Fantasia 2018 Review: One Cut of the Dead

Takayuki Hamatsu (centre) plays a film director in the Japanese zombie comedy film One Cut of the Dead. (THIRD WINDOW FILMS)

A low-budget zombie film is being shot at an abandoned water treatment plant. (At an isolated location, of course. No cellphone service.) There are murky rumours about the building’s past – secret government experiments on humans, maybe even dead humans, that kind of thing.

The director (Takayuki Hamatsu) is excitable and demanding. Some crew members say he’s a psycho, though not to his face. The young female lead (Yuzuki Akiyama) is so screechy. Quite annoying. Someone notices that an axe is real and quite sharp, too. Hmmm. That seems dangerous. I think of Chekhov’s axiom about a gun.

Suddenly, during a break in filming, a severed arm is thrown into the room. Ha, ha! Just a joke? Crew members fooling around? It looks VERY real. And where did everybody else disappear to? Oh, oh!

It’s difficult to write much about One Cut of the Dead without spoiling the whole thing. Have I already written too much? There are reviews floating around that spoil many of the surprises and as time goes on there will be more still.

 

On the film One Cut of the Dead, Harumi Shuhama plays Nao, a makeup woman who can also swing a mean axe. (THIRD WINDOW FILMS)

I’ll just say that this film is divided into three parts, with the third part being fall-off-your-chair funny. There are pokes at actors, fussy, passive-aggressive co-workers (“I SENT you an email!”), plot holes, zombie tropes, etc. One Cut of the Dead is also a fond tribute to family, team work, creativity, inventiveness, filmmaking in general, low-budget filmmaking in particular, the spirit of “the show must go on,” and much, much more. Well worth seeking out.

It was a treat to watch One Cut of the Dead with the famously enthusiastic Fantasia audience. There were lots of laughs and cheers. Actress Harumi Shuhama was among the crowd favourites, and many of those cheers were for her. Her character, makeup lady Nao, has so many (previously unknown) useful talents.

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD
2017
97 minutes long
In Japanese with English subtitles
Written, directed and edited by Shinichiro Ueda
Cast: Harumi Shuhama, Takayuki Hamatsu, Mao, Yuzuki Akiyama, Kazuaki Nagaya, Manabu Hosoi

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Fantasia 2018 Review: Believer

Cho Jin-woong plays policeman Jo Won-ho. See all that stuff on the wall behind him? He’s been collecting information on a drug kingpin for two years now.

cutline: Ryu Jun-yeol plays Rak, a quiet guy with nerves of steel who wants to avenge the death of his mother.

cutline: Cho Jin-woong plays policeman Jo Won-ho.

cutline: Here, Cho Jin-woong’s policeman character, Jo Won-ho, is in disguise as a dangerously unpredictable drug lord.

Believer is an edge-of-your seat experience, scarier than many horror movies! It’s a Korean remake, or shall we say, re-imagining, of Drug War (2012) from Hong Kong director Johnnie To.

(Drug War was equally nerve-racking, of course, but co-writers Chung Seo-kyung and Lee Hae-young have changed several aspects for their version. Bear in mind, too, that Drug War was shot in Mainland China, where authorities insist on a “crime does not pay” message.)

Policeman Jo Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) has been chasing a powerful drug king-pin, the mysterious Mr. Lee, for more than two years. He hasn’t got very far in all that time, because no one knows what Mr. Lee looks like, and many people pretend to be Lee to trade on his fame and prestige.

Things start picking up after a fatal explosion in one of Mr. Lee’s drug labs. The lone survivor, a young man named Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol), wants revenge because his mother was among the people killed in that explosion. He agrees to help the police catch Mr. Lee.

Ryu Jun-yeol plays Rak, a quiet guy with nerves of steel who wants to avenge the death of his mother.

Jo Won-ho goes undercover and impersonates a big-time drug buyer, Mr. A, and then a drug manufacturer, Mr. B, in back-to-back hotel meetings, with barely a chance to change clothes, let alone catch his breath, in between. I am calling these guys Mr. A and Mr. B for the sake of simplicity, they do have other names in the film.

