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Junpei and his little brother Kanta are growing up on a small, far-northerly island of Japan, near the east coast of Russia, during and after World War II. After the Japanese are defeated, Soviet soldiers and their families take over the island, forcing the Japanese inhabitants to live in barns and to get by on small rations of rice smuggled to them from their former military posts. At first, Junpei and his family resent the Russians, but then he and Kanta meet Tanya, the daughter of the Soviet commander who is living in what was once their home. Children being children, they soon are playing together, learning each other's language and maybe, just maybe, falling a little bit in love. But when Junpei's father is betrayed to the Soviets, Junpei blames Tanya, believing that she told her father a secret with which he had entrusted her. There are other possible suspects, but by the time Junpei learns the truth, he and all the other Japanese are being moved off the island into internment camps, far away from Tanya....

This is a really beautiful animated film, filled with both humour and loss, all told on a human scale where nobody is all-good and nobody is all-bad. One of the most affecting scenes involves the Japanese schoolchildren singing a folk song (in Japanese, of course) while in the next school room, Russian children are singing a Russian folk song; by the end of the scene, the Japanese kids are singing the Russian song and vice versa. Just one example of how this film shows the resilience of youth and the common humanity of everybody in the world. Perhaps my favourite film at Montreal's Fantasia Festival this year; a real gem.
Twenty years ago, two brothers battled for supremacy in the kung fu world, with one securing the demon 6-string lute, the playing of which kills all martial artists in its hearing. The other brother seems to have disappeared, and nobody knows where he is. Martial-arts expert Fong is given the task by her Master of retrieving the magic bow and arrows, the only weapon that can defeat the demon lute; along the way, she picks up friends and allies, including a trickster-pickpocket beggar and his very young son, Fong's drunken erstwhile classmate Old Naughty, and birthmark-scarred Yuan, who is hiding more than he knows. Can they succeed in their quest to find the magic weapons before the evil masked villain does? How can they fight his evil minions, which include a super-charged empty carriage, a vicious giant disco ball, and a bald guy who grows alarming amounts of very red hair and then super-sizes his ax and lance? And why, oh why, is the menacing theme music always the chorus of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean"?

As you might guess from the above, this is one crazy caper, classic kung-fu style that is! Despite multiple minion-deaths, there's not a serious moment in the piece - or if there is, I never saw it. This was one of the films made by the famous Shaw Brothers, and was shown at Montreal's Fantasia Festival as part of a tribute to Run Run Shaw, who died earlier this year. Not seen for some 30 years, the print was at times a bit scratchy, but I can't say that I noticed any significant jumps that would suggest that a lot of footage was lost; then again, the whole thing was so wacky that such missing bits wouldn't necessarily be noticed as gone at all anyway. Lots and lots of fun; but I would really like to know why the old Scottish air provided the theme music for this film....

FantAsia 8: Faults (USA, 2014)

Ansel (Leland Orser) is a failed expert on cults, once widely regarded for his books and television show and his ability to "deprogram" those brainwashed by cult leaders, but now - after a spectacular failure - he is barely making it through the day by selling another, shoddier book and giving "seminars" at dumpy hotels in return for a room and a meal. When an older couple approaches him to ask for his help in restoring their cult-taken daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he reluctantly agrees, only because his former manager is hounding him for a rather large sum of money that Ansel owes. With some help, he kidnaps Claire and begins the process of deprogramming her in an anonymous hotel room, but it soon becomes unclear as to who is treating whom....

This is kind of a strange movie, neither fish nor fowl as they used to say; in some parts, it's quite funny and absurdist, and in other parts, it's deadly serious. Unfortunately, the two aspects of the film never quite jelled for me. The acting is fine throughout (though it's odd that the IMDB doesn't name the actor playing Claire's father!) and the sort of quietly desperate, slightly sleazy world which the characters inhabit is shown well, but I was left scratching my head at the end of it, going "huh?" A bit disappointing, really.
In 1770s Korea, King Jeong-jo of the Joseon dynasty has been on the throne for only a short time, but numerous assassination attempts have already been made on his life. His mother and grandmother are at odds; the court is divided and worse, the army is under the command of a general who may or may not be loyal to the king. While training himself in secret, Jeong-jo trusts only his clerk, whom he has known since before his father was executed years ago. Meanwhile, over the decades young children taken by a brutal slavemaster are brought up to become assassins, and tonight is the fateful night....

