Monday, July 30, 2018

Fantasia 2018--Luz--Tilman Singer (2018)

Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) gets a kiss to die for in Tilman Singer's super-cool Luz (2018)
As I waited patiently to file into the screening room to see Tilman Singer's Luz at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival, a lovely gentlemen said to me, "It's like early Cronenberg, with some David Lynch, and also Zulawski."  I replied, "That's awesome, I like all those things!" now exceedingly pumped for a film about which I was already excited.  Well, he was right, but Luz is even cooler than all those touchstones, and one of the most lingeringly compelling and aesthetically beautiful films I've seen at Fantasia, this year and all the years.  Yes, it's that great.

A colleague of mine, whom I deeply respect, asked me, when I was waxing rhapsodically about Luz, "what exactly is the point?"  Hmmm.  I don't think that Luz can be explained in a pithy synopsis, because the film is not a straight-forward, linear narrative.  In fact, there is a thread of a narrative, regarding the female cabbie, Luz, and what appears to be a demon for whom she opened a door during her early boarding school days.  Intermittent flashbacks show a young, nude woman lying in a pentagram surrounded by candles--cue demon ritual.  Said demon really took a liking to Luz back in the day, and now she/he/it is on a "romantic" mission to reconnect with its lost love.  Like Justin McConnell's Lifechanger, the film's supernatural entity is also more or less a body thief, so gender does not really stick.  Yet, unlike McConnell's beast, Luz's entity is distinctly odd and inhuman, rendering the body it possesses strange and uncanny.  In the scene where the possessed Nora (Julia Riedler) seduces Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt), she moves her body in a jerky, yet seductive, manner, slithering on her bar stool.  She fills the small space with her unnatural presence.

Dr. Rossini/the demon controls Detective Bertillion during Luz's hypnosis
The term "fever dream" is pretty over-used when it comes to hallucinatory horror films, but here it seems well placed, as the film shifts from different character subjectivities, and between past and present, without any discernible boundaries. Sometimes the camera gets up close to a character, such as its intimacy with Luz, but most of the time, the camera stays at a significant distance, like a wary observer.  This type of cinematography lends an eerie quality to the set pieces of the film, whether at the police station, where much of the film takes place, or at a bar, where Dr. Rossini has a very strange encounter with the intense Nora.  The scene at a local bar conveys genius on a limited budget, with oddly colored cocktails and shots served up, thrown back by Nora in a primal and predatory manner.  The scenes that take place at the entry to the police station, shot both in a long shot and in a long take, almost convey a mad "Jacques Tati" humor straight out of Playtime--although the film is far too creepy to elicit anything other than uncomfortable laughter.  A hypnosis scene in the police station's conference room becomes a melding, transformative encounter, as Dr. Rossini asks Luz to describe what happened to her the night she leapt from her moving cab.  Gunshots, body swapping, and demonic flashbacks galore explode into a gauzy mist, where characters become indistinguishable in the murky haze.
Luz's (Luana Velis) punk attitude and tough exterior hide her occult leanings
Accompanied by both a seductive and slightly discordant soundtrack, the encompassing mood of the film is deeply unsettling, and its 16mm grain gives the film a certain timelessness--even though the decor nods to 70s and 80s art horror.  Thankfully, no one's whipping out a cell phone here to ruin the mood.  Subtitles for this German film are sensitive to the multiple languages used, and Luz's blasphemous Spanish cursing is accompanied by both German and English subtitles.
Luz's deadly encounter with Dr. Rossini transforms the police station into a liminal space
All my delicate dancing around the film's subject matter cannot really express how gorgeous, imaginative, unsettling, and utterly unique the film is.  So many images leave an indelible impression that continue to haunt long after the film's screening.  Luz is Tilman Singer's student thesis film.  Yes!  I think if one of my students turned in a film with this much confidence, style, and power, my head would probably explode like a moment straight out of Scanners.  Fantasia is a place that can make a filmmaker's career, and I can only hope that a platform like Shudder or Amazon Prime will get a hold of Tilman's film and share it with everyone.  A standout of Fantasia 2018, it's too soon to tell, but Luz is a contender for my favorite film of the festival!  Wow.  Find it and see it.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Fantasia 2018--Under the Silver Lake--David Robert Mitchell (2018)

Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a study in white male hetero entitled voyeurism in Under the Silver Lake (2018)
Well, David Robert Mitchell has squandered all of his accumulated cache from 2014's It Follows with the witless slog of his latest white male fantasy, Under the Silver Lake (2018), which had its North American Premiere at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival.  The film had earned mixed reviews from its Cannes film festival screenings, and has subsequently had its release date postponed from June 22nd to December 7th after its lackluster reception.  So perhaps I'm not surprised to be massively disappointed by this film that follows grade-A unemployed loser and entitled Silver Lake denizen Sam (Andrew Garfield) as he wanders from apartment to apartment and party to party in search of some mystery girl who he interacted with very briefly, and who disappears from the apartment across the courtyard of his NICE digs in this uber-hip neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Robert Mitchell sets the tone immediately with his latest film by A) having some weirdo animatronic animal (squirrel? beaver? dog?) fall down splat from above, and then briefly animate before keeling over  So, I guess it's QUIRKY!!  Then B) he has Sam laying about on his balcony, with binoculars, watching the topless hippy parrot/parakeet owner across the way.  Very shortly after that, Sam has sex with someone credited as "The Actress" played by Riki Lindhome, because Garfunkel and Oates are not making the big bucks, as they should, and she has to pay the rent, dammit.  May I remind you, that in this film, she is not even given a name.  Granted, other women are called "Balloon Girl" and "Bird Lady," so I guess Riley Keough should be thankful that her manic pixie dream girl "Sarah" actually has a name, although she should just be called "manic pixie dream girl" or "Marilyn Monroe Wannabee" for consistency's sake.
Sarah (Riley Keough) giggles, drinks OJ and eats saltines in bed, and gives Sam some sense of purpose
Sarah catches Sam spying on her from his balcony, and for some very unclear reason, invites him over for a joint, and some OJ and saltines at her place.  She shares one rather chaste kiss before she boots him out of her apartment, planning on meeting up with him the next day.  Yet, when he goes to meet her, he finds the apartment abandoned, uninhabited, as Sarah and her roommates have somehow "poof" disappeared.  This excitement is a bit too much for Sam, who sees conspiracies around every corner, and believes there's some secret message hidden in old images of Vanna White's glances.  Aimless Sam has now got an aim (find Sarah) and neither hipster performance artists (like Balloon Girl) or emo bands such as "Jesus and the Brides of Dracula" will get in his way.  He will journey from hip underground parties, to cool cemetery film screenings in search of the girl he spent approximately 20 minutes with, all in a single-minded stalker quest to find her. 

All the girls want to sleep with loser Sam
My contempt for most of the narrative compels me to skim over some of the more interesting visual and aural touches that Robert Mitchell scatters throughout the film.  The soundtrack is really lush and often echoes noir soundtracks of the past, although no matter how I look at Under the Silver Lake, Andrew Garfield is no Robert Mitchum, nor Bogart, nor even Fred MacMurray.  The film's "ode to Los Angeles" is inconsistent though--are we supposed to be mesmerized by Silver Lake's laid back hipness, or disgusted by its shallow pretension?  Likewise, the film has some striking moments of violence.  One of my favorites has Sam kicking the crap out of two unsuspecting kids, where someone in the audience called out "You get 'em, Spiderman!"  Nice.  Yet, I'm not sure how to interpret this deadbeat nerd-bro's acts of sudden rage.  While they elicited a cheer from Fantasia's audience (look, something's actually happening!), I did not understand what they signified beyond some white male revenge fantasy against petty problems.  How dare you ruin my hero worship of Kurt Cobain, old songwriter dude who laughs maniacally! 

