The Kidd here...
A couple of weeks back, I had the pleasure of heading up to visit our neighbors to the north in Montreal, Quebec, Canada for the Fantasia International Film Festival. Now in its 16th year, the genre film festival played host to 160 films over 22 days. I was there for only five, but in that short time, I managed to squeeze in a few handfuls of movies during my stay, and over the course of several write-ups, I’ll give you the heads and tails of what I was able to see.
There were plenty of cool things on the schedule that I just wasn’t able to catch up with – I had to settle for taking a screener of MIAMI CONNECTION home with me to check out later and V/H/S played to a packed house a couple of days before my flight touched down – but there were still quite a few gems to keep your eyes out for in the near future once they hit the U.S. or wherever you are.
The first flick I was able to take in was Kern Saxton’s SUSHI GIRL, which easily drew me in with its cast of Tony Todd, Mark Hamill and Michael Biehn, and that doesn’t even call attention to the few genre-friendly cameos that pop up along the way to give you a few moments of nostalgic excitement. Candyman and Luke Skywalker on-screen in the same movie though…? What could possibly go wrong with that? Outside of the geek-out moment of seeing the actors who played those two characters together, plenty.
SUSHI GIRL follows the meeting of an old crew, getting together for the first time in six days, 5 months and 17 days – the time frame since their rookie member got busted in the aftermath of a diamond heist – and they want answers as to where all of that ice went and, as a result, their cuts of the action. All of this takes place at a rundown restaurant, which has been dressed up out front to represent some fine Asian dining where a gorgeous woman will lie naked covered in sushi for their eating pleasure – hence the title.
The setting is probably the most interesting aspect of the film, as the woman (Cortney Palm) has been carefully instructed not to speak, move or make any contact regardless of what she sees and hears. There’s a Tarantino vibe to the film in that respect, but Destin Pfaff and Saxton’s script comes nowhere close to matching the snappy dialogue or crisp characters that Quentin has built his career on. Instead SUSHI GIRL plays with a bunch of clichéd bad guys, all trying their best to outdo each other when it comes to getting answers from Fish (Noah Hathaway), who they’re sure double-crossed them on the diamond job, even as you’re sure as an audience member that couldn’t be further from the truth. And if the criminals who think they’re that smart could be so dumb, then it becomes a tiresome obligation to watch them play the whole scenario out.
About the first third of the movie is spent spinning its wheels, watching the characters banter and bicker back and forth without any establishment of what the point of SUSHI GIRL even is. There’s no semblance of story or purpose to anything they’re saying, and what that leaves is bits of scene-chewing alternating between Todd, Hamill and Andy Mackenzie, who plays the crew’s enforcer. Todd, as to be expected, is the soft-spoken yet intense leader of the pack, leaving most of the interrogation to the sleazy yet whiny Crow (Hamill) and Max (Mackenzie).
Sadly, when Hamill is left to his own devices, Crow is a terribly grating character. His one-note persona may be interesting in the first few minutes, because it’s not something you’re used to seeing from Hamill, but as the movie progresses, his constant whining or complaining really start to get on your nerves, which is never good for someone you’re going to have to spend a lot of time during a movie with. In his defense, it’s no so bad when played up in the adversarial relationship with Max, watching them go at each other like an old married couple as to whose torturous methods will be able to get the information they seek out of Fish, but that’s about the extent of entertainment to be garnered from SUSHI GIRL.
The clever ending manages to improve the film’s standing a little bit, but it’s too little too late to make up for the rest of the unexciting story that took us to that point. If you’re going to try your hardest to be like QT, you’d better be able to deliver, and SUSHI GIRL comes up way short, revealing itself as the cheap knock-off it is. I’d like to see the setting in far more capable hands, because there is potential to do something creative with a sushi girl… it just doesn’t happen in SUSHI GIRL.
A Vietnamese swordplay that features a martial arts master delivering a Hadouken to a stone lion coming to life via thunder in the first five minutes can’t be all bad, and BLOOD LETTER from director Victor Vu certainly isn’t. When it sticks to the simple paths of vengeance sought by its hero Nguyen Trai (Huynh Dong), who saw three generations of his family executed for an unproven accusation of murder against the royal family, and its heroine Hoa Xuan (Midu), who escaped with her older sister after watching her sister and parents killed, BLOOD LETTER works as a straight revenge tale. There’s a light chemistry between Dong and Midu that could easily take BLOOD LETTER into the realm of a romantic comedy if not for the whole idea of bringing assassination to the throne. They work off each other incredibly well, injecting what should be a rather stern tone with some lightheartedness when they aren’t kicking the shit out of ninjas and soldiers. Vu, with the help of his two game actors, has no problem giving you not one but two protagonists to genuinely root for, in the hopes that they can find justice for each of their respective families.
