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Confessions of a Cineslut: Fantasia 2020 picks.

I am a little late to the party with this one, given the festival ran well over a month ago. The reason for this is I have been busy expanding this column into a wider project for Patreon — you can subscribe here for exclusive writing, videos, and commentary. However I couldn’t let Fantasia 2020 pass by without dedicating at least one edition of Confessions of a Cineslut to it. Not least because the films I saw were so great. 

The pandemic has thrown up many challenges in regards to theatrical releases this year. Early on one of the major signals that shit was about to get really serious for film theatres came through the cancellation of Cannes. Since then organisers all over the world have been pretty quick footed in finding unique and innovative solutions to the problem of keeping festivals going during lockdowns, with many opting for the virtual route. After my experience with Fantasia — who were one of the first majors to try this format —  I have to say they have really set the bar in providing the best virtual festival experience. Honestly, serious kudos to co-director Mitch Davis and the team —  including publicist Kaila Sarah Hier —  when you consider the short window of time they had to prepare. The entire festival was moved lock, stock, and barrel to an online format; including the festival’s live Q&A’s and talks (many of which were generously offered to the public via outlets like Youtube). Chat portals and forums were also set up so festival goers could also interact in real time with each other; while the films themselves were screened via a digital platform. 

While all of this might not be perfect — and it certainly doesn’t make up for the entire experience of attending a film on the big screen in person  —  considering we haven’t had much to look forward to this year, hats off to Fantasia for trying to make things as seamless and easy as possible and for making sure people could still see many of these films, even without theatres. 

Unfortunately I didn’t have time for everything I wanted to catch and there were a small handful of screenings — like Neil Marshall’s new film The Reckoning— which were (understandably) not available to the press outside of Canada, given these were national premieres. With so little time between other work I tried to get the most out of the World Cinema selection — in which Fantasia particularly excels year after year — simply because, and this is especially true when it comes to Asian films, these are the titles that are oftentimes slow to get English friendly releases on home video. I kicked off my viewing with Vertigo — no, not that one — a 2019 South Korean romantic drama directed by Gye-Soo Jeon. 

Gye-Soo Jeon’s film is a delicate ode to the themes of isolation, alienation, and loneliness. The film stars Woo-hee Chun as Seo-Yeong, a timid contractor who is having an affair with her boss at the firm where she is hoping to get a permanent position as a designer. This isn’t a case of her sleeping her way to the top. Instead, she harbours profound feelings for her lover Jin Soo (Teo Yoo); a man who appears to be particularly passionate with Seo-Yeong when they are in the throes of one of their illicit late night meetings but the rest of the time doesn’t even appear to notice her at all. We learn Seo-Young has recently moved to the city and has nobody locally to support her — escaping the clutches of an alcoholic mother back home, who constantly calls to complain about her husband or ask for money. And the rest of the time she is a quiet conscientious worker who arrives at work hours before anyone else, and is always the last to leave. When she isn’t at work, she is alone in a tiny apartment with only the television for company. Seo-Young’s isolation is further reinforced by the fact she suffers from debilitating vertigo, which isn’t helped by the fact she works on the 30-something floor of a towering office block. 

The film comments on various social issues, including urban loneliness fuelled by lack of community, and the contractor economy, as well as the deeper problems of workplace harassment and sexual assault. It does so without shoving these themes down your throat. What we have instead is a beautiful romantic drama — I am talking painfully so, there are so many frames in this film that quietly, and most often silently, convey Seo-Young’s inner despair — that ends on a most-welcome hopeful note. The film is quiet, a perfect antidote to the crash-bang-whallop found in action blockbusters that seem to dominate theatres in the West. While I realise this isn’t going to be for everyone, for me it was exactly what I needed. 

Talking of loneliness and isolation, Takeshi Kushida’s debut feature film Woman of the Photographs (2020), is a film that follows a similar tone, in slightly more transgressive terms. Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki) is a model who has built a platform as an Instagram influencer. When she encounters a mute man, Kai (Hideki Nagai), after she falls out of a tree (taking a selfie, no less) and injures herself, she starts to question the entire direction of her life. Kai — who remains silent for most of the film—  takes Kyoko in while she recovers from some nasty cuts and bruises. As he runs a business as a photograph retoucher — who erases flaws from people’s photographs; there is a woman who makes repeat visits to have her dating profile pictures embellished — he offers his services to Kyoko, to air brush out the ugly wounds she received from her fall, so she can continue to post gorgeous looking selfies to her social media platform. But, there is more to it. As the couple become more intimate, Kyoko begins to wonder whether her online presence is real or meaningful. While Kai is able to work out his issues, which have kept him trapped in a silent prison for years, unable to get close to anyone. 

The film explores one of my favorite topical discussions at the moment — which is probably why I found it so absorbing — the question: is social media doing us more harm than good? The film also looks at the issue of body dysmorphia caused by the rise of technology that allows people to present perfect looking versions of themselves online; as well as the question of how that then impacts on self-esteem. Although this might sound like a bit of a tedious moral lecture, it really isn’t. The relationship between Kai and Kyoko is so fascinating (especially their main sex scene, which feels strangely perverse) that all the other stuff just plays out low key in the background and doesn’t really distract from the meat and bones of the film, which is predominantly an off-beat romance featuring two particularly fractured people in desperate need of connection. 

