Friday, June 15, 2018

The Silenced (2015)

directed by Lee Hae-Young
South Korea
99 minutes
3 stars out of 5

Personally I wasn't looking forward to seeing this, to be honest. I didn't have anything against the content of the movie itself, but it's a bit long (for me) and it looked like it was going to be one of those films that are very lush and spacious, yet very boring. I was kind of right in that it moves slowly and it's beautiful, but it is honestly more engaging than I gave it credit for, and I wasn't too bothered about having to sit through 99 minutes of period-piece girl's boarding school drama.

The general consensus from letterboxd viewers seems to be the same as mine: pretty, but a bit dull. It's got "watchability", but it's not that great in other areas. It has all the typical furnishings of any drama set in a girl's school: vague lesbian undertones, bullying, random acts of violence from girls who Just Can't Take It Anymore, scandalously strict teachers, rigid schedules, the whole lot. Things I don't even really need to explain because they're such common tropes. The difference in The Silenced is that there's also some sci-fi elements that really don't come out until the second half of the film, but their emergence onto the scene makes for something a whole lot more interesting.

Aesthetically it's perfect, not a hair or a stitch of clothing out of place. The cinematography is as tightly-controlled as the schoolhouse environment it depicts. It's also kind of nice to see an obvious lesbian relationship not be sexualized to the moon and back. It feels a little soft and uncommitted, however, and it would have been nice to see the two main girls be undoubtedly, vocally in love, but this is nice too. I just hope that the restraint on their relationship wasn't because the director/writer decided that making a gay romance set during this particular time period was too unrealistic. Gay people didn't just spring into existence in the latter half of the 20th century.

I think this is a good example of a film that bridges the gap between frivolous, fun, alone-in-your-bedroom viewing and the kind of cinematography that gets praised at festivals. The plot and the random foray into sci-fi/fantasy makes this feel mostly like something that would get relegated to Netflix (which it did), but visually it's arguably better than a lot of things that win prestigious awards. I like this because it defies genre labels, defies the dichotomy of high art vs. low art. It's a movie that can basically only be watched and enjoyed because you personally want to watch and enjoy it, if that makes sense.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Blue Hour (2015)

directed by Anucha Boonyawatana
97 minutes
4 stars out of 5

There's something about the very first scene of this movie that's really affecting and does an excellent job of setting the tone without using words- the main character coming to after a fight with some bullies, cleaning himself up, and immediately putting his earring back in. That willingness to continue expressing yourself even after you've been physically hurt is such a strong image.

This movie drew me in on the promise of two things: A gay love story rendered in the style of Thai contemplative cinema, and something about a haunted swimming pool. I was really fascinated with the swimming pool because it's such a textbook example of a liminal space, which makes it a perfect setting for the romance and also a powerful statement about the experience of being gay in an intolerant environment. That the liminal space of the swimming pool is where the two characters are forced to meet up, that they have to remain sequestered in this unsettling, dark place where no one else wants to go instead of being able to be open in each other's houses or outside. Some of the film takes place in a garbage dump that serves as a similar liminal space, except the garbage dump represents a negative force where- I feel- the swimming pool was mostly neutral.

As with many Thai films, watching The Blue Hour is an immersive experience that makes you forget about time and your own environment and draws you into the scenery and setting onscreen. I'm sure that there are Thai films out there that bear no resemblance to the country's most famous director of slow cinema, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but either his legacy spawned basically a new standard for the country's cinema, or there's something ingrained within the process of shooting a film in Thailand itself that makes gives them this hazy, summery, almost underwater quality of serenity to them. Not even necessarily "serenity", since that word feels reductive, but a stillness, a patience. The ability to let a story tell itself through gestures and acts rather than dialogue.

The thing about The Blue Hour that could be off-putting to some people is that about halfway through, it very abruptly becomes a horror film. The swimming pool was creepy from the start, but past a certain point it's impossible to see it as having been a metaphor or a little urban legend to flesh out the background of the story. This swimming pool is deeply, deeply haunted, and it permeates the characters' lives to such an extent that the whole atmosphere of the film takes on a sinister undertone that I absolutely loved. The first half, with the love story, is beautiful and gorgeous and a thing to heal the soul if you're like me and are unsatisfied with how many gay romances on film end in tragedy. But the second half takes this into becoming something existentially terrifying, a reflection of the uncertainty of loving someone and your own feelings about the people around you.

