For those who have never heard of it, Fantasia is an incredibly cool film festival held in Montreal that focuses on films of the fantastic. It started as a festival of action films from Asia and horror films from Italy, but has gradually expanded its focus to eccentric cinema from around the world.
This year was the 10th Anniversary edition, but the 11th year of the festival. (In 2001 there was no festival because renovations to the Imperial Cinema took too long to complete, leading directly to the festival moving to Concordia University.)
I went to see 19 films this year. Had tickets for 20, but I missed one film when a doctor’s appointment ran late and long.
As with any great festival, it’s the films that you miss that are almost as important as the ones that you see. (I’m still kicking myself for missing Stephen Chow’s Fist of Legend at the 1st Fantasia when I didn’t really know who Stephen Chow was.)
The films that I missed at this year’s festival in order of which I’m kicking myself:
1. Behind the Mask (2006, United States, director Scott Glosserman) A mockumentary about a would-be serial killer in a universe where Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers are real. It was awarded the Audience Prize for Best International film as well as the prize for Best International Film from the Quebec based “Sequences” magazine (who normally award a prize to the best Asian film, so they basically changed the definition of the award they were so impressed) and the prize for Best Film from France’s Ecran Fantastique. Everyone that I talked to was raving about how good this film was.
2. Executive Koala (2006, Japan, director Minoru Kawasaki) From the bizarre minds that brought us Calamari Wrestler, this is a movie about a divorced workaholic salaryman who is also a 6-foot tall Koala bear.
3. Descent (2005, England, director Neil Marshall) British spelunker horror film. It made my short list, but I cut it from my list because it will be opening in theatres so I will have another chance to see it. It won the bronze prize for Best International Film.
4. Edmond (2005, United States, director Stuart Gordon) The director of Re-Animator interprets an “unfilmable” caustic David Mamet play. William Macy is supposed to be incredible in it. Again, it will be opening in regular theatres. It won a jury prize for Best Script.
5. The Great Yokai War (2005, Japan, director Takashi Miike) Miike does a children’s movie. So disturbing. It won the Audience prize for Best Asian movie.
6. Typhoon (2005 South Korea, director Kwak Kyung-Taek) So I had a choice between going to see a low budget French monster movie and a slick Korean action film about the divide between North and South Korea. What the hell was I thinking? Especially since Swiri is one of my all time favourite films.
7. Necromancer (2005, Thailand, director Piyapak Choopetch) The film that I had a ticket for that I missed because my Endocrinologist kept me waiting for an hour after my scheduled appointment before seeing me and this after I showed up half an hour early because the first time the appointment was scheduled he left without seeing me.
8. The Five Venoms (1976, Hong Kong, director Chang Cheh) Classic Shaw brothers film. Would have loved to see it on the big screen.
9. Citizen Dog (2004, Thailand, director Wisit Sasantieng) This didn’t make my short list at all, but people went nuts over it. It won the Audience Silver Prize for Most Ground-Breaking Film and the Audience Bronze Prize for Best Asian Film. Compared favourable to Amelie Poulin.
10. Strange Circus (2005, Japan, director Sion Song) Again didn’t make my short list. It won the Jury Prize for Best Film and the Jury Prize for Best Actress (Masumi Miyazaki).
11. Frostbite (2006, Sweden, director Daniel Ojanlatva) A film about Vampires in the deep north of Sweden where its dark six months of the year. Mainly I’m just pissed that nobody in Canada ever thought of this idea and set the movie in Whitehorse.
Anyway, that’s what I missed. Here is what I saw and thought, in order of seeing them.
1. Seven Swords (2005, Hong Kong/South Korea, director Tsui Hark) Tsui Hark is frequently called the “Hong Kong Steven Spielberg” but he is more like the “Hong Kong George Lucas” in that as a director, he makes a good producer. He seems capable of getting the best out of some astonishingly great directors (including most famously John Woo) but with his own material he is incredibly self-indulgent.