Also, there's this really cool sequence that's a live action motion graphic of a local zine created by Patrick Fischler, who is a lovely presence in just about any film.  But why is this animated sequence in the film?  Cuz it's quirky as fu**.  Lots of questions float around that don't necessarily require answers, but provide motivation for our lame-o detective wannabee to move from point A to point B.  Why is there an underground bunker, and what does it have to do with missing millionaire Jefferson Sevence?  Also, who is the nefarious dog killer, and why are the skunks in Los Angeles so invested in spraying Sam.  I guess, the ultimate question is do we really care?  Nope.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Fantasia 2018--Lifechanger--Justin McConnell (2018)

Drew (Jack Foley in this iteration) gets on with the labor of survival in Justin McConnell's Lifechanger (2018)
One of Fantasia Film Festival's many pleasures is the ability not only to see amazing new horror films, but also see them first.  Fantasia 2018 screened the world premiere of Justin McConnell's thoughtful and gruesome feature Lifechanger, and while I haven't seen the director's other work, this body jumping genre piece really impressed me (and a good chunk of the Fantasia audience that stuck around, full of questions, during the Q & A).

Lifechanger introduces us to Drew in its first moments through the character's voice-over, a remarkably consistent insight into the character as it jumps from person to person through claiming their bodies, and seemingly their memories as well.  Drew has just "taken" Emily Roberts (Elitsa Bako), leaving a rather desiccated corpse double beside it, one of which the body thief will quickly dispose.  So, from the first moments, viewers are introduced to the film's monster, quite sympathetically.  As we know, subjective narration can really align us with characters that commit questionable actions with equally questionable motivations.  Drew states that it takes over people to survive, not with any malicious intent, but out of desperation as its body begins to rot (which creates some nice goopy moments).  Over the course of the film, Drew inhabits a variety of differently gendered bodies, although the film loses some of the subversiveness this gender swapping might entail, by 1) maintaining Drew's voice-over by a distinctly male actor (Bill Oberst Jr.) and 2) by having the character's mission be the single-minded pursuit of melancholy Julia (Lora Burke), with which Drew had a "love connection" with a couple of years ago while inhabiting the body of her husband, Richard, who happened to up-and-disappear shortly after the couple's son died.  Coincidence?  You'll notice that I'm trying to avoid male or female pronouns when discussing Drew, because despite the film's narrative leanings, Drew is definitely "other."

Julia chatting with Rachel aka Drew at the Monarch Lounge
Julia is the very picture of loss, and Drew does whatever it takes to be near her, meeting up at her drinking haunt, The Monarch Lounge, in a variety of bodies/guises.  Drew can either accelerate its bodily decay (by snorting prodigious amounts of blow) or stave it off (through antibiotics), and some of the film's most exciting tensions circle around "the authorities" discovering Drew's "body farm" full of previous incarnations, and hunting down Rachel, who wisely becomes Robert (Jack Foley) just when the police are closing in.  Another bonus is the fact that Rachel was a dental assistant, so she had access to quite a few antibiotics that Drew uses to slow down his decomp while it courts a sadly clueless Julia as her new beau.  Yet, Drew is a monster with a conscience, and it wears the weight of its crimes heavily; when it decides to tell Julia its true nature....well, things don't go quite like it had planned. 

The necessity to change bodies more frequently, for its survival, weighs heavily on Drew
While some people might be put off by the humanizing of Drew, the film's consistent voice-over led to an increased consistency in relation to the performance of a variety of different actors, all who seem to clearly embody Drew, whether housed in a male or female body.  The only thing that really sticks for me, and which the director mentioned frankly in the Q & A, is the "stalking as romance" trope that underlies the majority of the narrative.  While McConnell suggests that the film is an examination of toxic masculinity, I think the film also really compels viewers to hope that Drew can capture Julia's heart, no matter what form it takes.  The film makes it hard to be really critical of Drew--what's a body thief to do if it doesn't want to die, right?

Credit thus goes to both McConnell for writing such well-drawn characters, and for the first-rate performers (many of whom took to the stage at the Q & A) who embodied them.  Lora Burke's Julia is by turns witty and tragic, and always eminently likeable, while Drew's iterations, shackled with its bodily memories, are each utterly unique, but then subtly changed once they transform into Drew.  The fact that the cast pulls off this trick with such agility speaks to both their outstanding talent and McConnell's masterful direction.  I've been careful not to give anything away, but the ending of this film is a doozy--kind of gross, and quite thought-provoking.  I do hope that Lifechanger gets the screenings it deserves.  After theaters and VOD, it would be nice if Netflix or Shudder picked up this gem so that it reaches a larger audience.  Highly recommended!!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Fantasia 2018--L'Inferno (1911) with live score from Maurizio Guarini from Goblin!!

