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Cannes 2024 Diary 2: International Genre Picks

Beyond the competition, there are dozens of other films to be captivated by here at Cannes, many solidly fitting under the “genre” umbrella. For decades, these films have never received the respect of auteur-driven institutions like Cannes. But given the state of the global marketplace and how these elements of action, horror, etc. have proved a buttress against audience apathy, there’s a clear hunger for stories of this type from around the world. 

On the page, “Black Dog” feels like yet another rote guy-with-canine tale, a "Turner and Hooch" for the festival crowd. Perhaps it was because realist master Jia Zhangke was in the audience for my screening. Still, Guan Hu’s laconic, almost-documentary style elevated what easily could have been a saccharine mess. 

The film opens with a wide vista, the firefly-like film grain making the sandy landscape feel all that more chaotic. Over the horizon, packs of dogs roam, cresting the ridge and causing a passenger bus to topple. Out of the wreckage clambers Lang (Eddie Pang), who is soon accused of stealing money from one of the others and is interrogated at the local station.

Lang is returning home after a manslaughter conviction, released early thanks to good behaviour. His reintegration into his community is fraught, and yet it’s the gentle way in which this story is juxtaposed with the greater social realism of his hometown that sparks the film. All those dogs result from those who left their pets behind after leaving these regions for greater fortune. The film is set around the 2008 Olympics when China’s massive economic growth was causing upheaval in many underserved regions. Lang sets out to capture a supposedly rabid animal that gives the film its title, all in an attempt to turn things around for Lang as he strives to pay off his debts, both economically and emotionally.

Pang’s precise performance is exceptional, but credit where its do for this self-avowed cat person – This is a damn good dog movie. The choice of the gaunt yet expressive animal is a choice, and even the grand feline we meet, a caged Tiger, provides another metaphorical tie to a sense of loss due to the extraordinary pace of change, which does well within context. The integration between live animals and CGI is well done, all serving to provide a film of far greater richness and, frankly, entertainment value than may be expected. The film is a subtle and powerful look at the massive social changes in China while being a straightforward character piece, making this one of those rare films with an artistic pedigree that still provides a full-bred experience to general audiences.

Another Chinese film mining the near-past, Soi Cheang’s kinetic “Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In” is a fight film that packs a punch. In a prologue, we learn of the battle between Tornado (Louis Koo) and Mr. Big (legendary Hong Kong action maestro Sammo Hung), and each crime lord vies for control of Kawloon’s walled city. This warren of small apartments, snaking powerlines, grimy laneways, and cold lighting evokes a kind of prison, yet within, there is life for those cloistered communities. 

The walled city provided sanctuary for Chinese/Vietnamese refugee Chan Lok-kwun (Raymond Lam) after a bamboozling by Mr. Big. After the first of many wildly inventive fight sequences choreographed brilliantly by Philip Ng Wan-lung (who also plays Big’s lieutenant Wong Gau), the film soon settles into a community-building exercise, where Lang’s hard work soon inculcates him into the greater society of the Walled city.

The film had the undercurrents of a more political message as a throwback to an older, more chaotic Hong Kong. But more than that, it hearkens back to the kind of action films from the likes of John Woo that brought Hong Kong cinema to the world stage (Woo was tied to the long-gestating project decades ago, with Nicolas Cage at one point attached).

Based on Andy Seto’s manhua “City of Darkness,” some of the proceedings have a convincing comic-book style, with archetypical characters employing superheroic talents in the various fight sequences. Yet beyond the spectacle and punch-ups, there are plenty of richer character beats to engage with, and Lam’s performance, in particular, is to be commended. 

It’s these quieter, introspective moments that not only give the film more depth. But it also lacks the unabated adrenaline rush of a midnight movie. Best screened with an audience attuned to its visceral thrills but also patient enough to care about what motivates the characters between the bouts of fisticuffs, “Twilight of the Warrior”s provides much for those willing to take the film under its own guise without demanding something it’s not set to provide.

“Veteran 2,” aka “I, The Executioner,” is a solid i, if somewhat slight, addition to the Korean action canon. A follow-up of sorts to 2015’s blockbuster “Veteran,” Ryoo Seung-wan returns with another kinetic punch-up, this time with a noticeable flair for mixed martial arts moves and a more somber tone.

Hwang Jung-min returns as Do-cheol, tasked with tracking down a vigilante killer they dub Haechi, named after a mythical creature able to delineate in pure form right from wrong. A series of these killings are connected by former crimes—each is associated with something truly horrific, and their sentences are either shortened or bypassed altogether. The police believe Haechi is set on wreaking vengeance on those needing retribution. 

When the action scenes ramp up, from car chases to bone-crunching fights, there’s a lot of fun to be had. The general plot is more than a little cliché, and the pacing makes this for a far better early evening watch than some midnight mayhem, but there’s plenty enough to recommend this for genre fans hungry for more from this world.

Shifting gears entirely, I managed to catch one of my absolute favourite films of the fest, one of those that just happened to fit into my schedule and go in blind to. It’s been decades since the country of Latvia has had a title here at Cannes, and the latest, Gints Zilbalodis’s “Flow,” is good enough to already be considered for best animated feature, akin to last year’s breakout hit “Robot Dreams.”

While “Bad Dog” fully sets its gaze on a mostly canine perspective, “Flow” focuses on felinity. We watch as a black domestic shorthair contends with its world undergoing massive change. As flood waters rise, the kitty must join up with several other animals on a boat floating downstream, a kind of “Life of Pi” with pets and an adventure tale as thrilling as any here at the fest.

The animation is both loose and highly precise, the tiny movements of each creature exquisitely and often humorously realized. The water is entirely photo-realistic, while the animals themselves are slightly posterized in appearance, creating a unique 3D look that feels handcrafted. 

Moments of danger raise anxiety, while successes are met with unabashed elation. Told without dialogue, the film still speaks to universal notions that can easily play to audiences young and old from any corner of the globe. In a fest full of often dour and misery-laden storylines or maximalist films shouting their intention with every frame, there’s something downright soothing, if not, well, cat-thartic, about simply engaging in such a wonderful cinematic treat.

Jason Gorber

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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