FNC 2021: The Noise of Engines (Le Bruit des Moteurs, 2021)

The Noise of Engines (Le Bruit des Moteurs, 2021)

Director (and writer): Philippe Grégoire

Cast: Robert Naylor, Alexandrine Agostini, Marc Beaupré, Tanja Bjork, Maxime Genois, Marie-Therese Fortin, Naila Rabel

Alexandre, an instructor at the Canadian customs college, will finds himself under surveillance by police investigators trying to get to the bottom of the sexually explicit drawings that have been troubling the town. – IMDB

The Noise of Engines is Philippe Gregoire’s debut feature. It is an interesting one to talk about no doubt. Filled with dry humor in a rural small town Quebec setting where only a few things are known, the story follows a Canada Customers firearms instructor who is suspended for inappropriate sexual conduct and goes back home for two weeks for his suspension while telling it as a vacation. As he returns to help his mom with their family business running the racing track, he gets approached by a young Icelandic female drag racer with an incredible love for André Forcier’s films. They share each other’s views and stories while Alexandre is under suspicion of an investigation of sexually explicit drawings first found at the church but showing up elsewhere.

This film starts off in the right direction. The dry humor is right on point and the story feels very correlated as it sets up the workplace environment where Alexandre works as well as his character. It gives a good feeling of his relationship with his mother which is a bit conflicting with some tension and some care as well. And it also sets up his character towards his feelings towards the town and the authority that it has, specifically the two officers investigating the town’s troubling affair. Much like the Icelandic female drag racer which enters on a rather bizarre note as well. All these characters set in their place rather quickly and the humor sets in along with it.

In some ways, the film explores the small town in its rather humorous jab at the normalcy. However, it also highlights the hurdles of both authority and the small town diplomacy much like the deeper issues that get him suspended as well as the mysterious drawings and its artist. While the film itself does feel slightly disjointed at parts, especially when it enters the final 15 to 20 minutes which takes a rather abstract form, moving into the no narrative scenic wandering from Alexandre, it does still have a charm to it both in its humor and the story of Alexandre as he tells more about both his unintentional career choice and what he wants in his heart.

Overall, The Noise of Engines starts off as a comedic film which takes a turn gradually to something a bit more dramatic and relatively deep. It does feel a tad abstract in some executions especially its ending but it still has some conversations that do give some room for thought. There’s a little bit of mystery as the question of who drew the drawings looms in the air despite the absurd suspicion the officers have. As an afterthought, there is a subtle connection of André Forcier films that are mentioned but I have no idea who it is and haven’t seen his films so maybe its time to look that up.

*The Noise of Engines is showing during Festival du Nouveau Cinema on its virtual platform until October 31st.*

TV Binge: The Squid Game (Season 1, 2021)

*This is a mostly spoiler-free review however, some elements discussed may take away from the viewing experience so feel free to return after you’ve seen the series.*

The Squid Game (Season 1, 2021)

Creator: Dong-hyuk Hwang

Cast: Jung-jae Lee, Hae-soo Park, Ha-jun Wi, Young-soo Oh, Ho-yeon Jung, Sung-tae Heo, Joo-ryoung Kim, Tripathi Anupam, Seong-joo You, You-mi Lee

Hundreds of cash-strapped players accept a strange invitation to compete in children’s games. Inside, a tempting prize awaits with deadly high stakes. A survival game that has a whopping 40-million-dollar prize at stake. – IMDB

Survival games in TV series, movies or books aren’t really unseen or uncommon at this point. The Squid Game is a South Korean Netflix thriller series which sets up a survival game where an initial 456 players are invited from their hopelessness in life and desperation for money with no clue of what to expect until the first game starts and it becomes a do or die situation where it claims to provide a fair and equal world where as long as they follow the rule, they will be able to get out with the prize money.

This is the case for most of the characters here as they meet up during the first game: Gi-hun (Jung-jae Lee), Sang-woo (Hae-soo Park), Ali (Tripathi Anupam), Player 1 (Young-soo Oh), Sae-byeok (Ho-Yeong Jung) who end up teaming up while the players also have those who are much more ruthless lead by Deok-su (Sung-tae Heo) and the more uncertain factor with a woman called Mi-Nyeo (Joo-ryoung Kim). These players are core as each of them represent something different in the society and each have their own personality which sees them making it to certain phases as the teams start forming after the lesson of the first game with a very obvious turning point where they need to change. Its not hard to see who will be the changing factors however, these characters do truly grow on the audience throughout that some scenes that struggle between a selfish desire to survive creates these moral dilemmas between the characters that show the wear that it has on them.

The main character Gi-Hun being constantly in that spotlight as his character has some of the biggest changes from the beginning to the ending that feel subtle but can be seen in his decisions and struggles. Much like the cold Sae-Byeok who is judged by her North Korean background but also changes throughout as she starts to find trust in her alliances. Much like a very naive Ali who wants to win this for his family but ends up being constantly used to forward others plans unknowingly. Each game dives into a different moral element and strategy which takes an profound and poignant turn in the 4th game especially with the old neighborhood setup that isn’t as big as the other game settings but manages to create a significant contrast especially after the previous game’s focus on strategy and teamwork.