But where BLOOD LETTER falters is by taking the political plot and its subplot and its sub-sub-plot and making it far too convoluted with who is in power, who may or may not want to come into power and who they’re going to use in order to achieve such an easily corruptible position in the film’s royal court. There are a great deal of characters and names to try to follow, many of which turn out to be irrelevant or far less important than originally thought in the overall picture, and the film becomes incredibly difficult to follow at times by adding all of these unnecessarily complex layers onto what should be a pretty straight forward revenge plot. It’s easy to lose track of who did what to whom when it comes to the film’s history lessons and exposition, and, had the film been slimmed down to get rid of these extraneous parts, its directness would further enhance the journeys of Trai and Xuan, which get lost at times in all the talk of secrets and conspiracies.
Beyond that, after watching Xuan and Trai exert every ounce of rebellion they can in order to exact revenge, the message BLOOD LETTER somehow arrives at is if those in power are bad, you’ll just have to put up with them, because overthrowing them will just lead to the loss of innocent life. Ummm… what?! I guess the evil you know is at times better than the evil you don’t know, but that jumps to the conclusion that all who come into power are inherently turned into bad people by virtue of the position they hold. Is there no chance of a revolution putting someone better at the helm? That seems like a rather skeptical viewpoint to take, and soured me a bit on all the good BLOOD LETTER was able to accomplish through its exhilarating action sequences and well-matched lead pairing.
The title of SCHOOLGIRL APOCALYPSE is incredibly misleading, because if you’re looking for some type of exploitation flick featuring girls in schoolgirl outfits taking on zombies or mutants caused by the radiation of nuclear fallout, you’re not going to get it. That’s a little disappointing at first when you come to the realization of what SCHOOLGIRL APOCALYPSE isn’t, but writer-director John Cairns is able to quickly pull you back from the edge with a compelling story of Sakura (Higarino) and her quest for survival in a world that is quickly deteriorating.
There are zombies of a certain type with the men, starting with her kyudo instructor and then followed by her father, turning into vicious and mindless attackers, transforming Japan literally into a woman’s world. There’s definitely interest in watching Sakura navigate her way through danger that can come at any time. Her shift from a weak, confused girl into a mature, hardened woman sucks you into watching this coming of age story about a Japanese schoolgirl with relative ease, because you can still identify with the put-up-or-shut-up situation she finds herself in.
And then the animation happens… and SCHOOLGIRL APOCALYPSE ruins all the goodwill it’s built with you.
Let me explain… Sakura dreams of traveling to America, specifically to New York, and in order to prepare for the possibility of studying abroad, she is brushing up on her English with these Blue Vistas workbooks that are supposed to help teach her basic culture and language skills. Only any time there’s an opening for Sakura to have a dream or hallucination, it’s done with an animated version of herself having conversations about the real life happenings in the world with the subject of the workbook, a boy named Billy.
The first time SCHOOLGIRL APOCALYPSE adopts this device, it is extremely jarring, cutting from an intense building apocalyptic scenario to 2D animation that feels incredibly out of place. When it happens for the third and fourth time, it feels like a crutch and is certainly enough to yank you right out of the flow of the movie. Watching Billy’s real life equivalent, which amounts to a mute, glossy ginger kid in a wheelchair is unintentionally funny, and every appearance he subsequently makes does damage to the serious stakes Sakura keeps facing.
SCHOOLGIRL APOCALYPSE somehow manages to recover from each misstep it makes along the way though due to the strength of Higarino’s performance, but, by the time the film ends as a result of events so far out of left field, you’ll wonder if somehow the ending of an entirely different movie got spliced onto the last reel, it’s too much. SCHOOLGIRL APOCALYPSE suffers from trying to be too many different things and constantly straying from the few things it really does have going for itself.
The film is beautifully shot, and Cairns certainly knows how to use his sets and scenery to compose stunning visuals, especially one gorgeous tracking shot of Sakura’s feet carefully maneuvering through a couple of dead bodies. However, the choppy storytelling does SCHOOLGIRL APOCALYPSE in, as there is no answer to solve its lack of focus.
Stay tuned for more reviews from Fantasia.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
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