Seven Swords is based on the Chinese epic “Seven Swordsmen from Mountain Tian”. It is built on the idea that the Ching Dynasty has outlawed the use of martial arts. An army of mercenaries are out collecting heads for the bounty. They turn their attention to a small mountain village that knows enough martial arts to keep bandits off their backs but not so much as to be able to fight off an army. The village recruits seven swordsmen to help defend the village… and this is sounding very Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven isn’t it?
Well, the film suffers from the comparison. It’s bloated where the Magnificent Seven is economical. Having just rewatched the Magnificent Seven, one of the things that film does brilliantly is introducing each individual and giving each a unique personality and a unique fighting style. Seven Swords has all the opportunity to do this since each Swordsman has a unique sword with unique properties, but the film just squanders that opportunity. It also wastes a lot of time on scenes that should never made it past the script editor let alone wasting our time on the screen including a ridiculous sequence involving an aging but very smart horse.
In its (what I assume) is its slavish devotion to its source material, the film also reverses the dynamics of both Seven Samurai and the Magnificent Seven where the seven die almost totally to protect the town. In this film, the village dies almost to a man and the Seven Swords get off scott free.
2. Dirty Ho (1979, Hong Kong, director Chia-Liang Liu) A classic Shaw brothers film that suffers somewhat from the fact that it is based on a bit of Chinese history which goes unexplained in the film. Ho is a womanizing alcoholic thief who falls in with the womanizing alcoholic “Prince Eleven”, son of the Emperor who is travelling across China incognito. The prince sets out to reform the thief and teach him martial arts, while his brother “Prince Four” has sent out assassins to prevent his brother from returning to the court. Why Four should want Eleven dead is the bit of Chinese history that makes no sense, since Eleven has all the ambition of a slice of cabbage.
Part of the conceit of the film is that the assassins have to kill Eleven in the open, but do it in such a way that it does not appear like a martial arts attack. So the attacks are disguised as a wine tasting as an example. I assume that the later film “The Magnificent Butcher” borrowed this for the scene where the Butcher’s sensei is attacked by his chief rival and is so dominating in his defence that he forces his rival to assist him in completing a tricky bit of calligraphy. The scene works better in the Magnificent Butcher.
3. Death Trance (2005, Japan/United States, director Yuji Shimomura) An incredibly violent genre-mixing tale of a coffin stolen from a Buddhist temple that once opened could either grant some one their ultimate desire or destroy the Earth… or both.
One of the leads is Steven Seagal’s son Kentaro who aquits himself quite nicely as one of the warriors chasing after the coffin and its thief.
4. A Bittersweet Life (2005, South Korea, director Kim Ji-Woon) Winner – Jury Prize for Best Cinematography, Audience Silver Prize for Best Asian Film.
Kim Ji-Woon’s previous films have all shown at Fantasia to great acclaim: The Quiet Family, A Tale of Two Sisters and the best wrestling film ever made The Foul King.
It’s nothing that we haven’t seen before, a bullet ballet tale of bad choices, betrayal and blood-soaked revenge, but where the Hong Kong versions of this type of film tend to focus on the duality between two mirror opposite foes, this film internalizes the duality in its main character Sun Woo played by Lee Byung-Hyun. In the very first scene, it is made clear that Sun Woo is both the slick penthouse gourmet and bon vivant and the down and dirty basement gangster and thug. The contradictions of these warring and unstable personalities are what leads to the inevitable end.
Naturally, you can’t think of Korea without thinking of the divide between North and South Korea and one wonders if Kim Ji-Woon wasn’t making some kind of allusion to the internal divide of Korea when making a film about the internal (and fatal) divide in Sun Woo.
5. Azumi 2: Love or Death (2005, Japan, director Shusuke Kaneko) The original Azumi is both one of the prettiest and one of the bleakest films that I have ever seen. The film gives us ten of the best-looking Ninjas ever on the screen led by Azumi surely one of the cutest Ninjas ever put on the screen. Then the sensei of the Ninjas asks the ten Ninja trainees to pick a partner and when they do announces that their last test is to kill their partner which for Azumi means killing the love of her life Nachi. And the film just gets bleaker and prettier from there.