More themes of isolation can be found in Mika Ninagawa’s No Longer Human (2019), which is a mind blowingly gorgeous picture, that stands out for its painterly composition, vivid colours, and use of sensuous texture. The film caused a bit of a stir when a trailer was posted to Youtube earlier in the year, with film and literary fans interpreting the said trailer’s romantic comedy vibe as a direct insult toward author Osamu Danzai. Screams of “they have turned his troubled life into a silly romantic comedy”, followed. But as with all marketing, this was found to be a complete misnomer and the film does nothing of the kind. 

Instead of adapting Dazai’s heavyweight masterpiece in Japanese literature, No Longer Human, as the film’s title would suggest, the director instead turns to look at the author’s complicated life; most notably his relationship with women. On one hand it counters the enduring romanticised archetype of the ‘genius creative male’ who mistreats both himself and those around him as being somehow justified, by looking at the pain and devastation caused by someone so self-absorbed. Yet, the film does so without making Dazai completely unsympathetic, instead revealing the pressures he felt, and his inability to get his drinking and womanising under control. The film is heartbreaking, as was Dazai’s personal history, which is something that wasn’t really conveyed in that damn trailer! I really hope people will see beyond that and check this one out when they get the opportunity. 

Continuing on with the theme of atmosphere, I was initially drawn to David Perrault’s Savage State (2019) when it was described by some as a feminist western, only to be completely caught off guard as it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. It kind of is a feminist western, kind of, but turned out to be much more of a Gothic drama/romance (with subtle flavours of Southern Gothic perversion). Savage State is a slow brooding piece, which I found somewhat frustrating on first watch. Certain strands of the story feel unfinished. However, it is a film that started to build in my mind after I had finished. I was particularly struck by the score and sense of atmosphere. So, while I am not completely sure if I loved it or not, it has left me with some food for thought and a wish to return to it again. Hopefully this will be sometime in the near future because I think it’s one of those films that needs a few viewings to really soak in. 

The story follows a group of (largely female) French settlers who are anxious to get back to Europe amidst the American Civil War. They take on a guide who appears to have some beef with a crazed female cowboy and her entourage — hence the western themes. Like so many of the titles I have already written about here, it’s not actually all about that though. Instead the main focus is on the relationship between youngest daughter Ester (Alice Isaaz) and the family’s guide, noble savage, Victor (Kevin Janssens). Throw in some voodoo hoodoo themes, a subtext on weak useless men, and the key American Gothic theme: fear of the savage, and there’s a recipe in there for something unique in the aforementioned American Gothic mold — a genre I feel we don’t hear nearly enough from. 

Also flying the Gothic perverse flag was Mickey Reece’s Climate of the Hunter (2019), which initially turned me off with its stylised turned up to eleven acting. That is until I realised this is one of the film’s strongest points. Starring Mary Buss and Ginger Gilmartin as two isolated sisters who invite a man from their past (Ben Hall) for dinner —  a man who may or may not be a vampire —  the film is a Gothic melodrama of the highest order, with high camp undertones — parts of it reminded me of a less surreal League of Gentleman; especially Buss’ outfits and the offbeat patter. It’s weird. It’s really in your face. And everytime someone speaks you can feel the weight of their passive aggression; even under the most benign table chit chat, which is honestly hilarious at times. Like Pinter, just on acid, with (maybe) vampires. It’s the kind of film you have to make space for in your head, let yourself slide into the realms of ridiculous. But it does ultimately reward the open minded for doing so. 

Dinner in America (2020) was another film that really impressed me. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one because there was literally no trailer for it at all when it screened and the title doesn’t really give much away. In many ways I am glad I went into it blind though. The film is adorably perverse. It turned out to be one of my festival highlights overall. 

Director Adam Carter Rehmeier pays homage to late 80s/early 90s subversive teen films like Heathers (1988) in Dinner in America, but does so with a decidedly millennial spin. Projects like this can run the risk of becoming a little bit too self-aware, too cool for their own good. Thankfully this isn’t the case here because of the stand out performances from Emily Skeggs as Patty — a dorky, childlike girl with a penchant for punk rock and masturbation — and Kyle Gallner as Simon — the boy who Patty strikes up an unlikely relationship with. Simon is your typical rebel with a cause (music and activism) who loves setting fires. While Patty is suffocated by her middle class parents and bullied by her peers. That is until the two meet by chance when Simon is on the run from the cops one day. Patty lets him move in with her and her family. The rest is all about just how great these guys are together. I couldn’t get enough of them. 

Meanwhile Polish entry and Festival Prize winner Marygoround (2020) deserves all the accolades and more. At a sleek 80 minutes director Daria Woszek packs a hell of a lot into such a small window of time. The story focuses on the titular Mary, who on hitting 50, still a virgin, starts to go through the menopause. Her doctor prescribes HRT patches, which she consequently goes a little overboard on, causing both her sexual awakening and some slightly trippy experiences — which Woszek leaves completely ambiguous; this also allows for some wonderful moments of full on fantasy. The film benefits from the central performance of Grażyna Misiorowska, who is an experienced theatrical actress able to bring a certain sense of weight and mature confidence to her role, as well as some sublime playfulness. 

