A Creepy Elevator and a Korean Masterpiece
After a one-year absence, I finally ventured north was again to Austin for Fantastic Fest. Honestly, those 365 days felt much longer. I missed the people, the sense of community, and the celebration of all things film. I had to bow out of attending 2015’s Fantastic Fest since I was busy planning my wedding. Not that I’m complaining. Not really. Besides, this year I get to bring my favorite movie buddy and new bride with me, and I’m definitely not complaining about that.
My first film this year was Chan-wook Park’s “The Handmaiden,” a period piece set in 1930’s Korea about a scheming conman pretending to be a Japanese count, his niece posing as a handmaiden, the Japanese heiress she serves, and the endless double crossings that go on between the three of them. Park, who has easily solidified himself through films like “Oldboy,” “Stoker,” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” as a master of the medium, has crafted something both visually breathtaking and emotionally heart-stopping.
The production design from Seong-hie Ryu and costumes designed by Sang-gyeong Jo are next level in their design and beauty, doubly effective because they enhance and add to the story. Yeong-wook Jo’s sweeping, achingly beautiful score makes everything on screen exponentially more effective. Diving his film into three chapters, Park draws us into a story brimming with Hitchcockian twists, dark humor, steamy sexuality, and just the right amount of bloody gore. This is a truly wonderful, emotionally resonant film.
After scarfing down some delicious Indian food, catching up with an array of wonderful, wickedly smart and incredibly kind people, I called it an early night to get rested up for my first full day of movies. But not before I made it past the creepiest hotel elevator in history. It was hard to tell which part my wife was the most terrified of: the elevator ride itself or my unbridled enjoyment (complete with cackling) of the whole ride.
Male Nudity and Turtles
Fantastic Fest Day 2 began with a failed attempt at bringing the wife breakfast in bed. As devilishly creepy as their elevator was, the Orangewood Suites in North Austin had a frustratingly ridiculous ban on taking any food from the continental breakfast up to the room. Luckily, the damp smell of mold and occasional faint smell of bleach used to attack said had suppressed her desire to eat. This hunger would again return to be quenched by Drafthouse food and store-bought Pringles. Meanwhile, the husband drank beer.
One of the fun things that happens during a festival like Fantastic Fest is that themes and common factors begin to surface in a majority of the films you watch. Most infamously in 2014, dead dogs was a prominent theme, making Fantastic Fest the perfect place for Chad Staheleski and David Leitch to premiere their directorial debut, “John Wick.” Now, the jury is still out for 2016’s grand theme, but the selection of films for our first full day couldn’t help offer the options of male nudity and turtles (separately, for now, though that could very well change in the coming days).
Saturday was a day bookended with turtles, and the first film in that set was Michael Dudok de Wit’s “The Red Turtle,” a gorgeously animated and achingly emotional film. De Wit’s background has been primarily in shorts (he won an Oscar for his 2001 short “Father and Daughter”), but his feature debut here displays an incredible mastery of the medium.
There isn’t a single spoken word for any of the film’s lean 80-minute run time, but “The Red Turtle” packs more of a punch than dialogue-filled films twice that length. The film starts with a man crashing on a deserted island and follows his attempts to escape back to civilization, and ultimately transforms itself through a wildly inventive but successful twist to become an allegory about love, raising a child, and growing old. The metaphor doesn’t always work, but “The Red Turtle” is a powerful experience not to be missed.
The second film in the turtle-themed double feature was my most anticipated film of Fantastic Fest: Andrea Arnold’s sprawling epic, “American Honey.” Andrea’s third film has some surface-level parallels with “Fish Tank,” but this is an entirely different film. Newcomer Sasha Lane stars as Star, an 18-year-old dumpster diver eager to break free of her broken home and find a better life for herself. That opportunity comes in the form of a van packed with a group of rambunctious chain-smoking and alcohol-chugging youth. Jake, the leader of the group played by Shia LaBeouf in a career-best performance, offers Star a spot in their business, which consists of going door-to-door across the country selling magazine subscriptions.
“American Honey” charts Star’s series of adventures through places like Kansas City and Oklahoma. We don’t really associate these places with America, but they do exist, and to Star they are incredibly exciting places bursting with excitement and opportunity. There’s no real through line to a film like this, and I imagine many people will respond differently to the film given its daunting 163-minute running time. But there is so much to love here.
The film paints a picture of America where danger and violence lurk in every opportunity, every interaction. If the characters are daunted by said danger, they don’t let on. We the audience wouldn’t want to be caught in these types of situations, but to the group of misfits these are stories that will be recounted fondly at the next bonfire. We may not even agree with how characters handle certain situations, but we understand why they do it.
I did feel like the film may have lost some steam and opportunities to flesh out Sasha’s motivations a tad, but I’m going to chalk that up to this being my first viewing of the film. A recent viewing of “Fish Tank” remedied the same complaint I had offered upon first viewing. Andrea is a master storyteller, and this incredible film is her boldest work yet.
Oh, and a turtle shows up for a few minutes!
Look, I didn’t say that the thematic thing was set in stone. Just that it was a possibility.
What about Male Nudity?
There were plenty of things that had more screen time than the turtle in “American Honey,” chief among them was the penis of the one of Star’s colleagues. At the moment I can’t remember the character’s name, but I do remember his affection for stripping nagging or flashing people every opportunity he had. It was rather amusing to me that I watched two nearly three-hour films back-to-back that featured male nudity, the second (though watched first) of the duo being “Toni Erdmann.”
Where “American Honey” feels like a three-hour film (not a complaint about the film at all), Maren Ades’ running time breezes by. Peter Simonischek stars in the title role as a man who is constantly pretending to be other people for the amusement of himself. Toni Edermann examines loneliness and unrealized dreams, pairing Simonischek’s wonderful performance with Sandra Hüller’s equally fabulous work. The two play an estranged father and daughter, and Ades’ screenplay follows Toni’s attempts to bring happiness back into his daughter’s life.
This is an incredibly strange film with several side-splitting laugh-out-loud moments, including one of the most bizarre birthday parties ever put to film (this is one of the instances where a penis shows up in this film). It is a bit strange that the film follows Huller’s character quite a bit, letting us watch extensive business conversations and such. But for the most part, it works. The film does become a tad bit understated at times as well, but this is truly a singular film that deserves an audience. Both characters and their journeys become interesting, and the attempts to elicit an emotional response succeed by the time the film reaches an end.
Did I Mention I Watched a Documentary?
Snowfort Pictures has a long tradition of giving exciting new filmmakers a chance to practice their craft, and they continue to be one of my favorite studios working in the business today. You get the sense that everyone there has a passion for the filmmaking process. That passion was clear in 2013’s “Jodorowsky’s Dune” and it is clear again in “24:36: A Movie About Movie Posters.”
Director Kevin Burke has assembled a wonderful oral history about the origins of the movie poster, the potential death of the industry that reared its head, and its ultimate resurgence as an art form. Burke interviews a wide array of experts, each providing fascinating insight on movie posters. Anecdotes, some horrifying, others hilarious, still others illuminating, chart the course for a fascinating look into one of the most exciting things about films.
Fantastic Fest was the perfect place to play this film. I’m so happy there are people like those at Snowfort that can make sure a film like this not only get to see an audience, but is made in the first place.
When we got back to the hotel Friday night, my wife made us take the stairs. There were already two other people waiting for it, and she wasn’t sure the elevator could have handled more than two people. To be honest, neither was I. I would have loved to have found out though.