Fantasia Day 1 picks

A high-action yet complicated revenge flick, a meditative ghost story, a psychedelic anti-slasher and a good old-fashioned action movie for the first weekend of Fantasia.


The Villainess

Revenge is a dish best served as complicated as possible in Jung Byung-gil’s hyper-violent action thriller The Villainess. This straightforward revenge story is given the convoluted treatment thanks to a Russian-nesting-doll-like series of flashbacks. Kim Ok-bin stars as Sook-hee, a young woman who has been trained by a secret wing of the Korean government to become a deadly sleeper cell assassin. The idea is that Sook-hee is to give ten years of her life to the organization before retiring to care for her daughter Eun-hye, but the scars of the past that led her down this dark past resurface way before she’s done her service.

Blending high-octane first-person camera work with martial arts (many, many throats are slashed) and gunplay, The Villainess manages to remain propulsive for two hours while also making very little sense for about 80% of its runtime. Much of it has to do with the semi-coherent way in which the film is put together, looping flashback after flashback until the viewer starts to forget which timeline is actually the present. The result is a hyperkinetic mess that’s very hard to follow. The Villainess has some of the best action scenes you’re likely to see this year and a magnetic lead performance from Ok-bin, but as a narrative experience, it’s pretty much a bust.

The Villainess screens on July 13th at 6:30 p.m. in H-110.


A Ghost Story

I hate ghosts. I find them tedious and uninteresting as movie villains, and I could live without seeing another paranormal possession movie ever again in my entire life. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is undeniably a ghost movie, but it has so little to do with the traditional idea of movie ghosts that it may take some festival-goers by surprise. This is a quiet, nearly dialogue-free meditation on grief, life and death that stands out among the more outlandish programming choices this year. It’s almost certainly one of the best films of the festival.

A man (Casey Affleck) dies in a car accident and is resurrected as the most basic idea of a ghost: a sheet with eye holes cut out of it. He “haunts” his former life and his grieving partner (Rooney Mara), invisible to the world around him and “cursed” to watch helplessly as everyone he loves moves on without him.

To say that A Ghost Story bummed me out would be an understatement. It’s not a tearful melodrama by any stretch, but Lowery’s approach to the idea of the human-as-spectre is so  powerfully different from anything I’ve seen before that it left me drained. In A Ghost Story, the idea of a ghost being “trapped” in the world is such a depressingly melancholy concept that death turns out to be the most existential aspect of being alive. I’m curious as to how the film will go over with the Fantasia audience (the stone-faced absurdism of the ghost’s cartoonish look is particularly strange and effective), but there’s no denying that it considerably darkened my day – in a good way.

A Ghost Story screens on July 14th at 7:15 p.m. in H-110.


The Honor Farm

There’s a subset of horror that exists in a netherworld between earnestness and parody: a horror film that knows it’s a horror film without necessarily becoming a knowing pastiche of horror. It’s a type of film that embraces the clichés of the genre as a means of subverting it. The tropes are so well-worn that they’re familiar to anyone, but championing those tropes wholeheartedly does not necessarily make your film… well, anything.

That’s kind of the approach favoured by Karen Skloss in her debut fiction feature The Honor Farm. The plot is (seemingly) non-descript slasher stuff: two popular girls decide to tag along with the druggies and freaks on prom night as they take shrooms and explore an abandoned jail. Things, predictably, do not go particularly well. There are some good ideas in The Honor Farm, namely the decision to explore the effect of the drugs on its protagonists, the psychedelic rock score and some of the performances, but everything else falls woefully flat, indistinguishable from any number of low-budget slashers. As an aside, I do want to applaud the choice to properly light the night-set movie, however the effect is a little too Are You Afraid Of The Dark? for comfort.

It’s possible (probable, in fact) that this is all intentional. The Honor Farm has a certain cachet that suggests it isn’t the product of incompetence, but that it was the filmmaker’s decision to intentionally experiment and exploit tropes unfamiliar to them (or at least to their previous work; Skloss’ background is mainly in documentary). The film’s last act clearly lays out that this it was an experiment in genre subversion, but when 60 of your 75 minutes are spent wallowing in cliché, it’s almost impossible to pull off.

The Honor Farm screens on July 15 at 8 p.m. in J.A. deSève and again on July 17 at 3:30 p.m., also in J.A. deSève.


Savage Dog

As a big-screen martial arts action dude, Scott Adkins is slightly behind the times. Where he might have once joined the ranks of Chuck Norris or Jean-Claude Van Damme, nowadays significantly less money is spent on this type of action movie. Savage Dog is remarkably ambitious for what could easily be a tossed-off VOD programmer, and sadly feels hobbled by its limited budget. Adkins stars as Martin Tillman, an IRA member who winds up in an Indochinese prison camp run by Nazi-in-hiding Steiner (Vladimir Kulich), who consistently forces him to fight other buff dudes for his life. When Tillman is finally supposed to be released, however, Steiner simply refuses and destroys any semblance of a family Tillman may have had in the camp, setting him on a rampage towards revenge.

It’s standard boiler-plate stuff, but the period setting and director Jesse V. Johnson’s go-big-or-go-home approach to gore elevates this film a cut above the expected martial-artist vehicle. Unfortunately, the film’s low budget shows every step of the way, from the very limited sets to the stilted supporting performances and sometimes, limited action scenes. Johnson, a seasoned stunt coordinator turned director, has a good eye for action so it’s unfortunate that many of the action scenes feel like one-take deals. This movie has a real Cannon Films vibe, but their production budgets allowed them to go bigger and bolder than Savage Dog. Still, there’s something undeniably charming about Savage Dog’s scrappy spirit — and its willingness to explode heads.

Savage Dog screens on July 15th at 7:30 p.m. in H-110. Scott Adkins and Jesse V. Johnson will be in attendance.
Fantasia runs from July 13th – August 2nd, $11 per film, 10 ticket bundle $100, 20 ticket bundle $180.  See the full festival schedule here.