Folklore and Failure – The Field Guide to Evil review.

By Sunday, July 29, 2018 0 Permalink 0

The best things about A Field Guide to Evil are the premise and the credits.
(And the credits get undercut by the repetitive nature of the bumpers.)

Eight filmmakers from across the globe each give a short horror film in this anthology, drawing from their own local folklore. Unfortunately, the shorts feel like they were put together by directors who thought having writers who understood story and theme would be a burden. Well done horror and Twilight Zone weirdness works by mining thematic resonance about human frailty, structuring the monsters within and without to echo each other. Somehow, that lesson was lost on these directors. If they had abandoned it wholeheartedly for some sort of visual virtuosity, it would almost be forgivable, but outside of a few interesting shots, one can’t even mount that defense.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the last short, “The Cobbler’s Lot”, a silent-film homage set in medieval Hungary. It has a sense of playfulness with form which elevates it above the others. In the end, however, nothing quite gets to the level of decently scary, and don’t make up for it with thematic resonance. It feels all too much like the kind of creative scenario where no one was allowed to call bullshit on the director/writer, and so none of the flaws were actually corrected.

Overall, a disappointment, although any one of these filmmakers probably deserves another look when they’ve got someone reining them in.

The Price of Power – A Trio of Fantasia Reviews

By Sunday, July 29, 2018 0 Permalink 0

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 Sorcery 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-book 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 experimented 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 too difficult to look at directly.

Victims & Suspects – Neomanila Review

By Thursday, July 19, 2018 0 Permalink 0

A orphaned teenage boy, Toto (Timothy Castillo), tries to raise money to bail out his brother Kiko, under arrest for his links to a drug gang which Toto fears plan to kill the brothers to prevent a confession. Toto ends up under the protection of Irma (Eula Valdez), a professional hitwoman and former friend of his mothers. She slowly begins showing Toto what it takes to be an assassin, becoming both mentor and mother figure.

Neomanila is described as a “neo-noir” that observes “the phenomenon of extra-judicial killings”. That feels technically correct, but more evocative of something interesting than this film actually manages.

There are some dark shadows, there is crime, and some moral ambiguity, so I guess it qualifies as neo-noir. But Neomanila doesn’t have its heart in it, really. There is nothing particularly creative in the use of light and shadow, and by avoiding ever actually engaging with the politics or morality, the moral ambiguity is affectless rather than something that provokes thought.

The extra-judicial killings going on in the Philippines are a backdrop to the movie, but they aren’t actually the point of anything. If you knew nothing about Duerte’s War on Drugs, you aren’t likely to miss anything save maybe the meaning of some signs. It doesn’t observe the extra-judicial killings, the killings are almost completely irrelevant.

Castillo’s performance is strong for what he is given, but he is largely a blank passive slate, pushed around by circumstance. He seems like a kid, and is one, which undercuts the world-weary that a noir protagonist thrives in. (It makes his sex scenes fairly awkward as well.) Valdez fits the hard boiled noir tropes better, but is held at an even further remove.

I suppose I could be generous and say it has a Kubrickian sterility that is supposed to suggest something about the meaningless of it all. Maybe that is the intent. But if so, it succeeded too well, telling a serviceable story that doesn’t mean anything of note.

By His Bootstraps – Mega Time Squad review

By Tuesday, July 17, 2018 0 Permalink 0

A quirky little film from New Zealand, shot on a shoestring budget by some of the local indie scene that has spawned on the fringes of the film community produced by Lord of the Rings and other major international features, this is the story of a low-level errand boy (John) in a criminal organization who accidentally steals an ancient Chinese time-travel charm while robbing a cash drop off in an attempted double cross. Discovering this power, he sets about fixing his life and getting the money, accidentally recruiting himself from different points in his timeline into his own gang (The Mega Time Squad) despite being warned that meeting yourself like that will result in a demon coming to eat you.

