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Every year, about a week into the month of July, film fanatics from around the province, the country, and the continent convene in Montreal, Quebec for the event known as Fantasia: a film festival spanning the entire breadth of genre filmmaking, from rare and classic Shaw Brothers kung-fu epics to the latest works of idiosyncratic innovators such as Takashi Miike, Dario Argento and Tobe Hooper, to the newest animated jewels from the lands of the rising sun.
The experience of watching a film at Fantasia is a remarkable one. The audiences, savvy and passionate, are far-removed from the mainstream, and react with refreshing candor: excellent film (and their sometimes-present cast & crew) receive standing ovations, disappointing entries are subject to repeated (and satisfying) heckling and booing, and moments of dark comedy and oddball occurrences are met with open minds (and often open mouths).
As such, Fantasia stands as one of the summer highlights of this film fan. I hope you'll join me as I recount my experiences this year, review a few interesting films, and share my rambling thoughts on the current state of genre filmmaking.
8th Diagram Pole Fighter
(Directed by Chiang-Lia Liu)
Screened for the first time in Montreal (and to the exhibitor's knowledge, in North America) in twenty-one years, the last film directed by Chiang-Lia Liu (Enter the 36th Chamber of Shaolin) for the Shaw Brothers studios is a masterful example of the genre. All its familiar staples are present in full force: the off-synch sound effects; the obvious soundstage locations; the crash-zooms; the fanfare-like music; and the exhilarating – and to my opinion, unequaled in style – action sequences. Gordon Liu plays the fifth brother of a family massacred by the treachery of their once-close family friend, Pan Mei; in hiding and pursued by assassins, he trains at a Shaolin temple and masters the art of pole fighting, which he then uses, in a crackerjack finale, to avenge his family. Exciting, infused with cult richness, and often hilarious, it’s among the best the Shaw Bros. studios have to offer.
Ju-On: The Grudge
(Directed by Takashi Shimizu)
In stark contrast to the entertainment and cinematic value of the film that preceded it, Takashi Shimizu's remake of the acclaimed Japanese miniseries is a laughable, tepid film. The best Japanese horror films are characterized not only by their scenes of terror but by their cryptic, slowly-unfolding plots; in this regard, Shimizu's film fails considerably, offering a simple collection of vignettes tied together by vague insinuations. And since these vignettes happen to pander to the lowest common denominator and feature the most blatant and predictable of horror clichés, there’s really no reason to bother with The Grudge.
[Note: Shown before Ju-On was a teaser trailer for the upcoming remake of the same film, written and directed by Takashi Shimizu himself for American audiences. Judging from this sneak peek, things will not improve.]
Memories of Murder
(Directed by Bong Joon-Ho)
Among the most illustrious of inclusions to this year's programme, Bong Joon-Ho's tale of the psychological, social, and political pressures surrounding the hunt for a murderer is a powerful, relevant film. Inspired by the first serial killer in recorded South Korean history, who prowled a languid countryside from 1986 to 1991, the film approaches the story by centering on the transformation of the two cops charged with the investigation, and allows the story to progress intensely but slowly. Two distinct elements distinguish Memories of Murder from ordinary police procedurals, however. One is its fascinating exploration into the social effects of a military dictatorship; indeed, the investigation, and those who undertake it, are imbued with the harshness of their country's political regime, and constantly undermined by its limitations. The other is the masterful ending, in which every thematic thread is alchemized into a few minutes of insight and ambiguity.
A Tale of Two Sisters
(Directed by Kim Ji-Woon)
Quite possibly the best film yet to screen at this year's Fantasia, A Tale of Two Sisters is a superb exploration of the spiraling effects of psychological trauma, presented as a horror film with supernatural overtones. Kim Ji-Woon's fluid direction and measured screenplay allow the story to evolve with almost literary precision, as if page by page, and his elegant aesthetics (expressed through beautiful cinematography, a classical score, and vintage production design) evoke an atmosphere reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The film's greatest strength, however, is the surprisingly strong undercurrent of emotion that permeates every scene, and that erupts, in several startling scenes, through the excellent performances of the four lead players.
Return to the 36th Chamber
(Directed by Chiang-Lia Liu)
Most films of the Shaw Bros. canon achieve their legendary entertainment level through a serious approach to hackneyed material, and through a conscious disregard for their generally shoddy craftsmanship. The fatal mistake legendary director Chia-Liang Liu (Enter the 36th Chamber of Shaolin, 8th Diagram Pole Fighter) makes with Return to the 36th Chamber is that he crafts a comedy, a film that acknowledges its own faults and concentrates on vaudevillian humor rather than martial arts. The effects of this decision are uniformly nefarious: instead of deriving gracefully from the film's limitations, the comedy here is overbearingly pushed upon the viewer, and instead of dazzling the viewer with exhilarating martial arts, the film delivers action sequences that, in their comic overtones, are tame and wholly unsatisfying. All this is not to say that the film is not without redeeming facets. The distinctive look and feel of the legendary studio is very much present, and it's undeniable that some scenes do work, but as an overall entity, the film fails to inspire much of anything. It's worth a look for curiosity and completeness' sake, but don't expect much.
