Capone's first report from Fantasia Festival 2014, with ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHANGHAI, METALHEAD, CLOSER TO GOD, and WHEN ANIMALS DREAM!!!
Published at: Aug. 28, 2014, 12:02 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here. Last year, I got to spend about five days at the 17th Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, and it was a singular experience. It’s a concentrated dose of some of the top genre films in the world, all screened at the longest-running genre fest in North America. I was fortunate enough to travel up there again this year for the 18th installment thanks to kind folks like Ted Geoghegan, Director of International Publicity, and Lindsay Peters, Managing Director, Market + Director of Hospitality for the fest.
This year was a bit different for a couple of reasons. First, I was only there for three days of screenings, so I didn’t see quite as many films as last year; and second, they were the last three days of the festival proper. But that in no way took away from the quality of the films I saw, including one of favorite works of the year so far, which I'll tell you about in the second half of my Fantasia 2014 report. For now, please enjoy Part 1 of my report…
ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHANGHAI
This Hong Kong production is dense with plot about old and new generations of fighting experts, triads, pitting friend against friend, the opium trade, and wavering allegiances. But all you really need to know about ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHANGHAI is that Yuen Woo Ping (KILL BILL, THE MATRIX, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON) is the action director and Yuen Cheung-Yan (IRON MONKEY) is the action coordinator. Oh, and did I mention that the movie was inspired by the Shaw Brothers epic BOXER FROM SHANTUNG? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that any film involving those two action masters based on that film is going to feature both an extraordinary amount of kung fu and some of the most original fight sequences you’ll likely ever see.
The story is of old Shanghai, when the city was divided up and ruled by various triad gangs who would fight over small pieces of land. But when a younger, flash, blood-thirsty gangster named Lung (Andy On) movies into town, he shakes up the old ways and takes over half city almost immediately, leaving scraps for the triads. At the same time, a dirt poor young man, Ma Wing-Jing (Philip Ng, an actual Wing Chun expert in his first starring role) comes to town to earn an honest living. We find out that his fists are literally deadly weapons but that he has promised his mother he would not use them in anger, so naturally for the entire length of the film, he’s being treated so poorly that he’s tempted more than once to unleash his deadly power.
In an actual unexpected turn, when the rich man and the poor man first meet, they enter into a huge fight sequence and come out the other side as best friends, with Lung giving Ma Wing-Jing a job in his organization that doesn’t require him to hurt any innocent people. In his off time Ma Wing-Jing attempts to woo a local woman whose father (the great Sammo Hung) is somehow connected to the old triad gangs, but is trying to set an example for his daughter.
Not surprisingly, the older triad leader are not pleased with Jung assent to power and they welcome the devil—in the form of a Japanese business man—into their country and lives to bring in some heavy hitters to take out Jung and his entire team. Naturally, Ma Wing-Jing is called upon to make a decision about whether to use his deadly fists or not. Direcctor Ching-Po Wong (LET’S GO!, REVENGE: A LOVE STORY) does a remarkable job showing the fighting-style differences between the so-called Axe Gang triads, Jung newer, more violent ways, and even the Japanese businessman, who just happens to fight like a warrior as well. As with so many kung-fu films, the romance angle is totally unnecessary, but maybe it’s thrown in in a sad attempt to attract female audience members. But this potential girlfriend storyline doesn’t work and barely registers.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHANGHAI could probably trim a bit of the plotline fat, but beyond that, the film at any length is a complete action party that stays up ’til all hours. Star Philip Nghas has clearly got a great action-movie career in his future, and this is a heck of a way to begin the ride. I can’t imagine this film doesn’t get some kind of stateside release, but seek it out if you can because you’ve never seen fights quite like this.
This very different approach at the coming-of-age story begins when Hera, a little girl growing up on a farm in Iceland, sees her older brother killed in an accident, which occurred partly because she was distracting him. It’s an incident she or her parents (who don’t know about her involvement) never truly recover from, and as she gets older she begins to take an interest in her brother’s heavy metal music collection and even in his guitars, which she tentatively picks up and learns to play. Before long, Hera (played in her early 20s by the terrific Thora Bjorg Helga) loses herself in the music, listening and absorbing it completely, causing a rift between her and her parents.
She also uses this feeling of alienation to distance herself from her community, and she begins to lash out and commit random acts of destruction and vandalism, often with headphones on, blasting mix tapes of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Lizzy Borden, Savatage, and many others. Just when she’s convinced there is no one in the world that understands her love of this music, she meet the town’s new young priest, who reveals that he too is a secret headbanger. There are a few more dangerous moments when Hera is feeling especially destructive that she turns to black metal and church burning as a way of getting back at God for taking her brother away from her. And while METALHEAD never justifies her actions, it does view them as an extreme form of grieving and outward expression of rage at the unfair world.
