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FanTasia 2003! Moriarty Reviews VAMPIRE HUNTERS, DRIVE, SUICIDE CLUB and PLAGA ZOMBIE ZONA MUTANTE!!

Published at: Aug. 1, 2003, 4:21 p.m. CST by staff

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

As I sit down to write this article, it’s Thursday morning. I’m back in Los Angeles now. I’ve been back for about 24 hours, and it still feels strange. I had an amazing time in Montreal this year. I saw a ton of movies, I got a lot of work done with my co-screenwriter, and I was reminded of why Montreal is one of my favorite cities. Great food. Great films. Great friends. What’s not to like?

It was just under a week ago that I settled into my seat at the Concordia Theater Hall for my first four-film day of the fest. I was feeling good. My jet lag had finally subsided. My ass had made an uneasy peace with my seat. I had finally found my ideal placement in the theater. Front row of the upper center section, all the way to the right. Anthony Timpson, who just wrapped up his tenth year as programmer and overall grand poobah of the Incredibly Strange Film Festival in New Zealand, finally turned up, always a good thing. Other familiar faces started showing up as well. It was starting to really feel like FanTasia again, like the venue change didn’t matter a bit. I made sure to have a good lunch before the day’s films began. Too often, film festivals can play havoc with your body’s internal clock, and I wanted to enjoy what I was going to see.

In hindsight, maybe I was too comfortable, because the first film of the day left me sleepy. To be honest, I thought TSUI HARK’S VAMPIRE HUNTERS was a bit of a bore. Don’t let the title fool you... this was not directed by Hark. I wish I could have stayed for GREEN SNAKE, which he did direct, and which sounds very cool. It’s not playing until the closing night, Sunday, August 10th. Instead, this is a film he wrote and produced, and which Wellson Chin directed. He’s a veteran HK director whose name is familiar, but I don’t really know much of his previous work.

I can sorta guess why.

To be fair, I’ve never been the world’s biggest fan of the whole Chinese hopping vampire genre. It’s one of the oddest variations on the vampire mythology in all of world cinema, and at this point, I’d actually like to see someone come up with a riff that actually makes the vampire back into a potent symbol of fear. That doesn’t seem to be this film’s agenda, though.

This is basically a wuxia film with a few supernatural elements added. Four fighters are trained by their master to track zombies, since if those zombies feed of the innocent, they will become vampires. In the film’s opening, they all go up against a King Vampire who proceeds to whup up on them something fierce, evidently killing the Master and leaving Thunder, Rain, Wind, and Lightning to hunt the zombies and vampires on their own. And basically, once you’ve seen this sequence, you’ve seen the whole movie. That’s not to say it’s poorly made, or a bad film. It’s not. It’s mainly just a redundant one. There are no real rules set up at the start of the film, no one strong narrative spine that keeps you involved. There are some nice bits of choreography in the fight scenes, but there’s no sense of build to them. They’re all very similar, and because there aren’t any particular stakes to the fights, the overall effect is sort of numbing. I’m sorry I didn’t like this one more, but maybe it was my own set of expectations that kept this from working for me.

Next up was DRIVE, a gentle comedy from writer/director Sabu. I had a schizophrenic experience with the movie. I liked it a hell of a lot as a film, but the viewing itself was marred by the Stinky Cheese Man, a towering Pillsbury Doughboy who came charging in ten minutes after the lights went down and oozed into the seat next to me, where he proceeded to jab me repeatedly in the ribs with his elbows while sweating on me, his cheap cologne failing to mask the distinct eau du frommage that poured off him in waves. You take your chances with any audience experience, though, and that’s just part of it.

The film itself is a delight, reminiscent in some ways of Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS or Landis’s INTO THE NIGHT. There’s a wonderful lyrical quality to the comedy that establishes Sabu’s a singular voice, and I guarantee that I’m going to see out more of his films after seeing this one.

Kenichi gets headaches. There’s no medical reason for them, and his doctor suggests that Kenichi might be experiencing stress. Small wonder. This guy is as tightly wound as they come, the kind of person who follows rules to such an obsessive degree that he infuriates those around him. Kenichi needs to believe in order, though, since his youth was marred by tragedy that left him orphaned. He figures that as long as he maintains rigid order, nothing else can go wrong for him.

