Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fantasia: Best Discoveries at the Fantasia Film Festival Part One

Fantasia: Best Discoveries at the Fantasia Film Festival Part One

The 2011 Fantasia Film Festival announces their line-up TODAY - July 7th to be exact. Fantasia, is of course, my favourite film festival in the whole world... other than the one that pays my salary obviously.

Fantasia 2011

To mark their schedule announcement, I will try to put up a post a day this week about Fantasia, continuing today with some thoughts of my favourite discoveries from the festival...

This was originally supposed to go up yesterday until the universe swallowed up 10, 000 words and spat in my face like a great cosmic bully.


Original Fantasia Poster (1996)
Sound On Sight recently published a look at the early film announcements from this year's Fantasia Film Festival. While I was reading that, I snuck down the rabbit hole to read their four part series on the best films ever screened at the Fantasia Film Festival.

It struck me while reading that and agreeing with some choices (We Are What We Are), disagreeing on others (I loathe Ashes of Time to the core of my being - it is my worst Fantasia memory), agreeing on some even if we disagree a bit on the details (House of the Devil) and as with all film lists a few films that I feel were missing (hence this list of my own) and a few films that never even entered my radar (Love Exposure).

What this reinforces for me is that even more than most film festivals Fantasia is an elephant. Two different film lovers can experience two almost completely different festivals united only by a love for urgent, passionate genre film.

This was true even early in the history of Fantasia when all of the films played in one location - the Imperial Cinema and it was possible to buy a pass for all of Fantasia - only $60 the first year! Now with multiple cinemas playing films continuously, even an obsessive like Ricky from Sound on Sight can't see everything. And even two film fans who both watched the exact same films would walk away with different memories, different loves, different discoveries.

Fantasia's Current Downtown Home

For me, Fantasia has always been about discovery. I may not love every film at Fantasia, but I always love Fantasia. The festival has always played films from off the beaten track and every year they drag back some discovery that rocks my world.

What makes Fantasia different from most other film festivals, is that most film festivals play horses and sneer at zebras. The Fantasia programmers specialize in zebras, allowing them to spot the truly exceptional ones and sometimes coming back with a mythic creature that should not exist, a pegasus that takes us flying to places that we have never seen.

With that in mind, today and tomorrow, I will list my Top Ten discoveries from the Fantasia Film Festival. In many cases, these are films that acted as gateway drugs, introducing me to films from a particular producer, director, writer, actor or sometimes even a country.


Honorable Mention
Fudoh: The New Generation aka Gokudô sengokushi: Fudô (1996) Japan imdb Directed by Takashi Miike, Written by Toshiyuki Morioka, based on the manga by Hitoshi Tanimura.

Fudoh: The New Generation Poster
Gateway Drug: Takashi Miike

A lot of genre films follow a formula. What makes a great genre film is a filmmaker who knows the formula, but subverts it - not just for the sheer pleasure of subversion, although that helps - but in order to reveal character and tell a more meaningful story.

Fudoh: The Next Generation is a generational mobster (Yakuza) story. There is nothing unusual about using a gangster film to talk about the conflicts between generations. What is different is the execution.

Or rather THE EXECUTION. The first thing that everyone talks about when they mention this film is the assassination of a perverted Yakuza lieutenant in a strip bar by one of the dancers with a blow gun and amazing control of her Kegel muscles.

Or to put it another way, imagine the ping pong ball sequence from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert used for murder.

It's lewd, it's unique, it's perverse, but most importantly it reveals the theme of the film. What gives the new generation an advantage over the old is that the previous generation are a bunch of perverts governed and weakened by their impulses. In most gangster films, the old generation has honour and the new generation is weaker because they have abandoned honour.

Miike abandons this trope, subverting it to criticize the decadence and perversion of Japanese society.

Fudoh: The New Generation and Miike only make honourable mention in part because I find Miike to be a incredibly mixed bag. For every Miike film that amazes me by its genius like Shangri-La, Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha or Sukiyaki Western Django, there are Miike films that make me feel like he created them just to be hot needles poked under my eyes like Audition, Visitor Q or The Man in White. And the films in between like Ichi the Killer test my limits even though they are ultimately worth the effort.

Every Miike film is a like spinning a roulette wheel and taking a chance.


#10 The Calamari Wrestler aka Ika Resuraa (2004) Japan imdb Directed by Minoru Kawasaki, Written by Minoru Kawasaki and Masakazu Migita.

The Calamari Wrestler
Gateway Drug: Minoru Kawasaki

It's a Japanese film about a giant wrestling squid! How could I not see it? How could I not love it?

I am not certain if I saw the film before or after I announced the first Inter Species Wrestling match between the late Bamboo, the wrestling panda bear and Flip D. Berger the wrestling McJobber, but they both happened during the summer of 2004.

It's not just the combination of wrestling and animals wrestling which I am predisposed to love, The Calamari Wrestler is the third best wrestling film that I have ever seen - behind only Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler and the great Korean wrestling comedy The Foul King.

The film's premise is ridiculous: Japanese wrestling champion Kan-Ichi Iwata dies, is reincarnated as a giant squid and comes back to the wrestling world to defeat his rival Koji Taguchi for the title and reclaim his girlfriend Miyako currently dating Taguchi.

The secret to the film's success is that it takes the melodrama perfectly seriously, even to the extent of honouring kayfabe and protecting wrestling's secrets. And it gets the wrestling right, telling the story better, with better execution than virtually all wrestling films.

Wrestling melodramas are inherently funny, you don't need to gild the lily by casting David Arquette. Giant animals wrestling are also inherently funny. When you combine the two, the more seriously, the more dead pan you treat the subject matter, the funnier that it will become.