(Jo Won-ho meets buyer Mr. A at a hotel, while pretending to be manufacturer Mr. B, with a team of cops in a nearby room recording it all from a microphone in Jo Won-ho’s watch and a camera on Rak’s tie pin. THEN, the cop pretends to be Mr. A, and acts just as crazy as Mr. A did, and that’s plenty crazy, when he meets the REAL Mr. B. Got that?)

Mr. A (played by Kim Joo-hyuk) is right out of his gourd, from sampling the merchandise, I guess, and could easily kill Jo Won-ho and Rak, by accident or just for fun, at any minute, which makes the already tense atmosphere almost unbearable. The cop keeps his cool with difficulty, while Rak seems to have nerves of steel. He knows sign language, too, which allows him to communicate with the “cooks” at the drug lab. Scenes with the three of them add some levity, because a sign language interpreter translates their conversation for the watching cops and for us. Who knew sign language had so many swear words?

Here, Cho Jin-woong’s policeman character, Jo Won-ho, is in disguise as a dangerously unpredictable drug lord.

Believer is full of twists, turns and surprises and worth checking out even for those who who have already enjoyed Johnnie To’s Drug War.

H-110 in the Hall Building was close to being full, the audience was in fine form and to further set the mood, we were all given a container of NongShim ramen as we walked in.

BELIEVER

2018
South Korea, in Korean with English subtitles
124 minutes
Directed by Lee Hae-young
Written by Chung Seo-kyung, Lee Hae-young
With: Cho Jin-woong, Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Joo-hyuk, Kim Sung-ryung, Park Hae-joon

Fantasia 2018: Review of The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Sota Fukushi plays the optimistic, cat-loving Satoru in the Japanese film The Travelling Cat Chronicles.

Cat films seem to have become a tradition at Fantasia. They’re certainly a tradition in Japan! As the title might suggest, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is both a cat film and a road movie, though the cat does not wander around by himself doing good deeds, like the dog in the long ago Littlest Hobo TV series. The film is based on a book by Hiro Arakawa.

Nana the cat rides in relative comfort in a car with a young man named Satoru. In a voice over, Nana explains that five years ago he was very badly injured after being hit by a car and he probably would have died if Satoru had not taken him to the vet.

Now the two are hitting the roads of Japan, driving many miles to visit friends from Satoru’s younger days to find a new home for Nana. Even though Satoru talks to Nana a lot, he has not explained why this is necessary, so poor Nana is feeling sad, angry and rejected. Nana talks to Satoru and to the audience, through the voice of actress Mitsuki Takahata. Nana is often quite cranky, unlike Akiko, the bubbly character Takahata plays in Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura. Satoru is played by Sota Fukushi, who is cuter than the cat.

Anyone who has watched enough Japanese films might guess why Nana will need a new home, but I’m not going to spell it out!

(About that name – it’s just one of the many things that Nana is cranky about. Even though he’s a male cat, Satoru gave him a name that is usually female, because the cat’s tail is hooked like the number seven and nana is one of the ways of saying seven in Japanese. Nana mutters that it’s not a very original way to choose a name. He has the same opinion about Hachi, the name of a beloved cat in Satoru’s youth.

Shota Taguchi plays Satoru as a young boy. Satoru was already fond of cats then.

Nana’s thoughts and Satoru’s chats with his friends lead us quite naturally to some flashbacks. We learn more about how Nana and Satoru met, that Satoru’s parents were truly nice people, while his childhood friend, Kosuke, had a selfish, demanding and nasty father. In fact, Kosuke’s father is still nasty, but (small spoiler!) after reviewing the past with Satoru, Kosuke decides that he won’t let his father push him around any more. There are more epiphanies to come.

Kosuke is willing to adopt Nana, but Satoru decides it’s not such a good idea after all, and he and Nana get back in the car. Time to visit the next candidate!

