Fantasia 2016 Review: The Alchemist Cookbook

Ty Hickson plays would-be alchemist Sean in Joel Potrykus's film The Alchemist Cookbook. The film is being shown at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.
Ty Hickson plays would-be alchemist Sean in The Alchemist Cookbook, written and directed by Joel Potrykus. The film is being shown at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.



Sean (Ty Hickson) is a young man living in an old-fashioned trailer in the middle of the leafless woods, with his cat, Kaspar, as his only companion. Sean spends his days eating Doritos and cooking mysterious substances in his makeshift lab. With the gas mask and all, you might think he’s running a drug lab, but no, the quantities are way too small for that and he’s trying new things all the time.

A chat with his friend Cortez (Amari Cheatom), and the film’s title itself tell us what Sean’s really up to; the age-old quest to “turn dross into gold.” And he does have a book of some sort. It might contain recipes – or they might be closer to spells, incantations. And about that cat – have you heard of “familiars”?

Even though Sean has a gas mask, he doesn’t always wear it. Who knows what nefarious things he might be taking into his lungs and his brain? We’re given a clue that his hold on reality might have been weak to begin with – he takes medication for something, and he’s devastated when Cortez forgets to bring more. Because of this, we can’t know if the events we see onscreen are real or just Sean’s interpretations of reality.

Sean likes to play his music loud while working and he has wide ranging tastes that include rap, opera and Christmas tunes that sound like they were taped off the radio back in the 1940s. He’s got the Christmas lights to go with them, too!

Sometimes Sean sits in a rowboat on a small lake, sometimes he sets traps for small animals. (Are opussums weird looking, or what?) We have no idea how long Sean has been out there in the woods, and by now, maybe he doesn’t either, though there are a lot of scratches on a tree, that might or might not mark the passage of time. They could just as well be messages to the creatures that live in the woods. We don’t know what those creatures are but we hear them bellow now and then.

The Alchemist Cookbook doesn’t have a lot of conventional plot, but actor Ty Hickson can hold our attention very well without one. His interactions with Amari Cheatom spice things up further.

The Alchemist Cookbook, written and directed by Joel Potrykus, with Ty Hickson, Amari Cheatom, 82 minutes long, in English. See it at the Fantasia International Film Festival Thursday, July 21, 2016. at 5:10 at the J.A. de Sève Theatre of Concordia University, 14500 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.

DirectorJoel Potrykus will be there to answer questions, discuss his influences, and maybe challenge audience members to do something out of the ordinary.

Fantasia 2016 Review: Psycho Raman

Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays a serial killer in the Indian film Psycho Raman (also known as Raman Raghav 2.0) The fim is being shown at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays a serial killer in the Indian film Psycho Raman (also known as Raman Raghav 2.0) The fim is being shown at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Psycho Raman (aka Raman Raghav 2.0) is one tense film. Ramanna is a serial killer, and actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui gives a bone-chilling performance in the part. He kills people because he likes to – men, women, children, it doesn’t matter, he doesn’t make any distinctions. The things that he says, and the look in his eyes when he says them, are extremely unsettling.There’s no telling what he might do next. And when he makes circles with his fingers and looks through them, as you would with binoculars. . .all I can say is Eeek! (The pose reminded me of the poster for The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s second documentary about genocide in Indonesia.) Ramanna takes his alias from Raman Raghav, a real-life serial killer in the 1960s.

The character is so disturbing that I felt uneasy watching him, as if my very presence in the theatre was some kind of approval for his (fictional) actions.

We see Ramanna swing a tire iron, and other weapons, but, mercifully, we don’t see them land on his victims. (And that’s just fine with me!) The guy is totally terrifying all the same – a perfect example of less is more.

Raghavan (Vicky Kaushal) is a crooked, violent, doped-up policeman, who got his position via family connections. The guy is so addicted and so callous that he snorts cocaine at the scene of a triple murder. One night, Ramanna sees Raghav kill someone for no reason. He’s convinced that they’re kindred spirits and wants to meet Raghav, maybe even work together? The film switches back and forth between their two worlds.

Ramanna keeps tracks of his victims in a little notebook. There’s no indication that Raghavan does the same, but I couldn’t help but wonder who had the bigger body count.

Like several other films in this year’s Fantasia lineup, Psycho Raman was well received at the Cannes Film Festival.

Psycho Raman (Raman Raghav 2.0), directed by Anurag Kashyap, written by Anurag Kashyap and Vasan Bala.
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Vicky Kaushal, Vipin Sharma, Amruta Subhash, Sobhita Dhulipala, Ashok Lokhande, Harssh A. Singh
127 minutes long, in Hindi with English subtitles.