Or to quote Mikhail Q. Rotch, the promoter of ISW, "Don't try to be funny. Just wrestle."

What makes The Calamari Wrestler a success - the ridiculous set-up, the melodrama played completely straight, the attention to detail are what make Kawasaki's other films a success. Like Rug Cop which plays the police melodrama completely straight for its hero who fights criminals by throwing his toupee at them like a hairy Frisbee. Or Executive Koala which plays its workplace thriller melodrama completely straight for its hero who is a giant Koala in a business suit.

Minoru Kawasaki's only real mis-step is his disaster film The World Sinks Except Japan which drifts into very ugly xenophobia.


#9 Swiri (1999) South Korea imdb Directed and Written by Je-gyu Kang

Swiri Poster
Gateway Drug: Korean action films

What Swiri does is take the John Woo bullet ballet formula and adapt it to Korea, in the process adding extra resonance to the idea that the antagonist and the protagonist are mirrors of one another.

In this case, they are both foes and lovers. 

The South Korean security agent and the North Korean spy/assassin (like their countries) are trapped in a cycle of love and lies and mistrust.

Like their countries, they know each other, but completely misunderstand one another. 

I hear complaints about the special effects for this film and while I don't accept that they are inferior, I will argue to the death that this film's emotional effects make it an outstanding action film. It is the rare action film that wishes the heroic bloodshed were unnecessary while also understanding that the tragic action can not be avoided.

And this film paved the way for films with even more complex takes on the South Korea/North Korea divide like JSA.


#8 Mulberry Street (2007) USA imdb Directed by Jim Mickle, Written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle

Mulberry Street
I have written about Mulberry Street before. I love this film. 

It takes a Katrina metaphor, entwines it within a parable about gentrification and the way that yuppification tears the soul out of neighbourhoods and wraps that within a retelling of the saga of Odysseus as the female soldier returning from Iraq finds nothing but monsters and natural disasters in her path as she tries to return home, finding the closer that she gets to the home that she left to defend, the less of it is left.

It is the rare horror film to treat each death as a tragedy, building sorrow upon sorrow leaving you shattered by the conclusion as much by grief as by fear.

Not just one of my favourite films that I have ever seen at the Festival, it is also symbolic to me of all the low budget independent films at Fantasia that replace Hollywood largesse with that most dangerous tool in a filmmaker's arsenal: a good idea.

Films like Cryptic for example.


#7 Perfect Blue (1998) Japan imdb Directed by Satoshi Kon, Written by Sadayuki Murai, based on the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi

Perfect Blue Poster
Gateway Drug: Non-traditional anime

I saw Akira and loved it when it was first released and I am a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki, but I was never an anime fanatic. It seemed to me that in much the same way that John Woo's imitators rarely came close to equalling his work and the more that they tried the worse they got, that the field of anime was filled with robots, giant robots and cyborgs, faded copies of bad tracings of imperfect clones of Akira.

Perfect Blue raised the bar for anime.

It is first of all a great psychological thriller. The backhanded compliment that it almost always gets is that it could have easily been a live action film, because it seems impossible that a cartoon could be that suspenseful, that morally complex, that (for want of a better word) adult.

It is also a great animated film, well-drawn and taking advantage of its medium to add depth and resonance to its main characters paranoia and (possible) hallucinations.

The shame of Perfect Blue is that it didn't really lead to a flood of films stretching the boundaries of what animated film could be. Millennium Actress by the same director is a fine follow-up, stretching the boundaries in a different way with an historical biography of a fictional actress that salutes the history of Japanese film, but films like that continue to be rare exceptions. 

In a way, the only creators to pick up the gauntlet thrown by Perfect Blue are Pixar. They still work within the confines of films intended for children, but they take incredible risks like Perfect Blue - expanding the definitions of what their films can be about and what forms they can take.


#6 The Mission aka Cheung Fo (1999) Japan imdb Directed by Johnnie To, Written by Nai-Hoi Yau.

The Mission Poster
Gateway Drug: Johnnie To

The Mission is the film that convinced me that Johnnie To is the modern master of the inaction sequence.

The inaction sequence is a cinematic moment when the characters are frozen between life and death like Schrödinger's cat. Done properly it is a moment that builds tension because anything can happen... eventually.

Traditionally, the inaction sequence was seen in Western showdowns. The moment when the gunfighters face each other down, but before they draw their guns.

Akira Kurosawa introduced the idea in Seven Samurai that the showdown could end without an actual physical confrontation. That the confrontation could be resolved as a moment of intellectual rather than physical supremacy.

Sergio Leone added time and numbers to the mix, making the showdown a three-way in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and making the showdowns last longer and longer without allowing the inherent tension to dissipate.

John Woo brought the showdown closer than anyone had ever dared to, making the face-off claustrophobically close both physically and emotionally.

Johnnie To took all of those elements and combined them - leading to tableaux filled with characters trapped in tiny invisible boxes for what seems like forever in moments that build tension upon tension until you are screaming for a resolution.

In The Mission the bravura moment happens when the team is trapped out in the open after-hours in a shopping mall while an invisible sniper stalks them. If they move, they will be shot and killed and fail their mission. If they stay, they will be temporarily safe, but will eventually be shot and killed and fail their mission.

The inaction sequence.

Ever since, I have been a fan of Johnnie To's singular genius whether as a producer (Expect the Unexpected) or a Director (A Good Man Dies which features an inaction sequence where one of the participants is actually dead)


Continued Tomorrow Here.

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