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In real time, Fantasia 2011 is almost over. It’s quite the
bittersweet feeling. With only five days left—two of which I think I might skip
entirely in order to catch up with this blog and life itself—I’m grateful to be
at the end of this amazing journey, yet anticipate the feeling of loss that
Eating out, seeing friends, watching movies…not the
healthiest way to live—those downtown burgers keep piling up in my stomach day
after day, and if it wasn’t for the vitamin C tablets next to me, I’m sure I’d
have scurvy. With so few days left, it becomes clear to me keeping up the
extensive daily format will be impossible. For the sake of completion—and
because there are still many great films to discuss—I will power through Days
10 to 12 and later change the format to tackle the spotlight dedicated to Adam
Wingard, as well as a roundup of the best short films I’ve seen thus far.
Furthermore, this post, its structure and mostly unintentional
stream-of-consciousness style will give you a genuine taste of what the
day-to-day Fantasia experience is like at its peak.
I’ve expressed my thoughts on the decline of the Sushi
Typhoon/”Tokyo gore” film cycle already, but have failed to mention an
important truth: Deep down, I’m a true follower. Driven by a completist urge
that is hard to ignore, I will see them all, year after year, and—regardless of
my critical standpoint—will find some nuggets of enjoyment in every one of
them. After the rather disappointing YAKUZA WEAPON and the not-much-better
DEADBALL, it would’ve made perfect sense for me to ignore HELLDRIVER. But I
don’t consider myself a practitioner of common sense, and when I got up early
the catch the 11:45 a.m. (madness!) screening of Yoshihiro Nishimura’s latest,
I unexpectedly found myself very excited by the prospect of a bloody,
relentless film closer to TOKYO GORE POLICE than to its contrived predecessors.
Thankfully, my enthusiasm wasn’t in vain.
Undeniably Nishimura’s best since TOKYO GORE, HELLDRIVER
takes its cues from the dystopian zombie oeuvre of genre master George A.
Romero, coupled with Nishimura’s own characteristic insanity and infused with
DEAD ALIVE’s inventiveness. Relying on a good premise and using CGI sparingly
to let Nishimura’s practical FX work shine through the various bloody
contraptions and costume designs, HELLDRIVER is not only a sensory overload but
also a surprisingly engaging visual experience. It benefits from a solid foundation
and plot–a psychotropic version of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK—as well as
three-dimensional characters lead by the mesmerizingly energetic and gorgeous
Yumiko Hara as Kika, with whom I utterly fell in love, who almost eclipses the
great Eihi Shiina as the film’s zombie queen and main villainess and who proves
to be a remarkably strong female protagonist who drives the plot forward in
resonant ways. Her family dynamics are explored and give the film an emotional
(!) backbone, something these films have certainly not accustomed us to.
Furthermore, HELLDRIVER—aside from its expected gushes of
gore and relentless, bombastic storyline—offers an engaging structure (the
title appears after 45 minutes of setup!), makes great use of lighting (a
change from the previous movies’ uninspired low-budget aesthetic) and goes into
surprising depth with its world-building, developing a mythology around the
zombies and providing a politically charged world for the characters to
inhabit. Suffering from many of the same problems of excess as its
predecessors, but adding an interesting plot, striking aesthetic, fleshed-out
characters and head-bangin’ soundtrack to balance everything out, HELLDRIVER is
a refreshingly entertaining entry in a tired genre, and started off my day with
Immediately following HELLDRIVER, I saw the much-anticipated
and rowdy MONSTER BRAWL. Despite boasting an impressive cast of monster
wrestlers (The Mummy, Swamp Gut, Zombie Man, Frankenstein and more!), field
veterans such as Art Hindle (from BLACK CHRISTMAS and THE BROOD) and the WWF’s
Jimmy Hart, a spot-on classic-Universal-monsters aesthetic and all the elements
to become a potential cult classic, MONSTER BRAWL falls short because of one
fatal flaw: its dragging pace. Structured as a pay-per-view grappling
championship and never diverting from its concept, MONSTER BRAWL shows great
promise with its concept, but would’ve benefitted immensely from faster pacing
and cutting—which would’ve turned a decent film into a fail-proof late-night
It’s quite the understandable mistake, though; when given
such high levels of production design and talent to work with, one wants the
pleasure to last. Jesse T. Cook’s direction is very controlled and playful, but
ultimately, the dragging style does not serve the tournament structure at
hand—which starts off as enjoyable but quickly becomes tedious. The fights
themselves, in their structure and execution, will undeniably please die-hard
wrestling fans, but might bore other viewers after a while. Nonetheless,
MONSTER BRAWL is a film that will blow young kids’ minds and delight wrestling
fans, and is a sincere effort that will find its audience.
MONSTER BRAWL was quite the event, but I sneaked out quickly
to treat myself to LOVE & LOATHING & LULU & AYANO by NAKED BLOOD’s
Hisayasu Sato, which is as bittersweet, disturbing and charming a look into the
Japanese porno/AV (adult video) industry as I had expected it to be.
Following that, Fantasia found itself right in the midst of
December for its “Christmas in July” spotlight: a double feature of the Finnish
fantasy film RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS STORY and the Dutch slasher SAINT.
RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS STORY
When excavators find a “sacred tomb” buried deep within the
Korvatunturi Mountain in the Finnish Lapland, Christmas’ darkest secret is
unleashed upon unsuspecting reindeer herders living in proximity. Expanding
upon Jalmari and Juuso Helander’s RARE EXPORTS, INC. short films, the former’s
feature is one of the rare films that is as thoroughly engaging as it is smart,
slick and original. Perhaps because of the short films, RARE EXPORTS feels like
it’s missing a first act, but once past that fleeting impression of not having
spent enough time with the scientists initiating the discovery, the film grabs
you and takes you a swirling and cold journey through Christmastime terror.
Offering more than a few good scares, but mostly an
excellent atmosphere of mystery and anticipation—recalling at times Steven
Spielberg’s best era, only way edgier and more violent with some full-frontal
male nudity—RARE EXPORTS is a near-perfect mini-epic, featuring an amazing
cast, humor and a great reveal, while building on Finland’s folklore and
smartly subverting the mythology of Christmas and its ties with capitalism. If
it hadn’t been for the extensive coverage the film benefitted from in the past
year, this would’ve been one of my best discoveries of the festival. Sadly, I
knew a little bit too much about the film going in, but—much to its merit—it
still managed to blow me away.
A totally different beast, SAINT (or SINT) in turn demonizes
the European Sinterklaas, while following a more conventional slasher-film
structure and horror tropes, establishing its cast of teenage fodder and
villainous backstory early on and building from there in the expected manner.
In the hands of Dick Maas, mostly known for the cult classic THE LIFT, the film
manages to be effective and humorous, but ultimately not nearly as memorable as
RARE EXPORTS–to which it really shouldn’t be compared, but that’s inevitable in
such a double-feature context. Solid nonetheless, the film offers an
interesting satirical look into the Sinterklaas traditions, making it a worthy
addition to the killer-Santa subgenre of films such as TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT,
CHRISTMAS EVIL and the SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT series.
Day 10 still had one showing left, which opened a new door
within Fantasia and, in retrospect, truly marked the turning point of this
year’s fest, propelling me into the eye of the storm with no chance of coming
back unchanged. All that and more in Part 2…
FANGO AT FANTASIA
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