Thursday, March 21, 2024

Boston Underground Film Festival 2024.01: Immaculate and Fatal Termination

Understand, I'm not complaining that an underground film festival isn't somehow chaotic, but the first day of BUFF this year was oddly frictionless: I purchased my pass and reserved my movies via the Brattle's website on the first days they were available, so there was no "go into the crowded Brattle lobby to pick up your physical pass, back in line for the box office to get tickets for the movie, third line to be seated" scrum at the start; I wound up just being able to walk in and take a seat up front. Then there was like a whole hour between the end of one movie and the start of the next.

I gather that was because a Zoom Q&A with the director of Immaculate fell through, which is a bummer; that might have been interesting and there were folks who vocally liked it a lot more than I did. But, no worries, I've checked and it looks like most of the weekend will be the "barely time to clear out and re-seat" BUFF that we've come to know and love!


* * (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground FIlm Festival, laser DCP)

Immaculate is pretty much exactly the generic religious thriller that it looks like, the sort with a central idea that seems worth pondering but has probably been done a lot, and this take doesn't have a whole lot that makes it jump out. Any doubt as to how it's going to go put to rest about 15 minutes in when the nice-seeming priest says he studied biology before becoming a man of the cloth, and after that, it's just ornamentation, but not too much, just some red-veiled nuns and a little more blood than you'd maybe expect.

We get the first glimpse of those nuns in an opener that suggests something like this has happened before, and then see Cecelia (Sydney Sweeney) arrive in Rome, a young novice about to take her vows and work in a convent dedicated to housing nuns who are dealing with dementia. She doesn't speak much Italian, but is nevertheless devout, convinced God saved her from death in a frozen river for a reason. Fortunately, Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte), who recruited her, is happy to translate, and while both the Mother Superior (Dora Romano) and the icy Sister Mary (Simona Tabasco) seem to disdain the pretty young American, the rebellious, somewhat cynical contemporary in the cell next to hers, Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli) quickly becomes a fast friend. But when she is discovered to be pregnant despite an intact hymen…

Well, at that point it should be interesting, but not much actually happens for a long stretch, and then it's it seems kind of half-effort, what's the most obvious course a person could take without making it particularly sharp. It doesn't have to be this way, and I suspect that at some point it wasn't: The film is short enough and has enough potential hooks to interesting ideas to make me wonder if it was cut down from something longer and more interesting, that maybe had some lines drawn between this project and parishes like Cecelia's closing, or Gwen's comments about this being what men do, or even finding a sharp irony in how there's a visiting obstetrician and ultrasound machine because convents used to be where inconveniently-pregnant teenagers were stashed. All this subtext is there to be inferred, sure, but, with no details to dig into, no pointed barbs at institutions or traditions, and barely any acknowledgment that Cecelia has been violated. It's like the filmmakers decided to hold back lest they offend any Catholics, but this story isn't interesting unless you're willing to do that.

It doesn't help that Sydney Sweeney's Sister Cecelia isn't really anything, never seeming particularly lost or desperate enough to believe to make her journey interesting, so for much of the movie she functions more as a straight man to the more defined characters of the other young nuns played by SImona Tabasco and Benedetta Porcaroli, who at least have some personality. Álvaro Morte plays Tedeschi in a way that I suspect might look better on a second run through - an early scene or two that plays as friendly may come off as more "older man preying on naive young woman" later (or, perhaps, for those who know the signs better first-hand) - but comes across as bland here: We know the part that he's got to play, but it's not a particularly twisted or grand take on it.

It means the inevitable finale and its last note intended to shock are staged well enough but don't have much impact behind them, because who is Cecelia before all this? Writer Andrew Lobel, director Michael Mohan and the crew have enough of a mean streak that the squeamish will occasionally turn away from the screen, and they've got some nice locations to shoot at, but are more grim than inventive, and ultimately everything is so contained and abstracted that neither the grandeur of the plot nor the admittedly intense manner of shooting the finale, full of tight focus on Cecilia as she stumbles through the dark and pushes her way through a rebirth of her own, truly raises the tension.