Virgil leads Dante past traitors immersed in a frozen lake in L'Inferno (1911)
Every year, Fantasia has several "special events" that are always a highlight of the festival.  I've seen two Grady Hendrix performances, a presentation on the Jean Rollin book Lost Girls by Spectacular Optical, anniversary remastered screenings of The Reflecting Skin, and last year's epic cinematic experience (pour moi), the 4K remastered screening of Dario Argento's Suspiria.  At Fantasia 2018, festival goers were able to experience a truly unique event--a screening of the very first Italian feature film, L'Inferno (1911) on its 107th anniversary with a live score composed on site by Maurizio Guarini, best known for some of the most amazing soundtrack work out there (including Suspiria and Deep Red).  Not only did we get to watch this remastered silent film, but experience it with this amazing live accompaniment. 

Tinting silent films was a fairly common practice, but they really remastered the film beautifully
I'm going to crib directly from the Fantasia program here: "L'Inferno was directed by Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro, working with more than 150 cast and crew members over a period of three years. The scale and ambition of its imagery is breathtaking, with primitive special effects that drip raw inspiration and hyper-imaginative interpretations of Hell that continue to impress over a century after they were burned into light. Having made over 2 million US dollars in its original release, it is also very likely cinema's first blockbuster."  I could not have said it better.  Plot-wise, the poet, Virgil, leads Dante through a grand tour of the circles of hell, and it's really a journey to remember.  Supposedly the film is heavily influenced by Gustav Doré's illustrations, so I promptly checked these images out after the screening, and their similarities are startling.



These Gustav Doré's illustrations really blow my mind
So many fantastic images with early special effects and experimental techniques litter this film, I really found it incredibly difficult to tear my gaze away to take notes.  Some highlights:
--carnal sinners bathed in a lavender gel swirl above Dante and Virgil's heads
--the entrance to the city of Dis is barred by demons, and they have the best costumes.  Luckily Virgil and Dante escape by jumping into a pit, to the consternation of the angry demons.

Angry demons helplessly poke at Dante and Virgil below in L'Inferno
--Harpies make their nest in branches known as "the suicides" while a synth riff that echoes Suspiria plays in the background
--A "Rain of Fire" consisting of numerous tinted and superimposed explosions lights up the screen
--Flatterers and Dissolute Women are Immersed in excrement.  Yuk.
--In a red tinted scene, feet wiggle out of pits in the ground, as sinners are buried head first
--A real stand out: fortune tellers with their heads twisted around, walk backwards toward Dante and Virgil
--The poets encounter three giants, and one lifts them down from above.  This effect is quite nifty for its time.
--Embezzlers are transformed into vipers, where they ultimately become lizard puppets
--One man carries around his own severed head, which actually keeps talking!

--but my absolute favorite moment, where the soundtrack really shines, is when Lucifer munches on some poor soul, his feet dangling out of his mouth like some unruly piece of lettuce.  Check out the image at the very beginning of the post to get a master shot of Lucifer with his wings in the background.  Love it!!

Lucifer munching on a human body!
Sure, there were some moments in the screening where the audience emitted a mass chuckle as some of the special effects displayed a certain raw, dated quality.  My favorite is when Virgil and Dante escape the demons by jumping into a pit of snakes, and they just appear to be some random noodles laying around.  Still, those moments add a bit of lightness to a really compelling and imaginatively rendered Hell world, and to think that this film came out in 1911, well before the surrealists were making weirdness like Un Chien Andalou, is simply awesome!  I just barely made it into the screening, since it was utterly sold out, and I'm so glad I did.  L'Inferno with live accompaniment was truly a unique cinematic experience to remember.  Thank you, Fantasia!

