FantAsia X: Shadow (China, 2018)

The King of Pei (Zheng Kai) has reached an accord with the ruler of Wang, whereby the latter is in charge of Jing City even though it really belongs to Pei. Accommodations made, but then destroyed by the Commander of Pei, also called Jing (Deng Chau), who has gone to Wang and proposed a fight between himself and Wang's ruler to determine the ownership of the city. Pei's King is outraged; he's ruled by foppery and compromise, and his Commander has disobeyed him! He strips Jing of his power and sends him from Court. Meantime, the former Commander (also Deng Chau) has been training Jing from the age of 8 to avenge him for his defeat by Wang's ruler; perhaps the King's sister, Xiao (Sun Li) can help to train Jing in a way that will defeat Wang....

I love these Chinese wuxia films - wuxia meaning the type of fighting with swords and staffs and, well sometimes, magic, and director Zhang Yimou (who directed "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," among others) is surely the current master of this genre. Those earlier films were replete with colors everywhere; "Shadow" is almost entirely monochromatic, with bits of red and green here and there but mostly done in greys. And it works, brilliantly - this film is gorgeous to look at, if sometimes head-scratching to understand. Set in a long-ago historical world (I don't know the history of China enough to know if it portrays something from a real historical period, but that doesn't matter in this context), "Shadow" portrays the complexity of Court life, and warfare, in ancient China with beauty and nuance and, well, a lot of blood. Terrific!

Would be a second movie reviewed tonight, "Lake Michigan Monster," but I was feeling unwell and was unable to stay for that screening. I hear it was well-received, though.

FantAsia IX: Legend of the Stardust Brothers (Japan, 1985)

Shinga (Shinga Kubota) and Kan (Kan Takagi) are the singers in rival pop bands, until the mysterious Minami (Kiyohiko Ozaki) of Atomic Promotion signs them up as a pop duo to be called the Stardust Brothers. Although they can't stand each other initially, they jump at the massive amount of money on offer, and after only a week with the company, they are superstars with the #1 pop song on the charts! But fame can be fickle, and soon enough Minami is approached to raise up another artist, Karuo (Issay), the son of a powerful politician, and Shinga and Kan are yesterday's news. But Karuo has designs on Marimo (Kyoko Togawa), the young girl who first led the fan club of the Stardust Brothers and then became a pop star herself, and Karuo is used to getting what he wants....

This was an early film by director Makoto Tezuka, son of legendary Osamu Tezuka, when he was only 22 years old. Despite his youth, the film hangs together quite well, with plenty of nods to pop music of the era and an enthusiastic and energetic cast. A bit of slapstick here and an odd monochrome framing device add to the fun; the occasional homophobia-as-laugh-getter hasn't aged well, however. Overall, though, the film has its moments and the flavor of the Japanese pop culture in the mid-1980s is quite entertaining.

FantAsia VIII: Extra Ordinary (Ireland/Belgium, 2019)

Rose (Maeve Higgins) has given up her calling as a psychic after a terrible accident and is making her living as a driving instructor in rural Ireland. Martin (Barry Ward) is a widower with a troublesome ghost of a wife and an increasingly sassy daughter, Sarah (Emma Coleman). When he asks Rose for her help exorcising the ghost, she at first refuses, but then a well past his prime rock star (Will Forte) decides he needs the blood of a virgin to renew his vows to Satan in order to revitalize his long-dormant career, and Sarah is just who he's looking for; or is she?....

This is a very funny movie about ghosts, lost hopes, redemption and everything in-between; Forte is hilarious as the over-the-top Christian Winter, but it's Ms. Higgins who carries the film with humour, grace and rather an alarming amount of moxie. Throw in some sight gags referencing other horror movies along with just out-there craziness (deer head crying tears of 7-Up - "it's Mummy, she always loved 7Up!"), and this is a film that should get a wide audience everywhere. Extraordinary, indeed.
Artemis in Flowers

FantAsia VII: Fly Me to the Saitama (Japan, 2019)

Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) is the son of the governor of Tokyo, a prestige position that puts him in the top echelon at his school, where he is (naturally) President of the students. When Rei Asami (Gackt) joins the school from America, Momomi's position is threatened; Rei is exotic, smart *and* beautiful. Momomi wants to dispose of Rei, but cannot. But then he learns that Rei is actually from Saitama, a degraded part of Japan that has no sea and therefore is considered worthless, its people even more so - people from there even need visas to enter Tokyo! But *then* Momomi's hatred for Rei turns to something else, and they join forces to lead Saitama's people from oppression to freedom....