(Directed by Cheh Cheng)
Among the more serious films to come out of the Shaw Bros. studios (and an admitted, heavy influence on Hong Kong directors such as John Woo), Cheh Chang's 1968 martial arts melodrama is a dated but worthwhile endeavor. The individual elements (story, thematic resonance, acting) aren't as strong as in the studio's later films, but the combination they achieve transcends most of these limitations. Mention must also be made of Cheh Cheng's interesting handheld camera during the action sequences (in contrast to the Yasujiro Ozu-like stability of Chia-Liang Liu's, for example), and of the beautiful Cheng Pei Pei (Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) uneven but memorable performance.
One Missed Call
(Directed by Takashi Miike)
Among the more commercially-oriented (read: restrained) of Takashi Miike's recent features, and a spiritual (to put it gently) successor to the Ring cycle, One Missed Call is great popcorn entertainment. In weaving the story of deaths inexplicably tied to cell phone calls, the notorious Japanese director tones down his trademark viciousness, choosing a path of brooding menace and jarring jolts instead. That's not to say that his unique taste is absent: more than once, fans will be treated to moments of black-as-coal humour, and to clever twists on horror film clichés (more than once, Miike plays on audience expectations with massively effective results). When all is said and done, the film won't stand as one of the landmarks of his career, but it's a scary, funny, and satisfying work (the audience reception was fantastic), and deserves a look.
Executioners from Shaolin
(Directed by Chiang-Lia Liu)
Well, they certainly saved the best Shaw Bros. film for last. Directed by studio (and genre) veteren Chiang-Lia Liu, this revenge epic manages to be both entertaining and informative. Indeed, while the numerous fight scenes cover the entire spectrum of possibilities, from fast-paced duels to large-scale confrontations, with humorous skirmishes sprinkled in for good measure, it is the character work and interesting historical background that make the film memorable. Unlike the perfunctory sketches of most films in the genre, the characters in Executioners are fleshed-out and integral to the plot, and memorable to boot (Pai Mei, the head of the White Lotus clan, makes for a brilliant villain), and the true historical events on which the film is based (the destruction of the Shaolin temples at the hands of the White Lotus clan) offer some food for thought for the ride home. One of the best films the Shaw Bros. have to offer, and a memorable, colorful work that deserves to be seen.
In addition to the films commented upon above, I had the privilege of watching two other interesting features.
The first was Bottled Fools, a remarkable independent horror film from Japan, directed by 22-year-old Hiroki Yamaguchi. Present at the showing, he engaged in an interesting Q&A, and offered valuable insights into the world of indepedent filmmaking in Asia. He also screened two of his short student films, memorably humorous 5-minute pieces. Yamaguchi's film, along with his shorts, will be expounded upon in an upcoming full-length review.
The second feature, which I can't comment upon due to a gag order from Paramount Pictures, was E. Elias Merhige's Suspect Zero. The festival's closing feature, and a film worthy of comment, it will be thoroughly dissected as soon as the gag order expires (upon around the film's August 27th release).
And now, for something slightly different, a few vaguely organized thoughts on the state of cult cinema.
"Attack of the Killer Koreans"
(Or how the Korean New Wave translates into better films for us all.)
A scant few years ago, even the most dedicated of film buffs would have been hard-pressed to name a recent Korean film of merit. Flash-forward to 2004: Chan-Wook Park's dynamite action-mystery Oldboy takes home the illustrious Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes, Korean films invade film festivals around the world (including Fantasia), and as of now, this film aficionado's ongoing Top Ten of 2004 contains not one, not two, not three, but four films from that fair nation (for the curious among you, they are Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, Oldboy, Memories of Murder, and A Tale of Two Sisters).
So what, you ask? What's one more country among many? Well, let me tell you.
For one, the Korean film industry is bursting at the seams with talent. In only a few scant years, a number of notable talents have evolved out of it; I predict that in the very near future, names like Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy), Bong Joon-Ho (Memories of Murder), Kim Ji-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters), and Kim Ki-Duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, The Isle) will be common-place in the cinematic vernacular.
For another, the Korean film industry is remarkably versatile. A sad trend that pervades Asian cinema is that of pigeonholing; the increasing concentration of Japanese films into the horror genre is among the best examples. As of now, however, Korean cinema risks no such plight, producing films that explore the full-breadth of genre and theme, from tales of violent revenge to horror, to politically-inclined commentaries, to spiritual meditations, to visionary and increasingly popular CG-intensive such as Natural City and Wonderful Days.
The most important result of this creative energy for North American film fans is greater international and domestic recognition of Korean films in particular, and Asian films in general - and this, in turn, translates into greater accessibility for said films. Already, such wheels are in motion, as demonstrated by respectably widespread releases for films such as Zatoichi and Zhang Yimou's upcoming Hero. It might be a tad bit optimistic to predict wide releases for quality Asian cinema in general, but any movement in that direction is a cause of celebration.
This year, much like always, Fantasia offered an experience like no other. There are few greater pleasures for a film fan than discovering previously unkown worlds of cinema, be it old ones (the films of the Shaw Bros. studios), or new ones (the creatively exhilarating Korean film industry), and there are no greater ways of experiencing these worlds than with a like-minded, passionate audience. In addition, meeting and exchanging thoughts with the filmmakers themselves is a unique and memorable thrill.
Of course, there is also a note of sadness in writing this conclusion, since it implies that the festival has ended. But, as founder and director Mark Lamothe pointed out in his closing statements, what started out eight years ago as a regular get-together between ten or twelve friends has become the largest genre festival in North America, and an event that grows by leaps and bounds every year. And, due to its increased visibility, he further promised that next year's edition will be the best one yet.
Only 11 months left...