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FantAsia 11: Ava's Possessions (USA, 2015)

Ava awakens to find a priest at her bedside; unbeknownst to her, she's been possessed by Naphula, a demon from hell, for the past month, but the priest has successfully exorcised the demon and she's herself again. When her family confirms this story, Ava's first question is whether anyone called in sick for her at her job. Unfortunately, the demon caused a great deal of injury, mayhem and property damage and, well, legally somebody has to pay for that and since it was all carried out by Ava's body, guess who's going to jail? Unless she agrees to join a self-help group, the SPA or Spirit Possession Anonymous, that is. Of course Ava does so, but it turns out that her possession was rather more than she, or almost anybody else, could have suspected....

This is a very funny horror spoof that is yet totally true to its internal logic; in a New York City (and, presumably, world) where demon possessions are real and well-known, what happens to the victim once the demon has been done away with? This film answers that question quite entertainingly. Louisa Krause as Ava and Wass Stevens as Tony, the SPA leader, are both very engaging and believable, and the behaviour of some of the other once-possessed people is pretty hilarious too, especially Whitney Able as Jillian, who longs to be possessed by her demon once again. Recommended!

Books in July

A full month, once again!

A Fatal Inversion, by Barbara Vine. In A Fatal Inversion, by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, we meet a group of young people in Suffolk in the very hot summer of 1976. There is Adam, who has inherited a large home from his great-uncle; Zosie, a waif of a woman for whom Adam and his home is a refuge from the world; Rufus, the handsome medical student who just wants to spend some time drinking and smoking pot; Shiva, a transplanted Indian with self-esteem problems; and Vivien, who is searching for the perfect commune in which to grow. These five young people spend their summer lazily, but ten years later, the bodies of a woman and an infant are discovered in an animal cemetery attached to the house. Who are those corpses, and what do the five young people have to do with them?.... I always enjoy “Barbara Vine” novels, as they tend to be more in the line of psychological portraits of interesting individuals than mysteries per se, and of course Ruth Rendell is always a treat to read under any pen name! I liked the way this novel evoked a particular place and time, quite far removed from us now but still resonating with the way people in their late teens and early 20s regard life. Recommended!

Gallows View, by Peter Robinson. Chief Inspector Alan Banks has moved, with his wife and two children, from the chaos of London to the Yorkshire Dales, hoping to find a slower pace of life and less crime. As Gallows View opens, however, a Peeping Tom is staking out a young woman and an old woman is murdered. Not to mention the fact that there have been a series of break-ins, apparently committed by the same two young men, who seem to be escalating their behaviour as time goes on. It is up to Inspector Banks to discover the links between all these crimes, and he enlists the help of Jenny Fuller, a lovely young psychologist about whom his feelings are anything but professional. And as events converge, Banks learns that his personal life is not exempt from chaos…. This is Peter Robinson’s first Inspector Banks novel. I had heard of this series, but had never read more than a few short stories featuring the Chief Inspector, so when I found this book on sale, I decided to start at the beginning and see if I liked it. Well, I definitely liked it; I like the characters, the settings and the underlying grittiness of the crimes, and so I have already picked up Book 2 in the series and hope to continue reading it for many years to come. Recommended!

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois. Every year I look forward to July because that is the month that the massive anthology, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, hits the bookstore shelves. I used to read a lot more science fiction (in both novel and short story lengths) than I do today, but I always make a point of buying this volume in order to catch up with the very best science fiction in English out there; this is simply the single best volume that you can buy for that purpose. As always with anthologies, the stories that I like are not necessarily the ones that another reader would choose as their favourites, but whether you like a given story in this collection or not, they are all of very high quality. My favourites this year came from Ken Liu, Karl Bunker, Cory Doctorow, Vandana Singh, Michael Swanwick, Ellen Klages, Jay Lake, Rachel Swirsky, Allen M. Steele, James Patrick Kelly and Nancy Kress, but really all the stories are well-written and thoughtful, and together they prove that science fiction in the shorter forms of short story and novella is alive and kicking and doing very, very well. Recommended!

The Madonna and the Starship, by James Morrow. In The Madonna and the Starship, by James Morrow, we meet Kurt Jastrow, a science fiction and television writer in 1950s New York City. He writes for a show called “Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers,” and also embodies the character of Uncle Wonder for a segment called “Uncle Wonder’s Attic,” where he plays a 1950s’ type Bill Nye the Science Guy, showing kids scientific experiments and explaining the principles behind them. He is surprised one day when his television set comes to life on its own and two large, blue creatures that resemble lobsters with three eyes introduce themselves to him as being aliens from the planet Qualimosa, where logic and rationality are prized above all things. They have been monitoring the Earth’s television output (well, Kurt’s show, “Texaco Star Theater” and “Howdy Doody”) and have decided to award Kurt the Zorningorg Prize because of his ongoing championing of science. They obviously have not seen the religious program, “Not By Bread Alone,” written by the woman Kurt fancies, Connie Osborne, and when they find out about it, they determine that they should exterminate the 2 or 3 million Christians who tune in to that show every week. Only Kurt and Connie have a chance of stopping them, but can they come up with a workable plan in time?....If you’ve read any James Morrow, you’ll know that he is a very fine satirist and is particularly forthright about the problems with religious faith. This short novel is certainly a minor work in his oevre, but it is a lot of fun nonetheless, especially his rendition of what TV-land was like in the 1950s. You’ll either be offended or you’ll laugh a lot at this book; I did the latter, so recommended!

