SFFF Day 2 – Chillin’ with the Villains

The Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival went globe-trotting to start Day 2. The “Drawn from Around the World” block of animated shorts offered some enthralling works. Many conveyed a sad or lamenting poignancy. Keiro (Tatiana Jusewycz, Benoît Leloup, Franck Menigoz, Zoé Nérot, and Charlotte Poncin, 2016) traced a girl’s journey to adulthood and its effect on the giant creature that accompanies her, Beyond the Books (Jérôme Battistelli, Mathilde Cartigny, Nicolas Evain, Maéna Paillet, Robin Pelissier, and Judith Wahler, 2017) envisioned the highly detailed collapse of an impossibly immense library, the Spanish short Dead Horses (Marc Riba and Anna Solanas, 2016) revealed the brutality of war from a child’s perspective and amid fabric devastation, and the Indian film Schirkoa (Asian Shukla, 2017) imagined political strife in a world where citizens wear bags and boxes on their heads. Others brought the funny, like Daniel Sterlin-Altman’s Hi, It’s Your Mother (2017), about motherhood, blood loss, and middle class living told in crude claymation, and Deuspi (Megacomputer, 2017), a very short work about a pair of astonishingly inept stick-up men and their hilarious fates.

Three films stood out in the “Drawn from Around the World” block. Poilus (Guillaume Auberval, Léa Dozoul, Simon Gomez, Timothé Hek, Hugo Legrange, Antoine Leroy, and David Lashcari, 2017), which takes its title from the name for French WWI infantry soldiers, is an anti-war film told with anthropomorphized rabbits. In it, a young, harmonica-playing hare is caught in no-man’s land and is forced to defend himself with tragic results. Poilus is undeniably slight, but its world is gorgeously realized, from its lanky, Cat Shit One-realism to its colourfully punctuated middle sequence where the film’s central character defends himself on the battlefield against a fantastic monster. Aram Sarkisian crafts a snowy hell of murder and paranoia in —Winston (2017). Fevered letters recounting one man’s hatred for his neighbour offer a window into the main character’s descent into Poe-inspired madness and Sarkisian’s knack for stark design and affective montage (along with some great voice-acting) make —Winston a tiny masterpiece in the macabre. The animation block’s most audacious film was also its most successful. Nicolas Fong’s Yin (2017) takes the Myth of Aristophanes and transforms it into a psychedelic, M.C. Escher-inspired fantasia where unreal perspectives and impossible architectures work to divide the short’s would-be lovers. Fluid, intricate, and imaginative, Yin will likely set the standard by which all shorts at SFFF should be judged.

From acorns to oaks, the SFFF quickly switched gears to the epic with Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainness (2017). It’s difficult to imagine any film containing more action or plot than The Villainess. Almost laborious convoluted, it’s enough to say that The Villainess can be reduced to being a remake of La Femme Nikita. Kim Ok-bin plays Sook-hee, an already dangerous woman made into an assassin for a shadowy agency. Sook-hee’s loyalties are tested when her current assignments run aground of her past loves. Action in The Villainess is frequent and frenetic, from a ten-minute POV opening sequence through a crime den/drug factory, to an extended sword fight on racing motorcycles, to a daring car chase with Sook-hee steering a speeding car while riding on its hood. The film’s action aesthetic is all highly reminiscent of Hardcore Henry with its POV shakiness and its masked edits creating the appearance of a continuous shot. The Villainess abides this aesthetic style regardless of whether it explicitly assumes the perspective of a combatant or not and the film frequently shifts between participant and observer roles without an explicit cut, only adding to the movie’s cacophony of spectacle. What is more, The Villainess applies these same principles in telling its story, packing the film with narrative content, slipping between present-time and flashback without any formal break, and employing its propulsive power to smash through basic questions like who are these people, what do they want, and why are they fighting? The Villainess mostly resembles a video game with frenzied first-person action and over-wrought, melodramatic sequence breaks. Accept The Villainess for what it is and it may be the most thrilling thing you see this year.

