The first installment of Jacob Klemmer’s trilogy, reporting everything you need to know about Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival.
At Fantasia Film Festival, when the lights go down and the film is just about to commence, a symphony of meowing rises from the audience members. After a couple of mystifying (and confusing) screenings, I walked outside of Concordia University’s pavilion building (1455 Maisonneuve West) and caught a glimpse of a banner, discovering that the mascot for the festival is a grinning cat. The festival’s audience is unafraid to applaud and cheer, and so it’s an ideal setting to experience Fantasia’s mission: to be a populist film festival that projects bold, strange genre films.
…Fantasia’s mission: to be a populist film festival that projects bold, strange genre films.
Buffalo Boys (Rating: 7/10) is one such film: an Indonesian action film set during the period of Dutch colonization. It follows two brothers as they take revenge on the villainous Van Tracht, the colonial monarch who killed their father. Suwo, the younger buffalo sibling, is played with tenderness and fury by Yoshua Sudarso (the other buffalo boy barely registers as a character). It’s a classic Western (Eastern?) tale: the despotic ruler of a town is challenged by an ubermensch man of the land (or in this case two men of the land) and comes complete with saloon brawls, damsels in distress, gunfights at high noon, and an uneasy relationship with the colonialism inherent to all Westerns, this one especially. The film depicts the real-life cruelties of the Dutch colonizers without wavering, but too often uses imagery of this violence, especially sexual violence, as an excuse to make the villains as loathsome as possible. In one scene we witness the violent branding of women and in another scene we are expected to laugh as they get skewered with longhorn skulls.
The action sequences are satisfying in their own right (particularly that saloon brawl), but first time filmmaker Mike Wiluan is not yet adept at modulating it, creating a jarring contrast that he can’t quite resolve. All in all, Buffalo Boys plays like two great films joined at the hip.
The Unity of Heroes (Rating: 7/10) is smoother at integrating its history with its hysteria. This newest martial arts film about the patient martial artist and medical genius Wong Fei Hung—there have been over a hundred, with Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master from 1978 being perhaps the most well-known in the West— tracks a shadowy conspiracy to poison the Chinese people with a refined opium, created in the bowels of a western hospital by a moustache-twirling (literally) villain named Vlad. There are fights with drugged-up, enraged, black-veined death machines created by this Western opium conspiracy, but even more than the action – which is a delirious dance of wire-assisted martial arts – I was pleased by the bouncy comedy that lights up every scene. Especially funny are Wong’s students, good natured and just buffoonish enough, always trying just a bit too hard to please their master.
Likewise, this film stretches itself so far in order to please that the seams begin to show. The special effects are cheap, and there are bad zooms and steadicam stabilizations applied in post-production which ruin the magic. Thankfully this film’s cheapness is a part of its charm; it’s a low budget martial arts film for the 21st century, ideal for an exhausted weeknight viewing where your only responsibilities are to laugh and behold.
Summer of ‘84 (Rating: 6/10) is the backwash of Stranger Things and 2017’s IT, an all-filler, no-killer horror comedy about four boys —the Nice Guy Protagonist, the Fat Kid, the Bad Boy, and the Nerd—who begin stalking their next suspicious cop neighbour with Something To Hide™. Really, it’s a film about 1980s ornaments. The filmmakers (who collectively go by RKSS) treat their characters as set dressing and reserve all their pathos for old news broadcasts, Rush posters, and discussions about Spielberg and Gremlins, of course. It’s a film where the kids talk like real kids, meaning they say ‘fuck’, make gay jokes and relentlessly ogle the Nice Guy’s next door neighbour, a Hot Girl Next Door™ who’s Sad About Her Parents Getting Divorced™.
As a comedy it’s exhausting, like IT if all the kids were Richie Tozier, and it’s the type of horror film where there are more fake jump scares than real ones. For the first ninety minutes I was kept afloat by a terrific score populated by radiant old-school synth, so good you’d make a movie just to have it, and the performance of Rich Sommer as the potential serial killer, who threads the needle perfectly, playing a man you instantly want to both trust and run away from. But the film’s unexpected and daring coda flirts with brilliance, referencing and reframing the first scene with a dark sequence of violent suspense and ending on an expertly portrayed moment of horror—true horror—that shook me to my core. It goes to show that when RKSS aren’t doing third-rate imitations of other artists, they’re doing a first-rate imitation of themselves.
As a comedy it’s exhausting, like IT if all the kids were Richie Tozier, and it’s the type of horror film where there are more fake jump scares than real ones.
The ruthless capitalism of Korea is the subject of the two best films of the festival so far. Microhabitat (Rating: 8/10), the most low-key film I saw last week, is a dramedy about a young woman named Miso on the fringe of poverty, so squeezed by her society that her entire life can fit into a medium shot. Upon discovering that the prices of her two vices, whiskey and cigarettes, have gone up, Miso decides to become homeless. From there the film becomes a sort of odyssey: as she contacts members of her old university rock band for a place to sleep, we get a vertical slice of South Korean society. Both the comedy and the drama are naturalistic and character focused, the highlights being her Mama’s Boy ex-guitarist who proposes strategic, sexless marriage, and her ex-bassist so torn up by his divorce that he cannot bring himself to be in the same room as another woman, smoking with Miso separated by his bedroom door. It recalls the best social dramas of directors Hirokazu Kore-Eda and Mike Leigh, with all the formal precision and melancholy that comparison entails. It’s the first film from director Jeon Go-Woon, sadly the first film directed by a woman I’ve seen at the festival, and her distinct point of view elevates the film from good to great.
It’s a rollercoaster of shock, laughter, and horror, but one feeling is constant: the unmistakable feeling that we’re watching the first masterpiece from a new auteur with many more under his belt. To witness this at Fantasia Film Festival was both a pleasure and a privilege.
As it stands right now, True Fiction (Rating: 9/10), an astonishingly assured film from first-time filmmaker Kim Jin Mook, is the film to beat. It follows a sniveling, bloodsucking, aspiring politician named Kyung Suk, the son-in-law of the famous senator Yeom, who’s just beginning his run for mayor by taking his mistress to his wife’s cottage in rural Korea. But on his way there, he runs over the dog of Soon-Tae, a man who claims to be the gardener on the property. What builds from this foundation is a dark comedy akin to the Coen Brothers’ films of the 80s; an escalation of twists, revelations, and eventually, violence that delights with every turn.
The dynamic between Kyung Suk and Soon Tae alone is a joy: Kyung is slightly dimwitted and not deserving whatsoever of his privilege, while Soon is much smarter and much less deserving of his standing. And so the film begins as a sort of battle between the rural working-class laborers and the wealthy yuppie who claims to help them while stepping over them. The tonal zigzagging is matched by Mook’s mastery of filmmaking dynamics: he knows exactly when to punctuate the story with self-conscious melodramatic framing (one particular shot of Kyung Suk golfing comes to mind), and when to play out a scene in steady group shots and let the hilarious screenplay shine. It’s a rollercoaster of shock, laughter, and horror, but one feeling is constant: the unmistakable feeling that we’re watching the first masterpiece from a new auteur with many more under his belt. To witness this at Fantasia Film Festival was both a pleasure and a privilege.
The 2018 Fantasia Film Festival is taking place July 7th to August 2nd at Concordia’s SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Hall Theatre), 1455 blvd. De Maisonneuve West (Metro Guy Concordia). Buy your tickets at the Fantasia Box Office on location or online here.