See Psycho Raman on Wednesday, July 20, 2016, at 5 p.m., in the de Seve Theatre of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.

Fantasia 2016 Review: The Wailing

Poster for the Korean horror film The Wailing.
Poster for the Korean horror film The Wailing.

“An old stranger appears in a peaceful rural village, but no one knows when or why. As mysterious rumours begin to spread about this man, the villagers drop dead one by one. They grotesquely kill each other for inexplicable reasons. The village is swept by turmoil and the stranger is subjected to suspicion.”
– Synopsis from the press kit for The Wailing.

Dread, murder, unexplainable events, irrational behaviour, gossip, rumours, nightmares, fear of the other, a large, fierce dog, big, black crows and mesmerizing rituals. That’s what you get in Korean horror film The Wailing (aka Goksung, 곡성).

I’ve wanted to see it ever since I read the rave reviews from the Cannes Film Festival. It did not disappoint! (The Cannes critics liked director Na Hong-jin’s earlier films The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, too.)

The Wailing is set in the beautiful, misty mountains of rural Korea, where people still live in old-fashioned homes with tile roofs. It looks like the kind of place where nothing much happens from one decade to the next.

A string of gruesome murders disrupts the tranquility and we watch as policeman Jeon Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won) tries to figure out if and how they could be connected. While a newspaper headline blames the disorienting effects of poisonous wild mushrooms for the first murders, Jong-gu wonders if some kind of virus might be going around? (The presumed perpetrators all had horrible rashes.)

There's a lot of rain in The Wailing; it increases the feeling of dread.
There’s a lot of rain in The Wailing; it increases the feeling of dread.

Then there’s gossip about a strange Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) who lives in the forest. Some people are convinced that he’s evil, and responsible for the deaths, directly or indirectly. Supposedly he’s been seen wandering in the woods, half naked, chomping on dead animals. One woman says he’s a ghost, feeding on the spirits of the living. Any stranger could come under suspicion in an isolated community, but Japan’s earlier occupation of Korea would further complicate the way the locals view this interloper. Whoever or whatever he might be, a visit to his dwelling proves that he’s not just your everyday recluse.

Policeman Jeon Jong-gu is neither the suave, super cop of some films, nor the corrupt, crooked one of others, rather he’s an Everyman type; pudgy, and a bit of a doofus. After he gets a pre-dawn call to investigate the first murder scene he lets his wife and mother-in-law talk him into eating breakfast first – a few minutes more or less won’t make any difference to the dead, right? His boss and the other cops are not impressed when he finally shows up. Slacker!

Jong-gu seems rather indifferent to his wife (then again, this is not a romantic comedy) but he dotes on his cute young daughter, Hyojin (Kim Hwan-hee). Then she develops a rash too, and starts acting so much out of character that possession seems like a real possibility. When Jong-gu looks at her school notebook, it’s full of strange scribblings and scary drawings. (Have you seen The Babadook?) It also looks like it’s been mauled by a creature with long, sharp claws.

A mudang (shaman) is called in. The shaman is played by Hwang Jung-min and he’s great. I’ve seen shamanic rituals in many other Korean films but the ones here are exceptional, especially the second, longer, night-time one. (I read an article online that some people on the film set thought Hwang really was possessed.)

Hwang Jung-min plays a mudang, or shaman in the Korean film The Wailing.
Hwang Jung-min plays a mudang, or shaman in the Korean film The Wailing.

The Wailing is NOT one of those films where the villain confesses everything, or some expert explains it all before the credits roll. If you go with friends you could have some very interesting post-film discussions about what really happened, who was good and who was evil. The Internet is full of contradictory theories, with some people essentially saying “I’m right because I’m Korean!”

If you read those theories, bear in mind that director Na Hong-jin told the Korea Times: “I mulled over the ending and decided I had to leave it open.”

A final note: Sadly, we Montrealers don’t get to see many Korean films outside of film festivals. If you like the sound of The Wailing try to see it at Fantasia because it will be more impressive there, on a big screen, with a great sound system and the famous, enthusisatic Fantasia audience. Furthermore, some scenes take place at night or in murky interiors – you’ll be able to see them much better in the cinema.

The film is 156 minutes long, but doesn’t feel like it.

The Wailing
Director: Na Hong-Jin
Writer: Na Hong-Jin
Cast: Kwak Do-won, Hwang Jung-min, Jun Kunimura, Kim Hwan-hee, Chun Woo-hee
In Korean with English subtitles, 156 minutes long, showing at the Fantasia International Fim Festival Monday, July 18, 2016 at 9:35 p.m., in the hall Theatre, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., Montreal.