, apparently returning from a bit of a hiatus, and if Jung Dong-won feels a bit off in "Do the Right Thing", it's got a fine comic premise, as does "Dressed to Kill", although the latter winds up functioning more as a nexus of the other stories than being able to focus on its own premise.

After that, "Be With You" sees Yoo-hoon (Choi Min-ho) receive instructions from vending machines leading him to what he hopes is the girl of his dreams; while "Peeping Tom" has Gee-jin (P.O.), an obsessed creep, sneaking into the apartment of his sexy flight attendant neighbor (Hwang Seung-eon?) only to discover he may not be alone. "Be With You" might be the most purely pleasurable segment of the film, as the previous three create expectations that Choi Min-Ho's character seems to be blithely ignoring, and he sets up an entertaining, linear tale that moves quick and benefits from that tension without seeming trapped by it. "Peeping Tom" isn't quite so cheerful; P.O. is playing a perv and filmmaker Jung doesn't quite find the angle that has the audience with him as the twists happen, or even to make the reversals seem clever rather than something to be shrugged off.

The last piece, "My Life as a Dog", has convenience store clerk Yeon-jin (Ha Da-in) - who really thought she'd be playing rock gigs by now - blow off steam online (she'd previously been glimpsed taunting Gee-jin) and find that some folks asking how to dispose of bodies on Reddit maybe aren't just pretending. Yeon-jin is probably the most fully-realized protagonist of the film, and that happens in part because Jung spends a little time hanging back, watching her steadily lose her patience with the rude group she must deal with in the job before a long bike ride to the suburbs, allowing the audience to get to know her and sort of feel how life can grind people down in mundane ways, with Ha Da-in doing quite well to grab the audience's favor despite all of that.

There's the germ of a pretty good idea in each of these segments, and in most cases Jung attacks it, ready to squeeze the most out of it, and by and large he meets the challenges he sets for himself. The fourth and fifth segments are the most darkly funny, in the way that they really lead to nasty punchlines, and the interconnectedness of it is often fun, because once it's established that all these stories are happening at once, having an eye out for easter eggs or convergences Jung edits on top of writing and directing, and for being a film that stops and restarts a few times, it moves forward very well indeed.

There's a certain nihilism to these interconnected murder stories, even beyond the "always expect the worst" factor, that keeps the movie from having a real climax and gut punch as a whole; Jung arguably highlights digital acquaintanceship and matchmaking alongside his transgressions, but doesn't necessarily have much to say about them or any possible connection. For a much fun as the soundtrack's utter lack of subtlety is, you can't use some of the tracks dropped in without earning comparison to the movie they're lifted from, and the same goes with the chapter titles: Your serial killer story should be a bit better than this to be called "M", for instance.

Many movies can be unsatisfying in spots but still worth recommending because pieces are good, and that's obviously more true with something like New Normal. Some segments are terrific, and some elements of others are able to be seen clearly enough to pop. As a whole, it maybe doesn't entirely come together, but those good bits are really good.

Tokyo Revengers 2: Bloody Halloween - Destiny

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Yep, this is very much half a movie, the sort that has me taking lots of notes of character names and motivations for when I write this review (or watch part 2), but not a whole lot of "wow, that was cool, make sure to mention that". With each half of this movie being right around ninety minutes, I strongly suspect that there's a good epic-size picture to be found in the story if the studios didn't figure they could sell two tickets instead of one. It is also full of actors who are just not plausibly 17 during the time travel to 10 years ago, let alone 15 in the flashbacks.

After the events of Tokyo Revengers, Takemichi "Michi" Hanagaki (Takumi Kitamura) has prevented the murder of Hinata Tachibana (Mio Imada) in the past, only to see her murdered once again, this time in the present, apparently on the behest of Tetta Kisaki (Shotaro Mamiya), who intends to destroy everyone Majiro "Mikey" Sano (Ryo Yoshizawa) held dear. The seeds for all of this were planted fifteen years ago, when the Toman gang was founded, but Hinata's brother Naoto (Yosuke Sugino) can only send Michi back ten years, but that appears to be a critical time, with Mikey's best friend and co-founder of Toman Baji Keisuke (Kento Nagayama) being released from jail but splitting with Mikey, while Kisaki has recently joined Toman after having been a member of the defeated Moebius gang. Michi vaguely knows there's a brawl coming, but ten years ago, he was little more than a hanger-on and mascot - he'll have to rise in the ranks quickly if he stands any chance of preventing "Bloody Halloween".

