Monday, October 12, 2009

What I Saw At Fantastic Fest Part 2: Hey! Hey! Great Fun Asian Film Spectacular Edition!

Whenever you go to a genre festival like Fantastic Fest, you find that little subcultures develop within the few thousand people that attend the festival. Chances are, you'll care for one genre more than another, and as a result you'll become pretty familiar with the people who share your tastes as you wind up next to them in line or in a theater. By the end of the week, you're seeking each other out and saving each other's seats, comparing notes on what you've seen and what the verdict was. All the Asian film fans tend to stick together, as do the gorehounds, the horror fans, the weird cinema aficionados, the action junkies, the Hollywood premiere-hoppers and the animation freaks.

The funny thing is that at a genre festival as diverse as Fantastic Fest, you wind up in more than one subculture at once. I myself was heavy on the Asian films, the weird cinema and action movies, and was only a minor dabbler in the horror and animation camps. (I'll admit it- I'm a wuss when it comes to horror films.) As a result, the following post is devoted entirely to the awesome Asian films I saw, whereas the next post will be loosely devoted to "action movies." There are some real gems down there today, so don't rush...

And just a note, by rights, Kawogama Harumo: Battle League in Kyoto should be at the top of this list, but I did it last post before thinking of grouping these films by theme.

PRIVATE EYE (South Korea, Playing at Hawai’i International Film Festival, No US Release)

(Sorry, couldn't find a subtitled trailer. There is one here)

Dae-min Park may be the only person who loves L.A. Confidential more than I do, and I say that because Private Eye is essentially Park's attempt to make his own version, set in 1910 Seoul. And surprise, surprise-it works, in fact it works like gangbusters. I really liked this movie, but it doesn't quite live up to the film that inspired it.

1910 Korea is heating up as Japanese interests make inroads in the country and the locals start worrying that the Land of the Rising Sun’s intentions may not be too benevolent. Seoul seethes with enough corruption and intrigue to warrant calling in Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer all at the same time. However, they’ll just have to make do with bumbling but brilliant Jin-ho (masterfully protrayed by Hwang Jeong-min), a western-style PI who ekes a living taking snapshots of cheating spouses and selling them to the tabloids.

Meanwhile, meek but genius-grade medical student Kwang-su lives a bleak existence in a teaching hospital, being lorded over by his Japanese instructor who suggests that Kwang will never be a true doctor until he dissects a real human body. Lucky for Kwang, he stumbles across a dead guy in the woods and takes him home for practice.

Then Kwang learns it’s the Interior Minister’s son. Oops.

Hoping to clear his name before he’s caught in the city-wide manhunt, Kwang hires Jin-ho to find the killer before he’s accused. With the help of a gadget-inventing noblewoman (Uhm Ji-won), the pair begins a rousing adventure through the city of Seoul, trekking through hospitals, murder scenes, opium dens, and a decidedly sinister circus.

Apart from some sloppy editing that causes minor continuity errors, Private Eye is a tightly-wound mystery tale that’s above all fun, something that’s often missing from Korean films. It isn’t strictly an historical film, since it draws just as much on James Bond as it does turn-of-the-century Korea, but the setting creates a delicious tone of old versus new and east versus west that delivers up interesting visual payoffs throughout, (Jin-ho walking into a traditional circus while wearing his porkpie hat is one, Uhm Ji-won swathed in a dress while holding a welding mask in front of her face is another). The city of Seoul itself seems convincing and alive, like you could step onto the muddy streets and slurp noodles at a street side stand along with the characters. I felt the same way when I watched L.A. Confidential, as if I could check into the seedy neon motels and sleep on their stained mattresses. What really anchors the whole thing though, are solid performances from the entire cast, with the standout being Hwang Jeong-min’s soft-boiled private eye. The first time Kwang tries to hire him in the murder investigation, he slams the door in the kid’s face and says he doesn’t take dangerous jobs. It’s a refreshing dose of reality in a genre where heroes often go to the ends of the earth for strangers.

