For the first time in my life, I was privileged to attend the Fantasia International Film Festival this summer; one of the most acclaimed celebrations of Asian cinema and genre films in North America. My colleague, Deirdre Crimmins and I took a road trip up to the lovely city of Montreal, flocking to as many screenings as possible upon our arrival. During the week that I attended this festival’s 18th consecutive year, I was fortunate to see the following films, and am proud to provide you with my personal take on them.
I AM THOR (dir. Ryan Wise)
An international bodybuilding champion, heavy metal rock star and cult B-horror-movie icon, Jon Mikl Thor spent the majority of his life aspiring to be a famous entertainer. Yet, despite receiving a fair amount of publicity in the 1970s and ‘80s, a variety of struggles, most of which revolved around poor management and personal disputes with his label company, resulted in the downward spiral of his career. After suffering from a nervous breakdown in 1987, Thor made an attempt to settle down in suburbia, before ultimately embarking on a reunion tour with his fellow band members.
Director Ryan Wise splices together an array of footage that spans across decades to craft an empathetic love letter to Mikl. While this documentary is certainly a biased view of his career, and one that could have used a lot more evidence to back up certain events in his life, it’s hard not to get swept up in his uplifting comeback. I Am Thor is a flawed, but fascinating feel-good film about one man who simply wants to be remembered for his artistic triumphs, and he’s a hell of a lot of fun to spend time with.
A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY (dirs. Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban & Brett Sullivan)
A horror anthology in the tradition of Creepshowand Trick ‘r Treat, this quartet of gruesome tales set during the most wonderful time of the year is a bit of a mixed bag. Santa attempts to protect the North Pole from a horde of zombefied elves. A mother and father lose their child while illegally cutting down a Christmas tree, only to accidentally replace him with a changeling. The infamous monster from German folklore, Krampus, attacks a family of assholes during a holiday trip. Three teenagers sneak into their school on Christmas Eve to film a documentary on its haunted basement. And William Shatner hilariously anchors the various vignettes as an overly jolly radio host who drinks way too much eggnog.
These stories are wildly uneven. Each one is the result of a different writer & director, and, sadly, it shows, making their entwinement feel tonally jarring whenever the film decides to jump from one installment story to another. They’re also executed in a disappointingly straightforward, by-the-numbers style, despite occasional bursts of inspired pitch-black humor. That is, until you reach the conclusion, which features a rug-puller so sickeningly funny that you wish what came before it wasn’t so lackluster. Yet, I can’t deny that I left the theatre with a twisted grin across my face, and there are certainly a few joyously bloody moments to be found in this cinematic stocking.
HARUKO’S PARANORMAL LABORATORY (dir. Lisa Takeba)
Easily the most flat-out bonkers film I caught at Fantasia this year, Lisa Takeba’s kaleidoscopic comedy of wacky visual gags is a slight, but undeniably delightful slice of Japanese surrealism. It centers on a girl named Haruko, who spends the majority of her time in front of her television set. One day, during a session of channel flipping, she becomes frustrated to the point that she cusses up a storm at her TV; unaware of the fact that there’s a device inside tallying up the amount of times she verbally assaults it. By the time the counter hits 1,000, Haruko’s television comes to life (in the form of a man wearing a cheesy television mask). While he’s initially annoyed at Haruko’s cynicism, the two begin to develop feelings for one another, and the television eventually makes an attempt to become a prominent member of society, ultimately becoming a celebrity on TV himself.
The bare-bones plot is merely a way to stage a series of psychedelically comic set pieces, each one more bizarre than the last. A majority of them take jabs at celebrity culture and society’s obsessions with the media, while a handful of them are just silly for the sake of being silly. Some may find the high level of quirk to be unbearable, but the film has an endearingly light-hearted spirit to it, even when the jokes verge into raunchy material. Its sense of humor won’t be for everyone, but for those who like colorfully offbeat comedies that take pride in being outlandish, Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory conjures up plenty of laughs.
THE BLUE HOUR (dir. Anucha Boonyawatana)
A haunting gay romance that feels like it takes place inside someone else’s nightmare; this debut feature from Taiwanese filmmaker, Anucha Boonyawatana has lingered with me more than any other film I saw at the festival. The phantasmagorical narrative is told through the perspective of Tam (Atthaphan Poonsawas), a bullied teenager who, in the opening scene, meets up with a peculiar boy named Phum (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang)at a haunted abandoned pool. Following their first, awkward sexual encounter, the two begin to fall in love, despite the disapproval from Tam’s family and society as a whole. Before long, sinister events come into play, consisting of deceit, murder and vengeful spirits.
The plot grows more complex and mystifying as the tension ratchets up at a meticulously calculated pace. Nothing is precisely clear; the possibility of supernatural forces could be taken at face value or metaphorically represent the darkness lurking within Tam’s psyche during his difficult coming-of-age. Boonyawatana doesn’t present us with any easy answers, yet, the ambiguity within The Blue Hour only makes the experience more disturbingly provocative in regards to its thematic depth. I’m still not entirely sure what the hell happened in this picture, but I haven’t been able to get it out of my head as a result. Clearly inspired by the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), this is a chilling, gorgeously crafted film that declares Boonyawatana as a filmmaker of immense talent. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.