Some 5 years ago, I was privileged to see "Thermae Romae," a Japanese film in which a modern Japanese man enters a bath in his world and emerges in the baths in ancient Rome; it was easily one of the most inventive, funny and memorable films I saw that year. So when I saw that "Fly Me" was made by the same director, I knew I had to see it. And I certainly was not disappointed! The above description only scratches the surface, as I didn't mention the framing device or all the complications of the many other characters. Suffice it to say that director Hideki Takeuchi brings in whimsy, mixed-up historical detail from real periods in Japanese history, scary monsters that turn out to be something much different, corruption in government, hilarious moments and the most androgynous characters (something that seems to be a "thing" in Japanese cinema), along with a bit of innocent love and dastardly deeds. Oh, did I mention absurdity? Yum!

FantAsia VI: Dance With Me (Japan, 2019)

Shizuka (Ayaka Miyoshi) works at a large finance company and might be about to get a big break there, but her sister asks her to babysit for her at just the wrong time. Finally finishing an assignment, she takes her niece to a carnival, where she is inadvertently hypnotized - whenever she hears music, she must immediately burst into song herself, and dance too! Having never cared for musicals, suddenly she is a musical star, as far as she knows - but the people around her just see an increasingly touched young lady jumping on tables and pulling down chandeliers. To save her job, and her reputation, she must find the fellow who hypnotized her, but he is touring the provinces, necessitating a road trip....

This is an absolutely delightful film, both a highly choreographed and staged musical and a spoof of musicals at the same time; light, frothy, with a minimum of plot (finding the old hypnotizer who is also being hunted by loan sharks, having Shizuka meet another woman conned by the old man whom she first dislikes, then needs and finally becomes best friends with) and a maximum of moments when she bursts into song. Definitely nothing that will make you question the deeper meaning of life or the human condition; just a whole lot of fun and catchy tunes too!

FantAsia V: The Boxer's Omen (Hong Kong, 1983)

The Shaw Brothers were famous for producing slightly hysterical, often hallucinatory, over-the-top karate films with frequent mystical overtones. "The Boxer's Omen" is no exception, except that it throws in quite a bit of full-frontal female nudity and a copious amount of vomiting in addition to all the usual SB stuff. A gangster is bewitched by an evil wizard, but he has someone who can help him: a Buddhist monk who has been poisoned by the same evil wizard! But in order to receive that help, the gangster must give up his wanton ways and become a monk himself....

I quite like most of the Shaw Brothers movies that I've seen, but this one seemed a bit.... much, somehow. Perhaps it was the grossness factor (recycled vomit, anyone?), perhaps it was, at 107 minutes, just a little bit too long (I mean, how many times can you show recycled vomit, after all?); in any event, I ended up feeling, not uplifted by the zaniness of the show, but rather just vaguely disgusted.
happy feet

FantAsia IV: Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (Spain/Estonia/Ethiopia/Latvia, 2019)

CIA Agents D. T. Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) and Palmer Eldritch (Agustin Mateo) are given the assignment of entering the agency's operating system to find and destroy a computer virus that is taking over. The task isn't as straightforward as it would seem, because in addition to the Soviet-Leader-Masked virus there's a Substance, which induces all sorts of hallucinations in its users. Bring in the leader of Beta-Ethiopia, Batfro (Solomon Tashe), and a man who might be Jesus and might be Roy (Guillermo Llanso), and things get complicated really, really fast....