Maybe there's an interesting director's cut somewhere that the studio was too timid to release, but who knows if we'll ever see it.

Chi se da feng bao (Fatal Termination)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground FIlm Festival, laser DCP)

If you've heard of Fatal Termination, it's likely because of one particular clip that's been shared online quite a bit, an absolutely unhinged bit that has a five-year-old girl dangled from the side of a moving vehicle by her hair while her mother tries to rescue her my smashing her way in through the windshield. That insane car stunt just looks even more horrifically irresponsible in a new 4K restoration., but it's certainly a good indication of what sort of lunacy awaits during the rest of the film.

Like a lot of Hong Kong crime movies, the plot is very messy, the better to give a bunch of people reason to fight. Here, a middle-eastern terrorist (Dan Mintz) is looking to smuggle weapons from the Philippines to Lebanon via the Hong Kong airport, and corrupt customs official Robin Wai Loong (Robin Shou Wan-Bo) immediately sees a chance to redirect them to local gangster Ko Mok Fu (Phillip Ko Fei) and demand ever-increasing bribes for their release, with employees "Small Devil" (Cheung Chi-Tak) and Billy (Cheung Kowk-Leung) doing the actual work on the ground. HKPD Detective Jimmy (Simon Yam Tat-Wah), reluctantly partnered with the more by-the-book Lau (Lau Dan) is already on it, so Wai opts to throw suspicion on another officer, Miu Chun Fan (Michael Miu Kiu-Wai), whose sister Moon (Moon Lee Choi-Fung) and brother-in-law John (Ray Lui Leung-Wai) also work at the airport, and former cop John has an old enmity with Ko.

It maybe takes the movie a while to really find the groove it's looking for, and not always successfully, as it barely has time to show that Moon Lee is in the movie while it reiterates how Jimmy is an intense rule-breaker while Lau is laid-back and they're sure they won't mesh two or three times. It's oddly careful about getting its pieces set up to be knocked over later while still seeming frantic and overheated. Perhaps the somewhat slow start is necessary to make sure the audience isn't completely lost when the double-crosses and frantic action piles on at an ever-increasing pace, but it's ultimately worth it as director Andrew Kam Yeung-Wa and writers Lee Man-Choi & Pang Chi-Ming burn what they've built down in short order.

The sheer recklessness of everyone involved leads to some eye-popping action - not just that infamous car stunt but a number of impressive chases and double-crosses, with action director Paul Wong Kwan having a darn good eye for how a very busy melee can work, and a few martial-arts bits that might make one wonder just what Moon did for a living before she settled down to be a wife/mother/security guard. Moon Lee is great as always - she gets the Jackie Chan "stand back and watch her work" treatment while others like Simon Yam (more hot-headed than the cool guy from Bullet in the Head, but still surprising for those used to the more buttoned-down authority figures that would dominate his later career) - and it's not hard to imagine an alternate world where she had Michelle Yeoh's career; both are dancers who translated their physical skills to action, but Lee's tomboy enthusiasm seemingly didn't give her the big roles that the more regal Yeoh got (even ignoring some horrific on-set injuries).

The finale, especially, is as operatic as anything John Woo has ever done in his heroic bloodshed movies, but unlike Woo's grand bullet ballets, this final fight is fueled by chaos, with a seemingly unlimited supply of weapons giving Ko, Wai, Moon, and John seemingly endless fuel to express their rage, and Jimmy not exactly the sort of cop who de-escalate things. By the end, there's really no goal but violence as opposed to it being the only way through to a better end, and the way people keep somehow surviving just means this might never end because there can't be any satisfaction.

It's a nasty, nihilistic little action movie that opts to be high-energy and bright, rather than all dark and artsy. You can put yourself above the simplistic story or be appalled at the child endangerment, wondering how nobody got killed or seriously injured, but also grudgingly accept that these guys are pretty good at turning violence into exhilarating entertainment.

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