Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fantasia: Best Discoveries at the Fantasia Film Festival Part Two

Fantasia: Best Discoveries at the Fantasia Film Festival Part Two

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

Fantasia 2011

This is the follow-up to my post the other day about my favourite discoveries from the Fantasia Film Festival. Not quite the tomorrow that I promised, but close enough for government work.

This list was inspired by Sound on Sight's list from last year of the best films ever screened at the Fantasia Film Festival. As I mentioned in the first part, even more than most Festivals, Fantasia is an elephant and everyone experiences a different Fantasia Film Festival.

The rest of this list, pretty much proves my point as not one of the films in my Top 5 show up in Ricky D's Sound On Sight list at all. Admittedly, I am using different criteria than Ricky D. I am more concerned with films that opened my eyes and allowed me to discover new filmmakers, new actors, new genres, new tropes (or at least ones that were new to me.) Films that acted as a kind of cinematic gateway drug, pointing me towards other films.

Which is not to say that these films aren't good. I can still quote huge parts of these films years after I have seen them.

*****

5. Out of the Dark aka Wui Wan Yeh (1995) Hong Kong imdb Written and Directed by Jeffrey Lau

Out of the Dark (Wui Wan Yeh) Poster
Gateway Drug:  Stephen Chow

Going into the first Fantasia Film Festival back in 1996, I was familiar with anime through Akira, with the bullet ballet of John Woo, and with the kung fu ability of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. I was even familiar with some lesser filmmakers like Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam and other martial artists like Sammo Hung, Sonny Chiba and Michelle Yeoh.

But I had never heard of Stephen Chow. In fact, I turned my nose up at Fist of Legend because I thought that remaking a Bruce Lee film smacked of heresy. In fact, the only reason that I went to see Out of the Dark was because I really wanted to see the film playing after it and knew from past Festival experience that the best way to get a good seat for a really popular film was to watch the film right before it.

And I was gob-smacked.

What makes Stephen Chow special is that his comedy comes from a very specific place and a very specific culture, but by being so specific his comedy becomes universal. He frequently parodies subjects torn from Western culture, but always does so from a very particular Hong Kong point of view.

Out of the Dark is a very smart satire of angry ghost films. If anything it suffers from poor timing. If it had come out in 1999 or later, it probably would be a much better known film. The film explains that ghosts possess people, so Chow's character Leon (named after the Jean Reno character from The Professional) is a cross between a ghost-hunter and an exorcist. The only way to get the ghosts out of their possessed victims is to scare the ghosts out, which for Leon frequently means beating the crap out of the possessed victims. One of the trademarks of Chow's films is martial arts presented in weird situations frequently involving characters that do not look like traditional martial artists.

From Beijing With Love Poster
Another Stephen Chow trademark is taking an element of Chinese culture and exaggerating it for comic effect. As an example, there are certain flowers that in Feng Shui are planted to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. This leads to Leon carrying around a massive potted plant to detect ghosts, which also works to mock all the equipment that more modern ghost-busters carry around.

One final key element of Stephen Chow's performances is that he appears to be a klutzy buffoon, but this is usually a false front. While Chow's characters frequently come to grief early on in his films from overconfidence, when push comes to shove, he is surprisingly competent. This is nowhere more evident than in his James Bond spoof, From Beijing With Love.

As the secret agent Ling Ling Chat (which phonetically sounds similar to "007") Stephen Chow makes the odd choice of having his character throwing cleavers at his enemies rather than firing guns. This makes him look like an idiot similar to Rowan Atkinson's Johnny English, but where English only succeeds by accident, when Ling Ling Chat triumphs it is because of his skill with the cleavers that his enemies have mocked and under-estimated.

*****

4. $la$her$ (2002) Canada imdb Written and Directed by Maurice Devereaux

$la$her$ Poster
Gateway Drug: Maurice Devereaux

I have written at length about how much I love End of the Line, but I doubt that I would have seen it had I not seen $la$her$ first. Like Out of the Dark, I only saw $la$her$ because I was watching the film after it (and because I was saving seats for people coming to watch that other film.) 

I also watched it because it was an example of a sub-sub-genre that I am a bit obsessed with: horror films about or set within reality TV shows. The reason that I like these films is that they give you the power of P.O.V. horror while putting the camera into the hands of someone who actually knows how to point a camera, eliminating nauseous shaky-cam.

$la$her$ is set in a fictitious Japanese reality show where the six contestants are trapped in a warehouse with three serial killers. The survivors (if there are any) split one million dollars.

This set-up adds to the moral ambiguity of P.O.V. horror. One of the strategic decisions that the contestants have to make is whether to stick with the group for safety in numbers or split away to get away from the camera, because the killers will only kill their victims on camera. In other words, our need as an audience to SEE is directly putting the contestant characters in danger.

$la$her$ Poster
The cameraman (even if we never see him) is a character in the film. While he is mostly ignored by contestants and killers alike, he has opinions and feels the same moral ambiguity that we feel as an audience which reinforces that moral ambiguity.

The film also delves into the changes that the camera makes on the killers. The three killers (Chainsaw Charlie, Preacherman and Doctor Ripper) have become bombastic caricatures of who they really are. Serial killers as seen through the lens of professional wrestling or American Gladiators. The show is a double-edged sword for the killers. They are paid to do what they love - kill people - and have legal immunity to do so, but they have to do that in an environment where their victims know that they are coming and have access to weapons to fight back.

They have given up the biggest weapons in the serial killers' arsenal: surprise and anonymity.  And while they have legal immunity for any murders that they commit on the show, they face incredible scrutiny outside of the show, so practically they can only kill on the show.