As the film continues, we learn more and more about Satoru’s life and his attitude toward it. Talk about making lemonade when life hands you lemons! Satoru would probably make a lemon meringue pie and it would be delicious, too! Satoru is always trying to extract something positive, even from sad, nay, tragic events. This extreme optimism might seem corny, or difficult to take seriously, but actor Sota Fukushi sells it.

A man and his cat, a boy and his cat. I can’t recall seeing or hearing those words often, have you? I’ve never heard someone called a “cat man” much less a “crazy cat man,” either. The Travelling Cat Chronicles gives men permission to enjoy cats, to love them, even, if such permission is actually needed. Viewers who don’t already have a cat might feel an urge to adopt one after watching this film.

Oh, bring some tissues (Kleenex®) for wiping your eyes, too.

Cat-related tidbit: Takuro Ohno, who plays Satoru’s friend Shusuke Sugi, has the leading human role in Neko Ninja, a 2017 film about a ninja who thinks that his missing father has shapeshifted into a cat.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles (Tabineko Ripoto)
2018
118 minutes
In Japanese with English subtitles
Directed by Koichiro Miki
Written by Emiko Hiramatsu, Hiro Arikawa
Cast: Yuko Takeuchi, Alice Hirose, Ryosuke Yamamoto, Takuro Ohno, Shota Taguchi, and the voice of Mitsuki Takahata

Fantasia 2018: Review of Hanagatami

Mina is dying of tuberculosis.

 

I had to see the Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film Hanagatami because I had been gobsmacked by his 1977 film House (Hausu). That incredibly weird outing features a jealous ghost, a maniacal cat, carnivorous furniture and disembodied body parts flying around, playing the piano, etc.

Evidently, others at the Fantasia Festival felt the same way, because the De Seve theatre was packed, despite the film’s 169 minute running time.

The story is set in 1941, though it is based on a book by Kazuo Dan that was published in 1937. Obayashi has wanted to make it for the last 40 years.

Though actor Shunsuke Kubozuka is in his mid-30s he plays plays 17-year-old student Toshihiko in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film Hanagatami.

The teenager Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) leaves Amsterdam, where he had been living with his parents, and returns to the coastal city of Karatsu,
Japan, to go to high school. His aunt Keiko (Takako Tokiwa) and cousin Mina (Honoka Yahagi) live there, too. The pale and slender Mina, who often wears lacy white dresses, is slowly dying of tuberculosis, like a Victorian heroine.

So, it’s 1941. The Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbour is yet to come, but Japan had been occupying Manchuria since 1931 and fighting what we call the Second Sino-Japanese War since 1937. Aunt Keiko is a war widow. At that time, Japanese men had to register for military service at 20. So while Toshihiko and his classmates enjoy exploring the area, days at the beach, picnics, dinners, and an autumn festival, sometimes in the company of Mina and her friends, it’s only a matter of time before before the will be fed to the war machine.

Ghostly scarecrow soldiers in Hanagatami.

Hanagatami is a deadly serious anti-war film, but it’s bursting with quirks, too. It took my brain a few minutes to adjust to all that. The actors often over-emote, in very theatrical way, with both their facial expressions and their physical movements. That made me think of dreams, hallucinations and silent films, depending on the scene.

While Toshihiko is a teenager, actor Shunsuke Kubozuka was in his mid-30s when he played the role. The actors playing his classmates were in their late 20s. This also has a theatrical effect and makes them seem old before their time, or somehow outside of time entirely.

Hanagatami
2017
Directed by: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Written by: Nobuhiko Obayashi, Chiho Katsura
Cast: Shunsuke Kubozuka, Honoka Yahagi, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Keishi Nagatsuka, Takako Tokiwa, Tokio Emoto, Hirona Yamazaki, Mugi Kadowaki, Takehiro Murata
In Japanese with English subtitles
169 minutes long

Fantasia 2018: The People’s Republic of Desire Review

 

Livestreaming celebrity Shen Man in a scene from the documentary film The People’s Republic of Desire.

