Quint reviews Stephen Chow's JOURNEY TO THE WEST and disturbing German thriller NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN at Fantastic Fest!
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with some more FF reviews.
I couldn't help but pair these two radically different movies together because despite being from two completely different countries and genres they share a similar theme: a religious pacifist being abused.
In Germany's Nothing Bad Can Happen a devout Christian punk ends up moving in with a rather dysfunctional family and has the limits of his faith challenged as he's faced with true human evil. In Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, from China, a Buddhist demon hunter goes against his demon hunting colleagues by trying to reach the human inside the demon... instead of just pummeling them in the face until they explode, which seems to be the preferred method.
I watched these two back to back so maybe that's why I noticed the connection, thin as it was. It's funny how that happens, doesn't it? Anybody who has ever marathoned random movies (and if you're reading this I assume you're one of us) has stumbled upon accidental themes that you never ever would have thought about if you tried. I guess that's what happened to me.
Drafthouse Films picked up Nothing Bad Can Happen. They're a good home for this film because the Drafthouse folks seem to embrace the small and weird. Of their oeuvre, this one reminds me the most of Bullhead, their Oscar contender for best foreign picture. Nothing Bad Can Happen is very well shot and is, at times, excruciatingly intimate.
Based on a true story, the movie forces you to follow a rather inactive lead, but for the story they're telling I wouldn't have it any other way. Julius Feldmeier plays Tore, the teenage Christian, whose faith is tested almost from the beginning of the picture. His fellow Jesus Freaks prove to be more committed to their Christian metal star status than to Christ himself and Tore feels lost, knowing his lord has a plan for him however unclear it is to him at this moment.
Fate throws him together with a struggling poor family that seems to be just what he needs until the daddy starts getting a bit too touchy with his 15 year old daughter.
The movie is frustrating at times because you want Tore to throw away his Christlike patience. You don't want him to turn the other cheek. You want him to fight back, to save the day, but the one thing he refuses to compromise on is his faith.
In many ways Sascha Alexander Gersak's Benno is Satan, trying to tempt him into abandoning the tenants of his faith. Both Benno and Tore have tattoos on their backs. Tore's says “Teach Me Lord” in English and Benno's, glimpsed only once early on, is the face of a horned creature.
In a weird way this battle mirrors Luke/Vader in Jedi. If Tore fights back, the devil wins. If he doesn't, the people he cares about will die. What do you do in that fucked situation? Tore makes his choice which doesn't make it the most comfortable movie to watch, but rather powerful upon reflection.
I also have to bring up newcomer Swantje Kohlhof, who plays Sanny, the teenage daughter of Benno. She has a lot of complex moments and handles it like a pro, reminding me very much of seeing Carey Mulligan's work for the first time. She's cute like a child, but adult in personality. You want her to have a happy ending, but as the movie progresses you're less and less sure that's in the cards for her. I have no idea if she'll cross over to American film at any point, but she's damn good and is going places for sure.
Journey to the West is a much more fun movie, for sure, and presses a lot of my personal geek buttons. Hell, the first 25 minutes is essentially a condensed remake of Jaws, complete with the wrong water monster getting caught, the small village's mayor trying to cover it up and a kid getting eaten!
I made the movie a priority because it was written and produced by Stephen Chow and a lot of his trademark Looney Tunes insanity is on display here despite him not being in the movie. That might explain why this movie never reaches the levels of awesomeness that Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle do. Zhang Wen is pretty great in the lead, so don't think I'm shit-talking him. There is just a little something missing, that little Chow spark, to send it over the top.
Basically the movie follows a young demon hunter as he keeps trying to find the human souls left in these demons, who are almost to the entity the ghosts of good people who died wrongly. It stars with the river monster and then we're introduced to a whole gang of demons and demon hunters who are all nuts.
There's a demon hunter who has a little baby foot he can grow to be a giant foot, one who can summon animal spirits with the might of his martial arts, one sickly guy that has magic remote controlled swords and then the female lead, a demon hunter with a magic bracelet which is surprisingly effective in combat.
Those are the good guys. The bad guys are even crazier, including a demon whose human form looks like a crazy glossy skinned fake person... In fact, if they used that effect for the early model Terminators maybe Terminator: Salvation would have sucked less. Really off-putting.
Behind it all is a love story in which the strong lady demon hunter (Qi Shu) chases the meek Zhang Wen who just wants to stay pure and prove himself at his craft. The more he shuns her, the more sure she is that he's the one she's been waiting for, which leads to some rather aggressive courting while pig demons and killer monkey gods are doing their damndest to fuck things up.
Journey to the West is the kind of movie that helped me fall in love with Asian cinema. It's crazy, funny, sad, scary, wrong, light, chaotic and imaginative all at once. There's just nothing like it in American cinema.
So it was that I found myself in this bizarrely perfect double bill with two movies I enjoyed immensely. Only at Fantastic Fest.
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