It’s always the things you don’t count on that change your life, the film suggests. While Kenichi’s at a red light, three armed men in ski masks jump into his car and order him to chase another car that’s speeding away. Kenichi’s so rigid in his values, though, that even with three guns pointed at him and all three men screaming at him, he can’t break the speed limit or run a red light. Turns out, they’ve just robbed a bank and they need to go after their getaway guy, who just got away with their money. Thanks to Kenichi’s driving, there’s no way they can catch up with their money.

What plays out is sheer delight, appealing on a number of levels. First of all, Sabu’s got an impressive sense of rhythm and comic timing, reminiscent of Jaques Tati. He’s certainly not for adrenaline freak JACKASS fans, since much of his best material is small observational detail, but it pays off with several memorable sequences. There’s one Rube Goldberg-style scene in a restaurant that rather cannily disposes of a potential stool pigeon and another that sees a character become an accidental punk rock singer. Every performance works, the cinematography and the composition are impeccable and striking, and the payoff is sweet without being sentimental, satisfying without being contrived.

Making the shift as a viewer from the simple human joy of DRIVE to the savage surreality of THE SUICIDE CLUB was one of the trickiest tonal juggling acts of the entire festival, but that’s what I love about FanTasia. That variety, that range of possible experience in one night... that’s what you want from any well-programmed festival. Even now, I’m not sure that I’ve fully digested THE SUICIDE CLUB. It’s a heavy meal, a difficult film, but it may be one of the most significant of the recent Asian horror films in terms of actual ideas.

It’s also not a film I expect we’ll ever see get any sort of general release in America. If BATTLE ROYALE never made it into theaters here, this one doesn’t stand a chance. Yes, I know the official story is that they wanted too much money for BATTLE ROYALE and that’s why no American distributor picked it up, but in a world where someone paid $4 million for the right to release THE SPITFIRE GRILL, I think it’s safe to say that is was an issue of balls and no one having them. Since Columbine, there’s been a creeping gutlessness that has set in industry-wide, and I doubt that’s going to change for a film that deals with literal stacks of dead schoolkids.

The film’s audacious opening moments seem mundane at first, even documentary-like. People on a packed subway platform, waiting for an evening train. There are a number of schoolgirls mixed in among the crowd. A voice from the overhead PA warns that the train is coming and everyone needs to stay behind the yellow safety line. As one, the schoolgirls line up and clasp hands, then step over the safety line. No one reacts. It doesn’t seem threatening. It’s 54 schoolgirls, cute and smiling. Together, they all count. “One and a two and a THREE!”

And then they jump.

I think it’s when one girl’s head got crushed on the rail like a grape in a winepress that I realized this film wasn’t fucking around. Sheets of blood are sprayed over everyone in the station. The schoolgirls are shredded, splashed across the entire platform. It’s horrific and it just doesn’t make sense. What would drive that many little girls to such cheerful self-destruction? Director Sion Sono isn’t what I would call a young filmmaker. He’s been making commercial features in Japan for thirteen years now. Normally, a film this drunk on its own transgression would be the work of someone just starting out. At first, it appears to be a police procedural about Detective Kuroda trying to track down the reason for the wave of suicides. You’ll probably recognize actor Ryo Ishibashi from his starring role as the widower in AUDITION. He’s evidently a rock star in Japan, and I’m having trouble imagining, say, Bruce Springsteen playing roles like this. Kuroda’s not even sure a crime has been committed at first, even when another bunch of teens kill themselves.