The second film is just as bleak and just as pretty. Only two of the original Ninjas are left alive - Azumi and Nagara. To prevent a civil war that would consume Japan, they have one man left to kill, Masuyaki Sanada, who is protected by a rival group of Ninja assassins. On their way to try and kill him, hunted by the retainers of the men that they have previously assassinated, Azumi and Nagara fall in with a charismatic group of bandits led by Ginkaku who is a dead ringer for the dead Nachi.
From virtually the very first frame, Azumi promises you that things will not end well for our heroine and they don’t, but damn does she look good draped in misery.
6. A Chinese Tall Story, (2005, Hong Kong, director Jeff Lau) Where Stephen Chow’s A Chinese Odyssey 1 and 2 told the story of the Monkey King, a classic character from Chinese mythology, this film tells the same story but from the point of view of the Monkey King’s teacher Tripitaka.
The thing about the Monkey King is that he always WANTS to do well, but his faults chiefly his anarchistic sense of humour and his quick temper have a tendency to lead him astray. By contrast, Tripitaka has the disadvantage of being almost too perfect, a holy man quite literally. Lau manages to turn that to his advantage by making Tripitaka a naïve fool who is so obsessed by doing right that sometimes he can do nothing at all.
This film is seriously fucked up by the way. Part Ugly Duckling fairy tale, part Chinese Buddhist mythology, part Godzilla monster movie and part science fiction epic. (The film includes a splinter group of humans who left Earth hoping that the rest of the planet would evolve and returning on their spaceships to be immensely disappointed.)
7. The Woods (2006, United States, director Lucky McKee) A confusing and obtuse “womyn’s” horror film about witchcraft and woodcraft and disappearing teens at an exclusive girl’s boarding school in the wild woods.
Made bearable only by the presence of Bruce Campbell who is sadly only in the first ten minutes of the film and the last thirty.
8. Lost in Wu Song (2005, China, director Lu Yi Tong) A flawed but interesting film about a first-time director trying to get his script of the life of Chinese hero Wu Song made into a film.
Now, I love films about the making of movies, so I am prepared to forgive this film a lot. Sadly, the main character is such a goof that one wonders why anyone would trust him with a dime let alone give him the green light to make a movie. The movie also focuses its entire attention on the casting process that is an incredible squandered opportunity. The tension in the casting comes from the fact that the would-be director Men Desong wants to cast a thug with no experience because he looks and acts like the historic Wu Song, while his producers want to cast a good looking singer in the part.
It would have made a much better film if Men Desong had simply made his thug the stand-in body double for the singer and had hijacked the film from under his producers by only shooting the scenes with the double. Would have made Men Desong a much more interesting character as well rather than the whiny ineffectual twit that this movie gives us.
9. Murder Take One (2005, South Korea, director Jong Jin) An interesting take on the crime procedural drama built around the idea that the murder case is being turned into a reality TV show live which veers wildly off the tracks in the final reel when the producers of the show decide to bring in a psychic to help solve the case. (The producers are reacting to the fact that the detectives have like in any good procedural murder mystery followed several red herrings and blundered into various dead ends. This doesn’t disturb the detectives at all, but police work like a sausage is probably better seen as a final product than in the making.)
The detectives decide to use the presence of the psychic to flush out the killer and things get really weird.
Now, personally, I find it interesting when a movie just goes veering sideways into a totally different genre especially this late in the film. Most of the people that I saw it with found this annoying however.
9. Tokyo Zombie (2005, Japan, director Sakichi Sato) Japanese films are so fucked up. Take this horror comedy. Obviously shot on a shoestring budget, but with such exuberance that you don’t really care.
In Tokyo there is a giant illegal dump called “Black Mount Fuji”. Built up over the years by the dumping of illegal chemicals, abandoned appliances and most importantly by the disposal of inconvenient human remains, it is the perfect breeding ground for Zombies.
The two main characters are a Judo master and his pupil who eke out a living at a fire extinguisher plant right next to the dump. And if you think that Judo is an odd choice for a technique to be killing Zombies with… well you would be right.
