Asian films take center stage at Fantasia 2017

ScreenerBlog

With a slate 150 films strong, the Fantasia International Film Festival, running now through August 2nd, doesn’t skimp on variety. For three weeks, the fest showers Montreal with interesting cinematic confections from a variety of genres—though science fiction and horror are the focus, there are some straight dramas as well. One area in which Fantasia particularly excels is in its programming of Asian films. One film from Korea (Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess) and one from Japan (Takashi Miike’s Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable, aka The One Where Everyone Has Weird Hair) screened on Fantasia’s opening night; I wrote about them here. But more was yet to come.

Jojo gets a companion on the “just plain weird manga adaptation” front with the delightfully kooky Gintama, written and directed by Yûichi Fukuda and based on a series by Hideaki Sorachi. Set in a version of feudal Tokyo that’s been taken over by aliens sporting comical animal heads, Gintama follows the (mis)adventures of a once-legendary samurai and freedom fighter (Shun Oguri), a peppy youth/alien martial arts expert (Kanna Hashimoto) and a nebbish aspiring fighter (Masaki Suda) as they… you know what? It doesn’t really matter. It involves mysterious figures from the past, a living sword and a man who really, really loves mayonnaise.

As with Jojo, Gintama’s plot can best be described as “loose.” In keeping with Gintama’s manga origins, the whole thing is highly episodic. From the opening scene, we skip to a subplot where our heroes trek through the forest hunting beetles, after which proceedings take a sharp 90-degree turn into a plotline involving a serial killer. Eventually, that segues into the movie’s main plot, in which a band of quirky criminals attempt to take over Tokyo. But before all that, Gintama’s opening credits are interrupted by a sequence where Amiibo-esque versions of our main characters go on a meta tear, critiquing the opening scene, talking about the need to appeal to new and old fans of the manga and admonishing audience members not to leave early, “or you’ll be on [distributor] Warner Bros.’ blacklist!” That gives you a good idea of what the next two hours will deliver: wacky, irreverent humor and fourth wall-busting gags that skewer manga/anime properties and conventions. (One character, seen lusting after Hashimoto’s teenage girl character, repeatedly insists, “It’s not a Lolita complex! I’m a feminist!”) One particularly funny bit involves a cameo from a Hayao Miyazaki character, whose name gets bleeped out to avoid a lawsuit. This one will appeal most to those knowledgable enough about manga and anime to get all the references. But even with only a cultural osmosis-level understanding of Gundam, Dragonball and the like, the jokes are funny enough and the actors are enthusiastic enough that I had a damn good time.

We stay in Japan for director Daigo Matsui’s Japanese Girls Never Die. The film follows the stories of two women: girly-girl 20-year-old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata) and the more staid Haruko (Yû Aoi), who at 27 has been all but written off as a hopeless spinster by older male colleagues whose level of appreciation for women directly correlates with their eye candy quotient. At the same time, a roving gang of Japanese schoolgirls prowl the streets at night, mercilessly beating men foolhardy enough to go out alone. (Maybe they should have dressed differently.) Told in a non-linear style that’s popular at this year’s Fantasia—The Villainess also plays fast and loose with timelines, as do The Killing Ground and Lowlife, to be written about in a later blog post—Japanese Girls can be tough to get into, and I wish Matsui had gone further with the magical realism that proves the film’s most interesting aspect, but all the same it’s an incisive, thought-provoking examination of gender roles in contemporary Japan.

Ugis Olte and Morten Traavik direct the documentary Liberation Day, about the first performance of a Western rock band within North Korea. That band is Slovenian art rockers Laibach, whose liberal use of provocative fascist imagery have netted them accusations of being fascists themselves. (Per the official Fantasia press notes: “Horrifying, heroic, or hilarious depending on your sense of humour, faux-fascists Laibach were possibly the worst choice band to confront juche, North Korea’s iron-fisted and all-encompassing Marxist ideology. Or possibly the very best.”)

The dichotomy of “totalitarian state” and “faux-totalitarian band” is the making of a great documentary… potential that Liberation Day only half lives up to. It’s no less than riveting to be a fly on the wall as Laibach’s crew attempts to work with their North Korea counterparts to put on a modern rock show. It’s not just that, as one of Laibach’s group puts it, the DPRK’s technology is stuck in the 1980s. There are government censors, cultural misunderstandings and last-minute compromises that must be made to appease the notoriously insular and image-conscious DPRK. 

Where the documentary falls apart is in the treatment of the band itself. Co-director Traavik has a close, long-standing relationship with both Laibach and North Korea; he's directed a music video for the former and worked with the latter on various cultural exchange programs. He’s also the man responsible for managing the concert. One wishes Liberation Day had had a director less close to the proceedings, someone willing to challenge Libach’s lead singer when he says things like…. Hey, North Korea’s not that bad… They’re a dictatorship, sure, but I don’t judge! Everyone here seems authentic—I don’t think I’m being stage managed at all! This despite the fact the only time he’s free of his handlers is one afternoon where he disobeys orders and leaves his hotel for a completely, 100% verboten stroll around Pyongyang.  Traavik and Olte’s determination not to paint North Korea as a country of moustache-twirling villains is commendable, but at the same time Liberation Day feels unwilling to fully engage with the thornier aspects of its subject matter. As a music documentary, it excels. As an examination of a complicated political situation, not so much.

I’ve saved the best for last. My favorite film of the fest, by far, was Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Bad Genius, a Thai film about a smart but financially struggling high school student, Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), who figures out a way to cheat on the standardized test that her rich schoolmates take to qualify them for American universities. I know, standardized tests: fascinating, right? But here’s the thing: Bad Genius actually is. It’s a high-school Ocean’s 11, a teen crime caper that continually raises the stakes. My audience burst into hoots and cheers no fewer than half a dozen times, which speaks to how engaging and fun Bad Genius is even when you take into account how vocal Fantasia audiences tend to be. This is the sort of movie that’s ripe for a Hollywood remake… except, honestly, just see this version. The characters are complex and exceedingly well-acted; the story is intense and doesn’t have an ounce of fat; and Poonpiriya and cinematographer Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun bring a visual flair of the sort that you don’t tend to expect from a low-budget film set mostly in boring school buildings. Bad Genius is filmmaking at its best. I don’t exaggerate when I say it’s among my top ten films of the year so far.