I can't say I understood every minute of this but I was happy to go along with the ride and admire the scenery. There's so much in this that we don't get to see in movies about gay teens. Specifically, resilience and triumph over self-doubt, absolute knowledge that being true to yourself is the way to prevail over those who seek to harm you. And the world's most ominous swimming pool, and possibly supernatural algae. It's just so good. This might be one of my favorites I've seen this year thus far.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Strangeness (1985)

directed by Melanie Anne Phillips
93 minutes
3 stars out of 5

I watched this because it was directed by a trans woman and the amount of relatively mainstream horror movies directed by trans women is way too small. I probably would have watched it otherwise, though, to be honest- I love that title, The Strangeness! It lets you know that you're not just in for a regular movie, you're in for Strangeness.

Unfortunately this is a regular movie. It's a bog-standard mid-80s monster flick about a group of people who go down into a mine and encounter something that should have stayed down there, peppered with your usual allusions to Native American legends and off-color jokes about a white-people-hating monster that the native population supposedly made up as an excuse to kill whites with impunity. The cultural insensitivity is awkward and inexcusable, but fortunately it is not a large part of the film. Maybe one day we'll get a horror movie with a majority Native American cast wherein they come across abandoned ruins rumored to be the site of some mysterious urban legend involving white people.

Still, I think I might be biased in favor of this because I'm just so fond of horror movies involving archaeology. True, very little technical archaeology is done in this- mostly the characters just mention being archaeologists offhand- and it seems to have been made by someone with only very generic, surface-level knowledge of mining, spelunking, caving, et cetera. But I guess I myself want to go down into a cave so bad that even a crappy 80s movie where a lot of the sets look suspiciously like crinkled-up cardboard (a $25,000 budget effectively explains any and all roughness) is enough to stimulate my imagination.

If you stick through all the boring stuff that generally always arises in films with a group of people in a confined space, you'll be rewarded with a wonderfully low-tech claymation/stop-motion tentacle monster who I unironically love. I don't think movies in the 80s went for realism all the time, and I'm so fond of that. This monster looks nothing like a flesh and blood creature, but it looks like the kind of thing I want to see in a monster movie anyway; I'll take earnest DIY over somebody trying and failing to squeeze a decent creature out of a lacking CGI budget any day. This whole movie could have been condensed into a Twilight Zone episode, but then we wouldn't get the experience of waiting so long to see the monster reveal. Which could be a bad thing depending on your patience.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Feral (2017)

directed by Mark Young
90 minutes
3 stars out of 5

I watched this because Olivia Luccardi was in it and I loved her in Channel Zero. Other than that, this film's exceedingly generic title and synopsis didn't reveal much about its plot. I'm going to talk about its creatures a bit in this review, and I'm not sure if that constitutes a spoiler because there's nothing special about them and they aren't kept a secret, but they are plot-relevant so you might want to skip details about them anyway.

This has an extremely formulaic set-up that differs from every other "people get killed in the woods" movie only in that one pair of its cast of characters is a lesbian couple. I really enjoyed seeing this and even though the other characters did seem to gossip needlessly about them, it was super cool to finally have some representation in a genre film. It may have still been a cliche, but seeing the soppy I-don't-want-you-to-die drawn-out kiss scene they usually have at least one of in slashers happen between two girls instead of a straight couple made me really happy. I like the part where Olivia Luccardi's character shoves a guy so hard he falls into a bear trap because he said her girlfriend was going through some kind of "d*ke phase".

Anyway, the creatures in this aren't bad as far as zombies go, and it's interesting that one of the characters outright says "what, like zombies?" when it's explained to her what the creatures are, so this film is set in a world where people have seen zombie films and understand what they are and that they're not supposed to be real. I think the characters believe what's happening is more along the lines of an epidemic of some rare disease than a typical Zombie Virus™. This is an unpopular opinion, but I think zombie movies are much scarier when they establish that they're happening in a world where everybody already knows that zombies are a fictional trope, because it means that whatever viral outbreak occurs is basically something out of everyone's worst nightmares.

