Today at Fantasia

Our critics assess Michael Fassbender’s comedy chops, a kung fu movie in the Bruce Lee mould and a relentlessly bleak Indian drama.

once_upon_a_time_in_shanghai_film_still_ef_1 (640x360)
Once Upon a Time in Shanghai
The following films are screening as part of the Fantasia Film Festival, on through Aug. 6.

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

More than 40 years after his death, Bruce Lee’s style and persona still resonate in the art of cinema. Soon after his passing, scores of imitators followed in his steps, creating the peculiar sub-genre of “Bruceploitation.” Young men with some knowledge of the martial arts and a thirst for fame would be thrown in front of a camera with the (often unfulfilled) hopes of creating another cinematographic landslide.

This is, strangely enough, how Once Upon a Time in Shanghai came to be. Ma Wing-Jing, the destitute protagonist of the story, is portrayed by newcomer Philip Ng, a Wing-Chun kung fu expert with no formal acting training whatsoever.

Everything changes in Ma Wing-Jing’s life when he arrives in Shanghai from his small village in rural China. The young man, like so many, wants to make it big. However, contrary to other ambitious labourers, Ma Wing-Jing possesses incredible martial art skills and a right fist that makes him apparently invincible.

During his time in the slums of Shanghai, our hero meets Lung (Andy On), a young gangster and brawling enthusiast who has recently acquired a big slice of the criminal underworld. The two rapidly become best “frenemies” and enjoy life atop the food chain, to the dismay of the other criminal lords who already plot their demise.

With themes directly borrowed from Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss, not to mention this being a remake of Shangtung Boxer, the story of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is certainly made from the right stuff. In the hands of masters such as Yuen Woo-Ping (The Matrix) and Yuen Cheung-Yan (Iron Monkey), the choreographed fight scenes are truly the main attraction here. Even as a newcomer, Philip Ng proves to be a capable actor.

All of that being said, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai doesn’t offer anything new to the genre. It is an enjoyable movie, especially if you get to watch it with the Fantasia crowd, but there aren’t any surprises here. If you feel nostalgic and want to see a muscular action hero with a bowl haircut kick some major ass, this will give you your fix. (Emmanuel Delacour)

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai screens today, Monday, Aug. 4, 4:15 p.m.
Frank (640x360)


Frank is a fascinating and, at times, disturbing portrait of the delicate balance between artistry and mental illness. It’s also a frequently hilarious absurdist comedy, though the pain is never far from the surface. Its protagonist, Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) is a frustrated aspiring songwriter who, by chance, replaces the keyboardist for a band with the literally unpronounceable name Soronprfbs. At the gig, he is startled by the fact that the singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender), performs with his head encased in a giant plastic mask — a mask that he, in fact, never takes off, even while showering.

As Jon is drawn into the band’s orbit, they struggle to record an album in an isolated cottage in the Irish countryside. He becomes convinced of the band’s potential greatness, particularly of Frank’s intuitive musical genius, finds his own inspiring strife and ends up financially supporting the venture. Meanwhile, Jon surreptitiously documents the whole experience on Twitter and YouTube, a continuation of what he had previously been doing in chronicling his daily life. Through his efforts, the band gains a following and they land a spot at SXSW — that’s when the pressure builds to a breaking point.

Lenny Abrahamson’s film is beautifully constructed. The key to a successful comedy is tone, and Frank never falters. Even as the tone darkens when Jon strains to push the band to be more likeable and Frank begins to crack under the pressure, the movie maintains its even-handed sense of irony and its comic detachment. Fassbender’s physicality makes Frank utterly captivating, creating a moving and knowable character, even though his face shielded.

Of course, that mask is (or should be) one of the visual totems of the year. Given this, it’s amazing that the other actors make the impression they do, but they click beautifully as an ensemble. Particularly excellent are Maggie Gyllenhaal, as theremin player Clara who radiates discontent and is prone to violence in her role as Frank’s protector, and Gleeson as the well-meaning outsider who may be more self-serving than he thinks he is.

Frank is a brilliant comedy, and an affecting meditation on the costs incurred by a life devoted to the creation of art, especially when it’s not met with success. It also illustrates better than almost any film made recently how nothing is more entertaining for some people than the eccentricities and foibles of others, regardless of the pain involved. (Katie Ferrar and Mark Carpenter)

Frank screens today, Monday, Aug. 4, 5:15 p.m., sold out


Indian films have made appearances in nearly every Fantasia program as far as I remember, but their predilection runs rather to the epically silly Bollywood action films and marathon four-hour musical extravaganzas. Ugly is the antithesis of the colourful image most have of Indian cinema: a dark, unrelentingly downbeat crime thriller that makes even something like Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners seem optimistic.

After leaving his daughter Kali (Anishika Shrivastava) alone in the car for five minutes while he runs an errand, irresponsible failed actor Rahul (Rahul Baht) returns to find her missing. A nearby man has her cellphone, but when Rahul and his friend Chaitanya (Vineet Kumar Singh) try to get information out of him, the man promptly runs into traffic and gets killed. Met with derision by local police, Rahul has to depend on his ex-wife’s new husband Bose (Ronit Roy), a vain and egotistical police chief, to find Kali as soon as possible. Things go south quickly as a corrupt police force clashes with the gigantic egos and opportunistic tendencies of everyone involved.

Although a streak of dark humour runs through (an early sequence has the protagonists trying to explain to a clueless policeman how to assign pictures to contacts on your phone, minutes after they’ve tried to report a kidnapping), Ugly is an oppressively dark and unrelenting film in which everyone is deeply troubled; even the more relatable characters are giant pieces of shit and the few innocents bear the brunt of the terrible things that happen. It sounds almost unbearably bleak, but director Anurag Kashyap keeps the film moving constantly, weaving several parallel plotlines almost seamlessly.

It’s hard to be impressed with downbeat crime stories these days, what with high-water marks being hit by shows like True Detective and Breaking Bad. For all of its punishingly depressing twists and turns, however, Ugly also functions as a critique of Indian law enforcement and the culture of machismo that surrounds it. Ugly may begin as a procedural but it soon devolves into a game of sick oneupmanship that burrows under your skin. One of the more unpleasant yet essential experiences you’re likely to have at Fantasia this year. (Alex Rose)

Ugly screens tonight, Monday, Aug. 4, 9:30 p.m.
Fantasia tickets can be purchased at Concordia’s Hall building (1455 de Maisonneuve W.) for $10 each, or online ($11 each), here.