The first grisly clue that there’s something more to what’s going on than just suicide is a white travel bag that shows up at the scene of the platform jump. Inside is a thick wet bizarre roll of something. It’s one of the most potent symbols of dread that I’ve seen in a while, and learning that it’s a patchwork of human flesh, shaved off in perfect squares, didn’t make me feel any better. Instead of things getting clearer as the film unfolds, the mysteries begin to stack up deeper and deeper. Ther’es Desert, a prefab pop band made up of 12-year-old girls in oversized flannel nightshirts, a constant presence in the background singing their omnipresent hit song, “Mail Me.” There’s an amateur sleuth who calls herself “The Bat,” calling Kuroda and leading him to a series of clues on the Internet, all inching them closer to a mysterious underground group called The Suicide Club. There’s the creepy anonymous child calling, a stuttered cough after each affirmation, “There is no Suicide Club.” There’s an insane side trip to a bowling alley filled with pets and people being stomped in burlap bags by a bleached-blonde lunatic, the self-described “Charles Manson of the Information Age,” who does a musical number that is so beautifully deranged that it calls to mind Dean Stockwell’s unforgettable BLUE VELVET showstopper.

And still, that’s not really doing the film justice. I’m just describing the surface, the outrageous images and moments that leap out on first viewing. I think Sion Sono has made one of the first truly important films about the Internet and the negative impact it’s had on social communication. Yeah, that’s right. It’s a cautionary horror film that persuasively argues (in part) that the Internet may be leading us down a dark road, genuinely trading away our souls and our decency for convenience, and despite the fact that my last six years can be defined largely by my own relationship with the Internet, I’m coming down on the side of this film. In fact, that may be exactly why I ultimately think this film is so important. It’s an original thought, no matter how it’s wrapped up. I mean, I’ve enjoyed the last few years of Asian horror on the whole, but there’s a certain undeniable sameness that’s settling in. One of the reasons I haven’t been more effusive with praise about THE EYE recently is because of the familiarity. Yes, it’s slick, but does it really contribute anything fresh to the genre? There’s no way you can accuse THE SUICIDE CLUB of being anything ordinary or routine or cliché.

Ultimately, the film is built around one intriguing question: “What is your connection to you?” The way that question ricochets through the movie is like a hollowpoint bullet being fired into soft tissue. There’s a cumulative effect to the surrealism that is quite profound and oddly uplifting.

I spent the time before the next film out in the lobby, slightly buzzed from the experience, talking with everyone about it. All the festival regulars were heading out for beer and conversation, but I decided to stay for the midnight movie. Part of that was simple loyalty. Before I left, I told my girl that there was a film from Argentina in the festival. I consider it my mission to track down good films from that country for her, just so she can enjoy the occasional cinematic glimpse of home.

I doubt I’d share PLAGA ZOMBIE: ZONA MUTANTE with her, but that’s because she’s not a fan of John Kricfalusi, professional wrestling, and the early, bloody, loony work of Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi. All those obvious precursors seems to be present in this shot-on-video production, but that’s not a bad thing. Now, I hasven’t seen the first PLAGA ZOMBIE film, but I’m told there is one. Evidently, the three main characters are played by Berta Muniz, Hernan Saez, and Pablo Pares, who are credited with creating their characters, and Pares and Saez are the writers/directors. There’s a total abandon to this thing that made me giggle right at the start, and it never lets up over the full 100 minutes of the running time.

Bill Johnson, John West, and Max Giggs aren’t really friends so much as they are accidental allies. See, something has gone terribly wrong with Project 395/027, and now an entire town is dead. The three guys all managed to escape once before, but that’s sort of a problem for the government. They want to keep their horrible mistake a secret, so they drop Johnson, West, and Giggs back inside, the close the borders. Permanently.

Bill’s the natural leader of the group, at least vaguely normal compared to John West, a cartoon come to life. West is a former pro wrestler who lives his character all the time, reluctant to admit that his glory days are behind him now. Max is a computer geek who idolizes John West, and he ends up taking strength from being with West. Together, they tear through hundreds of zombies in graphic detail, and there’s an inventive quality to the gore. It’s funny, it’s ingenious, and there’s a whole hell of a lot of it. What I didn’t expect was that the story would actually develop with real wit and a sort of Tex Avery logic. So often, these types of films devolve into a sort of narrative stutter, but this film’s always got something new to say or do as it lurches forward. It goes places you don’t expect, and it’s consistently funny. And just try getting that “Happy Happy Joy Joy” esque musical number out of your head. I dare you.

Overall, it was one of the most purely fun line-ups of the entire fest, and by the time I went to leave the theater, I was more awake than when I arrived. That kind of energy was perfect for writing until after dawn the next days, and anytime movies affect me like that, they leave a lasting impression.

