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Fantasia 2023: Mayhem! (Farang), Hippo

Fantasia ended its 27th year of festivities on Tuesday night with a bang to the head, a dumbbell to the shin, and copious blood-gushing sliced throats. Such squirmy moments are thanks to Xavier Gens’ “Mayhem! (Farang)," a potent action extravaganza (which will get a 2024 release by IFC) from the filmmaker behind “Frontiers,” Timothy Olyphant’s “Hitman” version, and more. “Farang” catches Gens after having worked a few episodes on AMC’s action series “Gangs of London” and plays out like the visceral storyteller wanted to try his hands at a classic action premise. 

Gens and screenwriters Stéphane Cabel, Guillaume Lemans, and Magali Rossitto have essentially built a revenge story around their action scenes, which hardly disappoint. The backstory is a bit long-winded: our grizzled hero is Sam (Nassim Lyes), who takes a truncated journey to redemption: we meet him in a brutal French prison, minding his own business during a brawl, before he’s then let go on parole. But when Sam's former employers attack him, he accidentally kills one of them. Jump ahead five years, and he has a wife and stepdaughter and works as both an MMA fighter and for a hotel. Sam just wants peace with his family. A local gangster named Narong (Olivier Gourmet) offers him the land he wants for his new home; all Sam has to do is one more dirty job. Everything falls apart, and suddenly Sam is on the path for vengeance through the Bangkok underground and in pursuit of his kidnapped daughter. 

“Farang” doesn’t care too much about originality or changing the plot constructs. It does, however, show the work with its visceral stunts and camerawork that makes you feel so many of its hits—Gilles Porte’s camera swings and stops like the punch or kick it’s capturing, and the violence is reliably intense and cleanly executed. (The film’s action designer and second unit director, Jude Poyer, also worked on “Gangs of London.”) A beautifully edited third-act brawl in the elevator had me wincing and wriggling as if my body was also trying to avoid a shattered bone. 

Though it can be fleeting as bloody fun with dirty fights, “Farang” is a great showcase for Lyes, who appears to be in damn near every shot in a fight scene, firing off around his furious sidekicks and 12-gauge punches. And when he’s not slamming heads into concrete walls, he has enough dramatic intensity to ground the script’s easy (lazy?) stakes. Lyes makes his hulking turn on the archetype special enough, as it has worked for previous actors who also later found themselves as legends. Nassim is set to work on another movie or two with Gens, but his ferociousness in “Farang” indicates that we have another action star in wait.  

Mark H. Rapaport's “Hippo” boasts executive producer credits and kudos from Jody Hill, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green. Indeed, this memorable feature directorial debut has the air of their work, namely “The Righteous Gemstones.” In his own way, Rapaport has also concocted a strange American family and committed to an absurd tone, in which what is horrific or funny can alternate without being that obvious. "Hippo"'s sense of what is interesting is equally anarchistic as it is dry, like an unholy fusion of “A Clockwork Orange” and “Napoleon Dynamite.” 

Hippo (co-writer Kimball Farley) is the name of an American young man who plays Nintendo 64 (specifically “Body Harvest”), drinks Mt. Dew that he pours into milk, and looks at guns online. He soon thinks he must stop the apocalypse. Meanwhile, his younger adopted sister from Hungary, Buttercup (Lilla Kizlinger), wants to be a mother. But she doesn’t know how to make that happen. The story, more of a dual character study co-starring their disoriented mother, Ethel (Eliza Roberts), generally concerns their lack of awareness about violence and sex and their possibly self-destructive immaturity. "Hippo" is not afraid to push buttons of weirdness, as with the sexual tension that builds between brother and half-sister, as clueless as they both are. 

The inner workings of Hippo, his far more innocent sibling Buttercup, and their mother Ethel are expressed by a soft, warm voiceover from Eric Roberts ("Surely his sexual wounds were deep and infected, too?"). His voice is but one of the many aesthetic pieces that make "Hippo" a transfixing oddity—it has a soundtrack mostly of Bach, Monteverdi, and Liszt, paired with William Babcock's rich black-and-white cinematography, which frames characters often in the bottom half of a frame, making negative space always relative. Their lives are presented ornately and anthropologically, within an aesthetic I could have watched ten hours of. 

What would have been really impressive is if Rapaport could have made an emotional impact with the story, if the bold aesthetic and storytelling elements that prime us to feel such dark beauty led us to, in some way, care deeply for Hippo and Buttercup. Instead, the movie is limited more to immense promise, the work of a budding provocateur and American satirist with an addictive sense of bizarre character building and atmosphere first and foremost. Just as Hippo is sickly fascinated with our world, so are we with his. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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