The movie is split into two parts, the first being the introduction of the Zombies and the second being five years after the disaster when civilization has disintegrated into a weird Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome type civilization only cleaner and without Tina Turner. Characters from the first part show up in the second with hilarious results.
10. Blood Rain (2004, South Korea, director Kim Dae-Seung) Probably the most satisfying film of any of the movies that I saw at Fantasia this year. Great script, great cinematography, interesting mystery. It’s an historical mystery with supernatural overtones set on a small isolated island off the Korean coast. When arson burns a load of paper destined for the King, the King’s personal investigators come to find and punish the guilty. They quickly find themselves caught up in the investigation of a much older crime with links to the present crime after their chief suspect for the arson is killed and all the evidence points to his killer being an angry ghost.
All of the people who got annoyed at Murder Take One’s supernatural elements accepted them in Blood Rain without a murmur largely I suspect because the supernatural elements are hinted at right from the very first reel.
2006 Fantasia Report Part Two
12. Necromancer (2005, Thailand, director Piyapak Choopetch) The film that I had a ticket for but missed because I had a doctor’s appointment start late and run long.
13. White of the Eye (1987, United States, director Donald Cammell) A lost classic by a director whose career began very promisingly with Performance and then gradually came undone as his inability to get scripts turned into films eventually drove him to despair and suicide. This was supposed to be his comeback film but sadly it was “produced and abandoned”.
Featuring a cast that at the time was relatively unknown in David Keith, Cathy Moriarty and Alan Rosenberg in a film about an “artistic” serial killer.
14. Square Jaw Theatre (Various Short Films) Built around the idea of short films about super-heroes, last year this featured a lot of “amateur” attempts to do licensed properties usually as a calling card in Hollywood. This year they had to expand the search a little bit having used up the backlog of fan-pics.
The Green Hornet got the martial arts right but missed the boat on the character. The whole point of the Green Hornet is that he poses as a crook and pretends to take down other criminals because they are his business rivals.
Chingaso the Clown was a dark bit of violence built around the idea that crime syndicates are being run by Clowns and Mimes. When a man’s family is killed by Clowns, he becomes that which he hates to exact revenge.
L’Homme Torche was a fun little bit about a senior citizen who dresses as a super-hero and develops the super-powers associated with them.
Billy Drunk and Shitty Boy was a bizarre French film about Superman’s half-brother Billy Drunk and his sidekick Shitty Boy as they fight alcoholic Killer Calamari who kills drunks and drinks their blood for the alcohol.
Rockfish was a very cool computer animated film about a science fiction character whose mining expedition runs into unexpected problems when an underground creature snags onto his equipment.
Sinistra was a spooky little film about a comic book artist who has broken his drawing hand but discovers that anything that he draws with his left hand comes true. Be careful what you wish for…
Superhero’s Son was a bizarre little cartoon from Finland about a boy whose mother is a cross-dressing Superman.
Patient J was an awesome film set in Arkham Asylum as a psychologist bribes a guard to give him some quality time with the Joker.
15. Isolation (2005, Ireland, director Billy O’Brien) Great, great scare the living shit out of you horror film. In much the same way that Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers illuminated the fact that gynecologists are terrifying, this film tackles the family dairy farm and demonstrates that farms can be very scary and very deadly places. And that’s leaving aside the effects of DNA manipulation on dairy cows.
(Yes, I know a film about mutant cows. Seems lame. And yet it’s all in the execution.)
Like any great horror film, it features a bunch of moments where the characters come up with an idea that seems reasonable at first, but quickly becomes obvious is a terrible, terrible idea of the “let’s go into the basement alone and hunt for monsters” variety.
16. Synesthesia (2005, Japan, director Toru Matsuura) A deeply flawed movie with a fine visual imagination and an intriguing premise that wastes its potential in over-long exposition and self-indulgent editing. There is an entire sub-plot built around a quirky female detective that could have been left on the cutting room floor without affecting the film at all and greatly improving its pace.