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback

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  • Aug. 1, 2003, 4:22 p.m. CST

    pfft

    by Darth Arrakis

    I refuse to say "first"

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 4:40 p.m. CST

    Truly, these are the dog days

    by Lance Rock

    ...How 'bout a review of a Post-Human draft?

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 4:50 p.m. CST

    where can i buy the suicide club dvd online

    by Rome&BrianGarage

    and wheres that "white stuff" guy?

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 5:10 p.m. CST

    DRIVE...

    by trafficguy2000

    Was alot better in the early 90's when it was a Kids in the Hall skit.

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 5:24 p.m. CST

    yeah, yeah, yeah...fascinating...really big deal...

    by manwiththedogs

    ..oh, by the way, did anybody else hear that Britney Fucking Spears may be playing Daisy Duke? My God, I can hardly fuckin WAIT! Those shorts!!!!!

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 5:49 p.m. CST

    Vampire Hunters sucked. Green Snake is much better.

    by GypsyTRobot

    Disclaimer: I've seen a fair amount of Hong Kong movies, including Tsui Hark flicks. Found 'em to be enjoyable. So I rented Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters last week. What a stinking piece of crap! It's like Tsui Hark suddenly reverted to a 21-year-old film student. The editing was choppy, the soundtrack almost nonexistent, the vampire was just a big dummy on a wire . . . muy estupido! It wasn't even funny like Heroic Trio or the cheapass sequel (sorry I forget the name). Now Green Snake is funny, sexy, fantastical. It drags in places but overall it's worth watching. I know you all want to see Maggie Cheung as a snake-woman trying to seduce a Buddhist monk . . .

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 6:20 p.m. CST

    Can't wait to see Suicide Club now.

    by RenegadeBushido

    This movie had me when people said it would be a graphic movie like Battle Royale. Bring on the uber-gore! Anyways it seems that Anthony Anderson will be playing the part of Boss Hog. If you don't know who he is I'll give you a hint. "We put the money in the jacket, and the jacket on the kangaroo and now he's hopping awayyyyyy!". So it seems Paul Walker, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, and Anthony "Cradle 2 Grave and Kangaroo Jack" Anderson are doing a movie. My, my, my, we're in for a world of suck.

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 6:21 p.m. CST

    VAMPIRE HUNTERS over GREEN SNAKE.

    by Cash Bailey

    Oof!

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 6:50 p.m. CST

    Hope for a DVD release

    by Jack Burton

    Hopefully Lion's Gate will once again step the rescue of the movies that won't get theater release here. "Suicide Club" sounds great. There has been a hell of a lot great horror lately and until recently we have been stuck with the likes of "Ghost Ship" and Darkness FAlls".Hopefully "Freddy vs. Jason" will do gangbusters and show there is a market for well-done horror. (based on initial reviews, I haven't seen it yet.) Although I like the fact the "industry experts" were shocked at how well "28 Days Later" did against "Full Throttle." Proving once again that hollywood is totally clueless.

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 7:24 p.m. CST

    Oh Yeah! Oh Yeah! Brittney on shorts!!! I hope we get to see som

    by super Cucaracha

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 7:26 p.m. CST

    I know, I know, I am a sick fuck.

    by super Cucaracha

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 7:34 p.m. CST

    suicide club not that great

    by nekrophile23

    I watch a ton of Asian films and was pretty let down by this movie after all the hype. The movie is a bit of a mess really. It seemed to me like the director wasn't sure which to take the material in. Therefore, the ends being a schizophrenic mix of black comedy (like the blood splattered intro, which is cool), horror, semi-serious cop drama (the dad with family problems if i recall correctly) and high camp (the scene in the bowling alley, which comes completely out of nowhere, but is the highpoint of the movie, imo).

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 8:21 p.m. CST

    Vampire Hunters

    by Smegohki II

    VH was good campy fun. I was in tears from laughing at a few points. If you have a chance to see it in theaters, go with a bunch of friends and MST the hell out of it.