So I’ve only read four books in July, but I have good excuses: much of the month has been spent at FantAsia, which has significantly cut into my reading time, and the Dozois is a massive book and takes ages to read all by itself. I’m closing out the month on a real classic - Wilkie Collins’ Victorian masterpiece, The Moonstone, which so far is completely readable and quite fascinating. More on that next month….
Shortly after a young man is released from prison, where he has served 18 months for assault, he is set upon by a gang of thugs who beat him up and leave him in the road. Upon awakening, the man doesn't remember anything, not even who he is - he has retrograde amnesia. He wanders the city and eventually stumbles upon an outdoor concert; without knowing why, he grabs the mic from the singer and bursts into his own rendition of a famous J-pop song. Then he passes out. Kasumi, the band's manager, takes him home and decides that she wants him to be part of the band, which the young man, nicknamed "Pooch" by Kasumi, is eager to do. But sooner or later his memory will return, and that could be dangerous for both of them....

This is a strange mixture of J-pop (there's a LOT of music in it) and gangster-type violence, with funny moments and scenes of tenderness between the two leads, who you sort of hope will get together in the end. A couple of late scenes are very confusing - how could Kasumi and her grandfather know *that*? - but if you leave that confusion alone, it's a pretty enjoyable film. I liked all the J-pop, a type of music with very odd lyrics; I hated the many scenes of people eating, but that's just my neurosis: when I was a little kid, my big brother who sat across the dinner table from me, would chew with his mouth open and ever since I've hated the sound of people eating, it's like nails on a chalk-board to me. Yes, Rich, I'm talking about you! But you, and others, would like this movie, I think.

FantAsia 9: Miss Hokusai (Japan, 2015)

In 1814 Edo, Japan, a master artist Katsushika Hokusai, known as Tetsuzo, and his daughter O-Ei spend their time creating splendid paintings, some on commission and some just because. Tetsuzo lives away from his wife and younger daughter, who is blind, and he tends to have little to do with them, perhaps because he is afraid of illness and disability. Instead, he instructs O-Ei and others in his art, but in some ways his daughter outstrips even his talent. This lands them in trouble on occasion, for example when one of her paintings is believed by its owner to be enchanted by devils, but Tetsuzo knows how to make things right again. If only his daughter wasn't so hot-headed!

This is a beautifully rendered anime based on a manga, Sarusuberi; having not read the manga, I don't know how faithful the film is to the source material. In any event, it looks lovely and the story of the artists' lives is very well told. It has more of an episodic feel to it than a straight plotline, but since Tetsuzo was apparently a real person in 19th Century Edo (now Tokyo), that method of story-telling works very well. If you like anime, you'll love this movie.

FantAsia 8: Full Strike (Hong Kong, 2015)

"Beast" Ng (Josie Ho) was a champion badminton player, but she was barred from the game for life because of her bad temper and in the ten years since that happened, she has just drifted. Dan Lau (Ekin Cheng) was once a master thief, but he and his gang of two have decided to go straight, and to learn how to play badminton. Suck Nipple Cheung (Roland Cheng) is very rich, very certain that Dan Lau is out to steal from him and secretly terrified that others look down on him; it is in his best interests, therefore, to learn to play badminton and then to defeat Dan Lau and his gang at the upcoming Big Tournament, which will be broadcast live throughout China. Beast is hired to train Dan Lau, along with the former number one champion who has fallen from grace, but will their hard work and dedication be enough?

It might strike you as odd that this is one of those uplifting sports stories about, of all things, badminton - but that sport is pretty big in China, and after all, why not make a film like this? You pretty much know how it's going to turn out, but along the way it's by turns very funny, kinda gross (the alcoholic former champion has a talent for projectile vomiting) and just a little bit touching. And uplifting too, so a win all around for these "losers" and the sport that might make them winners again!
Cho Dol-Seok (Han Seok-kyo) has been the royal tailor for three Kings, including the current King (Yoo Yeon-seok) and Queen (Park Shin-hye). He's maintained his position by keeping to traditional, dignified clothing styles, ones that emphasize position and gravitas. The royal court is not without intrigue, however, and soon the Queen has a rival, young Concubine Soo-Yi (Lee Yoo-bi). The Queen meets a young tailor, Lee Gong-jin (Ko Soo), who unlike Cho is a true artist in terms of his creations, and it's not long before the divided loyalties in the court are made manifest through which tailor makes one's clothes....