Marygoround isn’t just funny, it’s a completely joyful celebration of one woman’s journey later in life to finally become comfortable with her own sexuality; or lack of. With both the menopause and the sexuality of middle aged women still considered relatively taboo, to be spoken about in hushed whispers, the film is gloriously confrontational in handling these topics. As the director said in an interview with Cineuropa

“We always live in its shadow. It is said that when you cross this “magic line,” your life is basically over. You are unable to have children, you become transparent. However, I had the chance to observe both Grażyna and my mother, and suddenly it turned out to be a completely different experience. After menopause, many women feel they can finally be themselves. You no longer care if someone will find you attractive, you don’t do anything you don’t want to do. You don’t define yourself through social roles. My mother told me that knowing what she knows now, she would raise me in a different way.” 

My total festival favourite was the lush French language fairy tale A Mermaid in Paris (2020) from Mathias Malzieu. I just knew I was going to love this film when I first set eyes on the trailer and it didn’t fail to live up to my expectations. To me the entire experience felt like someone injected a shit load of glitter and Tim Burton into a Jacques Demy musical. Plus it had the added attraction of being a fairy tale (again, not unlike some of Demy’s best films) which, as those of you who are already familiar with my work will no doubt already know, I am obsessed with. Not any kind of fairy tale either, not the Disney happy-clappy version, this is the kind of fairy tale that flirts with dangerous sex and horror. 

Following The Lure (2015) — another film I love —  Malzieu takes the concept of the mermaid and reunites it with traditional folk tales. Mermaids as fantastical creatures were originally portrayed as deadly, which is the welcome route the director takes with his for A Mermaid in Paris; again, fuck Disney. Complications arise when a cabaret singer, Gaspard (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who is so heartbroken he has given up on love, saves a mermaid, Lula (Marilyn Lima), after he finds her injured in the Seine. Lula can kill a man with her song and we get an early demonstration of what she is fully capable of when she inflicts her wrath on a doctor at the local hospital. In predicated (but never predictable) fashion, and despite his attempts to stop it happening, Gaspard falls in love with Lula; as she falls in love with him. There we have the set-up for something beautiful and tragic. It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The film is also a lot of fun, with some great moments of comedy. Oh and it’s flat out fucking gorgeous. The songs too. (Also a big shout out to the fabulous Rossy de Palma who makes an appearance as Gaspard’s nosey — but lovely — neighbour, also called Rossy. I love it when she turns up in anything. But here she is particularly stand out in her supporting role). 

Taking a very slim second place for me was the Dutch film The Columnist (2019), which I recently explored in a vlog over on my Patreon. As a woman who has written online for some years now I appreciated the film’s horror comedy spin on how it feels to have to deal with the vitriol of a certain type of man in the comments section; you know, the type of man who just can’t cope with the fact that women dare to post their opinions online, let alone have the brass balls to do it professionally. 

The film’s columnist is Femke Boot (Katja Herbers, channelling what reminded me of a little bit of Alice Lowe’s comedy in Sightseers (2012) and a whole bunch of fierce energy of her own). Femke is absolutely sick of nasty men trolling her online. She writes a lifestyle column and can’t even essay about boiling an egg without getting piled on by mansplainers (at the very least) or death threats at the other end of the scale. So she takes matters into her own hands and starts killing the commenters. It’s a fantasy, very funny, very gory, very c-word casual (which is something I will never not appreciate), but to me it was also a cathartic experience. 

Ironically after posting I might have a new life goal for 2021 on Twitter, with the film’s poster, some outraged twerp decided to email a bunch of my clients and editors to complain that my hatred was getting out of hand and I was about to start killing men — weirdly something very similar happens in the film when Femke’s publisher starts to get email complaints, although nobody accuses her of murder — perhaps I just have that kind of face?  On this point, I would argue that at least nobody can accuse director Ivo van Aart of not adding some realism into his insane narrative. I applaud the film for highlighting the issue even if it might seem far-fetched to those who haven’t experienced it. 

The Columnist aside, I have realised in writing this column almost all of my Fantasia choices this year were romances. I think we have a tendency to write off romance as pithy, or ‘for women’, and therefore not particularly serious. Yet, as the indies are showing us lately, this is so far from the truth. Some of the best independent films are being made in this very genre right now — take last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire for example, which I wrote about here . Many of the best of 2020 screened at Fantasia this year. For that I am extremely grateful. 

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About Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger is the Editor-in-Chief at Diabolique Magazine, and the co-host of their Daughters of Darkness and Hell's Belles podcasts. She has also written for BFI, Senses of Cinema, Fangoria and Scream Magazine, and provided various home video supplements, commentary, liner notes, on camera interviews and audio essays, for a number of companies including Arrow Films, Kino Lorber, Indicator, Second Run and Cult Films. Kat is the author of Daughters of Darkness (Devil's Advocates, Auteur), and All the Colours of Sergio Martino (Arrow Films).

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