Tiong Bahru Social Club (Singapore, 2020)

It’s hard to imagine a more upbeat, light-hearted, and sweet approach to  the pitfalls of modern technology and attempts at building a utopian society than director Bee Thiam Tan’s science-fiction–tinged comedy Tiong Bahru Social Club (Singapore, 2020). The titular retirement community runs computer algorithms for its residents and employees alike to try to have everyone achieve their ultimate happiness level. Some buy into the cult-like techniques, which include cuddling classes and employee matchmaking, while others remain skeptical. Among the latter are new employee Ah Bee (Thomas Pang), a simple, kind everyman keen on helping others, and Ms. Wee (Jalyn Han), the feisty cynic to whom Ah Bee is assigned to help. Pang portrays his character reminiscent of Buster Keaton, but with more smiles, delivering a charming performance that drives the film. The supporting cast members all give wonderful turns, especially Han in her role as a lovingly grumpy foil, with fine portrayals by Goh Guat Kian as Ah Bee’s mother and Jo Tan as Geok, his computer-matched girlfriend. The retro-futuristic set designs and pastel color palettes are pure eye candy. Tan’s invitation to reflect on personal happiness vs. what society and others try to dictate is a thoroughly engaging, unconventional effort that offers smiles and laughter along with its thought-provoking messages.

Tiong Bahru Social Club

Glasshouse (South Africa. 2021)

A much darker, more cynical but nonetheless captivating look at a failed attempt at a utopia is director Kelsey Egan’s Glasshouse (South Africa. 2021), which sees a family sheltering itself in the titular abode from an airborne toxin that causes memory loss. In this genre-blending science fiction drama with thriller and horror elements, a  mother (Adrienne Pearce) raises her daughters Bee (Jessica Alexander), Evie (Anja Taljaard), Daisy (Kitty Harris) and her son Gabe (Brent Vermeulen) in a highly protective, cult-like manner that forbids outsiders from entering their property at the risk of death. An injured stranger (Hilton Pelser) causes Bee to risk breaking that familial rule, and bonds are strained as the politics of memory and power, allegiance to family members and constraints, and sexual intrigue come into play along with other factors. Although Glasshouse follows some familiar beats, the third act delivers big time, and Egan makes the journey getting there a tense, unsettling one. She has crafted a gorgeous-looking dystopian world with Victorian-influenced set and wardrobe designs which is sumptuously captured by cinematographer Justus de Jager. The cast gives top-notch performances, with Alexander, Taljaard, and Pelser outstanding as the main trio at the dark heart of this film.

Glasshouse

The Last Thing Mary Saw (U.S., 2021)

Familial drama with historical mise-en-scéne is also on breathtaking display in the supernatural period horror The Last Thing Mary Saw (U.S., 2021; the film also screened as part of London’s Arrow Video FrightFest and is headed to streaming service Shudder in 2022). Set in the 1800s, the story sees teenaged Mary (Stefanie Scott), who lives with her oppressive, strictly religious family, forming a close relationship with the family’s maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman) that the rest of the clan sees as ungodly behavior. This leads to punishment and to a conclusion that genre-film fans will see coming right away — actually, the opening scene of a trial hints heavily at what has already passed as the movie goes into long flashback sequences of what has led Mary to this point. A story from a clandestine book also telegraphs events. Although writer/director Edoardo Vitaletti’s gothic chiller may suffer slightly from predictability, the real emphasis here is on dread atmosphere rather than twists and surprises, though the third act does offer startling moments. Scott and Fuhrman lead a fine cast with gripping performances as the star-crossed protagonists. Judith Roberts is superbly eerie as the family matriarch, and Rory Culkin is also solid in a supporting role as a mysterious person summoned during a funeral. A good deal of the film is wonderfully lit by candlelight, while some grueling moments occur in the harsh light of day. There is no escape from the abuse and religious tyranny on display — not for the characters, and not for viewers, either.

