I saw 25+ films this year at Fantasia. Here are a few capsule reviews of films that felt sufficiently new (or great, or bad) that I knew I had to write about them!
Russian SciFi Action film ATTRACTION made its North American premiere at the festival. With explosions big enough satisfy Roland Emmerich, the Fedor Bondarchuk V meets ARRIVAL flick is easily the most impressive Russian-language SciFi film of the CGI era. In a follow up to his 2013 epic STALINGRAD, Bondarchuk chronicles the aftermath of an alien space ship crash landing on the Earth (in Moscow), their peaceful attempt to repair it, and the interstellar romance between a stranded alien technician and the daughter of the general monitoring the site. Especially interesting when trying to read into the political ramifications of both appearing strong, militarily mighy, cautious and full of goodwill, the film probably plays much differently to a US audience wondering if maybe Putin will offer up Trump as cosmic target practice. If the film has a failing, its that most of the characters achieve their goals with limited struggle (oh, you want to go into the closed-off sector, I know a tunnel) but still a fun ride and worth checking out.
Yet another rewrite of GROUNDHOG DAY, Cho Sun-ho’s A DAY manages to do something BEFORE I FALL never did, make the character trying to solve their time loop feel fresh. The first-time director uses a do-gooder doctor to carry the plot, Jun-young, who just keeps missing saving his daughter’s life, a daughter his schedule kept him from spending much time with. The difference? Jun-young is not the only person repeating the day, as he soon discovers an ambulance driver whose wife is in the back of the taxi that hits his daughter caught in the same soul-crushing loop. Working together to find a way out with their loved-ones alive, the film is an emotional thrill ride that presents surprises on every reset. Truly one of the highlights of the entire festival, the South Korean film manages effortless leap from comedy to tragedy to knuckle-clenching action every few minutes.
Park Kwang-hyun’s FABRICATED CITY starts at 11 – a virtual reality world of multiplayer gaming, led by ‘Captain,’ a natural leader. Unfortunately, Captain soon finds himself framed in the real world and sent to jail for a heinous crime he didn’t commit. In series of action sequences, Ji Chang-wook fights his way through the daily grind of jail and escapes, tracks down the conspiracy between his framing, teams up with his virtual crew, goes on four or five missions in a chain of ever-convoluting plot twists, and, well… I’m already exhausted. The problem with a film like FABRICATED CITY is that there is no room for character development, and the director doesn’t seem to care if you ever even seem to understand what is going on. There are sequences that feel like they are playing out in double time, whereas other seem to grind to an endless monotony of gun-fire with nothing much happening. Honestly, I thought the film was in the third act about 30 minutes into the film, and yet it held there, for darn near 90 minutes. It was exhausting. Plus the whole online set-up has basically no payoff in the plot.
There has never been a film I more wanted to love than Takahide Hori’s JUNK HEAD. I can’t describe it visually better than the Fantasia programmers who suggest “imagine FRAGGLE ROCK through the eyes of H.R. Giger and Hieronymus Bosch,” the stop-motion animated feature buries the audience in backstory at the open. A post-apocalyptic world where humans can no longer reproduce, a scout sent into a vast subterranean metropolis of clones and monsters, people burning trees for no reason, a head separated from a body and put on a robot torso, the audience experiences the planet through a nonsense language and a hypnotic electronic score. Actually, the film works best in short four minutes bursts with image and music conspiring like some sort of Rankin and Bass TOOL video. Unfortunately, as a story, JUNK HEAD is poorly paced, with the journey of the scout quickly forgotten and becoming subsumed into a series of long drawn out episodic conflicts. No one will question the ingenuity of the design, or sheer impressiveness of the world building – but at 114 minutes long, the film feels like it is moving in slow motion and never really exploits the themes possible with the idea of the loss of humanity. Every character in the film seems to be an idiot… and even in the most creative realm, idiots are not all that entertaining.
Writer/Director Christian Pasquariello’s S.U.M.1 takes place in a post-alien-invasion world in which men come up from the bunkers to serve out 100 day assignments in perimeter outposts, waiting for aliens to attack. The only contact they have with the world is their commanding officer, and even when one tries to report something out of the ordinary, as our lead character soon discovers, they are told nothing is out there and to wait in the outpost. An exercise in paranoia, the film plays on your own consciousness like it does our lead (played by Iwan Rheon, Game of Throne’s Ramsey Bolton), and regrettably not in the best way. I became obsessed with thinking I was watching a post-apocalyptic MOON and he was just going to be replaced with a clone of himself. Because so little happens, and the character’s development is hampered by his lack of other stimulus to interact with, the audience does much of the work connecting dots themselves. Therefore, when something does happen, we are not really sure if it is actually happening. Maybe this is part of the intention but it does not make for a very satisfying watch. You know it’s a problem when the character you care most about is a rat.