Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fantasia 2011 (Day 10)


A perfectly well spent, fully saturated day at the festival, Saturday the 23rd featured my very first Japanese film in almost ten days! Pretty weird that, if you consider that Fantasia used to be a premium vehicle for the extravagant narratives from the Land of the Rising Sun. Unfortunately, the festival has been playing for keeps in recent years, selecting on average 2 Miike films and 1 Sion Sono film for each of their annual lineups. Now maybe it's just me... but it seems that Miike's antics are becoming increasingly bothersome. That said, the man is not even that great a filmmaker, even if Western audiences seem keen on praising every single turd he just shat as a perplexing piece of high art. Obviously, he has had a couple of hits in his career (such as Visitor Q, a clever reworking of Pasolini's Teorema), but considering the bulk of his work (turning out an average of 4 films a year since the early 90s), his is a flawed filmography. As for Sono, I don't hate his pretentiousness so much as I hate the Fantasian consensus according to which everyone of his films is a gift from God. And while I still love Japanese cinema for its irreverent attitude and privileging of affect over technique, I see less and less J-films at Fantasia each year, focusing my energy on the annual Sushi Typhoon crowd-pleaser and similar unapologetic genre candies (such as Horny House of Horror and Tomie: Unlimited on display this year).

Speaking of the rising sun, the fiery star was shining brightly on that fated Saturday, but I preferred the comforting coldness of shadows and the enticing pixels of the screen to its debilitating warmth. With a very heterogeneous line-up covering three continents and the work of four prominent directors (Yuen Woo Ping, Jean-Claude Lord, Dick Maas and Kinji Fukasaku, the latter of which has by far the most impressive body of work), I was sure to find something to fulfill my present needs, including that of staying relatively cold despite summer. What awaited me was a roller-coaster of critical enjoyment, with some films nearing rock bottom (Monster Brawl and Saint) while the others soared toward the heavens. All in all, it was a good day, highlighted by "classics" such as Jean-Claude Lord's Panique (shown on the screen for the first time in 30 years) and Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, the crowning piece of film-making atop the pile, and a perfect midnight film to enjoy amongst other genre fanatics.


Typically noisy Sushi Typhoon melodramatic actioner is bursting with hyper-kinetic energy and ingenuous splatter. Read full review here.


Monster Brawl
No matter what nostalgic affection the director holds for classic monsters, he lacks the directorial skills and creative craftsmanship to bring them to life. The resulting effort is hardly a film at all, more of a systematic, uninteresting collage of witless, expository vignettes, battle stats and arthritic fight scenes punctuated by the obligatory commentary track and Jimmy Hart's desperately unfunny antics. After selecting a roster of generic monsters from influential folkloric tales (such as the cyclops, the vampire lady, the zombie man or the "witch bitch", a castaway magic-user from New England so named in order to draw some laughs that fail to materialize amongst the bewildered audience), the director then tags and categorizes them as though they were toys. Then instead of involving them in a narrative, he pits them against one another in a wrestling tournament, systematically introducing a pair of combatants by way of two short videos and some vital stats, then having them have at it in a WWE-type ring erected inside a cemetery. Relying on familiar plot devices from the world of wrestling, including sudden reversals of fortune and some lawless interventions by various ring-side assistants, the film offers nothing but cheap thrills. Using some surprisingly uninspired introductory episodes to instill the bulk of its dramatic issues, Monster Brawl has almost no redeeming value at all. There is no doubt in my mind that real monster fans will want to revisit Universal and Hammer classics instead while fans of wrestling will itch to watch old Wrestlemania tapes from boxes in their basement.


True Legend
This lush action set-piece claims to chronicle the birth of drunken boxing by telling the story of Beggar Su for the umpteenth time. And while the narrative is incredibly familiar, with obvious dramatic cogs making rusty squeaks as they turn, the superior production values and impeccable action choreography manage to draw the viewers right in and keep them on the edge of their seats. True Legend is the film to see for never-ending fight scenes involving many types of hostile environments, including snake pits, slippery ledges atop huge statues, shaky rope bridges, and tiger pits. That said, director Yuen Woo Ping proves here that he is just as good framing exciting duels as epic-size clashes, as demonstrated by the breathtaking opening scene. As an added bonus, he manages to retain the services of legendary Michelle Yeoh, Gordon Liu and even David Carradine, whom he gives remarkable bit parts. This is Hong Kong action at its very best... and its most conventional at the same time.


Title refers to the aftermath of a chemical spill caused by irresponsible paper industries on the St-Lawrence river. When pets and kids start dying after ingesting tap water, littering the streets and the emergency rooms with their bodies, the people of Montreal face a city-wide state of emergency. When confronted with proof of their wrong-doing, big corporation denies everything, using their influence to manipulate law-makers as well as the public. But when their head marketing strategist hears of the truth, mundanely revealed by a remorseless suit during a cocktail party, she flips out and gathers a group of disgruntled workers and parents in order to take guerrilla action against the Prime Minister, who they believe owes the public an explanation for his jumping in bed with the corporate heads responsible for poisoning his people.