There isn't really a way to describe this film, which could be equally considered science fiction, romance, comedy, thriller, Afro-Futurism and super-psychedelic trip, depending on one's perspective at the moment. Clocking in at a fast 83 minutes, it's exactly the kind of film to see with Montreal's Fantasia Festival audience, people who love genre and love gonzo and most of all, love movies. Director Miguel Llanso's earlier film, "Crumbs," also played at Fantasia, though I must say that I didn't really understand it; despite my description above, "Jesus Shows You...." is much more coherent - and hilarious. And a great stomping shaggy dog's tale to boot!

FantAsia III: It Comes (Japan, 2018)

Hideki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and Kana (Haru Kuroki) are happy young newlyweds, ecstatic about the pending birth of their first child. When a visitor shows up at Hideki's workplace, saying she wants to talk to him about Chisa, Hideki is confused - that is the name he and Kana have chosen for the baby, but nobody else knows that. The visitor disappears before Hideki sees her, the colleague who took the message is soon very, very dead, and Hideki begins to have dreams about a creature, about the phrase "blood calls" and about the fate of the baby. So, as anyone would, he turns to an exorcist named Makoto (Nana Komatsu) for aid....
I won't say more than that about the plot because it quickly becomes more and more convoluted as the (longish, 2 1/4 hours) film goes on. Many years ago, I discovered Tetsuya Nakashima's "Kamikaze Girls" (about strange subcultures among Japan's teenage girls, it's a fantastic coming of age flick) at Montreal's Fantasia Festival, and when this year's selections for that great festival included "It Comes," described as Nakashima's first foray into horror, I was hooked; "Kamikaze Girls" is not only one of my favorite Fantasia films, it's one of my favorite films of all time. True to form, "It Comes" takes all the horror tropes one might imagine, and turns it all up to eleven. I can't say that it actually *scared* me because it was just so over-the-top, but my goodness it is a mighty fine, hallucinatory ride!
Artle Walking

FantAsia II: The Wonderland (Japan, 2019)

Teenage Akane is unmotivated and moody, just like any teenage girl. She always feels put out by her mother's requests, never more so when she's sent to see her shopkeeper aunt Chii to pick up her own birthday present! Once there, however, Chii and Akane are visited by strangers from the basement, Mr. Hippocrates and his apprentice Pipo. But Mr. Hippocrates is an alchemist, Pipo is an elf, and the basement is a portal into another world, one that desperately needs Akane's help to avoid utter destruction.... A few years ago I saw another animated film by director Keiichi Hara, "Miss Hokusai," and was very taken with the incredible beauty of the work; the director works the same magic here, with some stunningly gorgeous backgrounds (and foregrounds for that matter), along with a story filled with imagination from an evil mouse-shaped monster machine to oversized sheep who provide wool *and* protection, to the very real crisis that the Wonderland is facing, that of running out of water. Oh, and there's an enchanted Prince, too! Even if the viewer isn't taken by the story itself (based on "Strange Journey From the Basement," a children's book by Sachiko Kashiwaba), s/he will certainly enjoy simply watching this very colorful feast for the eyes.
happy feet

FantAsia I: Away (Latvia, 2019)

A young boy finds himself hanging from a tree by a parachute, with no idea of how he came to be there. He sees an enormous amorphous shape coming toward him and instinctively knows it means him no good; he manages to escape the creature by cutting the straps of the parachute and makes his way into a temporary refuge. There, he is kind to a baby bird, encounters a motorcycle and a knapsack with handy items like a water canteen, compass, blanket and a map. Soon, he and his bird companion must follow the map to return to humanity, while the monster follows inexorably behind him, getting closer.... The amazing thing about this animated 75-minute feature is that the entire thing was made by one single person, Gints Zilbalodis, everything from the story to the direction to the animation to the music and sound effects. Another amazing thing is that the entire film is without a word of dialogue - it's just the boy, the bird, the monster and a variety of creatures they meet along the way. I found it to be both suspenseful and beautifully gentle, a film perhaps a little intense for very small children but gorgeous and inspiring for everybody else.

And we're off to a great start at FantAsia once again!
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