One small, consistent thrill about being in Montreal during the time of Fantasia is asking the locals what movies they’ll be seeing at the fest. The results often sound like mad-libs plot synopses, and further prove the creative stories that abound during this almost month-long movie bash. A zombie Christmas musical? Check (“Anna and the Apocalypse”). A time-travel comedy from New Zealand? Check, and it’s playing tomorrow (“Mega Time Squad,” recommended). And last night added another exciting combination to the mix: an 1860s Western set in Indonesia, as inspired equally by Westerns across different eras of action movies and the injustice of Dutch colonizing in Indonesia. “Buffalo Boys” is like an Indonesian “Django Unchained,” with a big climax that pairs Sergio Leone machismo with martial arts.
Directed and co-written by Mike Wiluan, "Buffalo Boys" is the story of two Indonesian brothers, Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) and Jamar (Ario Bayu), and their uncle Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), as they venture back from California to Jawa, Indonesia, during the oppressive times of the Dutch colonizers. It’s both a history lesson for these young men who have been removed from their culture for years, an act of vengeance for their father who was killed by the tyrannical Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker) years ago, and a rescue mission to saved a love one from Van Trach’s ownership, while liberating their people who have had such atrocities done to them.
Wiluan has a large vision for the movie, packing it with two or three damsels in distress (and frustratingly underutilizing a lead woman who is established to be an excellent archer), three main heroes, and a vague sense of narrative direction aside from impending vengeance. A more focused narrative seems to be in order, but Wiluan at least makes a case for his bloated story and character roster with with his massive action scenes where all hell breaks loose.
The movie is certain to gain comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” of which it would be as a fascinating double feature. Both of the movies examine historic injustices through genre and answer with all-out violence, with heroes given their own hyper-stylized moments as a type of answer to previous representation in Westerns. And like “Django Unchained” did with the history of American slavery, Wiluan especially doesn’t want his viewers to look away from the atrocities that the East British India Company did to the people Indonesia, and uses it to build up for extra gratification for during Grand Guignol finale.
Throughout, "Buffalo Boys" embraces cliches in a way that feels safe, from a generic super villain to an emotionally instructive score, or moments meant to achieve very broad ideas of romance or historical outrage. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its moments—the fight choreography is great during its extensive action scenes, and there are even some excellent explosions. “Buffalo Boys” would make an overall bigger impact, though, if it seemed like it were contributing more to the genre conversation than just a compelling and different perspective.
“The Unity of Heroes,” which had its North American premiere yesterday at Fantasia, is a straight-up martial arts throwback with a lineage to “Drunken Master II” and the “Once Upon a Time in China” films. It's a return of the heroic Master Wong (Vincent Zhao), who is the martial arts master for the local militia, and is accompanied by a small batch of dopey young apprentices who offer the movie’s slapstick-y moments. But something is rotten in their city, as demonic-looking, violent henchmen with black lines in their faces start terrorizing the town, which is soon revealed to the the result of a nefarious Western medicine that experiments of people with an opioid addiction.
At the same time, Master Wong and his crew face some animosity from the competitive Master Wu and his own squad, scuffling in the streets periodically about who is the best. “The Unity of Heroes” also makes time for a romance, which has fun with showing just how much of a wet blanket Master Wong is when it comes to a woman who has returned from the West and looks down on Chinese culture. The script has a whole lot going on, but the busy nature doesn't make it especially quick so much as light. As with "Buffalo Boys," what it lacks in invention it mostly makes up for with crowd-pleasing, especially when it’s so self-amusing, and its action delivers whenever it’s time to battle.
This is a genre buffet of cartoonish comedy, monstrous horror, and a whole lot of martial arts, with bite-size moments of delight: the film boasts plenty of stylized fight scenes with whooshing fists and feet, showdowns that defy gravity, and sequences built on silly jokes. "The Unity of Heroes" is as light on its feet as the characters who fly through the air; the only thing that it does take seriously is the existence of morals, the concept that creates said unity in its nothing title.
In the case of a movie that just didn't grip me despite its script's desires, there’s “True Fiction,” from writer/director Kim Jin-mook. Like a Coen brothers movie without the momentum, “True Fiction” is the tale of a wild night involving a corrupt Korean mayoral candidate named Kyung-suk (Oh Man-seok), his mistress Ji-young (Lee Eun-woo), and a suspicious young man named Soon-tae (Ji Hyun-woo) whose dog they just ran over and abandoned. It’s initially presented as a dark comedy, in which the composed by clumsy future public figure is being gamed as a well-controlled revenge by Soon-tae, who befriends the couple as they try to save face by lying about who they are, who or Kyung-suk works ofr. All of this happens outside a random cottage that belongs to neither of them, but Kyung-suk needs to get inside. It makes for a dull game, especially with repetitive, peppy bass guitar music cues to fail to layer a coolness to all of the awkward mischief.
More characters are brought into the fold, especially as the events become about more than just an adorable dog that was run over. A hidden corruption begins to show itself as "True Fiction" wants to be a political thriller. The best trick that this slow movie has to offer is a complete shift in tone, in which the good and evil within these characters is no longer handled as a joke, but with seriousness. It's just such a slog to get to the movie's idea of justice, which in the most simple sense fails to be rewarding.