THANK GOD, IT’S STILL FANTASIA! Image

As the mainstream movie industry continues to deteriorate amidst the worst slump it’s ever known, obscure movies from obscure countries are coming to these shores to be seen by thousands of people; and there’s a very good reason why. These are not (for the most part) family friendly. They are not trying to cater to all viewers or one profitable demographic. These are movies made as movies should be made, from the heart. If they appeal to many, it’s because they have unforced appeal, not phony manufactured crap out of the land of the big sign on the hill.

Sure you have your sequels and mindless action movies in Asia as well, but even those are different than ours because the people who make them try harder. I get the distinct impression that all the technical expertise and huge budgets have created an atmosphere of laziness in Hollywood. While if you make a movie in Korea for example, you’re on your own, so the no-talents are weeded out. It’s Darwinism at its finest.

Fantasia really is the future. If you asked me what’s going to happen within the next twenty years, I honestly believe that Hollywood is going to lose its monopoly on mainstream film. Already half of its offerings are either remakes of foreign films or films made by foreign directors. That’s not even counting the number of films that are outsourced to other countries in an effort to save on cost. So with one leg kicked out from under it, all that’s left to do is wait for the Goliath to topple.

If what I saw this year is any indication, the situation is going to come to a head soon. We’re long past the days of crappy special effects and no budget Z-flicks shot on 40 year old equipment. Most of these movies are as professional as anything out of lala-land. Just look at something like “Night Watch,” the effects are as impressive as those in “The Matrix.” Yet it cost only 4.2 million instead of 63. The studio heads have got to be aware of this. They’re not dumb, eventually someone’s gonna do some serious math and come to the conclusion that it’d be a lot less expensive to simply hire a 100% foreign crew to make a film. Just look at what happened with “Lord of The Rings.” How many Americans were in that again?

It’s sad in a way. I’ll miss American movies, then again if all we’re going to miss is the next Michael Bay explosion fest none of us are going to shed too many tears for the last days of Babylon.

OPENING NIGHT

They showed two movies to kickoff the 2005 edition of the festival: “Ashura” and “Crying Fist.”

“Ashura” is, quite literally, a Kabuki drama. It’s been softened a bit for audiences who aren’t used to this sort of thing, but it’s far from your typical movie. However, what could be a more perfect way to open an Asian film festival than a movie that shares its roots in traditional ancient Japanese theatre?

Edo is a town overrun by evil that is “protected” by Demon Wardens, samurai-like warriors who ride on horses and kill anything and anyone who even looks like he/she/it might be possessed. Having grown sick of killing, Izumo the Demonslayer, quits the Wardens and finds work as an actor in Kabuki theatre. He falls in love with the beautiful amnesiac Tsubaki and tries to figure out what her place is in the rebirth of the Demon Queen Ashura. It’s all very over the top and crazy but, at the same time, it’s loads of fun to watch. Plus you feel all sophisticated because this is the cinematic equivalent of going to a play or the opera. Sure, it’s like watching Shakespeare played straight, right down to the sets and timeframe; and yes it requires much attention from the audience and doesn’t reward you easily, but at the same time it’s a rich experience nonetheless.

“Crying Fist,” on the other hand, is a totally modern drama that has its roots in movies like “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” and serves as a kick in the teeth to more lightweight fare like “Cinderalla Man.” It’s also literally the last boxing movie you’ll need to see. The genre has long been sucked dry of any originality, but “Crying Fist” manages to squeeze water out of a rock by adding a novel twist. Instead of seeing one fighter’s rise from nothing to a shot at the championship, we see two fighters try for the same title and follow both their lives as they train to be the best and to win. Both need this bad. If they don’t win, their lives will be over.

Tae-shik is a middle aged former Olympic silver medallist who’s sunk so low that he’s begun selling himself off as a punching bag on the street. Feeling a little tense? Pay him a couple of bucks and knock the crap out of him. Not very noble, but it’s gotten to this point. This guy hasn’t hit bottom, he’s burrowed under the muck at the bottom. If he doesn’t do something soon, then he’s either going to lose his wife and kid or be killed by loan sharks. When he sees an opportunity to win a title, he goes for it and slowly begins to remember the good man he once was.