There is something of a running joke about the SFFF programming films where animals are killed and so it’s no surprise to see Euthanizer (Teemu Nikki, 2017) on the schedule. What may be more unexpected is the film’s unlikely place as the most humane and conscientious work of the Festival. Finnish character actor Matti Onnismaa is Veijo, an amateur pet-killer offering discounted rates compared to the local veterinarian but a lot more judgment on the individual who bring their cat or guinea pig to his doorstep. Euthanizer‘s crime film conflict arrives compliments of a budding white supremacist, his request that Veijo finish off the family dog he can’t afford to spay, and a particularly despicable act that leads the film to its concluding vengeance. Nikki’s film has far greater depth than the usual revenge fantasy. Veijo’s stoic sympathy for animals is as much an act of penance as it is of benevolence, a complicated ethic explored in his flowering relationship with a nurse who cares for his ailing father and who is drawn to his sensitive but eradicating violence. Veijo wears his Nordic existentialism around him like a crown or like armour, bringing dignity in death where it was denied in life, assuming the creature deserves such respect. Euthanizer is about deciding which creature we all are – one deserving of mercy or one still owing atonement – and that makes it an unexpectedly poetic crime film deserving of a closer look.

Sensitive understatement had no place at SFFF’s midnight screening of Bad Black (Nabwana I.G.G., 2016), a gonzo action film from Wakaliwood, the DIY film industry of the Wakaliga slum of Uganda’s capital. The film’s title character (Nalwanga Gloria as Bad Black) is a street kid-turned-gang leader and gold digger who sets her sights on a rich man from the other side of town (Bisaso Dauda) and who steals from the local doctor (Alan Hofmanis) his father’s dog tags. This leads the doctor to being trained as a commando by a small but tough boy named Wesley Snipes and then going on a wild, gun crazy rampage. I can’t honestly say what else happens in Bad Black but it hardly matters. Bad Black exists to revel in a cinematic grammar that rejects narrative coherence or character motivation and to celebrate the lively spectacle of a community representing itself in cheap green screen effects and violent self-achievement. Wakaliga films are typically screened domestically with a live narrator riffing on the outlandish action and plot and this screening of Bad Black not only featured such a commentary track (complete with shouts “Supa Action!”, references to “poo poo water,” and an assurance that even the commentator can’t follow the plot despite being Ugandan) but also included onscreen shout-outs to the Hub City with captions like “Saskatche Keeck” (or some such expression). Few films can personalize their screening for an audience a continent away, but Nabwana I.G.G. and the Ramon Film Productions crew did just that, also sending for viewing multiple trailers of their films and a personalized introduction from Wakaliga to Saskatoon. It’s difficult to imagine a film better embodying the spirit of the Fantastic Film Festival and its aims of diversity, community, entertainment.  Thank you, Wakaliwood.

With a stacked day of screenings coming up on Saturday, the balance of our reports will follow next week. Check back for discussions on Dave Made a MazeBlade of the ImmortalNovemberLowlife, and more!

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Hell (Rein Raamat, 1983)

Rein Raamat’s Hell (1983) adapts the engravings of Estonian graphic artist Eduard Wiiralt into a surreal, grotesque, and heavily sexual animated short. Wiiralt’s three source works, “The Preacher,” “Cabaret,” and “Hell,” date back to the early 1930s and portray a cacophony of bacchanalia, hysteria, and violence in the final years of Estonian independence amid the unrest of the Great Depression and European instability. Raamat’s Hell (Põrgu) was created in the comparably uncertain time of Soviet dismantling and collapse. The short is unsettling in its physical fluidity, like an Eastern European, art film prediction of the climax to Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989).

Snow-White (Dave Fleischer, 1933)

MMC! keeps our creepy October rolling with Dave Fleischer’s spook-errific animation classic, Snow-White (1933). This Betty Boop masterpiece was animated almost single-handed by Roland Crandall over six months, his reward for loyal service to Fleischer Studios. The short features an array of creepy gags and set-pieces, the highlight of which is the Mystery Cave portion where a rotoscoped Cab Calloway performs “St. James Infirmary Blues” as a ghostly Koko the Clown. I first saw Snow-White in a class on the Disney Company where the very knowledgeable professor cited the rotoscoped appearance of Cab Calloway as an introduction of realism into the film, something I never understood given the very fantastic animation applied to the phantom Koko transforms into and the almost unnatural, counter-intuitive physics of Calloway’s glides and moonwalks. Snow-White has been preserved by the National Film Registry and can be found on Blu-ray in Volume 4 of Olive Films’ Betty Boop: The Essential Collections.