Do not miss this film, it’s good storytelling, genuinely humorous, and has enough twists and turns to keep it going. The continuity errors are a shame, since the mystery format tends to make things like that stand out, but good acting and writing can cover a multitude of sins, including these.

ROBOGEISHA (Japan, No US Release Date)


The only Secret Screening I managed to get into turned out to be the (not “world” for legal reasons) premiere of Robogeisha, which ranks as the flat-out oddest movie I saw at Fantastic Fest, and brother that’s saying something.

See, when you watch as many movies as I do, you need to see films like Robogeisha every once in awhile. Having seen hundreds of movies that follow traditional plot structures and use stock characters, I can not only guess the next plot twist in an average movie, I can guess the next line of dialogue. For people like me, movies that are as off-the-wall as Robogeisha bring back the kind of what-happens-next suspense we don’t get from the standard summer movie fare. This is a movie where almost anything can happen.

Kids, do I even have to explain why this movie rules? When the trailer came out on YouTube, there was some discussion over whether the film actually existed. There were those who assumed no one was bizarre enough to make a feature-length film like this, even as a joke.

Oh they were so sublimely wrong.

I’m not even going to attempt to describe the plot—but it’s actually a lot more traditional than it seems. It’s perplexing, it’s surprising, and it’s all far less bloody than you’d think. To even describe what happens would be to ruin some of the fun, but just to give you an idea: at one point the heroine drowns a guy in his own stomach acid

I must be kidding, right?

Watch it. Oh, then you’ll see.

By then it will be too late, Shiro Castles will be turning into angry robots and punching buildings, then the buildings will fountain blood, then the geisha will all turn into Transformers and drive up the sides of the buildings so they can take over the Shiro Castle by dueling the evil businessman inside so he can’t drop his Ultimate Bomb into Mount Fuji.

I’m going to be honest here: I’m not sure how much of this movie I saw and how much I hallucinated, I lost a lot of sleep last week. I will tell you this though: almost every kill scene in this film gained raucous cheers from the audience.

Robogeisha exists in that weird netherworld of B-movies that are exactly what their titles are. No one walks into a movie with a title like this thinking it’s going to take home Oscar gold. Some of the effects are massively cheesy and the first scene doesn’t fit into the film’s chronology at all, but considering its miniscule budget (which ran in the low hundred thousands) Noburo Iguchi has made a movie that gives a huge bang for your buck. It’s rare that a film can remain tongue-in-cheek while still offering up action that’s fun to watch, but Iguchi manages it. There are some inspired scenes of comedy as well, such as a bureaucrat dodging sword-wielding assassins while on his cell phone, politely explaining to a superior that he can’t take his call at the moment.

Things only got more manic during the Q&A, when director Noboru Iguchi, special effects director (and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl director) Yoshihiro Nishimura, festival director Tim League and Marc Walkow of the New York Asian Film Festival came out in traditional Japanese skivvies and danced up and down the rows of seats, waggling their pale asses in the faces of the audience. Afterward, the “Tengu Girls” from the movie ran in costume and performed a swordfight, then started sticking the filmmakers in the ass with pins. After that, things got a little weird...

There's videos on the Fantastic Fest website if you really want to hunt for them. Afterward, the cast and crew joined the rest of the festival attendants at the nearby Tim League-owned bowling/kareoke club the Highball, where they performed kareoke, judged a "Samurai Calling" competition and had one of the actresses perform a pole dance, which is her sideline trade (it was an artful one, rather than a sleazy one). Again, there are videos on the Fantastic Fest website if you really feel the need to check it out...

No one, goddamn NO ONE throws a party like Tim League.

CRAZY RACER (China, No US Release Date)

Crazy Racer has my all-time favorite cash for drugs exchange I’ve ever seen on film. It also has one of the better explosions, which you can see in the Fantastic Fest Trailer if you search for it on YouTube, but I didn't post here because giving it away would be criminal.