Likewise, juvenile delinquent Sang-hwan has never done a good thing in his life. After killing a man in a botched robbery attempt, he’s sent to prison. There, his natural aggression makes one guard suggest that he should try boxing. He’s terrible at it, but he has heart and tries hard and for the first time feels a little bit of pride in himself. When his father dies and his grandmother is taken ill he feels it owes it to people to show he can be someone.

Director Seung-wan Ryoo sets us up with a movie that can’t possibly end well. One of these guys is going to lose and that’s going to be it for him. Yet we watch enthralled as they work to put their lives back in order in a film that sidesteps most clichés of the genre. Impressive.

I found these films to be a perfect introduction for the festival. “Ashura” was a visual feast to watch, and “Crying Fist” was quite touching.

I also got to meet Mitch Davis, King-Wei and Mi-Jeong Lee again. Hey guys! And then hung out to watch the movies with Dahlia from www.fantasikasia.net, we met last year while watching One Missed Call. She’s cool as hell. Hey Dahl! I love saying that. Dahl/Doll, get it? Heh-heh.

DAY 2

What an amazing second day! “Mind Game,” “Shutter” and “Ju-on: The Grudge 2.” Three mind blowing films playing back to back. “Mind Game” is an animated piece by director Masaaki Yuasa and it’ll remind you of the outlaw days of Ralph Bakshi. Not being a big Anime connoisseur, I can’t really compare this to other works in the genre, but this was an incredible experience for a newbie like me. It’s a simple story of how Nichi loves a girl named Myon and how he realizes one day that he has to stop being afraid of telling her how he feels. Yet Maasaki has got to be a Looney Toons fan because this movie has all the humor and insanity of those early shorts. The ending is like watching the stargate sequence in “2001” all over again except that you’re laughing your a*s off at the wild jokes and visuals.

“Shutter” is yet another entry in the Asian ghost genre. After Tun and his girlfriend Jane run over a woman, her ghost begins to appear to them, at first in photographs, then in person. It’s pretty good despite the familiarity. But let’s hope that it’s the last word on the subject, because really, the ladies with the long hair in their face are becoming a big boring cliché and I can just see a “Ring VS Grudge” movie in the far future. We gotta move on and evolve a bit. We gotta try to use our imaginations and invent something new. This is as good as the best of its kind, but I’m getting serious deja-vu.

Speaking of deja-vu… “Ju-on: The Grudge 2” doesn’t need an introduction if you’ve seen any other Grudge film. It’s more of the same. Yet, at the same time Takashi Shimizu really knows how to milk his threadbare premise for all it’s worth. Another bunch of people go into the house that no one lives to tell about and receive a little visit from Kayako and her son. I didn’t like the first one that much, but Shimizu’s style grew on me. It’s like eating tea biscuits. It’s not all that great, but you can’t get enough of it and if you spend too long without you start to get cravings. Its nuts, but I really dug this.

DAY 3

Watched “Karaoke Terror” and “Izo.” If you haven’t seen or heard of “Karaoke Terror,” let me assure you that this would make a great double feature with Battle Royale. They both have that same air of anti-authoritarian subversion to them. When a member of the middle-aged all-female Karaoke group “The Midoris” is killed by a psychotic member of another band of young all-male Karaoke singers, the quest for revenge is on. Each side going to higher and higher extremes to get back at the other until it reaches the final ridiculous climax. This film, like “Battle Royale,” is virtually guaranteed never to be remade simply because it shatters so many taboos and is a big middle finger in the face of the morality police.

“Izo” is… uhhh… how shall I put this gently? Oh yeah, “Izo” is s**t. I’d go into more detail but the bile rising from my stomach is keeping me from writing. It’s not that it’s a bad movie, if only. It’s that it’s a complete mess of a film made by a director who is renowned for having total control over his work. What happened? It’s like watching some bizarre nude improvisational dance by a 97 year old German guy named Helmut Zoog that ends with him peeing over the audience. Hell, even that would have been more fun than this dreary slog. The story? There is none. Don’t bother trying to find one either. It’s just random scenes in search of a meaning.

The story continues in part two of THANK GOD, IT’S STILL FANTASIA!>>>

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