Though I grumble about this sort of split seeming to be designed to sell more tickets, there's logic to it; subsequent books (or, in this case, manga storylines) tend to be longer than their predecessors but the "right" length for a movie is more constrained than that of other media, so a split may be the only way to preserve the pacing of the first successful adaptation while maintaining the same level of fidelity to the source. You can see that being the case here, with a lot that needs to happen leading up to Bloody Halloween and flashbacks even further back to flesh it out. The film is pretty enjoyable on those terms, though - it throws new mysteries at the audience pretty much constantly while offsetting it with useful background information, and punctuates the melodrama of these youth-gang vendettas with brutal beatdowns.

As before, the film has an appealingly earnest dope at the center, although Takumi Kitamura gets stuck in a rough spot there - as much as Michi is the protagonist, the story is really not about him in any way: The character is not bright enough to really solve this mystery (and can only occasionally consult with the brains of the operation), and even the thin story about a loser revisiting his high school peak is even less of a factor here. He's highly watchable, though, and Kento Nagayama is a great addition to the cast as the bombastic Baji. Ryo Yoshizawa is a fine combination of bluster and fragility, and Shotaro Mamiya solidifies his position as the series's villain.

This movie ultimately lands right on the border of the split seeming like a good idea and it perhaps being wiser to make one movie, but ends on a cliffhanger good enough to make me glad the festival had part 2 the next night.

Ampir V (Empire V)

* * (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, digital)

So much world-building and exposition and philosophy, so little actually doing anything. Empire V is the sort of film that looks like it should be exciting, a combination of weird horror melodrama and satirical humor elevated by striking visuals, but can't quite manage it. Its secret rulers of the world never seem to do much ruling the world, and no amount of detail makes their internal squabbles more interesting.

It starts by introducing slacker Muscovite Roman (Pavel Tabakov), who certainly gives the impression of being vampire food, but is instead recruited by vampire Brama (Vladimir Epifantsev), the current avatar of Rama to receive his "tongue" and take his position. He naturally catches the eye of another recent convert, Hera (Taya Radchenko), especially as they are trained in their new abilities and positions by instructor Loki (Bronislav Vinogrodkiy). Rama has a rival for Hera in her master Mithra (Miron Federov), and he's a formidable one, likely behind the deteriorating condition that led Brama to pass his tongue on.

The aim is apparently to take aim at the oligarchs who have outsized power in society, especially in the film's home territory of Russia, portraying them as vampires draining society. Writer/director Victor Ginzburg (working from a novel by Viktor Pelevin) carefully emphasizes that these creatures don't subsist entirely on blood, but actually prefer a "milk" that is distilled from money. It's here that one can feel Ginzburg getting particularly caught in the weeds, especially as the wise old vampires start musing that money is just an idea that people made up and yet it is so powerful that… Well, they go on, and the strangeness of how this is actually implemented does not make it resonate more. Perhaps what it does of that is full of references that Russian audiences will understand immediately, but it can be opaque to other audiences.

Instead, it becomes a sort of romance between two characters that don't have much to them. Rama and Hera are given very little specific background and for most of the movie, Pavel Tabakov and Taya Radchenko are kind of capably bland - never so completely unreactive as to feel wooden but also never finding a hook that suggests there's more going on than them being reasonably good-looking people of a similar age. There's maybe an angle about addiction, but aside from Roman's mother calling him one, there's not much indication; he feels aimless more as opposed to being someone searching for the next high, at least until the movie introduces the milk and makes it sound so impossibly addictive that no human could resist it (and, credit where it's due, Tabakov and Radchenko sell the idea that introducing people who had been addicts as humans to this stuff is probably a Bad Idea). As a result, this story winds up being more about dynasties collapsing through decadence than oligarchs being entrenched. That it's not what the movie was sold as is no big deal, but the way it comes about is not worth the amount of detailed set-up.

It's very fun to look at, though, with imaginative production design, effects shots where I immediately knew what the credits for "fractal art" meant, and the sort of willingness to go big that can paper over some less than photo-real visual effects. Empire V is, at its best moments, deeply weird, offering up more convolutions and creature effects than it comes close to needing and making it all work because Ginzburg puts it all up on screen or has characters drop long tracts of exposition with utter confidence. That's not always enough - he'll keep explaining even when the audience has absorbed what they need to know and enough ancillary details to give it flavor, or he'll serve up a poetry slam when a viewer might be expecting a fight (though maybe it's a great poetry slam for those who speak Russian; the subtitles are just okay).

That is how you make an epic fantasy into a slog: Ginzburg introduces a grand, swooping setting filled with eccentric style and boils it to as bland and small a story as possible.

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