It’s a fun film, and the main actor does a bang-up job portraying the various versions of himself growing more and more annoyed with their other selves. I get the choice to not explain the time travel in detail, even if it does seem at a certain point that it loses track of itself. (In the Q&A afterwards, the writer/director insisted that in fact you can track all the splits and who is who if you pay attention carefully, but I’m not entirely convinced.)

While the fact that having more of himself brings out the worst in John is clearly part of the theme, it does result in one of those situations where the lead character grows ever more unsympathetic. There did seem to be a point when the movie looked like it might resolve that by actually having the love interest call him out on that and switch to becoming either the main character or at least the real hero, but sadly the movie backs away from letting her do that. Since the film apparently was originally conceived as a “By His Bootstraps” like story with only the one actor interacting with himself, this isn’t too surprising, but having given up so much of that original idea, it should have followed through even more boldly, IMO.

Given the whole thing was shot in the time the actors were available and with no money for fancy post-production or motion capture, the double effect is extremely well done (aided by shooting the entire thing with a static camera so that the times a static camera was needed to set up shots with more than person, those shots didn’t stick out).

I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it, but if you like the slightly absurdist Kiwi humour, the performances are quite funny.

One Fist to Start them All – King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death

By Saturday, July 14, 2018 0 , , Permalink 0

(c) Celestial Pictures

My first FantAsia film was a trip down nostalgia lane to memories of renting random Kung Fu VHS tapes with my friend Josh as a kid in New York City, by way of the iconic Shaw Bothers film, “The Five Fingers of Death”, also known as “King Boxer”. This film is famously the first major kung fu film to hit the USA, predating Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon by several months. (It is widely considered something of a test run for Dragon.) Martial arts content had been gaining popularity throughout the late 60s, culminating in the TV series Kung Fu, but no one had brought a wall-to-wall martial arts flick to the big screen yet. Would it have any appeal outside the grindcore set?

Oh yes.

The film was a huge hit, only to be dwarfed later in ’73 by the even bigger hit that was Lee’s film. But Five Fingers of Death came first, a grand guignol pile up of martial arts movie tropes that is still influential today. The opening credits give us a screeching wail which Tarantino used liberally in Kill Bill. The name gave us the band name of “Five Finger Death Punch”. The screeching wail is actually the power up sound of the hero’s secret “Iron Palm technique”, in which his hands glow and he delivers supernaturally powerful blows.

Danny Rand says hi.

The film itself, at least this edit and translation of it, is a bit of a mess. The basic story is clear enough, Chih-Hao (Lo Lieh) is a martial arts student and in love with his Master’s daughter Ying-Ying (Wang Ping). When thugs attack the master, he is sent to study under a new teacher, and win a tournament to prevent evil martial arts schools from taking over the northern provinces and justify his marriage to Ying-Ying. He goes north, gets trained and struggles with the evil martial arts school led by Meng Tung-Shan (Tien Feng) and his son Meng Tien-Hsiung (Tung Lam looking like a cross between Elvis and Queeg from the Caine Mutiny Trial). How long things take is very unclear (it could be over a year, it could be a couple of months), the character beats are oddly messy at times, with the movie cutting away before anything can land. At times it feels like an ensemble piece that needs another half hour to fill out properly, but they had to cut tot he fights.

And fights there are. There are bar fights, street ambushes, there is a tournament, there is murder, people get their eyes plucked out, bright red blood spews everywhere, the hero has glowing hands. It’s like a distilled concentrate of the whole style of that era of movies.

This is far from my favourite Shaw Brothers film, it lacks a lot of the operatic quality and innovative weirdness that they brought to the table for their best work. But it does have a bit of everything, and for a North American audience that had never seen anything like it, I can see why it took off.

Poking around the internet, it seems that there has been talk of a remake since 2016 (sadly, the name attached it Brett Ratner) and I would love to see a remake that takes some time to breathe and let all the various subplots boil properly and get their moments in. The side characters all have potential to be even better with a little love.

Was it as awesome as it was to an underage me? Not really. But a bit like Casablanca, it is amazing to go back and see something that has been so copied and referenced that it takes you a moment to realize this is the source, and marvel at how mind blowing it must have been.