This is an absolutely beautiful-looking film, as befits a movie where the clothes are paramount in telling the story. It's also very well-acted, particularly by the two actors playing the tailors, who depict their deep friendship while at the same time having completely different temperaments and spirits. There's some humour in the piece, but it's generally quite somber and tragic - as is frequently fitting for a period drama like this one. Gorgeous to look at, but it might just break your heart.

FantAsia 6: Buddha's Palm (Hong Kong, 1982)

Young Chien-Fei Lung is a terrible fighter, until he stumbles upon Ku Han-Hun, the Flaming Cloud Devil, who takes him under his wing and teaches him the eight movements of Buddha's Palm, one of the most powerful martial arts in the world. But Ku is blind and so Chien-Fei sets out to find the one item that can cure him; in addition, he's looking for Ku's rivals from 20 years earlier, including Pi-Ku, Sun Pi-Ling, Heavenly Foot and Liu Piao-Piao, all of whom have secret weapons and skills of their own, not to mention convoluted relationships and shifting allegiances. Can Chien-Fei use his powers for good, or will he be destroyed by all these martial arts masters?

I can't actually give a synopsis of this film, it's so completely wacky and ludicrous! It may help to know it's from the famous Shaw Brothers, whose martial arts films were so over the top that the only way to view them is to just forget about logic and go with the flow. This film is no exception - it's a wild mix of martial arts, "Star Wars" style light sabers, maniacal laughter and very strange special effects. Often one can tell if a character is a bad guy by his maniacal laugh, but most of the male characters in this film have maniacal laughs at one point or another, so that's no help. A lovely thing in these movies is that there are female martial arts masters as well as male, although for some reason the women are only allowed to learn four of the eight movements of Buddha's Palm, a restriction that is never explained. But there you have it, there's no point to expecting explanations (or logic or to some degree even continuity) with the Shaw Brothers, just go with the flow and enjoy it on its own very silly merits.

FantAsia 5: A Hard Day (South Korea, 2014)

Homicide Detective Ko Gun-soo (Lee Sun-Kyun) of the Seoul Police Department is having a very difficult day: not only is he needed to attend the funeral of his mother, but his department is being raided by Internal Affairs and he has some material that needs to disappear before they find it. Leaving the funeral, he drives as fast as he can, but is distracted by having to swerve to avoid hitting a dog; turning his eyes back to the road, he's just in time to see the front of his car strike a human being instead. Worse, the man is dead, and Ko panics, deciding to hide the corpse in the trunk of his car while he deals with the other pressing matters of the moment. But then his plans go awry....

The above is just the set-up of this very fast-paced, very adrenaline-filled film, and I'm not giving anything away that doesn't happen in the first few minutes. There are many twists and turns to the plot, and numerous moments where if you look away for just a minute, you'll miss something vital, so it's important to pay attention. And worth it, too, as the film will keep you on the edge of your seat with tension and sometimes almost falling off the edge of your seat with laughter (because, yes, there are some very funny moments too), and the surprises and twists keep coming literally to the very last frame of the film. The film won a lot of awards at various festivals and it's easy to see why - it's fast, it's smart and it's full of action. Highly recommended!

FantAsia 4: Possessed (Spain, 2014)

The most famous flamenco dancer in the world marries the most famous bullfighter in the world, and together they have a son, Damian. But it's not long before tragedy strikes - the bullfighter dies and Damian, well, Damian is acting in a very peculiar way. Meantime, the local bishop has pushed his most daring priest too far and the priest has quit his calling (or has he been defrocked?). The priest, son of embittered Communists, finds himself in a major spiritual crisis, but he may be the only man who can save little Damian from his demons....

"Possessed" is an absolute hoot of a movie - done entirely in Claymation (think Wallace and Gromit) and playing with classic film lines in both visual and auditory forms (at one point a character quotes from "The Day the Earth Stood Still," and there are numerous references to all the "Exorcist" type films out there, not to mention a special appearance by Chthulu himself! Completely over-the-top, with lots and lots of blood and gore and savagery that would be simply appalling if was wasn't, you know, involving characters made out of clay - and really, really funny. Highly recommended!
After his father's death, young Mo decides that it is his mission to fulfill the dream that his father could not: that of finding the mysterious natural power called The Origin which his father had used in the creation of a wooden and mechanical being, Arti-C. With his swordswoman sister Tong at his side, Mo and the artificial creation travel from one realm to another, encountering strange beings, a mystical Goddess and a Prince who may not be exactly as he seems. When they discover the location of The Origin, they all must struggle to do the right thing....

This is a very odd film from the Huang family, long famous as master puppeteers; this, their most recent, is a mixture of classic wuxia (a style of supernatural sword-fighting), an environmental message, a created mythology, a bit of steam-punk, occasional humour (at one point a character says he's not from Taiwan, he's a Chinese with a bad Korean accent!), puppets - and 3-D! Not sure what the latter was for, other than some birds and knives coming at the audience, but the film is very lovely to look at even in 3-D, although I was kind of scratching my head for the first two-thirds or so. Still, a film that can make you believe that cockroach-like creatures are cute and cuddly must have something going for it, no?

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