It’s a shame because being a fan of Alan Moore’s Top 10, I was curious to see how someone else tackled the idea of synesthesia, the idea of someone whose senses are garbled so he/she sees what others hear, tastes what others feel, smells what others see, etc.
17. Pusher 3 (2005, Denmark, director Winding Refn) Winner Jury Prize Best Director, Winner Jury Prize Best Actor (Zlato Buric)
Fortunately this is a series where each episode tells a different story focusing on a different character in an interlocking cast. This time the film focuses on a high level drug pusher called Milo who is trying to cook for fifty guests for his daughter’s 25 birthday while at the same time dealing with a drug deal that started out badly when he was delivered ecstasy instead of heroin and gradually gets worse. Plus he’s five days sober and trying to stay clean. And everyone that he runs into seems to want to push him just a little bit.
This is a film where you know that Milo is going to snap eventually, it’s just a case of on who and how badly are things going to turn out. If I had any complaint it is that when Milo does snap its not with the dramatic intensity of an Al Pacino Scarface, but with a more realistic matter-of-fact violence made all the more chilling for his restraint I suppose. Probably my fault for having unrealistic expectations for the climax.
18. Shadowboxing (2005, Russia, director Alexsei Sidorov) A glitzy almost Hollywood level action thriller about a Russian boxer who goes blind during a fight against an American champion and while trying to raise the money for an operation to restore his sight finds himself on the run from the police and from his own crooked promoter.
Notable for the casual way that the film presents the way that corruption has penetrated Russian society and the fear that people have for the police with their almost Gestapo like tactics. Also interesting for the Russian flavour to the piece. During a getaway the main characters stop to recite and argue about poetry and the climax of the movie takes place during an outdoor performance of Richard 3 (in the original Russian).
19. Resonnances (2000, France, director Pierre Robert) A low budget French horror film that compared to say Tokyo Zombie finds you trying to apologize for the lack of money rather than celebrating the ingenuity of the filmmakers’ vision.
Essentially a French remake of Tremors although where that film set its horror in the bright sunlight of the desert, this film takes place during a dark night in an isolated French forest.
There’s an interesting Zidanie reference, the acting is quite good and the ending is downbeat as hell, but did Tremors need to be remade? And in French no less?
20. Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006, Canada, director Eric Canuel) Official Closing Film of the Festival (World Premiere)
A riotous buddy cop comedy built around the stereotypes of English Ontario and French Quebec. Patrick Huard, Quebec’s funniest comedian, came up with the idea of a French and English cop forced to work together when a body is found draped over the sign that seperates Ontario from Quebec. Huard is a chain-smoking, rules-breaking, womanizer while Colm Feore is his stick-up-his-ass Ontario counterpart.
Just to make the film all the more Canadian, the villain is a serial killer stalking members of the hockey world who have famously corrupted or betrayed the Canadian game.
I don’t know how well the film will travel. It presumes a love of hockey and an ability to speak both English and French since most of the humour comes from the way that the two leads switch back and forth between English and French. The film does have subtitles but part of the humour especially in an extended rant by Huard about swearing in French comes from the way that the sub-titles try and balance a literal translation with the sense of what Huard is trying to say. On the plus side, normally for a comedy film, unless it is remarkably well paced, you lose the second joke because you are laughing so hard at the first one. In this case, the subtitles help a lot. (As a general rule, Huard is making the jokes and Feore is acting as the consummate straight man.)
If you like hockey and you speak both French and English make it a point to track down this film.
(edited by Llakor on 28.7.06 1331) "Don't Blame CANADA, Blame Yourselves!"
I saw Citizen Dog at Fantasia a couple weeks ago. It is very much the Thai version of Amelie, but starring a loser country boy in love instead of a quirky girl, and a bit more absurd and surreal. The director has a very cool sense of humor that permeates the film with its characters. It is a very sweet and romantic story, with a dash of whimsy. And one zombie.
I hope Mirimax will finally distribute the film to North America soon since they currently hold the rights but have done nothing with it.
The Master (backofthehead.com) isn't really about Scientology, but then McDonalds isn't really about hamburgers. Unbelievable performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It's epic and unsettling, but what does it all mean?