Power and what it demands has preoccupied human storytelling since time immemorial.
What we currently call “genre” films, that heady mix of horror, sci-fi, superheroes, and fantasy, have always engaged that question, struggling with what the price of power is – how it isolates as well as empowers.
Over the last week, I saw three films that struggled with the question of power and how to use it, each from a different cultural tradition – Russian, Korean, and Japanese – that nonetheless all coalesced around the point that while intent does not erase the fallout of your exercise of power, intent is crucial to the ethical use of power at all.
The Scythian is a Russian film that slides along the edge of Sword and Sorcery, and absolutely feels drawn from a wellspring of love for Robert E. Howard. My friend Matthew Surridge of Black Gate described this film as “Metal as Fuck” and he isn’t wrong. The film is a pile of “Noble Savage” tropes, with a Christian Warrior and an Honorable Savage teaming up to save the Christian’s Wife (who is just a Sexy Lamp). I will always have a soft spot for a film that knows exactly what it wants to do and nails it, regardless of other considerations. This film is two badasses fighting. There is a tribute to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s best fight scene redone in a medieval context. Marten, the Scythian, is played by someone who seems like Tom Hiddleston’s central asian clone – all angular cheekbones and screen presence. This is the second film I’ve seen recently that feels like Russia took the 80’s love of cheesy Sword and Sorcerty and reinterpreted it with a modern level of special effects and dedication to theme. It’s not the most sophisticated storytelling, but it is damn enjoyable. Vengeance, the price of power, and the cynicism of wanting to rule rather than govern are themes that work extremely well in this genre, and the Russians seem to be hitting these themes out of the park.
The other two films that make up this trilogy of power and vengeance are both East Asian and both drawing on the theme of the Witch – a woman breaking the rules of proper behavior by wielding any power at all is dangerous.
Laplace’s Witch is a film by legendary director Takashi Miike starts quite well, but falls apart under a slavish desire to adhere to the novel, as far as I can tell. Adapting a novel to the screen is an art, and requires a certain courage to throw out elements that work in text but not on screen. As the last act of this film unfolds, it becomes painfully evident that courage was lacking. Story beats fall apart as they aren’t properly set up by the film, although I suspect they made sense in the novel. It is shame, as it wastes a two lovely performances by Suzu Hirose (as the titular witch) and Tamaki Hiroshi (as the dogged cop just trying to solve an impossible mystery). Miike has audacity to spare, but none of it is evident in this film, which is a shame, as the themes of alienating power, what it means to make a mark on the world, and what it means to be a good person or hold responsibility are all solid ones. My sister speaks often of taking the heart of a story and respecting that even as one transforms it into another form, medium, or genre. This is a case of respecting the trappings more than the heart, which is almost invariably the wrong choice.
The final third of my trio is Witch Part 1: The Subversion, an unabashedly over the top love letter to late-80s post-Watchmen comic sensibility and anime-style “everything is just going to get worse” storytelling sensibility.
Ja-yoon (a stellar Kim Da-mi) is a local farm girl with a sick father and a mother suffering from dementia. She agrees to go on an American Idol-like reality competition to get some money, at the behest of her delightfully over-the-top best friend Myung-hee (Ko Min-shi). Appearing on TV brings her back into the sights of the sinister scientists who experiments on her as a small child, and everything escalates from there.
I compare this to the post-Watchmen era of comic book superhero storytelling, dovetailing with the Akira/Ronin/Elfin Lied style of power and consequence. I can nitpick the pacing of reveals in the film, but that is more about personal aesthetics of what to reveal when. I may prefer specific forms of pacing but that doesn’t mean other choices are objectively wrong. One thing I can say is that I appreciate the film stating upfront that is part 1, or the ending would infuriate me a lot more. In the end, this is a lovely superpower (not necessarily hero) origin story that delivers, and I recommend checking it out.
One thing (among many) that is lovely about Fantasia is watching storytelling tropes interpreted through lenses one may not be familiar with. There is a universality to story and theme, and a vast plethora of difference in execution and emphasis that reminds anyone paying attention that the human condition is universal in theme, and diverse in detail. Every story is worth retelling from another point of view; each grid one overlays on an essential plot highlights different aspects of the various truths underlying the human condition. Unless all you crave is a story to tell you the status quo is appropriate, every variant adds some small truth to the mix, every lens highlights a different part of the essential.
More stories and more storytellers appropriating, remixing, and recasting stories in a thousand forms may be the only way to approach truths that hurt too much to look at directly.