Mainland Chinese director Ning Hao has been called the Chinese Guy Richie, and considering this twisted, intricately-plotted gangster comedy, it’s a soubriquet that will probably stick. In about the first five minutes of Crazy Racer, we get the following information: Geng Hao is a champion bicyclist who comes in second in the race of his life. Hoping to salvage some face out of the defeat, he does a quickie endorsement for an herbal supplement while in the back of the locker room, but the drink makes him fail a drug test and his silver medal is stripped. The shock causes Hao’s long-suffering coach to die of a heart attack, and the bitter cyclist decides to go after the sleazy businessman who conned him in order to raise enough money to give his coach an “executive burial.”

But that isn’t really what this movie is about, it’s about bumbling first-time hitmen, Tong gangster flunkies with so few fingers they fumble their pistols, frustrated cops, nagging wives, and CEOs that dress like Superman. All these characters swirl around the usual gangster movie anchors: a fortune in heroin, a misplaced corpse, the ubiquitous briefcase full of money and a very unfortunate tank of turtles. What’s amazing about Hao’s work isn’t that he manages to juggle all these elements, but that he manages to juggle all these elements and make them feel new and interesting. I’ve probably seen six movies since the early ‘90s which have the same “crime caper goes wrong” premise as Crazy Racer, but by blending these genre staples with Chinese pop culture and religious traditions, he keeps the surprises coming.

The only caveat is that this is a movie where you really have to hang in there and pay attention. Most of the scenes before the halfway mark are setup, and if you haven’t kept up you’ll be wondering what the hell is going on. It also will do you well to familiarize yourself with the tradition of “hell money,” fake currency that’s sacrificed to the dead during Chinese funerals.

Seriously guys, keep an eye out for this one. Ning Hao has the potential to be the next big thing in Asian film and the people who are in the know about him from the beginning will have some serious film geek street cred down the road. Besides, we’re talking about a Chinese director who isn’t part of the Hong Kong cabal and is trying to strike out and do something different—and that’s pretty cool.

K-20: THE FIEND WITH 20 FACES (AKA: The Legend of the Mask) (Japan, No US Release Date)
Strongly Recommended

Every once in awhile I’ll see a movie that plays so strongly to my sensibilities that it seems like a “greatest hits” reel torn from my childhood imagination. K-20: The Fiend With 20 Faces is that kind of film.

In an alternate timeline where World War II never happened and aristocrats still run Japan, master thief K-20 terrorizes the upper classes with high-class heists. The unflappable Inspector Akechi is closing in on K-20 following the theft of a rare and potentially devastating Tesla device, when K-20 tricks a gullible circus acrobat, Endo, to be caught in his stead. On the run from Akechi’s gyrocopter-mounted SWAT teams, the army, and a corps of boy detectives, Endo finds that to catch K-20, he must become K-20. The plot really starts to gel when Endo saves Akechi’s rich-girl fiancĂ© from the clutches of the masked thief and... well, you can guess the next plot twist from here, but let me just say that there are some pretty good surprises in store.

This movie is full of the ‘30s-‘50s pulp adventure tropes that I adore. It’s wall-to-wall master criminals, police inspectors, circus acrobats, boy detectives, aviatrixes, street urchins, military generals and gadget inventors. For Christ’s sake, it revolves around a Nikola Tesla doomsday machine. How much does that rule? Sure, the acting is sort of cartoony and sometimes verges on caricature, (and often it shades into cheesiness), but the wackiness of the movie feeds on that sort of energy. However, some people will be turned off by the fluctuating tone, which wavers up and down from dark to jubilant within single scenes. It’s not a perfect movie to be sure. The climax doesn’t jump the shark, but it certainly steps over it, and some of the more obviously borrowed elements can be distracting (Peter Parker will be suing for patent infringement on that wrist-deployed grappling hook).