Yes, Fantasia shows documentaries, too!

The People’s Republic of Desire is a fascinating (and sad, disturbing and depressing) introduction to China’s livestreaming celebrities. Some people from very humble beginnings have become rich and famous because they are very good at cajoling, begging, browbeating their fans into sending them gifts and money, lots of money.

(I’ll confess, while watching the first few minutes of the film I wondered if “success” could really be this easy? During the Q&A, I found out that I was not the only one. Of course, we later find out that fame can be fickle.)

Some of those fans are filthy rich, and they support their favourite star because they have so much money that they can afford to throw it away. Being a generous patron brings them fame, too. In the case of female celebrities, many of the (male) patrons want to sleep with them. The celebrities walk a tightrope, flirting and teasing without satisfying these guys. (If they succumb, the gifts will stop, the guys will blab, and millions of people will accuse them of being sluttish.)

Other fans are quite poor themselves, but they feel a sense of solidarity with the stars, who were once as poor as they are. Following the stars, and helping to support them, brings some pleasure to their otherwise boring and difficult lives. Collectively, the fans call themselves an “army.”

The People’s Republic of Desire concentrates on “comedian” Big Li, “singer” Shen Man, their families and their fans. I use quotes above because we don’t hear many of Li’s jokes or Shen’s songs. Her voice sounds OK, but director Hao Wu shows us what I think is a vocoder – is that the audio equivalent of plastic surgery? Shen admits that she has had plenty of surgery, too.

On the other hand, Big Li is fat and not handsome, either, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming popular. His wife is his manager which puts a strain on their marriage. He sometimes rebels against her like a kid who doesn’t want to get up or eat his vegetables. He is also under pressure to join a big management company. Yes, there is lots of competition to manage the celebrities and take a cut of their earnings.

Shen Man has pressures of her own – she is the sole support of her father, stepmother and younger siblings. And who bought that furniture, anyway? It’s really quétaine, as we say here in Quebec.

In the Q&A director Hao Wu explains that he had intended to follow the stars for just one year, but that turned into three. An annual competition for most popular celebrity provides a natural focus. Shen Man has won it, and wants to stay on top. Big Li has lost several times and wonders if he should keep fighting or just give it all up. The awards show for the competition looks just as glitzy as Hollywood’s Oscars and Golden Globes. Maybe it has a large audience, too.

The graphics in The People’s Republic of Desire are superlative, immersive and very busy!

The film has won many awards already and will probably continue to do so. See it if you can! Hao Wu will be at the Fantasia screening to answer questions.

DIRECTOR: Hao Wu
WRITER: Hao Wu
CAST: Jiang Congyong, Man Shen, Li Xianliang
PRODUCER: Hao Wu
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Hao Wu
SOUND DESIGNER: Ron Bochar
COMPOSER: Michael Tuller
EDITOR: Hao Wu
ANIMATOR: Eric Jordan
CONTACT: Tripod Media LLC
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: https://www.desire.film
HONORS: Grand Jury Award (Documentary), SXSW 2018, Grand Jury Award (International Documentary), Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival 2018, 21 CF Award, Best Cinematography, CAAMFest 2018

The People’s Republic of Desire, Friday, July 20, 2018, 1:00 PM, Salle J.A. De Sève, 1400 de Maisonneuve W.
Metro Guy-Concordia

P.S. When I read the synopsis of The People’s Republic of Desire I thought that it might be a bit like the film Dragonfly Eyes, shown here in Montreal at the 2017 edition of the RIDM documentary festival. It isn’t really, though the main character does become an Internet celebrity near the end. Dragonfly Eyes has mixed reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but I thought it was worth watching.

 

Fantasia 2018: Destiny The Tale of Kamakura review: It’s all about the power of love and imagination

 

photos: Newlyweds Akiko (Mitsuki Takahata) and Masakazu Isshiki (Masato Sakai) stand in front of their home, in the film Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura. (She looks a bit young for him, no? There’s an explanation for that!)

