Fantasia, Week One in Review
Original films that stood out during the 1st week
Last year during Fantasia I spent my time basically glued to the screen. For their streaming platform basically everything was available to watch, including their short film programs. This year it’s only feature film offerings, and while I wish I could see a lot more shorts, it’s also helped to keep me a little more sane with some extra free time for sleep (and writing).
So this is what I got into for the first week of the fest, past the first day that stuck with me:
Special Delivery, dir. Park Dae-min
After the premiere of Parasite, audiences went nuts for Park So-dam’s effortless charisma and rightly so. Her personality rang true of taking something that should be owed to you by circumventing stupid bureaucratic routes of validation just to receive then-redundant accreditation (her photoshopping a college diploma is the perfect visual example of this). She’s just so good at suggesting that there’s something troubling boiling just underneath the surface of her bubbly exterior, and I think it’s used fairly well in Special Delivery.
So-dam plays Eun-ha, a junkyard employee who fulfills unusual deliveries that other companies won’t touch. When her client is kidnapped and separated from his son in an attempt to escape the country on an unpaid bill of gambling debt, Eun-ha takes the kid and his backpack to try and transport him to safety from the mob chasing after them.
Special Delivery does a great job of exciting for its opening and closing bookends but does have a lot of time in between that stretches the pacing out. The drama does slow things down considerably, not in the main circle of the general “A” plot but the subplot surrounding the junkyard business. The script doesn’t give our driver’s secret base a lot of depth, and it really doesn’t need it. We don’t need to know how the junkyard is struggling financially; we know that since the owner already runs these delivery gigs under the table whether or not organized crime is involved. And while it isn’t entirely necessary it doesn’t detract from the main drama between Eun-ha and the kid, Seo-wan since it doesn’t really directly affect Eun-ha at first.
But once you’re in the action of the main plot you kind of forget about all the extra stuff. That’s honestly what I subscribed to, and what the film does best: the opening thesis statement does more for the look & feel of Special Delivery than what it tries to add to make the decisions weigh more. The film’s opening does one hell of a job to pump you up and get you ready for more white-knuckle stunt driving and action, which it gets to eventually. In the middle chunk it sporadically doles out the goods to a more middling effect by comparison, getting a little too complicated for its own good. But it pulls back for the finale, whittling down to something a lot more simple, even throwing in some good and frantic action sequences before closing out the story. I’d like to see more installments with Eun-ha and other characters, something like a Fast & The Furious approach but without the bizarre American cult-like reverence to family obligation and religion (despite how hilarious that ends up getting). I’d trust Park So-dam behind the wheel of this action series as a vehicle of her talent.
The Harbinger, dir. Andy Mitton
Mitton, a director whose films Witch in the Window & YellowBrickRoad you may have either seen or heard of at this point, is a guy who uses the most out of his budgetary constraints. The Harbinger is no exception. Its effectiveness varies throughout, from feeling slightly wooden and stilted to growing into an unease where its previous faults feel cozy by comparison. Perhaps it’s by design; its depiction of mid-2020 lockdown might be too real to identify fully with it all at once, so its characters must feel a little distant from each other, almost always mentally six feet apart. And so we have the foundation for a language of dread.
Looking back on Harbinger, I think I like it a little more the longer I think on it. It follows Monique, a woman who leaves her father and brother’s tight and strict COVID bubble to help a friend through a crisis of her own across state lines in New York. There’s plenty of deliberation and debate surrounding her decision among her and her family. And even though the audience already knows that she will leave, the way it happens damages the close & intimate relationships they cherish just subtly enough to expect that nothing would be quite the same once Monique returns. Even if this film didn’t go where it did and was more of a family drama, it has enough to be poignant in an extremely tender spot for the country at this point in history. But throw in a dream demon, and it gets a little more complicated.
The way the film’s monster operates is purposefully vague at the start. Going too much into how nuanced it gets as a force, I think, would be unfair since you should want to see this based on how I’ve talked about it so far. Crystal, Monique’s friend in need, is suffering from what feels like targeted nightmares without end. When I say “without end,” I mean that Crystal describes how when she feels that lull or blip in your perception of time during a dream or nightmare, or when you jump in a falling dream you jerk yourself awake, that bridge never comes. She’s simply stuck there until whoever, whatever it is tormenting her, lets her wake up. When Monique gets to Crystal’s apartment in New York, they go about their physical closeness cautiously. At first they resolve to keep their masks on, wipe down surfaces, keeping the risk of spreading foreign germs & bacteria to a minimum and so on…until a flash of controlled recklessness dictates that they cast it all aside. Monique will have to quarantine when she gets back anyway, and this is a crisis after all. How can she ensure that she can jump to the task for Crystal if she jerks awake to help her friend but can’t do so until she washes her hands and masks up before attending to her?
What Harbinger does surprisingly well is take the horror genre tropes and cast them in a new light for the better, making most of them seem fresh (some work, some don’t) while going back towards the concept of dream/nightmare logic in a way that is still surprisingly novel. After all those Nightmare on Elm Street films and nightmare logic vehicles there is yet unmined territory that can creep under your skin, and The Harbinger is a strong argument for films to continue chipping away at our most vulnerable moments. Whether it’s when we’re asleep or pumped with fear, or both, it’s easy to feel like you’ll be forgotten.