But none of that matters to me, because this movie is flat out fun. You can make the same allegations of overacting against the Indiana Jones movies, but they work for the same reason K-20 does. Movies like this aren’t about reality, they’re about taking the tought wouldn’t it be cool if... to the furthest limit possible. They exist in a world of broad humor, amazing stunts and well-turned plot twists.

If you’re into the kind of pulp archetypes I mentioned above, don’t miss this movie. This movie was the most fun I had at Fantastic Fest, and one of the few I will be ordering off Amazon as soon as it’s available.

VAMPIRE GIRL vs. FRANKENSTEIN GIRL (Japan, Showing at Hawai'i International Film Festival, No US Release Date)
See It If You’re Interested (GOREHOUNDS ONLY)


Yoshihiro Nishimura is best known for his master’s thesis in splatter cinema, Tokyo Gore Police a movie so extreme that I'm halfway sure it put me into shock. However, TGP is well-respected in the gorehound and unintentional humor community, and most of Nishimura’s fans agree that Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl is nowhere near as shocking as that lauded film.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

In contrast to Gore Police, Vampire Girl is a twisted romantic comedy about a high school love triangle gone oh-so-very wrong. Mizushima is a normal high school boy who’s unfortunate enough to be the crowning desire of Keiko, the spoiled daughter of the vice-principal, who he manages to keep at bay most of the time. Everything begins to come apart one Valentine’s Day when Mizushima accepts a chocolate from the cute new transfer student Monami, cementing them as a couple. But this isn’t ordinary chocolate—when Mizushima takes a bite out of it he finds that it has some very, ahem, unique filling. Like blood... her blood. Turns out, Monami is a vampire and is apparently thinking of a much longer romantic commitment than Mizushima is really comfortable with. Understandably, he freaks out and runs off, having been half-turned to one of the denizens of the night.

But how does the overbearing Keiko feel about all this? Well, pretty pissed is a good summation, especially after she is killed in an accident and reanimated by her science-teacher father, who lurks in the basement wearing a Kabuki costume, doing bizarre experiments on dead students with the help of the “oversexed school nurse.” With Keiko’s new form, a patchwork of the strongest parts of several different students, she sets out to battle Monami and win Mizushima back. The rest of the film consists of a series of over-the-top action sequences as the two girls battle each other, while poor Mizushima sits on the sidelines and wonders why no one asks what he wants.

Every time I see a Nishimura movie, I feel like the first few rows should be labeled SPLASH ZONE, like at Sea World. Arterial blood spray plays a large part in Nishimura’s visual style, but here is played for laughs rather than gross-out value. Oh sure, there’s some really disgusting things here, but they’re cartoonish on the whole and you won’t see anything too disturbing. Which is not to say the film isn’t shocking... Nishimura riffs several subcultures and stereotypes that are prevalent in Japanese culture, such as wrist-cutters (who have an intramural team), chain-smoking Chinese teachers, and Ganguro girls, who are known to dye their skins brown and bleach their hair in order to look more like “California Girls.” In Vampire Girl, the Ganguro girls are obsessed with what they perceive as African American culture, which includes walking around in blackface, wearing bones through their noses, and banging drums while chanting, “Yes we can.” While the humor in the Ganguro scenes comes from the girls embracing wild stereotypes as truth, the scenes are still extremely uncomfortable. In some ways, the socially aggressive humor is just as shocking as the castrations and mutilations in Tokyo Gore Police.

In the end, the reason to see Vampire Girl is to take in some extremely odd visuals and way over-the-top violence, with some pretty good humor thrown in. (There’s a particularly fun sequence where the director of The Grudge makes a cameo as the chain-smoking Chinese teacher... and threatens to curse the class.) This movie buries the needle on the crazy-o-meter, but between the spraying gore and highly politically incorrect humor, it’s a difficult thing to recommend. Having said that, if you're in the mood to see a gonzo Japanese movie with a seriously twisted sense of humor, you can't go wrong with this one.

You’ve been warned.



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