Fantasia 2018--Aragne: Sign of Vermillion--Saku Sakamoto (2018)

Rin's apartment building is a pretty grim place in Saku Sakamoto's Aragne: Sign of Vermillion (2018)
Full disclosure: I know very little about Japanese anime beyond Hideo Nakata, Osamu Tezuka, and The Ghost in the Shell films.  So to my delight, I discovered that Saku Sakamoto did the digital effects for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) and he was presenting the world premiere of his debut feature Aragne: Sign of Vermillion at Fantasia 2018.  The director and producer of the film were there for a Q &A and there even was a translator--who translated Japanese into French.  Heh.  My French is mal, tres mauvais, so I pretty much gleaned little from the film's introduction, other than how happy Sakamoto was to be there.  I was enthusiastic and swayed by the cool trailer.  Giant bugs crawling all over a city!
Rin runs away from a lot of creepy crawly scary s***
My grasp of the narrative is...limited, but I don't think that really matters all that much.  The film is a dread-filled atmospheric fever dream, and its ambiguities are part of its appeal.  Rin, a University student, has moved into a new apartment that is not at all like its been advertised.  Instead of a sunny, well-lit space, the rooms are more like bunker dorms, lined up on dank hallways, the building decrepit and looming.  It's basically a dump, and little wonder it's haunted.  Or is it?  Rin is not sleeping well in her new digs, passing out exhausted in her college classroom, and riddled with very disturbing dreams.  The imagery of the film is infused with a blood red ambiance, and one can never tell whether Rin is actually seeing things, or just hallucinating.  Important, but confusing backstory: medical experimentation was performed on people some 40-odd years ago, where they became delusional, hallucinating wrecks, victims of some weird plague, and this widespread disease, spread by spirit bugs, is consuming the city in present day.  Yeah, I know.  I told you I didn't have a great grasp of the narrative.  Meanwhile, Rin seems to be enamored of this brunette who's always dancing, and she's being chased by some masked serial killer with a portable circular hand saw or some such weapon.  Also, there are "dead soul soldiers" possessed by "spirit bugs" that she must run from over and over again.  Still following?

Scary people/creatures are constantly after Rin
The film deliberately blurs the lines between Rin's dreams and waking life, and the hi-jinks in her building indicate that Rin is what I like to call a "haunted heroine."  Something from her past is causing all these horrific manifestations, and every time she seems to grasp what that might be, it slips away from her (and the audience).  She encounters plenty of people who appear to verify that all this stuff is happening IRL, but is it??  This context is really confusing/fun, and adds something special to the truly marvelous and weird imagery.  Brains with insect legs crawling on top of Rin.  EWWW!  Because she seems to be hallucinating constantly, one wonders if she's contracted this disease people seem to have.  At other moments, nonsensical things happen, and I don't know why.  At one point, I wrote in my notes, "Why is she dragging a dead body?  To prove it's real?"  Yeah, this film isn't about easy, clear answers.  Also, the dancing brunette pops up on occasion to opine, "I wish you'd just die" to poor Rin.  At one point, she's strapped to a giant machine while bugs chew on her.  It's nuts!!
Spirits from Rin's past haunt her in the present
Despite my somewhat incoherent recitation of an incoherent plot, things actually make a lot of sense at the end; indeed, the ending tempts viewers to rewatch the film to see what subtle indicators might have been supplied along the way.  The film actually reminded me a great deal of Eyetan Rockaway's The Abandoned (2015), but I'm not going to say how exactly, so you can experience this twisted little gem all on your own.  The film clocks in at just over an hour, so it never drags, even in its most confusing moments.  Give it a shot!
Zombies as livestock, factory farmed for food, turn on their corporate "farmers" in Shinya Sugai's Walking Meat (2018)
The great thing about Fantasia, is viewers often get to see really fun and innovative short films that are cool, and hard to screen elsewhere.  That's why I highly recommend Shinya Sugai's debut Walking Meat (2018).  The short starts with a commercial for zombie food--that's zombies that humans eat as food, not food for zombies.  It seems that zombies are now considered livestock, kind of like cows, but angrier and far more deadly.  Also, these zombies are not zombie cows, but zombie people.  I'm surprised that someone hasn't thought about this idea already (have they??)  Why waste a good zombie, right?
The studious girl, the social media maven, and the incompetent geek boy all show up for their first day at work
The set-up is three obvious millennials show up for a corporate training session their first day on the job.  Of course, things get pretty hairy when the system malfunctions, and the zombies get loose.  Mayhem ensues!  Plenty of jokes litter what feels like a web series, with little pauses inserted and held occasionally, before the film moves on to the next zombie set piece.  The pace is frenetic and fun, and the film is really quite accomplished, with a great deal of tension, and a lot of slash 'em action too.  Really terrific and worth looking for once it emerges online.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Fantasia 2018--Hanagatami--Nubuhiko Obayashi (2017)