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 9:27 p.m. CST

    I don't know about these other guys ClownPuncher, but I like Bri

    by super Cucaracha

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 10:04 p.m. CST

    it's Suicide Circle... i own the import and it sucks!

    by Digital_Target

    the movie is called suicide circle. in the film the is a group called the suicide club, but that is not the films name. anyway, i ordered it expecting a great and gory film along the lines of battle royale. this is about the only import dvd i ever regret buying, and i have quite a few of them. scenes described in detail here that sound sweet are a letdown apon actual viewing. and it will be more of a letdown since this reviewer decided to desribe pretty much all the big plot elements of the entire film. there are some cool moments throughout the film, but the ending just totally kills the entire thing. one of the worst endings i have ever seen. it's not a horror movie either as some advertise it. it has maybe 1 or 2 creepy scenes and that's it. buyer beware. but if you must have it, search E-bay. that's where i got my entire asian dvd collection.

  • Aug. 1, 2003, 11:30 p.m. CST

    Sounds like Britney got a bunch of white stuff on her face, cour

    by vikingkitty

    And I hate him for it!

  • Aug. 2, 2003, 1:46 a.m. CST

    GABRIEL BYRNE IS A TOTAL IRISH STUD!!!

    by Brimacombe

    Yum yum, I just think he is one of the sexiest men alive. Oh my God what a hunk I love everything about him, especially his voice and his shock of black hair. Yum I would love to run my hands through it, yum yum yum.

  • Aug. 2, 2003, 2:48 p.m. CST

    Montreal? What's not to like?

    by Syd Mead

    Don't bring your wife or girlfriend for starters. She will get hit on more times than a Coney Island bumper car. What's not to like huh? An olympic stadium that's a worst design than the Magino Line. The provinces official food consists of "Joe Louie", a stale turd of a chocolate snack cake. Some fries called "Poutine" that are greasier than French hooker's slit in July as they are made with white blobs of cheese curds and burnt cafeteria style gravy (oh ...yum) and a can of Laurentide Beer. A flat beer that is the worst in Canada as it's strained through hockey player's jock strap after sweaty third period. Tastes the same warm or cold. Which is la shit. What's to like?? Three things are good in life Conan if you go to La Belle Provinc

  • Aug. 2, 2003, 5:48 p.m. CST

    Montreal

    by frick

    Syd I got no idea who you are but your fucking wrong, obviously you've never even been to montreal cause you got no idea what its like. It's way better than most cities in North America at least people speak 2 languages and are educated. The restaurants dont all serve the same things (ie hamburgers and steak) they have real food from all over the world. They have the best summer festivals and strippers? what the hell are you going on about? there are strippers everywhere in canada and the US you wanna see lots of strippers go to Niagara Falls cause thats where little 15yo girls run off too and some dirty old men pay them money to strip which is completly wrong. Yeah ok maybe the olympic stadium isnt the best but everyone knows that already its not anything new. If you wanna bash a fucking city like that at least know what your talking about.

  • Aug. 3, 2003, 12:05 a.m. CST

    I've seen the two ultra extra good *very original* movies : Ichi

    by daehkcid

    Danm i'm glad i saw them, and the fuck i missed bubba.

  • Aug. 3, 2003, 12:48 p.m. CST

    The vampires in Buffy and Blade are just punching bags

    by chien_sale

    I watched an Hammer film recently with Christofer Lee as Dracula called "Dracula:Prince of Darkness" and guess what? The vampires in it were SCARY! Imagine that! They had mystic, they were mysterious wich made me realise what I had forgotten long ago that fuck, I actually love horror films. Just not what we see these days.

  • Aug. 3, 2003, 1:07 p.m. CST

    I wish I'd read this a month ago

    by Helfyre

    Oy vey. If only this had been posted a month ago. Being a huge Vampire nut,I made the mistake of buying vampire Hunters. After one viewing I wanted my $15 back.

  • Aug. 4, 2003, 12:56 p.m. CST

    Suicide Club based on real phenomenon

    by Jookie

    Maybe... I caught a piece on NPR's All things considered about Japanese web sites where people who want commit suicide find other people who want to commit suicide and get together commit suicide in a group. I'd never heard anything so f'd up before. But it's even more stunning that a movie's been made along the same lines.