Double King (Felix Colgrave, 2017)

While I keep trying to work out the best approach to the next MMC! proposal, let’s wonder at the trippy, loopy joy that is Double King. This hilarious tale of rippling, obsessive regicide trended hard earlier this year, but maybe a reminder for one of 2017’s best films (short or feature-length) is now in order. Give all the credit goes to Australian artist Felix Colgrave who took two years to create Double King and even composed the short’s music.

Fans of this and Colgrave’s other work can head over to his corner of Society6 and pick up some sweet gear! Get me something too!

The Story of O.J. (Jay-Z and Mark Romanek, 2017)

MMC! readers will know by now my soft spot for classic East Coast animation pastiche, so needless to say I’m currently awestruck by Jay-Z and Mark Romanek’s stunning video for “The Story of O.J.” Sampling Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” “The Story of O.J.” unpacks the unavoidable consequences of blackness’s various shades and the place of capital as a potential countermeasure. It’s a cool and canny track whose video takes as its reference point the racist stereotypes of early animation such as the Censored Eleven. Blogs like Cartoon Brew, Birth. Movies. Death., and Dazed have provided excellent accounts of the works referenced in “The Story of O.J.” and of the transtextual subversions being made by Jay-Z in this retrofitted homage, but I’m particularly struck with how the artistry and creativity of those problematic cartoons are merged with hip hop music video conventions and the issues addressed in conscious rap – the way an MC in direct address is situated with Fleischer-style backgrounds and vanishing points, how chipmunk soul vocals are fittingly located in a cartoon cabaret or how wacky surrealism is used to draw a shortcut connection between historical exploitation and its consequential products, and the way Jaybo’s matter-of-fact, unruffled skepticism reflects on the three-fingered cool of Bugs Bunny. A welcome companion to Beyoncé’s stunning Lemonade from last year, “The Story of O.J.” is a daring and ambitious work, sure to be one of the best of 2017.

Devilman: The Birth (Umanosuke Iida, 1987) and Devilman: Demon Bird Sirene (Umanosuke Iida, 1990)

TO FIGHT A DEMON, ONE MUST BECOME A DEMON!

Prehistoric demons, hideous and pitiless monsters that consume humans body and soul, secretly threaten mankind. Humanity’s only hope is to harness the demons’ power and turn it against them. With the help of his friend Ryo Asuka, the pure-hearted Akira Fudo merges with the demon Amon, God of War and Beast of Hell, to become Devilman, powerful defender of the human race with the strength and abilities of a demon! In Devilman: The Birth and Devilman: Demon Bird Sirène, this hellish anti-hero pits his infernal might against possessed party-goers, squid and spiders monsters, a sadistic turtle creature, and a beautiful and savage winged demoness.

Adapted from the 1972-1973 manga of visionary author and artist Go Nagai, Umanosuke Iida’s pair of original video animations faithfully represents the gory violence and incredible monstrosities that defined the series and made Devilman an iconic figure in Japanese popular culture. Arrow Video proudly presents these classic works of 1980s anime excess on high-definition Blu-ray with both their original Japanese audio and notorious English dub tracks.

Special Features:

  • New High Definition digital transfer
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original stereo audio for original Japanese and English dub tracks (uncompressed on the Blu-ray Disc)
  • Isolated music tracks featuring the compositions of Kenji Kawai
  • New optional English subtitle translation
  • New interview with acclaimed author and artist Go Nagai
  • “We All Steal from Go Nagai!” – Directors Guillermo del Toro, Rob Zombie, and Yoshihiro Nishimura on the legacy of Go Nagai and Devilman
  • Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Natsume Fusanosuke and Andrea Marinelli and an essay by creator Go Nagai written on the 30th anniversary of Devilman
  • Devilman: Tanjo Hen – the single volume novel that originally accompanied the OVA in 1987, newly translated and reprinted in its entirety
  • The Demon Bible – the original book published by Bandai in 1990 featuring artwork by Go Nagai, includes original Japanese and new English translations and reprinted in its entirety

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