It just isn't a FantAsia Festival for me if I don't see at least one seriously costumed historical drama from at least one Asian country, and this year "The Fatal Encounter" fit the bill perfectly. There's a massive amount of intrigue, lots and lots of intense combat scenes, a bit of torture here and there and, of course, a love interest as well. The film is apparently based on a real incident in Korean history, although of course how much license is taken by the filmmakers is another question. I must admit that I was confused for much of the film, simply because there are so many intrigues and plots going on at the same time, and it was very difficult to wrap my head around a "grandmother" who is younger than her "grandson" and considerably younger than that "grandson's" mother - but heck, this is the kind of film where you just go with the flow and trust that it will all come out right in the end! Definitely worth a look, but do try to keep all the plots straight in your head while viewing it....
Kat is a 17-year-old girl in the suburbs, growing up in the late 1980s and observing her parents' dysfunctional marriage at close hand while trying to cope with first love, relationships, sex and friendships - all the growing pains that being 17 involves. When her mother disappears one day, the police think she's probably run off, perhaps with a boyfriend; Kat thinks her mother just got so fed up with her boring, empty, perfect-housewife life that she finally left it to find something better. Kat herself doesn't know how she feels about that; truly, she doesn't really feel much of anything, especially because her mother had recently been so intrusive in her life. Her father seems meek and lost after her mother leaves, but both of them will eventually have to pick up the pieces and go on. If only Kat would stop having those disturbing dreams about where her mother might be....

This is really far more of a coming-of-age story than it is anything else; aside from some dream images, there's very little that would fit the term "fantastical," even though I saw it at Montreal's Fantasia Festival. There is some very fine acting, from Eva Green as the mother, Shailene Woodley as Kat, Christopher Meloni as Kat's father and Thomas Jane as a police detective, and both writer/director Gregg Araki (from the novel by Laura Kasischke) and the cast do a very good job of capturing that confusing stage of adolescence, where one is not quite fully grown up but is certainly not at all a child anymore either. I very much enjoyed the film, even if Fantasia is an odd place to see it!

FantAsia 5: Cold in July (USA, 2014)

When Richard is awakened by his wife, who has heard noises in the house in the middle of the night, he does what every good East Texan does - gets his gun down from the shoebox in the closet, loads it and goes looking for the intruder. And an intruder is who he finds; almost in a reflex motion, he shoots and the intruder dies. This being Texas, it's a clear-cut case of self-defense, no court proceedings necessary, especially when the cops ID the intruder as Freddie, wanted for numerous felonies. But Richard feels shaken and haunted, he's never killed a man before and he doesn't know how to feel about it. So he goes to the cemetery to witness, from a distance, Freddie's unattended burial; while there, however, Freddie's father Russell appears, and makes what to Richard sounds like specific threats against Richard's own young son. Soon, Russell makes some menacing moves and soon, the cops catch him. But not everything is as it appears to be in small-town 1989 East Texas, and Richard is about to learn the hard way just how much appearances can deceive....

This is a fairly major Hollywood movie, shown at Cannes and Sundance, etc., and starring Michael C. Hall as Richard, Sam Shepard as Russell and, looking far better than he ever did in the 1980s, Don Johnson as private detective Jim Bob. The goriness is relatively minimal, given that this is a masculine-men-bonding-over-guns type of film, and the acting is high-quality throughout. The writing, in particular the dialogue, is entirely believable, which is not a surprise as this film is based on the novel of the same name by Joe R. Lansdale, one of Texas's (and America's) best writers (yes, I've read the book and bunches more by him besides - he's good, people!). There are a few lighter moments, as when Jim Bob raves about his (gigantic) 1989-hipster car phone ("you're breaking up, let me try to find a signal!"), and I totally believed the evolution of the relationship between Richard and Russell, in large part because of the two terrific actors playing those roles. Definitely recommended!
Okay, first off, check the date - "In the Land of the Head Hunters" is a reconstructed and remastered print of a film made in 1914, by Edward S. Curtis, known mostly now as a photographer and ethnographer. As such, it is entirely of its time - i.e., racist, sexist and certainly specious in its depiction of a First Nations people. But valuable for all of that. The story line, for what it's worth, concerns a young son of a tribal chief who does his manhood rituals, falls in love and marries the daughter of another tribe's chieftain; this upsets the Sorceror, brother of yet another tribal chief who wanted the girl for himself - mayhem ensues, mostly in canoes but also on land, until eventually the good guy prevails. It's simplistic and definitely racist - the people are portrayed as quaintly primitive, the women are completely subservient to the men, and the main occupation of the tribes involves war and cutting off the heads of enemies.

