FantAsia 2005: North America’s Premier Genre Film Festival

Montreal 7-25 July

This Montreal-based festival specialising in fantasy, action and horror has been attracting huge crowds since 1996. The largest genre festival of its kind in North America, in recent years it’s tended to focus more on Asian cinema, and this year there were few ‘straight’ horror films, but lots of experimental and oddball fare that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. As well as a dedicated short film programme with Japanese shorts, Quebec shorts, DIY international and Small Gauge Trauma, there were also events that added extra variety. Surreal artist Joe Coleman gave a midnight multi-media show performance with projections of his provocative paintings; Lloyd Kaufman gave a talk ‘How to make your own damn movie’, and respected author Steve R Bissette gave a series of lectures about the history of horror comics.

Some of the more innovative films came out of Japan, which boasted an incredible range of styles and themes, each wackier than the next. The Audience award for Best Asian film went to Survive Style 5+ (2004) and A Taste of Tea (2004). The wild Survive Style 5+ is the debut feature of Gen Sekiguchi. The main plot point seems to be that Tadanbu Asana repeatedly kills his wife in various inventive ways, only to have her reappear in their amazingly colourful house as soon as he returns home. The narrative is shared with four other groups of people, all doing bizarre activities (one guy is hypnotised to behave like a chicken, and inadvertently remains in role after the hypnotist is shot). The colours and photography are amazing, but the group’s relationship to each other remains intangible until the end, which leaves you wondering a lot as you laugh at the on-screen antics. The film satirises the media and entertainment industry, whose members will do anything, even hiring Vinnie Jones as a hitman to kill a rival, whereas Tadanbu (Ichi the Killer) Asana is unable to successfully kill his girlfriend. Finally, by the time he’s decided that he actually likes her, and doesn’t want to kill her, Vinnie Jones comes to do the job and it’s too late! Brilliant, but incoherent.

Another bizarre family group is completely differently explored in Katsuhito Ishii’s The Taste of Tea (2004). The Huruno family live in a rural area, but despite normal appearances, both young and old members harbour a wild fantasy life – for example, Sachiko is haunted by a giant sized image of herself; Hajime is obsessed with a girl; and grandpa does fighting moves at every opportunity. There is no real plot development and the film runs for 143 minutes, but this calm, absorbing series of character vignettes fascinates and absorbs, and it’s certainly a different direction for director Ishii who previously made hip gangster comedies.

A nihilistic Japanese film with an edge was Dragon Head (2003) directed by Joji Iida. It begins with the terrifying aftermath of a train crash as a class en route to Kyoto are derailed. At first student Teru assumes he’s the only survivor, but just as the audience has absorbed this as the worst case scenario, he encounters fellow students Ako (a hysterical female) and Nobuo, who has turned psychopathic. The film touches a raw nerve as the now insane Nobuo defiles victims’ bodies and kills the other survivor, a teacher. It’s clear the pair have to run for their lives from their tomb underground. They escape precariously, only to find that some disaster has destroyed the outside world too. Not only are the cities in ruins, but the survivors have been turned crazy too and want to kill at every opportunity. Some of the coping mechanisms survivors have used, like lobotomising their children, seem even worse than the disaster. Although shot on DV, the film paints an epic apocalyptic vision, that unlike the other great Japanese film Fukkatsu no hi (Virus [1980]), this doesn’t have a happy ending.

Asian horror, the genre that in the late-90s seemed to have us by our shirt sleeves, has pretty much run out of ideas and become repetitive; no more female ghosts in white with long black hair, please! However, the Thai film Shutter (2004), directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, used a well written script to deliver the goods in spite of the use of stereotypical elements. The revenge motif appears to start when Thun and his girlfriend Jane think they have run over a young woman in their car. Thun urges her to keep driving, and when odd things begin to happen, Jane assumes this is retribution. Thun is a photographer, and ghostly images keep turning up in prints as he develops them in his dark room (an excellent spot, by the way to stage hauntings), but in reality Thun’s got a lot more to answer for. The film perfectly balances the high spirits of graduation with the sense of loss at wasted life, especially as our mysterious ghost begins to pick off Thun’s pals one by one. This film is ingenious because of the attention to detail, and when you realise where the ghost has been in hiding, it will pack a punch. The film was the number one hit in Thailand last year, and is bound to delight European audiences too. Predictably, an American remake has just been announced.

There were a number of interesting films with war themes. The most visionary was Jeff Burr’s Straight Into Darkness (2004), set at the end of World War II where a pair of American soldiers who are deserters escape on their way to being court martialled and end up as fugitives in war-torn Germany. Their ‘freedom’ means very little though, trapped in an enemy land; it’s more like they’ve entered the gates of hell. They join forces with a group of orphan resistance fighters, many of whom are amputees, who have been turned into desperate child soldiers as a result of the conflict. The resulting emotional and psychological fall-out, especially as one of the Americans becomes increasingly psychotic, is haunting and mesmerising, particularly as the film poignantly references lots of horror films like Freaks and Eyes Without a Face, despite its ‘war’ theme.

In contrast, a couple of Korean war films do what they do best by wholeheartedly delving into the intimate lives of soldiers. South Korean film R-Point (2004), directed by Su-chang Kong, effectively blends its haunted theme (people go missing in this part of the Vietnam forest) with its tale of war and guilt (it’s the tail-end of the Vietnam War). Six months after a group of soldiers were reported missing, a platoon is sent in. They are scared and largely incompetent and make a deserted house their base where the bodies of their former comrades seem to be buried. Although there is a largely redundant female ghost that sets things in motion, the biggest terror is that one of their team is one of the missing men and, as the men are slain one by one, it becomes a psychological battle to work out who is really who because here the ghosts look real. The anti-war theme is underplayed because the focus is on the disintegrating relationships between the remaining babbling soldiers, rather than on the wrongs of the vengeful dead; still it has style and sparkle.

Ironically, Silmido (2003) based on a true story, concerns the fate of Unit 684, 31 South Korean men secretly conscripted in 1968 to assassinate North Korean leader Kim II-sung. Unfortunately, after two years of brutal training, a point the film bangs home by lingering masochistically on the brutal training regime, just when they have been sufficiently brainwashed and hardened, subtle changes in North/South Korean relations make their mission redundant. The government orders the Unit’s liquidation; and some of the men revolt and hijack a bus determined to confront President Park, as troops close in on them, they must wrangle their patriotic feelings with their sense of justice. Like JSA (2000) the beauty of this film is that is tries to explore the pressures of a divided country, but still finds it hard to place its sentiments because of the ongoing situation.

Marcelle Perks continues her report from this year’s FantAsia Festival next week.