A dying Mina, superimposed over a giant moon, in Nobuhiko Obayashi's bewildering Hanagatami (2017)
   
People often ask me, when I'm taking notes in a movie theater while a film unfolds, if I'm afraid of missing something when I take a moment to look down at where my pen is hitting the page.  The answer is an emphatic "yes"--even though I'm used to writing in the dark, some films are really challenging to grasp on a first (or second, or third) screening.  With Nubuhiko Obayashi's Hanagatami (2017), the frame is so rich with visuals, the story so dense, that I'm not sure the film would become any clearer on repeat viewings.  Based on a novel by Kazuo Dan by the same name, Hanagatami ostensibly follows a group of teenagers, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, grappling with their relationships (friendship and romantic) as their lives are forever changed by war's onset.  This description is bare bones, because most of the time I had no idea what was going on--perhaps because of my glancing familiarity with Japanese history and literature, as well as some of the oblique, but clearly significant, cultural references littered throughout the film.  As the trailer for the film makes clear, Obayashi's playful use of superimposition, optical printing, and multi-layered composition, accompanied by very stylized acting, is geared toward the adventurous cinephile.  The film exhibits a studied artificiality in both style and performance that doesn't really allow viewers to immerse themselves in this world.  I saw many gorgeous images onscreen, and if that's enough to sustain you for the film's near three hour running time, take a chance on it.  Also, understanding Japanese is a plus--there's quite a bit of dialogue and it's delivered pretty quickly.
A still from Hausu (House) by Nubuhiko Obayashi (1977)
and another
and yet another from Hausu (1977)
I signed on to Hanagatami (2017) based on the many surreal, absurd, and glorious virtues of the director's cult film Hausu/House (1977), where a bunch of schoolgirls visit one of their aunt's houses in the country, and the house proceeds to devour them in a host of unique and imaginative ways.  Watch the trailer to sample some of its many charms.  The film is so out there that viewers are swept along by a gory visual maelstrom.  Hanagatami samples some of the same collage effects on display in Hausu, but wraps them in a seemingly romantic epic regarding lost youth in a time of war.  Not quite as effective, or perhaps just not what might be expected if one has limited exposure to Obayashi's oeuvre.
(from left) Toshi, Aso, Ukai, and Kira...are all supposed to be in high school
A couple of things kept me from really engaging with Hanagatami.  First, the main male leads are all supposed to be HIGH SCHOOL BOYS.  Yep.  Obviously the casting is deliberate, right?  But what does it signify that Keishi Nagatsuka, who plays Kira, looks to be in his 40s, and has gray glittering in his facial hair.  Toshi tries to counteract the fact that he easily looks twice his age (17) by acting quite broadly, like a silent-movie hero, but ultimately coming across as goofy.  Likewise, Mina, the "teenager" tragically dying from TB, seems to be the hinge on which all hetero-eroticism in the film swings; still, I think viewers looking for implied queerness between characters can mine quite a few interactions, especially those between Toshi and Ukai (who both have their share of nude scenes).  Further, I'm not sure how well known Kazuo Dan's book is to viewers, but there were moments that I was absolutely certain that the subtitles MUST NOT be accurately translated.  What are these characters saying???

"sixteen-year-old girls" hanging out in Hanagatami
Hanagatami is a visually striking and imaginative film that failed to connect with me, perhaps because I was expecting more of the bloody mayhem of Hausu.  The film's vivid garishness was fun for the eye, but at nearly three hours, it takes a certain level of commitment from viewers that I clearly just...don't...have.  As I left the theater, Thierry, who has been working at Fantasia since I first started attending, gave me a quick hug and asked me if I was going to write on this oddball film.  Indeed I have, but I wish I could recommend the film more.  I can recommend Hausu without reservation.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Fantasia 2018--Last Child--Dong-seok Shin (2017)

Kihyun (Seong Yu-Bin) hangs out with his fellow miscreants in Dong-seok Shin's Last Child (2017)
Kids Suck, there is no justice, and there is no God.  These feelings are what I was left with after the moving, but damn depressing, screening of Dong-seok Shin's Last Child, my first film screened at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival.  Seriously, I should have started the festival with some gleeful limb-shredding disembowelment accompanied by the raucous cheers of the Fantasia crowd, but I chose to start things off with this grief-filled exploration of one couple's terrible loss, and how they might be revived by caring for a young man their son's age before it all goes to shit, as the world seems to do.