Les Pas D’Allure, dir. Alexandre Leblanc
Alternately titled Nut Jobs, Alexandre Leblanc’s directorial debut bleeds with style that he no doubt honed over his career editing for various directors like Anne Emond (Jeune Juliette) & Vincent Biron (Prank, Barbarians of the Bay). For the most part Les Pas D’Allure feels like a generic, straightforward story that is just repackaged in a more jumbled yet still easy to follow format, shuffling from present day to past through a story Benju tells his ex-girlfriend Angie after showing up to her apartment unannounced. It bounces between the telling and the real, and in doing so makes you question the reality and validity of the story being told along with the interrogative and incredulous Angie. Once you get further down the yarn Benju spins, which starts with taking down a right-wing radio station via sabotage, things get more ridiculous as he goes on.
I have to be honest here, I was much harsher on the film during its first half. I thought this to be for either of two reasons: the first (which I took to be the case) was since this is Leblanc’s first directed feature there wasn’t a clear focus, and the second being that the story simply did not play their cards all at once or very sporadically. It is most definitely that last one, because at a point in the film we hit peak nutcase (now I get the Nutjob title) in how this thing unfolds. It really feels like a customized love letter to neo-noir and stylized episodic/serialized storytelling, something I haven’t seen since Arn McConnell & Todd Rutt’s Shock! Shock! Shock!, something I’m sad is so hard to find for a lot of people, but somehow it feels like Leblanc did get his hands (and eyes) on a copy of it in some way.
Les Pas D’Allure doesn’t get nearly as wacky, wild, & out there as Shock! (x3) gets, but it creates its own world just as easily, making you follow its logic without a second doubt (which is a genius feat in itself). Your investment in something as fundamentally implausible as a vinyl that when played makes the passive human brain more susceptible to suggestion, recontextualized from something a rich white “performance artist” with a penchant for using raw eggs in her work (for the symbolism) would put on to chill and zone out to with her crew becomes surprisingly lenient once this film puts its spell on you. It’s a slightly more specialized film and might not jive for everyone but I loved it, so you should give it a shot.
The Fish Tale, dir. Shuichi Okita
I didn’t think that a biopic about a fish-obsessed youtuber would do much for me at all but here I am with The Fish Tale, one of my favorite films of the festival so far. It’s a biography on famous “fish ambassador” Sakana-Kun and his upbringing, following the very beginning of his fascination to where he is today, played by non-binary actor Non in the masterfully acted role of Meebo. They love everything about any kind of fish they can learn about, reading, writing about, and illustrating them to share information with others. When the obsession shows no signs of fading past primary school and early adolescence, their father begins to worry about what kind of future Meebo can realistically build for themselves. Their mother is always supportive and encouraging, as are Meebo’s childhood friends grown-up.
An unlikely bond forms between fish-obsessed Meebo and scooter-bound wannabe gangsters when their attempt to bully Meebo into feeling ashamed for their attraction to fish as a hobby and lifestyle backfires when their transgressions come back around on themselves instead. Meebo simply doesn’t understand why anyone would question someone’s passion, and it’s this conviction that solidifies so early in someone’s life that is so inspiring, because it’s such a difficult place to arrive at no matter what drives you forward in life. There’s always some kind of detractor with an aim to undermine someone’s goals, chipping away at their own idea of progress towards recognition or development in their own betterment of understanding for their chosen craft. And it’s comforting to see someone like Meebo who has something so complex set in stone so quickly that no one can pry it loose from them, no matter what they try.
Viewers may notice a parallel between Meebo and themselves if they share feelings of passion towards something that they feel strongly about, even more so if they delight in teaching others what they learn to strengthen their own skills. And the greatest thing at the center of The Fish Tale is that while it follows someone who falls within the spectrum of autism, its story and the telling of it never become about how their being on the spectrum is inspiring in spite of what they accomplished. The way Meebo’s community supports them is the real nugget of inspiration to be found and emulated.
A scene near the end of the first act sees a school friend of Meebo on a dinner date with a girl he seems to want to impress (at a relatively upscale restaurant it seems), and Meebo meets him there based on his invitation. They all make small talk, and once the girl asks Meebo what they do for a living, they answer in earnest that they want to become a fish expert. This makes the girl laugh uncontrollably, confusing Meebo, asking why it’s funny. The girl responds that it just seems so childish and implausible, which doesn’t reach Meebo as a malicious gesture but does for their friend who invited them. The film cuts to a shot of Meebo’s friend escorting his date through a doorway, her stomping away in frustration while he walks back to the table to spend time with his friend. It’s something so simple but nearly moved me to tears. That is where The Fish Tale’s heart lies, and gives its audience what it needs to see and feel the most to convince them that while it may not always feel like it, you have a support system in place whether it feels like it or not. There are always friends and family members who want you to succeed.
Check back next week-ish for more!