Given that this is actually set in the Pacific Northwest, between Washington State, USA, and British Columbia, Canada, the whole head-hunting aspect is completely off. Not to mention the "primitive" label - these peoples were highly sophisticated, just not in a form recognized (at the time) by Europeans. But the positives in this film are quite striking too. First of all, the actors are all actual members of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, from Vancouver Island, and the costumes, totem poles and especially the special dances are all authentic. The story, by white director Curtis, is worthless; as a bit of filmed historical information, however, the movie is quite valuable. Many scenes were lost over the past 100 years, and the restorers opted to insert still photographs (also by Curtis, of the same people) to bridge the gaps, which doesn't work all that well dramatically, but is again useful as an historical artifact; they also were able to restore the original orchestral soundtrack, which adds drama to this silent movie. Certainly not for everyone, but film historians and anthropologists might find something of value here.

FantAsia 3: Jellyfish Eyes (Japan, 2013)

Young Masashi moves with his mother to a small town after his father is killed in the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, a town that is home to a large, and largely secret, laboratory where Masashi's uncle works. As soon as he arrives, he meets a small flying monster living in the apartment and, as he becomes friends with it, he names it Kurage-bo ("Jellyfish boy"). Soon he finds that all the kids in school have their own special monsters, called a F.R.I.E.N.D., which they can control with the use of a cell-phone type device. Masashi doesn't have such a device, however, and some of the other boys are using their creatures to fight one another, bullying the smaller creatures and kids. Why are these creatures there, and does the laboratory have anything to do with it? What is the laboratory trying to create, anyway, and will that secret work be a force for good or for evil in the world? Masashi, Kurage-bo and some other young children and creatures may have to sacrifice all to find out....

This is a very sweet, somewhat poignant children's movie, that draws upon manga, Pokemon and, to my eyes anyway, some muppets as well, in order to create a world in which the environmental changes caused by humans are able to be explored. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at, sometimes psychedelic even, and while the story-line sometimes jumps rather abruptly, the film's pro-environmental message is nicely stated. Quite a feast for the eyes!

FantAsia 2: Cold Eyes (South Korea, 2013)

A young woman is tracking somebody through the subways and streets of Seoul, taking care not to be seen but observing everything about, and around, her quarry. She and the man she's following both end up in a restaurant, where the man confronts her - turns out that he's police detective Hwang and that she has been completing the final test required for recruitment to his special surveillance unit. While this is going on, however, another scene is unfolding: a car suddenly explodes in a parking building, creating a diversion that draws all available police personnel while a gang of thieves rob a nearby bank - not only of money, but of specific security boxes. What was taken, and why? And who is the mastermind behind the spectacular robbery? Soon Hwang and his unit, all going by the code names of various animals, find themselves tracking a possible satellite member of the gang, in an attempt to close in on the leader. But that leader is very wily - and very, very dangerous....

"Cold Eyes" is a super-charged action movie, with a few big car chases but far more chases on foot, which tend to create much more tension in the audience as you never know if the tracker is going to be caught. Aside from the high stakes in the film, the city of Seoul itself becomes a character, as Detective Hwang and his people use CCTV, computer triangulation and good old maps and feet on the ground to discover, and then track, the movements of various bad guys. For such a high-octane film, there's not a massive amount of blood spilled here, although there is some. This is a fast-paced thriller which will keep the audience on the edge of their seats from start to finish; lots of fun!
Aging observation satellite KITSAT-1 has orbited above Korea for some 20 years, keeping watch on the human goings-on there, but when she hears a young man's song, she decides to come down to Earth to find out what this thing he's singing about, love, is all about. Alas, Kyung-chun, the boy in question, has been thwarted in love and is broken-hearted - and, well, this being Korean animation, broken-hearted humans get turned into animals, in his case a milk cow. Unfortunately for him, not only is the robot Incinerator after him (it wants to consume all humans-turned-animals), but also evil Mr. Oh is pursuing him with an aim to taking, and selling, his liver! On Kyung-chun's side, however, are KITSAT-1, now a flying satellite girl called Il-ho, and the Wizard Merlin, who has either been transformed or transformed himself into a roll of magical toilet paper. Will Kyung-chun evade the evil Mr. Ah, and destroy the Incinerator? Will Il-ho learn about true human love, and will she and Kyung-chun be transformed by love? And why is Kyung-chun's black dog washing the dishes?

As the above synopsis suggests, Korean animation is even zanier and more bizarre than Japanese animation, which is saying something! This is a short (81-minute), beautifully rendered love story that is quite enchanting. I saw a number of parents with small children in the audience, although I think perhaps children younger than about 5 might be frightened of the Incinerator in particular. But everybody else will get a warm and fuzzy feeling from this sweet little tale, a terrific start for my 2014 version of Montreal's FantAsia!



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