SFFF Day 4 – Go Big and Go Home

The Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival’s final day was even more massive than expected. With a packed program and an extra short film (moved from the previous day due to a technical issue), there was little downtime between screenings and the Festival’s final midnight show started late and wrapped well past 2:30 a.m. Those that saw the marathon day of screenings to its bleary end enjoyed without question the SFFF’s best block of films (plus some welcome giveaways for lucky attendees).

For me, the best film of the Festival (and perhaps of 2017) was November (Rainer Sarnet, 2017). Adapted from Andrus Kivirähk’s novel Rehepapp ehk November, Sarnet’s film surveys a nineteenth-century Estonian village alive with magic and the supernatural. It has a witch and werewolf, a sleepwalking princess, a personified plague, ghosts visiting for a meal at home, giant chickens enjoying a hot sauna, a devil waiting at a crossroads and ready to strike a deal, and “Kratts,” rickety beings made from old tools and bones and conjured to do the townsfolk’s chores. November also has an array of greedy villagers living moment to moment and always ready to capitalize on an easy solution to life’s problems. To the extent that November has a narrative through line, it is found in Liina (Rea Lest), a young werewolf captivated by Hans (Jörgen Liik), an oblivious young man who only has eyes for the daughter of the German land baron who lives in a hilltop mansion. Liina and Hans both turn to the janky sorcery of their community to solve their romantic troubles, and like everyone else in their village, find absurd and compromised results. Sarnet’s uniquely enclosed world is gorgeously rendered in Mart Taniel’s exquisitely grubby chiaroscuro, recalling the work Béla Tarr and Aleksei German. This blending of sumptuous visuals, bittersweet emotions, and peculiar folklore makes November a uniquely bewitching art-horror-comedy. Poetic, preposterous, and perfect.

Two films seemed clearly born from the current cultural zeitgeist but expressed in the unexpected context of pastiche. Lowlife (Ryan Prows, 2017) strongly brings to mind Quentin Tarantino and the New Hollywood Violence cinema of the 1990s with its southern California setting; its talkative, eccentric characters; its converging, multi-thread narrative; and its matter-of-fact approach to violent interaction. At the centre of Lowlife is Teddy Bear (Mark Burnham), a taco restaurant owner, black market organ dealer, and all-around scary guy. Iconic Mexican wrestler El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate) works for Teddy but is preoccupied with protecting his eight-months pregnant wife Kaylee (Santana Dempsey). Crystal (Nicki Micheaux) operates a rundown motel and has a deal with Teddy for her alcoholic husband’s liver transplant. Randy (Jon Oswald) is a just-released ex-con with a swastika tattooed on his face who reluctantly agrees to help his African-American best friend Kieth (Shaye Ogbonna) with a risky job for Teddy. All these characters converge on Crystal’s motel, leading to an unusual final effort for redemption. Lowlife is a carefully crafted, messily imagined crime story that ably reproduces the arousing ferocity of 1990s American cinema, but it also has embedded within it the political concerns of today. The prominent appearances of illegal immigrants, ICE agents, Nazi symbols on non-racists, interracial couples, culturally-specific celebrities, and a garishly tacky entrepreneur literally profiting on their blood is hardly an accident in the script’s writing. Prows’s world of exploitive crime contains a keen political awareness that recasts Lowlife from savage imitation to surreptitious social commentary.

Ufuk Genc and Michael Popescu’s Plan B (2016) sees a trio of stuntmen and their manager, all obsessed with ’80s action cinema (and dressed respectively as Cobra Cobretti, Billy Lo, Marty McFly, and “Thriller” Michael Jackson), walk in on a crime world kidnapping thinking it to be an audition. When one member of the group is taken hostage, the remaining three are forced to scour Berlin on a criminal scavenger hunt, all while avoiding investigating police detectives. Plan B‘s heroes are at times laughably idiotic in their confidence as protagonists; at other moments they are ludicrously earnest in aping their martial arts movie idols. As such, Plan B could easily be seen as a ridiculously fun, action movie Zoolander, full of cocky, well-meaning dupes fighting for right, but there is something additionally endearing in the combination of a tough-as-nails German cop (Laurent Daniels) with this multicultural quartet of wanna-be stars (Can Aydin, Cha-Lee Yoon, Phong Giang, and Eugene Boateng). Full of fun and furious fighting, Plan B is an easy film to enjoy.

Takashi Miike also brought action to the SFFF with his 100th film, Blade of the Immortal (2017), an adaptation of Hiroaki Samura’s manga series. Takuya Kimura stars as Manji, a relentless samurai infected with “sacred bloodworms” that close any wound and effectively turn him into an immortal. He agrees to assist a young girl, Rin Asano (Hana Sugisaki), in her quest to avenge the death of her parents by Kagehisa Anotsu (Sōta Fukushi) and his makeshift school of martial artists, the Ittō-ryū. While Anotsu has political ambitions that lead to all manner of intrigue and double-dealing, Blade of the Immortal is firstly a bloody sword fight movie with Manji in the role of chambara Wolverine. The film’s plot becomes increasingly shaggy, in turn making the unrelenting action tiresome at points. Blade of the Immortal obviously lacks the gravity of Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011), the set-piece spectacles of 13 Assassins (2010), or the balls-out audacity of Yakuza Apocalypse (2015). Adjust your expectations and this manga adaptation (one of two released by Miike this year) offers 140 minutes of slashing, severing fun.