This is actually a really boring film though and I wish it had done more to break the mold. This director also made a film called Tooth & Nail which I saw a very long time ago and I think I remember feeling the same way about it, that it didn't do enough to make itself distinct from other, similar films. The characters spend too much time on questions of "what's going on?" and "what could be attacking us?" to the point where it hinders the progression of the plot. The leader of them also has such an aversion to killing that it becomes unrealistic, especially so when none of the others just take the matter into their own hands and kill the infected themselves. Although I guess you don't really have much choice when somebody with a gun tells you what not to do. This is a textbook three-star, not-bad-but-not-good horror movie and I don't have a lot of feelings about it overall.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Ghost Snatchers (1986)

directed by Lam Ngai-Choi
Hong Kong
88 minutes
3.5 stars out of 5

I appreciate that this movie delivers on its title in the very first scene, which features a woman definitely being snatched by ghosts. I'm not sure if the title refers to ghosts who snatch people, or people who snatch ghosts, though. It could really go either way.

It's essentially about some people who end up for one reason or another in a really, really cursed building. There are a lot of different spirits inhabiting it but the most destructive of them is a platoon of angry Japanese soldiers circa WWII who just want to kill a lot of people. There's also a mahjong demon, a ghost coming out of a TV, and some disembodied grabby hands that come out of walls and hallways, as well as a full-fledged portal to hell that opens through a bathroom mirror at some point. If it is ghosts you desire, you won't be disappointed in this.

It's also hilarious in a slapstick, Three Stooges type of way. The more I watch movies from Lam Nai-Choi that are not Riki-oh: Story of Ricky, the more I appreciate him as a director, because while Riki-oh is undoubtedly an amazing film, it's a film that you have to be in a particular mood to watch. But as funny as Ghost Snatchers is, there's a lot of jokes that are annoying- the misogyny is extremely grating, as pretty much every woman in the film is present only so men can ogle her, and there's also a lot of casual body shaming too, but to me the funniest thing about people constantly calling the main character "Fatty" like it was his name was just the fact that so many people were willing to insult this random guy they didn't know.

The best thing about this movie is how dreamlike it becomes due to all the random ghosts popping up out of nowhere and the fluidity of its logic. I think it feels like a dream because even though the characters are surprised by a lot of the stuff that's happening, nothing is ever treated as impossible and everybody just kind of goes with it. I liked Joyce Godenzi's character a lot because even though she deals in spells and other supernatural things, the characters walk into her office and consult her as if she's a mundane businesswoman. I love how she casts spells and bridges the gap between this world and the underworld as casually as somebody making a business transaction. More career sorceresses on film, please.

Hong Kong horror movies like this one are always a treat visually and I'm not usually the type to say that things were better back in the day (especially since "the day" in this case was over a decade before I was born), but they really don't make these like they used to. I would love to see somebody try a remake of this or The Imp or even maybe one of the Mr Vampire movies, but an authentic remake with puppets and rubber prosthetics, not CGI. The spirit of weirdness for weirdness' sake and barrages of handmade ghosts are timeless.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma (1989)

directed by Takashi Anno
80 minutes
3.5 stars out of 5

This has nothing to do with BloodRayne. It's an anime set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where a lone warrior searches for the man who was once his companion, but also tried to kill him as well. There are horrible creatures called Yoma wandering around and occasionally some ninjas. That's the best I can do for a synopsis, because this thing is really confusing and I couldn't tell what the plot was doing most of the time. I think this had to have been a manga adaptation because it feels very strongly like it was trying to pack 10 books' worth of plot into 80 minutes.