Newlyweds Akiko (Mitsuki Takahata) and Masakazu Isshiki (Masato Sakai) stand in front of their home, in the film Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura. (She looks a bit young for him, no? There’s an explanation for that!)

 

This Japanese fantasy film is lovely, charming, and funny, without being corny, sweet without being saccharine. It makes marriage look quite nice, too. (Go ahead and laugh, you cynics!)

For me, seeing Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura was the film festival equivalent of winning the lottery – win, win all around! The screening was sold out, or close to it. I knew next to nothing about the story going in, but I suspect that many people there were big fans of the manga series Kamakura Monogatari by Ryohei Saigan that inspired the film.

Now I want to visit the Japanese city of Kamakura, or at the very least spend hours reading about it on the Internet. See the end of this review for more about Kamakura.

As the film opens, mystery novelist Masakazu Isshiki (Masato Sakai) and his wife, Akiko (Mitsuki Takahata) are returning from their honeymoon to live in his hometown of Kamakura. The city looks pretty – we see a beach, amazingly close to the train line, the famous giant Buddha statue, etc. Isshiki’s large car looks quite fancy, too, so I guess his books sell well.

Akiko met Isshiki when she was working for his publisher. According to the English subtitles, Isshiki calls his wife Akiko, she calls him “dear,” and everyone else calls him “professor.” Based on the fashion, and other things, the story seems to be set in the 1960s. (At one point, there was a brief glimpse of a Japanese calendar page, but I could not read it.)

Isshiki tells Akiko that Kamakura is a special place and that time passes there in a different way, compared to Tokyo. He assures her that she will get used to it. Oh yeah, there’s another thing. People, spirits and other creatures have been co-existing in Kamakura for thousands of years. The spirits usually come out in the evening. They even have a colourful night market that’s illuminated by paper lanterns. Something bought at that night market will be problematic at first, and useful later.

In his writing life, Isshiki seems to have a long-standing problem meeting his publishing deadlines. Is this because he prefers to play with his elaborate model-train sets or does he only play with them when he already has writer’s block? Might be one of those chicken-and-egg questions.

Sometimes Isshiki has a valid excuse to pause in his writing; to help the police solve a case, just like Sherlock Holmes. Certainly, his overcoat reminded me of Holmes.

Actor Shinichi Tsutsumi, who frequently portrays comical characters, is relatively subdued here as Honda, Isshiki’s literary agent. (I think that’s what he is. At any rate, he’s the guy who must deliver Isshiki’s manuscripts to the publisher.) Honda does become more excitable after he turns into a frog, though. Ha, I’m not going to explain (spoil) how that happens. You’ll have to watch yourself!

Pepe, is that you? No! In the film Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura a man voluntarily becomes a frog. Nothing to do with the Internet meme at all.

I took pages and pages of notes while watching, but really, Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura is full of details that are best left for audiences to discover. (Some reviews of this film that give away too much of the plot, selon moi.) There are many rules, traditions, legends and monsters to explore in this very special place. There are a few elements in the film that reminded me of the Korean TV drama Goblin. Something to discuss with friends who have seen both.

BTW: Takashi Yamazaki, the director of Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura, has worked with Kamakura Monogatari author Ryohei Saigan before. Saigan also wrote the manga Sanchōme no Yūhi, (Always: Sunset on Third Street) which led to three films, all directed by Yamazaki. Actor Shinichi Tsutsumi played a garage mechanic in all of them.

Masato Sakai (Isshiki) played the main character in Yoshihiro Nakamura’s film Golden Slumber (2010), which was shown at Fantasia that year. (I reviewed it for the Montreal Gazette then, but somehow dozens of my reviews from 2010 had disappeared by late 2012. Oh, well.)

Masato Sakai on the run in the Japanese film Golden Slumber.