The Last Thing Mary Saw

Don’t Say Its Name (Canada, 2021)

Another supernatural horror entry is Don’t Say Its Name (Canada, 2021), which effectively combines social commentary with its scare-fare material. After an activist opposed to a coal company aiming to strip mine the tribal land on which she lives is brutally murdered, more gruesome deaths occur, but the other victims are people associated with the company. Sheriff Mary Stonechild (Madison Walsh) and Park Ranger Stacey Cole (Sera-Lys McArthur) try to make sense of the grisly goings-on, with some of their fellow Indigenous friends, relatives, and residents leaning toward an otherworldly explanation. The snowy Alberta woods make for a stunning background to the action. Cree director/cowriter Reuben Martell balances a keen eye on such issues as economic inequality, racism, violence toward women, and more, with a thrilling horror mystery boasting impressive practical effects (mixed with some CGI), splendid performances, and some well-placed humor. He paces the proceedings marvelously and presents the reservation residents as strong characters. The result is a topical horror film that gets its messages across in a fun, rousing fashion.

Don’t Say Its Name

Hotel Poseidon (Belgium, 2021)

Writer/director Stefan Lernous’ surreal Hotel Poseidon (Belgium, 2021) is a dark, wry slice of Theater of the Absurd cinema. The film bends and blends genres in its story of hotelier Dave (Tom Vermeir), who viewers first meet in a scene where he shouts at a man in the neighboring room to turn off his loud porn movie, and then listens to that person’s advice to get out and do something with his life. Oddity and odyssey combine as Dave goes on a surreal trip through the near-dilapidated titular building, which includes discovering his dead aunt, dealing with an acquaintance who wants to turn part of the hotel into a nightspot, and trying to appease a would-be customer who insists on staying overnight despite Dave telling her that no rooms are for rent. These seemingly ordinary situations turn into full-blown existential nightmares for Dave, and this philosophical horror is just one of many types of terror and tragedy in store for Dave and viewers, including a particularly gruesome method of dealing with the deceased. Lernous certainly takes swipes at expected targets such as capitalism and class differences, but the real draws of Hotel Poseidon are its bizarre characters that recall those of Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy and Fellini, surreal and absurd situations that would make Bunuel and Beckett smile, and mind-jarring set designs and makeup. Hotel Poseidon is highly recommended for connoisseurs of avant garde and offbeat cinema, and lovers of the downright weird.

Hotel Poseidon

Office Royale (Jigoku no Hanazono, Japan, 2021)

Finishing things on a decidedly lighter note, director Kazuaki Seki’s Office Royale (Jigoku no Hanazono, Japan, 2021; AKA Hell’s Garden) is an over-the-top action comedy — basically a live-action manga as interested in social satire and skewering office politics as it is in zany rumbles, cleverly scripted by comedian Bakarhythm. Naoko Tanaka (Mei Nagano in a fun, multifaceted performance) just wants to be a “normal” employee (OL, as they are referred to in the film, for “office lady”), visit cafes with her friends, and long for a boyfriend. Surrounding her, though, are warring factions of OLs from different departments at her work, clad in outrageous get-ups worn over their office uniforms. When new worker Ran (Alie Hirose in an energetic performance) wanders into the mix, she becomes the new alpha OL, unwittingly inviting challenges from OLs from other businesses to see who the true top OL is. Fight scenes are played for laughs more so than trying to stage impressive battles, but both styles work well, with the game cast members constantly giving it their all. Yes, there is a plot; one that builds like an old-school fighting game with ever-tougher bosses waiting on higher levels, and some surprises that add suspense. Office Royale is a frenetic, madcap romp full of color and verve.

Office Royale (Jigoku no Hanazono)

Tiong Bahru Social Club, Glasshouse, The Last Thing Mary Saw, Don’t Say Its Name, Hotel Poseidon, and Office Royale screened as part of Montreal-based Fantasia Festival, which ran from 5–25 August, 2021.