Jin (Choi-moo Seung) and Misook (Kim Yeo-gin) cling to their tattered marriage after losing their son, Eunchan.
The film opens with contemplative shots of Jin (Choi-moo Seung) as he labors to hang wallpaper.  He's the owner, with his wife Misook (Kim Yeo-gin) of an interior business, where he and a crew lay floors, tile, wallpaper.  His skills as a craftsman are highlighted in close-ups of his process as he papers a room.  He exemplifies a taciturn reserve in his encounters with others, as he's still grief-stricken by the loss of his son, Eunchan.  His son saved another boy, Kihyun (Seong-Yu Bin), from drowning, but perished while doing so, dying a hero's death.  Those heroics do not mean much to Misook, whose bitterness coats the air around her like a sour taste on the tongue.  She's riven with despair.  Kihyun has subsequently dropped out of school, and is living an aimless life making deliveries for a restaurant--he seems to be suffering from a heavy dose of survivor's guilt.

The most satisfying moments in the film are when Kihyun learns how to be a wallpaper craftsman, working for Jin
For reasons unclear beyond an incredible outpouring of human kindness, Jin takes a listless, aimless Kihyun under his wing, deciding to teach him the craft of laying wallpaper and flooring.  The most satisfying moments of the film consist of the gradual bonding between these two, as Kihyun develops pride in the work he's doing, and finds a purpose as he learns these skills.  Misook starts to warm to Kihyun as well, as she slowly lets him in after adamantly keeping her distance from the kid.  My darkness kicked in when the three of them playfully go on a picnic and take a selfie together.  All I could think is "something terrible is going to happen," because this film is not going to allow this moment of happiness to linger.  When they drop off Kihyun at home, and he promptly vomits after their departure, and subsequently doesn't show up for work the next day, I just KNEW something happened.  I cannot really tell you without giving away a crucial plot point, but let's just say Kihyun and his teenage cohort are not really telling the truth about what happened the day Eunchan died.  Cue terminal loss of all joy and impending darkness.

Two thirds of the way through the film, we know that Misook and Jin will probably never smile again
The performances by the three main characters are incredibly powerful, and despite my claim that Kids Suck, I felt a great deal of sympathy for Kihyun--yet that feeling is dwarfed by the crushing empathy I felt toward Misook and Jin, who just cannot catch a fu**ing break, and move from despair to devastation.  While these representations are plausibly realistic, as forms of entertainment go, I haven't felt like my heart was just stomped on multiple times since P.T. Anderson's Magnolia--although that film has some weirdo sparks of humor that keep us from wanting to off ourselves.  Still Dong-seok Shin does include a shot of suspense, and I found myself writing "uh-oh" in my notes multiple times as the characters' respective narratives spiraled ever downward.  Things come to a head as the three head out for one last picnic in proximity to the dreaded river that serves as the catalyst for all the events thus far.

Kihyun enters the river which previously took the life of Eunchan
South Korea clearly has a severe bullying and assault problem among its youth, and many of its strongest dramas--such as Poetry (Chang-dong Lee, 2010) and Han-Gong Ju (Su-Jin Lee, 2013)--explore these issues in powerful and provocative ways.  I give points to Last Child for never really illustrating that violence--this imagery is never shown, but speaking about these events is its own form of violence, although one more subtle and nuanced.  Things come to a head on the same river that took Eunchan's life, but then the film ends rather abruptly.  I honestly don't know how the film could have done things differently, but I didn't hold onto much hope at film's end, and as I've mentioned, walked out with a heavy heart.  Instead of being narratively inventive, I found the film just piled on the bad stuff, until I really just wanted it all to end.  And it did, but not in what I felt was a satisfying manner.