LATAURO @ MIFF #4: FEARLESS, HUNT ANGELS, THE GREAT YOKAI WAR
If you're getting sick of me, I apologise. I know I've been posting (spamming) an awful lot lately. Harry turned down my idea to rename the site "Latauro and Friends", which is exactly what my parents did when I suggested changing the family name. Today's list of films is pretty much everything I saw today (Saturday), and given I'm seeing four tomorrow, you'll probably be getting another one of these in twenty-four hours. And by "you", I refer to the five or six people who are reading these. And most of that number is comprised of people who are actually attending the films with me, so to them I say: early dinner at five tomorrow between PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES and LUNACY, I'll text with details.
This was one my favourite pre-film experiences. Nothing particularly sensational happened to me in line, but because my associate and I had both booked so many films, we had no idea what FEARLESS was. To us, FEARLESS was just a title next to a date, a time and a place printed on a little slip of paper and stashed into the wallet. It's not until you actually go to the film that you start to wonder what it is you're seeing.
And it's great. I know I spoke about this with an earlier film, but knowing absolute zero gives you a certain pleasant chill up the spine. Without leaked plot details, three different trailers, and advance reviews flooding websites and chat rooms, what was going to happen when the lights went down?
FEARLESS, as it turns out, is a period piece martial arts film directed by Ronny Yu and starring Jet Li. I will admit to a certain amount of excitement when this fact was revealed, as I wouldn't have been excited if I'd been given more than two minutes to think about it. See, I've gone against popular opinion on the latest batch of kung fu extravaganzas. Zhang Yimou's films have left me cold, and Stephen Chow's did nothing for me. HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, SHAOLIN SOCCER and KUNG FU HUSTLE were all disappointments for me (I won't go about my reasons right now).
Thankfully, I loved FEARLESS, nearly as much as I loved CROUCHING TIGER. FEARLESS has a real sense of story and character, probably because it's actually a biopic. I didn't realise this until about halfway through, but Jet Li's Huo Yuan Jia is based on a real person, a fact that makes the film all the more interesting.
Yuan Jia has quite a complex character arc, and Jet Li really steps up for it. In fact, it's probably the best performance he's ever given. Yes, his displays of martial arts are really impressive, but it's the smaller moments that make this film what it is. Ronny Yu also does some incredible work in this film, really stepping up from the much-better-than-it-should-have-been FREDDY VS JASON.
I'd also like to add that, given the amount of post-production time this film would need, I assume it was filmed during the recent heightened tensions between Japan and China. If that's the case, the respect with which this Chinese film treats its most prominent Japanese character is particularly impressive. There are a few moments between Shido Nakamura and Jet Li where the two share such dignity and mutual respect, that I can't help but be impressed with what an unpopular move this would have been during the recent climate. It's a small note and doesn't impact greatly on the film, but it's one of the points that really stuck with me.
Given my unspoilt experience was so critical to my enjoyment, I'll avoid the film's key points (mostly the truth, but partly a cop-out to help me wrap up the review), and just say that for those who, like me, have been let down by recent kung fu movies, FEARLESS breaks the trend. If, however, you've enjoyed the films I mentioned earlier, then the trend continues. Either way, FEARLESS rocks. (Note: it should go without saying, but make sure you see a subtitled version instead of a dubbed version. I think that dubbing -- even in animated films -- takes the quality of the film down many, many notches.)
My first Australian film of the festival! Fitting, then, that it should be a film about Australian cinema. More specifically, it's the tale of Rupert Kathner, a man who did everything in his power (both legal and illegal) to make Australian films about Australian subjects. In 1940s Australia, this was a rare thing indeed, given our cinemas had been dominated by American product.
The style in which ANGELS is told is a very strange one. It's not quite a biopic (even though Ben Mendelsohn plays Kathner), and it's not quite a documentary (even though most of the story is told via interviews with people who were close to or worked with Kathner). It's almost a docu-drama, but given the hyper-stylised way the story is told (half SIN CITY, half ZELIG), I think that boxing it into any pre-determined genre is selling the film short; it really does something new.
Mendelsohn is brilliant as Kathner, playing the passionate obsessive as a through-and-through Australian, minus the cultural cringe most other actors would have given it. Victoria Hill plays Alma Brooks, his equally-passionate film partner, and I couldn't keep my eyes off her. That's not a reference to her good looks (though she is extremely pretty), but more to her screen presence. She really jumps off the screen, and I'm now really looking forward to seeing her Lady Macbeth in Geoffrey Wright's recently-completed adaptation.
Writer/director Alec Morgan deserves much praise for the film. The film is fascinating from start to finish, and the manner in which is told is so original and confident, it blew me away. I would have liked one or two slower moments at the start to get to know Kathner a bit better, but by the end of the film I think we have a pretty fair (or, at least, interesting) portrayal of the man, warts and all. But the real reason this film impresses is that almost no one has heard of this guy before. In the Q&A, Morgan revealed how he discovered the story, and began tracing the man's life together through interviews and archival footage. It's not like you can get his life story from a web search, or pick up his biography. This film had to be pieced together bit by little bit, which makes it an even more remarkable achievement.
There's no doubt that HUNT ANGELS will be getting a cinema release, so, if you can't catch the next MIFF screening in a few days time, make sure you see it when it comes out. To echo a sentiment expressed in the film, we really can tell our own stories well.
THE GREAT YOKAI WAR
Again, this was one of those unknown entities for me going in. I knew it was a fantasy film, and I knew Takeshi Miike had directed it, but beyond that... well, you don't really need more information than that to want a ticket, do you? Still, this is perhaps a film where a bit more information might have explained to me what the hell was going on.
My temptation is to compare it to Miyazaki's films, but I know it's a very superficial comparison. Miyazaki draws on a lot of Japanese history for his films, and that's simply what Miike and company have done here. The problem is that the majority of my knowledge regarding Japanese folklore comes from Studio Ghibli films, so the comparisons in my head were inevitable.
Everything I've looked up (since viewing the film a couple of hours ago) suggests that this is intended as a family film. I'm sure it's more family-oriented than the rest of Miike's filmography, but there's some seriously scary stuff in here. I mean, I think it's great; most of our family films these days are completely lacking in balls, unlike -- and this is where stage one of my Turning-Into-An-Old-Man-Itis kicks in -- back in my day. I remember films not being afraid to scare kids, or have characters die, or not talk down to us. That's what YOKAI reminds me of... but that said, I'd be more inclined to take my film geek buddies to this instead of, say, my four year old. (Don't worry; little Kurasawa Zemeckis Latauro hasn't been conceived yet, but I'll make sure he gets a good cinematic education when he is.)
YOKAI also continues a bit of a MIFF theme I'm noticing this year. Like TIDELAND and FEARLESS, YOKAI features some really, really impressive performances from children. Seriously, where are these kids coming from? (A question I'm still not able to get a satisfactory answer to, thanks to the internet.) If they're such great actors because of media oversaturation, then I say the search for the next Olivier will truly get underway when every kid gets two TVs in their bedroom. Ryunosuke Kamiki was only about eleven when he played Tadashi Ino, and he is a suitably-talented and charismatic lead.
THE GREAT YOKAI WAR is pretty damn strange, and contains a couple of admittedly-funny asides I probably would have excised at script stage. If you've always wondered what hallucinogenic carcinogens might be like, but don't want to bother with actually trying them, give YOKAI a go. I'm sure it's the exact same thing.