While on the topic of underwhelming screenings, Day 4 included Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s The Endless (2017). It’s difficult to speak about the film without spoiling it, sufficed to say that brothers Justin and Aaron (played by writer-director Benson and director-cinematographer Moorehead) return to the “UFO death cult” they once escaped after receiving a video cassette from a current member. There, Aaron finds comfort in old routines while Justin struggles to unpack the meaning of the upcoming “Ascension.” As a fan of Benson and Moorehead’s previous film Spring (2014) and taken by their ambitions in mindfuckery here, I really wanted to enjoy The Endless but found it insufficiently revelatory. The cult’s conspicuously secretive behaviour and its evasive interactions declare themselves as the grinding wheels of plot machinations, something all the more obvious when the film’s advancing running time allows for the introduction of new characters free to reveal the central mystery. The Endless is well-acted, is ably shot, and has some impressive visual effects, but its concept struggles the match the build-up. Many at SFFF loved The Endless as a twisting, suspenseful accomplishment in independent, sci-fi filmmaking, but alas I was not one of them.

A more rewarding exercise in tension was found in Robin Aubert’s Les Affamés (2017), an atmospheric zombie film set in rural Quebec. This is a small batch, back to basics zombie apocalypse. There is no false drama, no contrived conflicts among the living; just a collection of people quietly resolved to rely on each other and survive their dangerous journey to a more populated, better supplied centre. The film’s zombies are straightforwardly threatening, howling and chasing in the presence of living beings, silently staring at piles of personal items when left alone. Les Affamés hides no secret motivations among the survivors and no hidden natures to the undead. What is present is a hushed suspense that is only occasionally broken by the sound of shrieking zombies or the pained screams of their victims. Aside from a late sequence where Aubert’s film shows its limited budget and struggles to effectively depict the clash of living and dead, Les Affamés is a beautifully nerve-racking, artfully muted take on the zombie flick, rejuvenating the genre with maturity and sensitivity rather than volume or parody.

Day 4’s program of short films was a mixed bag. A Father’s Day (Mat Johns, 2016) and Paul’s Bad Day (Phil Bucci, 2017) were comfortable zombie fare, Zoë Bell’s Imbroglio (Christopher Zatta, 2017) celebrated an elaborate action scene, Short Cut (Prano Bailey-Bond, 2016) sees a douchey driver take a regretful pee-break, and Stick to Your Gun (Joe Hitchcock, 2016) is a grindhouse version of a Tweety bird cartoon. The best shorts of the day were Mouse (Celine Held and Logan George, 2017), a disgusting tale of two junkies with dreams of getting rich when they find a dead mouse in a can of beans, and Lost Face (Sean Meehan, 2016), a film adaptation of a Jack London story that involves a French fur thief attempting to outwit an indigenous tribe intent on killing him.

In a year where genre cinema lacked a consensus favourite like Train to Busan or a notorious must-see like The Greasy Strangler, the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival programmed a diverse and entertaining slate of films. Without a strong selection of horror cinema, festival director John Allison and his team avoided easily recognizable franchised products and instead steered toward challenging, more divisive films. The SFFF also celebrated female filmmakers (Karen Skloss, Marianna Palka, Izzy Lee, Shelagh Rowan-Legg, et al.) and female-led movies (Tragedy GirlsPoor AgnesImbroglio, et al.), although Allison asserted that this was the unforeseen result of simply picking films on their merits – perhaps a welcome sign of a changing, more inclusive industry. Bad luck seems to have denied the SFFF some prominent fantastic film festival titles (shortly after the close of the SFFF, Allison particularly lamented having missed Tigers Are Not Afraid (Issa López, 2017) when programming the Festival), but its 2017 iteration was nevertheless notable for the schedule’s variety in tone and genre and for the range of favourite titles found by its programmers and audiences. Allison remarked that his goal is for attendees to find favourite films, not to love every title, and his wide-ranging program did just that.

The SFFF seems to have reached its capacity in its current form. A bigger, more audience-friendly SFFF will likely mean changes in its format – a post-Festival questionnaire canvasses reducing the number of midnight screenings and expanding to Tuesday and/or Sunday. MMC! will never turn down more movies, so here’s to new possibilities in genre film-viewing in Saskatoon! See you next year!

Feature film audience choice award
  • First: Bad Black and Dave Made a Maze (tie)
  • Third: The Villainess
  • Runner Up: Blade of Immortal
Short Film audience Choice award
  • Gold: —Winston
  • Silver: Fun.
  • Bronze: Lost FacePolius, and Girl #2
My top ten
  1. November
  2. Yin
  3. Lowlife
  4. —Winston
  5. Euthanizer
  6. My Friend Dahmer
  7. Les Affamés
  8. Dave Made a Maze
  9. Fun.
  10. Beyond Skyline

2 thoughts on “SFFF Day 4 – Go Big and Go Home

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