ABOUT KAMAKURA: It takes about one hour by train to get to Kamakura from Tokyo. (Trains are important in the film! ) One site says it’s “the most popular day trip destination from Tokyo.” Is that another way of saying that it can get quite crowded? I think so!

Kamakura Buddha, from the Kamakura City web site.

Archeology shows that people have been living there for thousands of years. Some claim that it was the fourth largest city in the world in 1250 AD. To this day Kamakura has many beautiful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. A large outdoor statue of Buddha, the Kamakura Daibutsu was built around 1252. It used to be inside a temple, but it was destroyed after a storm. The temple was rebuilt several times after storms and one tsunami, but it looks like people gave up eventually!

There’s lots of info on the Internet, but here is a site run by the city of Kamakura itself, with beautiful photos, suggestions, itineraries and weather information. Even winter doesn’t sound bad from a Montreal perspective: the temperature is “rarely below 33°F.” That’s zero Celsius (more or less). I’d take it!

The Internet also tells me that many writers have lived there over the years. “Basically, if you name any famous author in Japan active during the 20th century, chances are that they’ve lived in Kamakura at some point in their lives.”

Destiny The Tale of Kamakura
(2017)
In Japanese with English subtitles
Runtime: 129 min.
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Writer: Ryohei Saigan (manga), Takashi Yamazaki
Masato Sakai, Mitsuki Takahata, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Sakura Ando, Min Tanaka, Jun Kunimura

Fantasia 2018: Review of Mon Garçon

Guillaume Canet, left, and Mélanie Laurent in Mon Garçon (My Son.)

Mon Garçon is so ordinary that I don’t understand how and why it was made. Are stars Guillaume Canet and Mélanie Laurent really popular enough to sell it?

We have seen this plot before: A child has disappeared, presumably kidnapped. The distraught parents are divorced, separated or still together but distant. The authorities aren’t doing enough to find the child, so the father (usually) takes things into his own hands and if that means electronic surveillance, threats, fisticuffs, breaking-and-entering, or whatever, he’s OK with that.

Formulas like that can and do work, but regarding Mon Garçon, all I can say is “meh.”

Julien (Guillaume Canet) and Marie (Mélanie Laurent) are indeed divorced. Their son, Mathys, (Lino Papa), was at a winter camp in the mountains, but he vanished during the night. Did he run away or was he taken? If the former, how long could he survive outdoors in the cold? If the latter, who took him, what do they want, etc.?

There are hints that some people or entities might have a grudge against Julien because of his previous work abroad. He tells the cops that he’s a “geologist” but who knows, really? Whatever he was doing, it kept him away from his wife and child and presumably led to the divorce. Now he’s feeling guilty for being an absent father.

The film is less than 90 minutes long, but it feels much longer because a ridiculous amount of time is devoted to scenes of Julien at the wheel as he drives all over tarnation checking out various clues. It’s like watching several very long car commercials. (Product placement?)

Guillaume Canet does a lot of driving in Mon Garçon.

SPOILER: Sort of. Eventually Julien finds some bad guys. Very bad guys. But for me, there were too many boring bits before he found them.

After watching the film, I found some articles that said it was shot in only six days, in chronological order and almost in real time. Director Christian Carion says the film is a story about man who doesn’t know what he will find. Carion wanted Canet to discover things bit by bit, just as his character was doing, so he did not give Canet a script. The actors and crew members were not allowed to tell him anything about the plot, either. There was a lot of improvising. That explains a lot!

After watching the film, I found some articles that said it was shot in a mere six days, in chronological order and almost in real time.

I like to keep things positive around here, so I usually write about films I DO like, rather than spend any time writing about the ones I don’t like. On the other hand, film fans only have so much time and money to spend and there are so many other films at Fantasia that I would recommend over this one.

Mon Garçon (My Son)
Director: Christian Carion
Writer: Christian Carion
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Mélanie Laurent, Olivier de Benoist, Antoine Hamel, Mohamed Brikat, Lino Papa
From: France (shot in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of eastern France.)
Duration: 84 minutes