There's something quite touching about director Jean-Claude Lord (Parlez-nous d'amour, Bingo) and his political films of the 1970s. While they are rather uninteresting technically, they embody a pure, one could say naive, revolutionary spirit that is a direct byproduct of the révolution tranquille. Coupled with a keen insight on the backstage politics of the media and a certain knack for satire, they proceed from a powerful, if childish wish to affect change in the world through revolutionary action. And while they don't necessarily have the impact that their author would've wished, theirs is a powerful call for personal sacrifice in the face of adversity, a call for action directed at all film viewers, no matter their political creed or background. It's a shame that Lord later got involved only in crass commercial projects, including several TV series (paramount of which is Lance et compte, a legendary hockey drama and staple of Quebec's pop culture), but I reckon that it perfectly exemplifies the erosion of beliefs brought about by age and comfort. That very fact was tackled head-on by Denys Arcand with his seminal Le déclin de l'empire américain as we see post-referendum activists settle for a bourgeois life of instant gratification, which in turn represents the director's own estrangement from the ideals he once fought for (such as with his unsurpassed 1976 classic On est au coton).

With Panique, Lord recycles many of the archetypes used in his two previous films, Bingo and Parlez-nous d'amour. He even enrolls a large part of the actors used previously, with the notable addition of feminist icon Paule Baillargeon in the lead role. And while it is a surprisingly stoic, talkative film, it asks many pressing questions about government collusion and the irresponsability of the private companies they sponsor. But more importantly, it stipulates that true change necessarily lies in revolutionary action. When Baillargeon's character kidnaps the Prime Minister on the set of a feminist TV talk show, she means business, proving that any organized group of citizens can effectively create change insofar as they are willing to disobey unjust laws and bring down unworthy officials. Despite a lack of dramatic intensity and some heavy reliance on wordy monologues, Lord's film makes us glimpse at a wish come true: a world where government officials need to be accountable for their actions and answer to their electors, lest they be tried by the mob and lynched as the unethical pigs that they are. That said, the film is particularly relevant to the current québécois context in which the underground gas industry avoids all sorts of laws against pollution by throwing big dollars around. And so, my urge has returned for us, collectively, to remove Jean Charest from power and skewer his bodiless head on a stake near the Parliament.


Get this: two back-to-back introductory flashbacks are required to set up this improbable story of monstrous Saint Nick returning to modern-day Amsterdam in order to terrorize the population with his crew of diminutive henchmen. The first one is set in the Middle Ages, where the renegade bishop and his crew of thugs rob and kill the locals, until they are set afire aboard their galleon and left to die, only for them to be resurrected somehow in order to carry on with their heinous crimes. The second one is set in the 1960s if I remember correctly, during the last Christmas full moon. It depicts the traumatic encounter of a future police officer with the supernatural mass murderer, who proceeds to slaughter the boy's entire family while he is off feeding the horses in the nearby stable. As you would expect, the boy grows up to be a recluse focused obsessively on destroying the nefarious specter. Surprisingly though, he is not the protagonist of the film, relegated instead to the role of sidekick to the vacuous teenage star. With so many incongruities stacked up so early, one should immediately realize how narratively poor Saint really is and how eager it is to shed its dramatic assets to better showcase good-looking teenage meat puppets.

That said, despite the film's superior production values (best showcased during a fairly exciting slay run atop Amsterdam's posh apartment buildings), it is little more than your average teen slasher fare, using dubious folkloric pulp as an excuse to show hunks and chicks running around. The forgiving runtime makes it a little easier to swallow, but it's doubtful that anybody will scream for encores, even though the final shot seems to imply a sequel. Bert Luppes gives the film some sense of dignity as obsessive inspector Goert, but his character is so underused as to reveal a weakness rather than a strength in the process of elaborating the narrative. Truly, here is a misguided, uninspired attempt at crowd-pleasing which, if it were not for its providing some rare insight into European Christmas traditions, would be almost completely uninteresting. Steer clear.

Dark stop-motion fantasy short Bobby Yeah, screening right before the feature, was way more imaginative and memorable than its companion, showcasing a plethora of weird and wondrous creatures involved in a twisted game of destruction and rebirth, all of whom will cling to you much longer than the silly Saint Nick of Dick Maas's Saint.


Battle Royale
A classroom full of Japanese kids slaughtering each other in a frenzied game of survival on a deserted island full of booby-traps? Rarely can one appreciate a premise so promising. Rarely too do films deliver the goods following such an outlandish premise, but Battle Royale is certainly one of those. Barely one decade old, Kinji Fukasaku's seminal effort in inspired political madness has already become a full-fledged cult classic, and rightfully so. His film works perfectly as a razzle-dazzle action film, a poignant drama about the true nature of humanity and a political allegory pertaining to Japan's renowned mishandling of youths. With a roster of 50+ characters, including Takeshi Kitano's melancholy sadist, there's bound to be something in there for everybody. Although it contained a fair share of superfluous additions, the director's cut on display was more than welcome as I had already seen the film more than ten times, almost each screening resulting from a friend claiming he had never seen Battle Royale. And the present screening was no exception as I added another fan to the film's international brotherhood of aficionados. And so it will probably live on in all of our hearts as a rare example of a universal narrative, expressed in a specific language but understood by all as perhaps the quintessential cautionary tale for the new millennium. An incredible achievement.