Demonic Boxing, And Other Asian Delights.
The inaugural film for the 2005 edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival always draws a huge crowd, though generally that’s due more to rabid devotion to the festival rather than the particular film that’s playing. Ashura was no exception to this rule, and I watched this film in a packed house of enthusiastic, vaguely ripe Asian cinema fans. For those of you who are neither from Montreal nor addicted to incomprehensible anime, Fantasia is North America’s premiere genre film festival, focusing on horror, science fiction, and absolutely anything from the fabled Orient no matter how stupid. I attend the festival every year, to the detriment of my bank account, personal relationships, and tolerance for Asians, and every year I’m treated to wild mix of action, gore, and bad subtitles. This year is shaping up to be a good one, with a surprisingly eclectic set of films from all over the world, with a thankful focus on South Korean cinema, which has been rising to the forefront of genre filmmaking while Japan languishes in increasingly tiresome child ghost stories and whatever crap Takeshi Miike filmed with his camcorder on the way to the film distributor’s office. However, Ashura didn’t seem to be a particularly inspired choice to kick off the year. It started off well, by which I mean the opening speeches by the festival organizers were fairly entertaining. Particularly amusing was the one by director of international programming Mitch Davis, who was energetic as usual, which is a nice way of saying he’s clearly replaced the cream in his coffee pot with liquid adrenaline. Mr. Davis whipped the crowd into a frenzy, which is hard to do when you’re speaking to a crowd of mildly overweight computer programmers lulled into a near stupor by interminable queues and high humidity. This may, however, have been a calculated move on Mr. Davis’ part, as the movie that followed his energizing speech was less than exhilarating. Best described as sort of the prototypical Fantasia film, the movie has everything one would come to expect from a film at the festival, with none of the surprises. It’s got demons, sword fighting, garbled cosmology, and an incongruous J-Pop soundtrack as grating to the ears as it is inappropriate to the mood of the film. There’s nothing quite like a battle scene set against off-key love song crooning by what sounds like a cross between Jennifer Tilly and Alvin from the Chipmunks. Set in 19th century Edo, the film follows a demon-hunter-turned Kabuki actor who discovers that a gymnast-turned cat-burglar he’s fallen for may be the reincarnation of a demon queen. The best part of all this, is the fact that the story is based on a play, which is illustrates the point I’ve been trying to make for years, that the Japanese are crazy. We have Broadway plays about Bohemian artists living in Manhattan and struggling with AIDS, they have elaborate period morality plays about hordes of Evil Dead demons with blood like the slime on You Can’t Do That On Television firebombing a city from an upside down castle. We have game shows testing memory retention and intimate knowledge of potent potables, they have transvestites race to put lipstick on while riding roller coasters. We kick up a fuss when what may or may not be a nipple gets shown on national television, they have a word for bathing in semen. I’m sure the Japanese are just as weirded out by our culture as I am by their’s, but it’s this sort of vast cultural disconnect that makes me fear going downtown in the global village fast coming upon us. Ashura is most likely not particularly strange in Japan, in fact it’s probably fairly rote, which is why it feels the same for somebody with at least a passing interest in their fantasy filmmaking, but compared to what’s considered run-of-the-mill over here, it’s certainly something to behold. Plus, it’s full of Kabuki theatre, which I’m beginning to suspect is Japan’s way of keeping westerners out of the country. If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing Kabuki, slit your wrists now and die knowing you’ve avoided suffering one of the worst artistic atrocities since Oliver Stone. Kabuki, the ancient art of Japanese theatre, is a performance/dance hybrid that mixes the less subtle elements of French-Canadian farce with the acoustic equivalent of a cat in a blender. If you enjoy funny faces, bug eyes, and screeching, then you’ve found your niche with Kabuki. And if you’re into convoluted mythology crudely overlain with a sappy love story, than Ashura’s the film for you.
2005, South Korea
The second film on Fantasia’s opening night, Crying Fist is a vast improvement over Ashura, and an excellent example of the eclectic but somewhat muddled programming selections of the festival. Originally a showcase for Asian films, the festival branched out into horror and sci-fi oriented films from across the globe, while remaining fairly indiscriminate as to the genres of Asian films screened. Not that this is a bad thing, it’s just odd that on any given day, you can follow a showing of a screwball Korean sex-comedy with a Spanish movie about necrophilia in an autopsy room. And you should follow the one with the other, because as titillating as petite Korean girls giggling like pre-schooler and flashing their underwear is as foreplay, there’s nothing quite like non-consensual sex with the dismembered remnants of a cadaver to really bring home a big finish. Crying Fist contains no fantastic elements, and no graphic violence, but nevertheless was a big hit with the audience, and rightly so. A boxing movie, the film is based an simple premise, that’s remarkable mainly because no one has thought of it before. Essentially, the film is Rocky with two Rockies. I’ll quickly state that this Rocky comparison is based on general plot similarities, not on any qualitative judgements. As some of you may know, I have a special place in my heart reserved for the Rocky quintilogy, that’s filled up with levels of hatred normally found only at Jim Phelps rallies and white pride websites. This film, however, inspired only admiration spiced with the occasional moment of confusion, when the storytelling follows the standard Asian leaps of logic normally associated with psychotic breaks with reality. The first two acts of the picture intercut between the lives of our two protagonists, the young Yu Sang-hwan, an imprisoned thug who has found a purpose in life with boxing, and the older Kang Tae-sik, an aging silver medallist at the Asian games who’s given a second chance to save his family from poverty through boxing. Of course, the two must inevitably meet in the ring of an amateur boxing tournament. So, it’s kind of Cinderella Man without all the schmaltz duking it out with Undisputed without all the, um, everything else that was in that awful movie. Actually, the boxing itself is the worst part of the film, the actors having apparently taken the ‘amateur’ part of their characters to heart, choosing to play out the fights sort of like two 10 year old brothers fighting over the last slice of pizza at Chucky Cheese, complete with plenty of flailing and hair-pulling . The performances are strong, though it’s initially a little disconcerting to see the guy from Old Boy do anything but self-mutilate, and the film has all the hall-marks of the new renaissance in South Korean films, namely an engaging humanity in the characters and a deft mix of comedy and drama that never seems forced or laid on too thick This level of subtlety is surprising from a culture whose culinary arts have only advanced so far as dousing strips of unidentifiable dark meat in oil and garlic. Nevertheless, like Memories of Murder from last year, the film deftly inserts comedic moments in amongst the character development and high drama, without detracting from the serious moments of the film. To put this into context, this would be like having some slapstick in Schindler’s List, or having Life Is Beautiful actually be funny instead of numbingly stupid. While I won’t spoil the ending, the confrontation between the two and the subsequent conclusion can’t help but be anything but the very definition of the word ‘bittersweet’. Now, if I could just define the term for the cooks at the Ararang Korean eatery on St. Catherine, we might be on to something.