There’s a pleasant, old-fashioned feel to Alpha.
I had written previously about how the roster of Fantasia has a “Midnight Movie” vibe, and I realized this weekend that said vibe applies to the audience too. Every showing at Fantasia is full of people who are looking to embrace the movie in front of them: they hoot and holler for every wacky kill, applaud big rewarding moments from plot, and laugh extra hard when movies are at their silliest. This all being said, seeing the Korean arm-wrestling movie “Champion” put the Fantasia crowd on over-drive, in part because it's such damn fun.
In the film from Yong-wan Kim, Dong Seok-ma ("Train to Busan") plays a Koreatown bouncer named Mark, who has a history of being an arm wrestling champion, but is otherwise the quietest person in the room. His buddy Jin-Ki (Kwon Yul) convinces him to come to Korea to compete, where Mark's mother abandoned him decades ago, causing him to grow up in Koreatown as an orphan. When Mark pushes himself to make a trip to see where his mother once lived, he finds out that he has a sister, and that's he an uncle to two cheery kids (scene-stealers in their own right). As it becomes more about a lonely man finding a family than just arm wrestling, "Champion" has an unexpected dramatic finesse too. Through sincere drama and disarming comedy, it explores his position as an imposing Korean man who is a total outsider in Korea.
Given that it's an arm wrestling movie, of course the movie has a loving reference to “Over the Top,” the Sylvester Stallone ‘80s gem where he played a truck-driving arm wrestler. “Champion” goes even so far to say that the movie inspired Mark to become like Stallone’s character, and that shows in his performance as well. Dong-seok Ma recalls the best Stallone performances, as innocent as he is physically intimidating, a pacifist unless pushed. Ma has a big, quiet charisma, and he’s a great underdog for this story, not unlike when you first see Stallone as Rocky Balboa in "Rocky."
The movie doesn’t take arm wrestling too seriously, only to the extent of it being a special skill of Mark. Some of its biggest laugh-out-loud jokes are when it teases arm wrestling as not being a real sport, and yet the movie is also genuinely excited about the spectacle. As it progresses, it imagines a more cinematic perspective for the competitions, toying with POVs, angles and spinning cameras.
“Champion” is a truly triumphant crowd-pleaser, one that earns ints indulgences: it can be delightfully silly, bombastic, or cheesy. It all works so well because of the emotional truth underneath it, and because its humor knows how to build up a good joke, like when Mark freaks the henchmen out just by walking up to them. Even the final speech he makes after his big moment in the end is more emotional than one might expect. The only thing it's really missing is a Kenny Loggins ballad, but it has plenty of moments that play out like something worthy of not just "Over the Top," but the best of sports movies.
“Cold Skin” is an odd title duck of a movie from director Xavier Gens, but not because of its tale of two lonely, violent men and a fish woman on a remote island, which is like his own version of Guillermo Del Toro's “The Shape of Water.” It’s more that Gens takes this story so incredibly seriously, starting off with Nietzsche's greatest hits quote about fighting monsters, causing an abyss to stare back at you. He later follows it up with an overt reference to Sun Tzu's The Art of War. The inclusion of such Philosophy 101 flash cards further reminds the viewer of how Gens’ story is not as revelatory as it may think, however high-minded with filmmaking that adores H.P. Lovecraft.
Based on the novel by Albert Sanchez Pinol (and adapted by Jesus Olmo and Eron Sheean), it tells of a peaceful man named Friend (David Oakes) who is hired to be a new weather attendant on a mostly empty island, meant to stay there the year. The isolation isn’t a problem, so much as the sharp-toothed, blue creatures that swarm the island at night. Friend finds out that the significance of the monsters is more complicated than a pest, especially as he relies on the craggy, mysterious Gruner (an unrecognizable Ray Stevenson) for survival. The humans are not the owners, Friend learns in this story of colonization and hatred, and yet Gruner and Friend spend their evenings holed up in his lighthouse, shooting the monsters as they try to climb up. Meanwhile, Gruner has made a companion in a creature named Aneris (Aura Garrido), which brings out a different side of him.
Gens’ approach to this is very serious, so much that "Cold Skin" has some unexpected laughs (like when Friend goes deep into the water in a clunky diving suit, and falls on his back during what should be a tense moment). But the performances are no joke: Stevenson goes full-steam ahead with his complicated Gruner, showing how fear could turn into someone so destructive and isolated, while having a relationship with an image of what he normally hates. "Cold Skin" boasts some strong character work, its interactions vivid with the albeit sentiments that seem dime-a-dozen in art these days about hatred and white superiority.
The ambitions of this passion project show best in its cinematography by Daniel Aranyo and a lush score by Victor Reyes. Along with the gradual direction of the story, they elevate its aesthetics beyond a desolate period story with the initial threat of jump scares. Taking full advantage of its location and its inhabitants, Gen's film boasts a rich cinematic vision for a statement that’s nonetheless more soggy than it is fresh.
At a place like Fantasia, you’re inevitably going to plop yourself down for something that's very, very strange. That was the case with me for the episodic “Crisis Jung,” a programmed title that I had every intent on absolutely not seeing, the image of a voluptuous wolf person shooting breast milk into their mouth being just one reason. I realized too late into my time at the festival that such is a reason why you should see something at Fantasia, so I’m thrilled that I hurled myself into “Crisis Jung”’s giddy infinite of extreme violence, extremely fluid gender design and a whole bunch of creative usage for orifices.
As a “Crisis Jung” convert, I recommend it to audiences desiring an inventive what-the-hell story that is experimental but not entirely random, and extremely witty in its parody of the timeless hero's journey. From French animators Bobbypills, it's a twisted piece of criticism about heroes needing dark motivations, mocking the tidy values that are imparted after violent showdowns in a morning cartoon episode (so much that ideas like Compassion or Charity are presented as violent, hideous monsters for our Hero With a Broken Heart to somehow defeat). Unpredictability makes this twisted series shine; it’s always darker, grosser and funnier than you expect it to be. Looking at it that way, it might be the most on-brand Fantasia movie I’ve seen at the fest.
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