Hera’s sometimes unexpected story takes her from forming a crush on the priest to dating her clean-cut, high school sweetheart to learning to write and play her own music in her room (a tape of her demos leads to a great many surprises in the film) to playing her first concert in front of a skeptical crowd of locals. Director Ragnar Bragason does a remarkable job tracing this young woman’s painful journey and rebirth into the person she was always meant to be. METALHEAD drifts effortlessly from tragic to darkly funny to uplifting, with a few sidebars into the downright terrifying. And the soundtrack of deep-cut metal classics is beautifully curated. This may be one of the films that, on the surface, you may not think is your glass of Brennivín, but I think most people will find something here to latch onto and go along for this powerful ride.
CLOSER TO GOD
One of my absolute favorites at Fantasia this year was the disturbing American offering CLOSER TO GOD, which opens quite simply with the creation of the first successful human clone, a baby girl named Elizabeth thanks to the tireless genetic scientist Dr. Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs). Dr. Reed has not walked into this area of research blindly, and it becomes clear after some time that there have been many failed attempts at this process with some horrifically catastrophic results that include everything from death to something far more disturbing.
Dr. Reed attempts to delay news of the Baby Elizabeth for sometime until the clone is fully tested and time has passed, but soon word gets out, triggering a media circus, followed almost immediately by an outpouring of almost universal hatred for Dr. Reed for messing with God’s natural order. First-time writer-director Billy Senese does a great job of manufacturing and re-creating the fear mongering, flow of misinformation and speculation, and flat-out lies and personal attacks on Dr. Reed, who simply wants to use his work to further stem-cell research and other means of curing previously incurable conditions.
But there are those even in Dr. Reed’s team that don’t like the work he’s doing, including one person who takes and leaks photos of Baby Elizabeth complete with small, but no less creepy-looking receptor imbedded in her forehead, something that was photoshopped out of official photos of her released shortly after her creation was announced. These images lead to threats of legal action and child-endangerment charges, but then the dilemma presents itself as to whether Elizabeth is a human being, and if not, can the doctor be charged with endangering a human life?
Without attempting to take sides, Senese’s screenplay simply tries to create a plausible series of events that would likely stem under these circumstances. Certainly science versus religion takes center stage in CLOSER TO GOD, but there’s another, more genre-familiar element to the film that I won’t spoil here, but lingers on the creepier side of things and has to do with those previous failed attempts at cloning by the good Dr. Reed.
The movie has a searing atmosphere that manages to convey the persecuted man at the center of this story. And Childs’ performance is quite riveting. He’s clearly got his head and intentions in the right place, but his methods and ethics are often questionable in his pursuit of knowledge. And while the conclusion may be inevitable, it takes nothing away from the ever-present high tension levels. I hope this film makes it out fairly wide, if only to hear the conversations that it will undoubtedly spark.
WHEN ANIMALS DREAM
In this slow-burn tale from Denmark about a young woman going through…changes in her body and her personality, WHEN ANIMALS DREAM traces the life of Marie (newcomer Sonia Suhl), who lives a life of few prospects in a small fishing town, where she lives with her parents, a near-comatose mother (Sonja Richter) and her down-trodden father (Lars Mikkelsen, older brother of Mads) who take care of the mother full time. Marie’s life is full of disappointment and mystery. The only job opportunity in the town is at the local fish-processing plant, where sexual harassment laws don’t seem to apply. Marie’s love life is also non-existent until she meets a co-worker (Jakob Oftebro) who actually seem to know how to act like something other than a sexist pig.
She’s also completely in the dark about why her mother is in the state that she’s in, but is beginning to get clues both from inside the family home and those outside who knew the woman before she entered this state. To add to the curious way her family lives, the local doctor seems to visit quite often, not just to look in on the mother but on Marie as well. Around the same time she starts having feelings for her co-worker, Marie starts seeing strange tufts of hair cropping up on her body (and not in the usual places); her canine teeth begin to grow longer, and when she gets angry, her strength increases exponentially, and it becomes clear that whatever her mother suffers from, Marie suffers from as well.
First-time feature director Jonas Alexander Arnby and writer Rasmus Birch are clearly taking a page from the vampire story LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, with a few important variations. Most significantly, nearly everyone in the town seems to be aware of what happened to Marie’s mother to land her in her clearly drug-induced state, and they all have their eyes on Marie to see if the mother’s DNA has been passed on to the daughter. While the creative team aren’t the first to use the werewolf metaphor for puberty/adolescence (hello, TEEN WOLF), WHEN ANIMALS DREAM treats it both seriously and with a degree of absolutely terror. The slow transformation sequences (which begin primarily with painful psychological adjustments before the physical changes even start) are absolutely awful and captivating all at once.
You could certainly look at WHEN ANIMALS DREAM as a tale of a woman fighting back against an oppressive society in which men are the true animals in need of taming. Or you can see the film as a beautifully shot, grim and nasty bit of horror, complete with a monster or two. Marie is there to project our own fears upon, and Suhl does a near-perfect job of providing us with a blank canvas on which we can paint whatever metaphor suits our needs and experiences. That said, the film isn’t nearly as emotionally perfect as LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, and there are a few lapses in logic that are bothersome, but beyond that the film marks a terrific debut from Arnby, and I’m truly eager to see what he brings us in the future.