In order to kill on the show, they have to be invited to be on. In order to be invited and re-invited, they have to be entertaining, which means taking risks and becoming caricatures.

This may all sound like too much empathy for monsters, but that is part of Maurice Devereux's gift: he has compassion for monsters without ever forgetting (or allowing us to forget) that they are monsters.

*****

3. The Foul King aka Banchikwang (2000) South Korea imdb Written and Directed by Jee-woon Kim

The Foul King Poster
Gateway Drug: Kang-ho Song

Since I have been using Kang-ho Song's masked face as my avatar for more than ten years, it should come as no surprise that I am somewhat obsessed with this film.

It's a great wrestling film, only beaten by Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. Even if it compresses the training for dramatic purposes, it has a clear understanding how people become wrestlers and the culture of how wrestlers behave.

It also tackles the sub-sub-culture of masked wrestling and handles that quite well. The film's climax is built around a wrestler plotting to humiliate the rookie wrestler by removing his mask during a match and the film handles it perfectly, explaining why the mask is important, and why removing the mask by force is the ultimate act of disrespect.

This film was my first introduction to Kang-ho Song, showing off his ability to handle action, drama and comedy, not to mention his ability to switch from one to another smoothly.

He is, in a way, the Korean James Stewart. Tall and awkward, he always seems a little out of sync with the world around him. The world moves a little bit too fast for him. Because he reacts slowly, you can read every emotion and almost every thought on his face. This works well for dramatic purposes, but it also reveals character and works naturally rather than feeling artificial or like bad acting.

The Foul King proved to me that Kang-ho Song was an actor that I needed to follow. In fact, films like JSA, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Memories of Murder and The Host make me believe that he is our finest International actor active today.

*****

#2 Ringu aka Ring (1998) Japan imdb Directed by Hideo Nakata, Wriiten by Hiroshi Takahashi, Based on the novel by Kôji Suzuki

Ring British DVD Cover
Gateway Drug: J-Horror

The first and most obvious thing to say here is that Ringu scared the hell out of me.

It set a bar of quality for horror films. Unfortunately, its success unleashed a flood of imitators who aped the form rather than trying to be as good.

For me personally, the film gave me one of my favourite after-film moments. When the film played at Fantasia, it was presented by director Hideo Nakata and he answered questions after the film.

If I ask questions When I ask questions at times like these, I try to make connections with other films. (Yes, I'm that guy.) In this case, the connection was an odd one.

Part of Ringu's power is that it teases you with glimpses of the ghost, ratcheting up the tension with each peek, until as an audience you are begging to see the ghost in full, but when you do actually see her, her appearance is so terrifying that you regret asking to see more of her.

In addition to being scared out of my wits, the film connection that my scrambled brain was making was Jack Palance in George Stevens' Shane. Palance was an ex-boxer, not a cowboy, so when the time came to film him getting on a horse there were great difficulties. Stevens' solution was to film Palance getting off the horse and run the film backwards. Doing so gave Palance's Jack Wilson a creepy, supernatural aura that subconsciously creeped out audiences.

Director Hideo Nakata confirmed that they had shot the full introduction of the ghost by filming the actress moving backwards and running the film in reverse. He seemed tickled that his film was now linked to a classic like Shane and a great director like George Stevens.

That intimate connection between filmmakers and film fans is one of the many things that makes Fantasia special.

*****

#1 Beyond Hypothermia aka Sip Si 32 Dou (1996) Hong Kong imdb Directed by Patrick Leung, Written by Roy Szeto, Produced by Johnnie To

Beyond Hypothermia British DVD Cover
Gateway Drug: Johnnie To and Ching Wan Lau

When I first saw Beyond Hypothermia, I was beginning to believe that there was no future in bullet ballet films after seeing too many filmmakers doing pale imitations of faded Xeroxes of imperfect clones of the John Woo template.

What Beyond Hypothermia did was completely subvert the formula by making the doomed romantic assassin character a woman.

Beyond this simple subversion, the film gave us brilliant set pieces that were not just great visuals but that revealed character. Like the bravura opening which effectively compared the cold-blooded assassin with the blocks of ice concealing the assassin and her weapons.

Or like the restaurant sequence when a flaming duck is ordered and its arrival is used both as a stunning film visual and as a distraction to allow a quick escape and as a hint of the flaming ruins of the plans that have been made and finally as a metaphor for the doomed thaw of the assassin's heart by Ching Wan Lau's Long Shek character.

The biggest complaint of the film (and to me its biggest strength) is the way that it "wastes" Ching Wan Lau. Long Shek is a slow, ineffectual noodle shop owner. Consistent with the way that the film has switched gender roles, Long Shek is just as ineffectual as a love interest as the female love interests are in the John Woo films.

The tension of the film comes from that performance. We keep waiting for Ching Wan Lau to become the hero, to assume the mantle of heroic cool of Chow Yun Fat and save the day. Of course, if he had saved the day, he would also have doomed the movie to mediocrity.

Beyond Hypothermia proved to me that while Ching Wan Lau would never be the cool hero that Chow Yun Fat was, he would be the actor that Chow Yun Fat could never be, playing morally complex, damaged characters who because of their flaws and failures were oddly even more heroic.

And it confirmed for me that any film that Johnnie To was involved in whether as a director or a producer was worth going out of my way to see.

*****

I have been studying the redonkulously big 2011 Fantasia catalogue, and hopefully in a couple of days, I will put up a list of the films that I am hoping to see.

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