It wouldn’t be Fantasia Fest without a strong program of the best of current Asian cinema. The Montreal-based genre fest has always been a sanctuary for fans of filmmakers from Japan, Korea, China, and other parts of the Asian continent. I chose four of the more interesting films from this part of the world that premiered at this year’s Fantasia and found four very different experiences, from a playful fantasy from a world master to something that Guillermo del Toro has called “A one-man band work of deranged brilliance” to the director of one of the most viciously violent films ever made. The best of these films have vision, creative passion that could come from only their creator.
For “Junk Head,” there’s no one but the creator. An amazing one-man show, this is basically the life’s work of Takahide Hori, whose name is in the credits literally dozens of times, doing almost every job on set and voicing most of the characters in his stop-motion vision. Insanely ambitious, “Junk Head” is a stop-motion project that weaves steampunk and sci-fi influences like “Metropolis,” H.R. Giger, “Brazil,” and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “The City of Lost Children” into a striking, surreal vision. One watches Hori’s film marveling at the artistic accomplishment of his craft more than getting invested in its story—I’m not sure I could fully convey to anyone what it’s about—but it still casts a spell. Film is a visual medium, and if storytelling is sacrificed here for artistic whimsy and startling craftsmanship, it’s still an unforgettable experience.
“Junk Head” takes place centuries into the future, but it looks down instead of looking to the stars, presenting a deep subterranean world where the clones that man created have formed their own society, and creatures (many of which Giger himself would have loved) have sprouted up around them. Much of “Junk Head” is like watching an artist improvise with creature and character design, finding new worm-like monsters or humanoid robots to play with in his studio. It is such a consistently imaginative piece and not just in terms of character design but framing, editing, and the other elements needed to make a stop-motion feature work.
“Junk Head” has had several lives, starting as an award-winning short in 2013 before premiering at Fantasia back in 2017. However, Hori must not have been happy with that screening because the film went back into his studio after a few 2017 fest screenings, and this edition is being billed as a “tighter, meaner theatrical edit.” I didn’t see the 2017 version, but I’m happy to hear that this one will have a proper release now. It’s about time the world met Junk Head. Maybe this way Takahide Hori can get started on a follow-up.
It wouldn’t be Fantasia without a film from Takashi Miike, and the latest from the prodigious master will close this year’s event, creating a nice bookend to 15 years ago when “The Great Yokai War” opened the 2006 fest. This year’s closing night is a sequel to that fantasy adventure film called “The Great Yokai War – Guardians,” but you don’t really have to have seen the first one to appreciate Miike’s mastery of tone and playful spirit. The director of “Ichi the Killer” may not be the first that people think of when it comes to Young Adult adventure storytelling, but Miike can do anything, and he displays that range here in a film that’s fun, creative, and unpredictable. Some of it drags in the center, but there’s enough creative passion around those slow stretches that no one will care. I wish there were children’s films being made in the United States with this much pure joy behind the camera.
Kei is an average kid in every way, including regular fights with his brother Dai, but the precocious young man is visited one night by a creature who transports him to a magical world populated by the Yokai. There’s an incredible scene in “The Great Yokai War – Guardians” wherein the Yokai meet in a large room, filled with imaginative creatures and character design. In the corner of every frame there’s a new creation that looks like something ripped from a sketchbook by Jim Henson, Tim Burton, or Guillermo del Toro. It turns out that a demonic war is going to destroy Tokyo unless Kei and Dai can stop it.
Even a classic fantasy adventure structure of a young traveler to another world that only he can save doesn’t feel routine in Miike’s hands. Some of the special effects are a bit dodgy, and scenes almost always go on longer than they need to, but that’s because Miike seems like he’s having so much fun making this movie, injecting a fantasy adventure story with his dark sense of humor and visual flourishes. In many ways, it is the perfect closing act to Fantasia.
At that final screening, I imagine there will still be people talking about Rob Jabbaz’s “The Sadness,” one of the goriest zombie films in years. “The Sadness” has the kind of viral timeliness that will make zombie movies feel just a little different in the wake of a pandemic, but it also has an intense, insane, almost dangerous willingness to show you something you’ve never seen before. In that sense, it recalls extremely violent horror films of the past, but I wished I felt like there was more to it than superficial shock value. The best transgressive horror films use their extremes in the service of social commentary but that’s lacking here beyond “We’re all angry, selfish monsters.”
“The Sadness” opens with a loving couple in Taiwan, about to go about their day as stories of a new disease splash on the news. Before you know it, a pandemic has turned the residents of Taiwan into bloodthirsty maniacs. These are not your lumbering hulks of Romero or even really the speedy maniacs of Boyle. They’re more homicidal than your typical undead, as if the pandemic unleashed the most horrific, violent, predatory aspects of human nature. The sick go on killing sprees, stabbing, torturing, raping, and turning Taiwan into a nightmare of body parts and horror.
At one point, a zombie has sex with the eye socket of a living woman, and that’s really just the start. One of my notes was simply, “Bloody zombie f**king.” You can’t say you haven’t been warned. And yet “The Sadness” lacks momentum. It begins to feel like a series of episodic gross-outs more than anything with rising action or honest tension. And it feels thin on political or social commentary even though it’s clearly trying. It’s too distracted by one-upping the scene before to ask why.
At least Jabbaz’s film is memorably insane. I can’t say the same about Vicente Amorim’s downright languid “Yakuza Princess.” Based on the graphic novel by Danilo Beyruth, the film takes place in Sao Paulo, which is the largest Japanese diasporic community in the word, home to over 1.6 million Japanese Brazilians. It’s a fascinating place to set an action film, but Amorim does nothing with his setting, choosing to traffic in clichés and stereotypes instead of mining its richness of culture and character.
Masumi, a Japanese-American singer making a flat feature debut, plays Akemi, a woman whose 21st birthday is about to coincide with cascading revelations about her family. She’s trained in martial arts from a master named Chiba (Toshiji Takeshima), but she doesn’t know much about her background outside of some haunting dreams. Across town, a man named Shiro (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, going all in with wide eyes and serious whispers) wakes up in a hospital with no idea who he is or how he got there. But he has a badass sword. A third arc starts in Japan with a Yakuza boss (Tsuyoshi Ihara, who seems to be the only one here who understood the assignment) who learns a secret and heads off to Brazil, ready to collide with Akemi and Shiro.
There’s a lot of style in “Yakuza Princess,” but it’s told in such a choppy, frustrating, momentum-killing manner. The pace drains early as Amorim jumps from story to story, giving none of them the thrust needed to draw viewers in. I’m not sure how a film with such a rich setting about an ancient sword that reportedly holds the souls of its victims could be this flat, but Fantasia is always full of surprises.
(Note: We will have a full-length review in a couple weeks when "Yakuza Princess" opens on September 3rd by a critic who hopefully likes it more than I did.)