i just got home from the second of the two days i was able to attend fantastic fest this year. they advertise it as the "festival with the boring parts cut out" and that pretty much sums up my experience.
my friend chelsea and i camped out at the alamo drafthouse on south lamar all day and hit the freaking jackpot. we got in to everything we wanted to see, twice getting free tickets out of the clear blue sky from generous folks. our program was even more varied and interesting today than the lineup i was able to see saturday. it couldn't have worked out better.
we started the day off with a bang with legend of the fist: the return of chen zhen (2010). this theatrical continuation of the popular chinese television series features donnie yen as both star and action choreographer and he knocks it out of the park on both counts.
an outrageous opening set piece sets the tone for some daring and imaginative action sequences throughout. it generated a round of spontaneous applause from a festival audience that has just about seen it all this week, not an easy feat. these stories are often just a flimsy peg to hang a series of ever-escalating acrobatics on, but this one is bit unique, at least for western viewers. it is set during/just after world war one, a time frame most history students are familiar with, but is filtered almost exclusively through the prism of china versus japan and what the aftermath of the great war means to the dominant powers in asia. anglo interests are minimal, if not non-existent. it is refreshing that an action film can also serve as a stirring reminder that we are not alone in this world, that the globe goes right on turning and sometimes we have absolutely nothing to do with it. the title character, chen zhen, is something of a folk hero by this point and has also been played by bruce lee and jet li in the past. the politics on display are, of course, greatly simplified in these film versions and your notion of hero and villain could vary a bit depending on how you feel about the early chinese republican era and the rise of the japanese empire. what you cannot dispute is how much ass donnie yen kicks, about one hundred of them in one scene alone. very entertaining and, in spite of its twenty-first century kicks, a little bit of a throwback. the nods to rick's place in casablanca (1942) are no accident. it was a great, and very energetic, way to start the day.
then it got dark. next up was jang cheol-so's bedevilled (2010). this festival entry from korea won this year's audience award and it was nice to see it go to something so challenging rather than more high profile, easily digestible films.
there is nothing that feels good about this film. it forgoes the quick setup that would have turned this into cheap exploitation fare and we spend the bulk of the film becoming intimate with the pain of bok-nam, the island girl who longs for a way out of her miserable existence. we see in excruciating detail the indignities and abuse she suffers daily at the hands of her husband, his brother and the elder women of the island, population nine or so - seven unfeeling monsters and one perpetual rape victim/punching bag/pack mule and her young daughter. the hint of her child possibly being molested is the last straw. she makes arrangements to make a run for the mainland but, as with everything else that happens in the first three quarters of the film, that comes to a futile and infuriating conclusion. finally, after the death of her daughter, she cracks. she stares into the sun and it tells her what she must do. it's a testament to just how horrible her "family" is that when she sinks a sickle into the throat of her first victim, a seventy year old woman, cheers erupted throughout the theater. it's an incredibly cathartic moment. thus begins a final cycle of violence that vaults this into the pantheon of the greatest revenge films ever made. you can only push a girl so far. and you will never think of bean paste the same way again.
it's not for everyone, but if you have a sturdy constitution i highly recommend it. it is full of brilliantly painful performances and lush korean location photography that highlights both the physical beauty of the landscape and how ironically fouled it is with all this degradation.
as evening fell, we left the pacific rim for ol' virginny. this turned out to be my favorite thing i saw this week, i think. in a stroke of programming genius, the festival organizers brought in the stage production nevermore - an evening with edgar allan poe. stuart gordon and jeffrey combs, who most folks know from their work together on re-animator (1985), have re-teamed as director and performer for this one-man show that lets us travel back in time to watch richmond's not-so-favorite son read, recite and unravel before our very eyes.
this was a gamble on the organizers' part, i thought. genre film fans, as a lot, can occasionally come up short in the attention span department. with so much overstimulation going on in every theater how would a one-man play based on literature a century and a half old, filled with florid and increasingly archaic language go over? in this case, like gangbusters. it was a great performance filled with tender humor, pathos and drunken trash-talking of henry wadsworth longfellow. combs was uncanny in resemblance and effective in manner. "the tell-tale heart" and "the raven" were among the signature pieces he performed but the heart of the play was in the asides and reveries. the women in poe's life turned out to be the most significant characters in the play without ever setting foot onstage - his sainted mother, his tubercular cousin/wife, recently deceased and his intended - they all were ghosts that haunted him that he exorcised with demon rum. or rye, in this case. combs' performance received a well-deserved standing ovation. i hope they do more of this type of alternative programming in the future. bring in grand guignol theater next year!
after that it was back in line for the fourth and final secret screening of the week. it turns out, we were in a select group of eleven non-badgeholders that got in to this particular event. our reward? troll hunter (2010).
this particular bit of norwegian wackiness resides at the intersection of the blair witch project (1999) and grimm's fairy tales. using the same "recovered footage" conceit as blair witch, this tells the story of a group of student documentarians who went missing after they stumbled upon a man who hunts trolls for the norwegian government. now, norwegian trolls are nothing like gnomes or other, more friendly, "mythical" creatures. these trolls bash. they bludgeon. they bite heads off. they are gigantic brutes, as dumb as the rocks they routinely dine on. this is played (mostly) for laughs and is fairly well done. it's not winning any oscars anytime soon, but as tonight's dessert, it was just right. one of the big lures of the secret screenings is the air of exclusivity that surrounds each one and this one was about as exclusive as it gets. aside from the five people - director, two producers, sound mixer and dolby lab guy - who assembled this cut of the film a scant twelve hours before, no one had ever seen the finished product before we got to. they haven't even shown it to their distributor yet. so, that's kind of fun. i got to be the first kid on my block to see it and thereby completely round out my fantastic fest experience. not bad.
looking forward to next year already. hope to see some of you there.