Online Exclusive: The 15th Fantasia International Film Festival
By Chris Chang
Shortly after arriving at the 15th installment of the Fantasia International Film Festival—Montreal’s beloved three-week freak show—I found myself in a stare-down with Udo Kier. He continued to eye me suspiciously while he wrote down his e-mail address. I was determined to get his Guilty Pleasures while I was there, but the party we were attending was not the place to do it. He regaled me with tales of recent projects, including: an ongoing venture with Guy Maddin; a role in a Turkish film playing Bela Bartok; something about, I believe, Nazis on the moon; and, most important, The Theatre Bizarre, the omnibus shocker that would soon have its world premiere. After securing the promise of a proper interview in a few days time, I moved on to the barbecue and met Ryoo Seung-wan (director of the The Unjust), and an entourage that included his agent, a translator, and his wife and three children—the latter not yet old enough to appreciate the staggering artistry, complexity, and violence of the Korean auteur’s current film. I’ve seen it three times—finally on the big screen at Fantasia—and I still don’t fully grasp all the plot convolutions. As the conversation turned to Ryoo’s favorite television series (Fox’s 24) he seemed a bit confused as I explained the right-wing-tainted pro-torture controversies the show had generated stateside.
Speaking of torture, the deliberate infliction of pain was very much present during the initial screenings I caught, post-barbecue. First up was the grim, Belgian-Dutch co-production known as Bullhead; and then, the American goofball satire, Chop. The former, written and directed by Michael R. Roskan, uses a horrific childhood trauma (crushed genitalia) to set up the miserable adulthood of the victim. He’s become a brooding hulk of a man so frustrated by his early-life injury that he’s turned his remaining body into a mutant mass of muscle through continuous self-dosing with bovine-growth hormones. Meat and its metaphors are further developed by the presence of steak-dealing gangsters—and, as a bonus, the vividly depicts the real-life racism that continues to plague the French-Flemish border. Bullhead’s superb visual gloom is eventually surpassed by the outstanding performance of Mathias Schoenaerts. His embodiment of pain, portrayed with visceral emotional depth is, in the end, quite moving.
Trent Haaga’s Chop, on the other hand, can’t really be taken seriously, but at least provides an amusing slice of vicarious sadism. The film’s dubious pleasure derives from the fact that the narrative’s victim (frenetically played by Will Keenan—who we all remember from Tromeo & Juliet) is actually a complete jackass who deserves all the Saw-related mutilations that befall him. “Karma is a motherfucker,” exclaims his captor—and as the film ably demonstrates. (It’s one of the funniest examples of torture porn I’ve seen—if that’s any kind of selling point.)
In tonal contrast to Chop stood Naoki Hashimoto’s Birthright, in which a young girl finds herself trapped in an abandoned warehouse. Instead of violence, her tormentor, a slightly older girl—almost a woman—employs an icy hands-off silence that’s accentuated by the film’s cold visual palette. Birthright is a tale of ultra-slow, near minimalist psychological torture. And, to up the genre-film cred, the victim turns out to be not who you think.
All horror/fantasy fests have plenty of Asian blood running through them—and Fantasia (with 36 out of 123 total features) proved no exception. In addition to the Hashimoto and the Ryoo, I enjoyed a splendid double dose of Yudai Tamaguchi with his Deadball and Yukuza Weapon. Both were made this year, and both star the supreme Tak Sagaguchi—who’s also credited as co-director of Weapon. Tamaguchi’s obsessive aesthetic coalesced with Battlefield Baseball (03), further evolved with Meatball Machine (a personal fave, from 05), and appears to be mutating wildly in the present day. Baseball as weapon plus weapons as artificial limbs are motifs—and narrative ploys range from Nazis to juvenile reformatories, excessive cavity searches, rocket-launcher appendages, etc. Honestly, the action in this pair is practically interchangeable. But as anyone “who cares” about this stuff will tell you: “who cares?”
Any horror/fantasy fest—even though we all must knowingly lower our standards of taste before entering—will also have disappointments. Love, by William Eubank, wants to be a sweeping sci-fi epic along the lines of 2001, but its mission that sends an astronaut on a solitary mission into space (with oblique references to Solaris, and such novels as Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendevous with Rama) fails to achieve critical mass. You can give it a nod for attempting to follow in a noble tradition—but that’s about it.
Let down number two: we will watch Cillian Murphy do anything, but we will not re-watch (nor recommend) Retreat, Carl Tibbet’s clichéd stab at the isolated-couple genre. For this sort of thing to work effectively, the audience must believe that the couple’s relationship is threatened by the unexpected arrival of the dark and dangerous stranger, which presupposes that the audience believes that said couple had a relationship in the first place, and that the actors portraying said couple must have a certain onscreen chemistry—which they don’t.
A much more interesting take on couples and coupling occurs in the oddball anomaly Bellflower. Would you believe a So-Cal mumblecore riff on The Road Warrior? Well . . . not exactly. Evan Glodell’s film involves a group of grungy-cute layabouts, who build bombs and flame throwers and whatnot to attach to their muscle cars, as they flirt and cheat on each other—all the while drinking massive quantities of beer. And then the social dynamic takes an abrupt turn toward the dark side, the film completely switches gears, and we are witness to acts so violent they are . . . inexplicable. Bellflower may in fact be the antidote to mumblecore.