Since this is so plotless, you're basically watching it for the cool monsters and fun body horror animation. Maybe if you pay closer attention, you could get something more out of it, but I didn't find it to have many redeeming qualities outside of super neat-looking gore and ridiculous fight scenes and creatures, which often come entirely out of left field. At one point a giant flaming horse emerges from the ocean and tramples a girl and I was just like "Okay. Sure." There's a scene where the bad guy rides said horse and then transforms into a pile of brown goop, which then transforms into a werewolf centaur. His upper half is a werewolf and his bottom half is a furry horse. That's one of the best monster designs I've ever seen.

As is often the case with Japanese sci-fi about war and destruction, there are implicit echoes of real life in this: when the main character is able to briefly talk to one of the Yoma, it tells him how the villagers it's preying on are broken, hopeless, lost people who are going nowhere in life, so what's the big tragedy in eating them? That sounds like the rhetoric used often to justify the machinery of war, that casualties taking place in some rundown poverty-stricken village with no electricity or technology are somehow either sad but inevitable, or just not too devastating in the first place.

It was also fun seeing a world reverted to a kind of feudal ruling system, with people wearing clothes and doing things that harken back to "traditional" rural Japanese lifestyles, because the whole Wild West Apocalypse trope is a big thing in American post-apoc movies and it's nice to see another country doing their take on it. I doubt the resources to have actual bands of roving samurai and ninja would exist in a world with this much scarcity, but let's not get into criticizing the realism of a movie with a werewolf centaur.

The characters are all exceptionally bland, even the protagonist and his desire to reunite with his childhood friend even if the friend is well past redeemability, but like I said, it's much easier to watch this for the cool animation style than because you're looking for something with emotional depth. I personally enjoy a lot of this specific kind of anime from the 80s and 90s where the goal was to be as over-the-top as physically possible with your monster designs and not care too much about the story. I don't want to make it out like this has no story, but it's just not the most important thing about it. It's basically a fluff piece with lots of good aesthetics.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Kashchey the Immortal (1944)

directed by Aleksandr Rou
Russia (Soviet Union at the time)
73 minutes
3 stars out of 5

This is pretty much a propaganda film that co-opts the narrative of an old folktale, except it's not even really co-opting so much as it is jamming nationalism into every nook and cranny. It isn't subtle about these nationalistic leanings, featuring many extremely dramatic and overacted songs about the beauty and splendor of Russian land that are often sung while wandering about on horseback or staring wistfully out a window and releasing doves into the air (where did these girls get doves from and why were they keeping them captive, anyway?). If you're more into the folktale side of this story, your enjoyment of this will depend largely on how much propaganda you like in your movies.

This film isn't even that great at retelling the story, or maybe I'm just too fond of the version told in Catherynne M. Valente's "Deathless" and I've been spoiled by a narrative where Maryna Morevna is not a helpless damsel in distress who must be saved from eternal slumber. This film seems to be more of a culture hero story, with very black-and-white notions of good/evil. It's very pretty, the sets are extensive and well-made and the actors certainly sing well, but it's just not the kind of thing that you can watch casually without smirking a little. It's not the factor of Russian pride that's silly here, there's nothing inherently wrong with that at all. It's just that this is all so outdated and whitewashed.

I do love the way they designed Kashchei, though. "Why won't you marry me? Check out this cool sword!" I love the look of him as a petulant old man who seems to have enjoyed power for too long. There's always been something different about him in the original tale, different from other villains who are either riotously inhuman or appear identical to the heroes but with darker coloring. This Kashchei looks like a sort of in-between. He reminds me of some villains from slightly earlier during the silent era. The addition of premium 1940s practical effects gives him a little bit of stop-motion uncanniness that adds to his charm (?).

This movie's age is extremely obvious from practically every aspect of it, especially the scenes in a poorly disguised caricature of a Middle Eastern country with people in various shades of brownface and various sizes of prosthetic nose; depicted as kooky, nonsensical religious zealots who bow a lot and eat rice all the time. I do lament that this wasn't filmed in color considering Russian Fantastika's long-standing reputation of being an absolute visual treat, but as far as black and white goes, things could have been worse. I think its racism is too blatant to make it anything more than a silly curiosity, but it's decent watching if you're curious about it in the first place and are prepared to disregard everything it implies about race.