Are there any normal relationships in Fantasia films? Mike Flanagan’s Absentia, an effectively moody thriller concerns a missing person, his wife, and her recovering-junkie sister. It’s rife with creepy atmospherics. At one point, for example, interior walls literally quiver with disturbed-spirit energy (or are they body parts?). The relationship in Scott Leberecht’s Midnight Son takes a while to get underway. That’s because the dude is lonely, and allergic to sunlight, and only comes out at night for his job as a security guard. His one small joy is the (ironic!) paintings he makes of sunsets. Then he meets a cute art lover—which is not be confused with a “meet cute.” Did I mention he also drinks blood? Which, of course, brings us to Vampire, Shunji Iwai’s take on the sucker-of-vital-fluids motif. (While the director, best known for All About Lilly Chou-Chou, is Japanese, his new film is a U.S.-Canadian co-production.) The trend continues: dude is lonely—and this time around spends too much time in Internet chat rooms. But there’s another problem: these are suicide chat rooms, and he’s looking for that special someone to do the deed with. Further complication: he doesn’t really want to kill himself, he just needs his victims to die first so that he can then, of course, drain them of their blood. The fact that this is the director’s first English-language film adds, I believe, a moody, hypnotic nuance to the film. Clearly Western looking in its vision, it’s nonetheless imbued with an Eastern, almost Zen-like calm.
Oh Canada: always an interesting land for restorations and revivals. So it was mandatory (for me) to catch Cronenberg’s Shivers, whose big-screen virtues, 36 years after the fact, are still very much intact. I then had the pleasure of another Australian charmer: the mind-blowing Wake in Fright (71). Thanks to the efforts of the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia, Ted Kotcheff’s long-lost outback nightmare has returned (it’s hard to get your head around the fact that this is the guy who directed Weekend at Bernie's). Gary Bond—emanating a sort of oily Richard Chamberlain aura—plays a schoolteacher on Christmas “holiday.” That’s fairly ironic because the heat is excruciating. He soon finds himself stranded in a godforsaken desert town whose residents (also oily) seem to do nothing but drink, gamble, and yell at each other for not drinking enough. It appears that there’s only one woman in town—and when Bond’s character falls for her, the games begin. The film has numerous candidates for most disturbing scene. But I’d say it’s pretty much a toss up between the legendary cruelty-to-kangaroo sequence and the drunken, shirtless Donald Pleasence interlude.
Who is F.J. Ossang? Seriously and WTF? According to one of the very few articles I have found (by no less than Nicole Brenez) he has made “nine albums with his band MKB (Messageros Killer Boys),” written some 20 novels, and directed (at a much slower rate) a handful of shorts and features. Dharma Guns, his latest, begins with a spectacular black-and-white water-ski sequence in which the boat’s pilot—a quasi-futuristic femme fatale—blows a kiss to the skier who crashes and then awakens in a cinematic fugue state (into which the audience is also helplessly dragged). The condition lasts forever—or at least until the end of the movie. That the opening scene is cut to the tense and taunting strains of Jello Biafra is indicative of the film’s overall sense of druggy subjectivity, desperation, and anger. Doppelgängers (known technically in the film as “genetic duplicates”—and not to be confused with the secret Internet society, the Dharma Guns) are a key thematic. Black market drugs play a role. A lot of the landscapes, including artificial lakes in which the characters swim, are irradiated (monochrome sequences in sickly yellow or green are not uncommon). Is this pretentious indulgence by an artist using the wrong medium? Or, as Brenez puts it, “radiant images without equal on any silver screen in the world”?
Admittedly, one cannot catch everything at a carnival like Fantasia, and I saw only a fraction, but the one screening that seemed most talked about within my purview, and the one with the most wildly receptive audience, was The Theatre Bizarre. Why? It felt like a horror film of yore, a deliberate throwback to Grand Guignol terror anthologies such as Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horror or televison’s Trilogy of Terror. It’s wildly uneven—yet it has so much on offer (including the Udo Kier wraparound) that there’s something for everyone. There’s no sense trying to summarize all the plots here—but as a colleague quickly pointed out: “all but one of the episode’s contain juvenile-male visions of female empowerment.” I would amend that to “psycho-female”—but you get the picture.
Coda: Detention, a Fantasia premiere I caught up with back in the safety of New York City, deserves kudos for its: contagious energy (think John-Hughes-inflected-meta-slasher-comedy at the speed of Twitter); and it’s obvious love (and deep knowledge) of teen cinema. The pace at which the references fly by—including nods to everything from Mean Girls to Freaky Friday to A Nightmare on Elm Street—is as breathtaking as it is exhausting (particularly if you were born before 1990). Sony Pictures Worldwide snapped this one up so anyone who wants to will be able to see it at the multiplex at some point. Which is definitely not the case for most of the aforementioned weirdness.
© 2011 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center