While it focuses on the players for the most part, the show also has the flip side with a cop Jun-ho (Ha-Jun Wi) that is investigating the disappearance of his brother which leads him to sneaking around the game headquarters undercover blending into different people from the game. Having recently been impressed by Ha-Jun Wi’s performance in Midnight (review), it was such a pleasant surprise to see him in this very different role and doing a fantastic job. Even if the dialogue isn’t quite a lot, his character is very well-executed. With that said, his side of the story shares the operational elements of The Squid Game of what the whole deal is. This element brings in a lot of twists and turns with a lot of unknown elements seeing as the guards and Front Man are all masked for the majority of the film. Having both the players and operations both being shown gives the audience more knowledge than the players to a certain extent and keeps the story balanced with not just death and survival but also mystery and suspense.

There is no doubt that the survival elements of the game is the most thrilling to watch especially with the use of Korean childhood games. Some of which are more familiar to the outside world and some which give it that Korean twist especially with the title game, The Squid Game which adds a cultural element. The sets are fantastically designed and every single one levels up from the previous both in how they creatively add in the danger element and incorporate the strategy while also revealing the characters for their true personality. The set-up is rather brutal to watch for the most part and is done incredibly well. As the games get worse and more unpredictable, the true purpose of The Squid Game is gradually revealed as the operations gets tracked down by the cop character which adds another layer to the story that leads right up to the ending that keeps it wide open for a second season with a lot of unanswered questions and many more possibilities. That ending though does leave a lot to think about whether about the whole plot, the clues that lead to the big reveal and ponder on trust and faith in humanity in general.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Hello! Tapir (2020)

Hello! Tapir (2020)

Director (and writer): Kethsvin Chee

Cast: Run-Yin Bai, Lee-zen Lee, Hsueh Feng Lu, Charlie Yeung

8-year-old Ah Keat sets off in search of the mythical nightmare-eating creature in the forest, hoping it will bring his father back to life. – IMDB

Hello! Tapir is a 2020 Taiwanese fantasy drama that also happens to be Taiwan’s first live action animated film. Films that tackle young children tackling family trauma or grief and loss with their imagination is a wonderful premise. It reminded of another Taiwanese film adaptation called Starry Starry Night but if above anything, this film actually draws a lot of parallels to My Neighbor Totoro both in premise and even some of the shots are set up. Tapirs are actual animals that exist however, the fact that they use this in a story that spans from a father’s childhood encounter with the magical tapir living deep in their town’s forest that extends to a promise between a child and their father as the little boy Ah Keat waits for his father to come home while the adults, mostly his mother and his grandmother also have their own side of dealing with this family loss while trying to keep it a secret from Ah Keat without realizing that he actually is dealing with it in his own way.

The execution of the film overall is really great as the structure of the film is presented as a fragmented storyline or perhaps more as a parallel. The present is shown moving forward in time starting from the day that the father was lost at sea and the night before in his last few conversations with his family. The whole structure builds up the father’s character and his relationship with those around him but most importantly, also builds up Ah Keat’s character and why he insists on finding the Tapir. With that said, the cast does a great job. Ah Keat is played by Run-Yin Bai who captures the childhood innocence for a little boy really well but also giving those dramatic parts very good as well, carrying through the loss and confusion that he is feeling as well towards the situation. Playing his mother who comes to help from Taipei after the situation is Charlie Yeung, a rather famous Hong Kong actress who captures her role as she deals with this whole thing while trying to draw a little closer to her son, much like the distance between her and her ex-mother-in-law is very obvious as well while still hiding the loss of her ex-husband and has hit her hard as well as she stays strong for the family. The grandmother and father role, played respectively by Hsueh Feng Lu and Lee-zen Lee also are great performances. A part of it is that they are a great cast but also that these characters are scripted really well. All their dialogue contributes in the every detail to make them draw closer together or build them up.

This magical Tapir is also well-designed as its exterior is fantasy-like in itself as it has the body of a pig, ears of a horse, the trunk of an elephant and feet like rhinoceros. Anywhere with the Tapir, there is no danger and it wanders the streets of the town after everyone has fallen asleep to eat their nightmares. Its essentially a protector of the town. One that protects people from their bad thoughts. The interaction with the Tapir and Ah Keat is truly cute and heartwarming. The childhood innocence in Ah Keat and the motions of this magical world with illuminated bubbles floating around filled with all sorts of nightmares which also link to the characters in the film like Ah Keat’s best friends who follow his suit to think up silly ways to create enough glowing light to attract the tapir together. Plus, there’s a big Tapir and a baby Tapir which is almost a little reflection of the parent and child relationship focused in this story.

There’s honestly a lot to love about Hello! Tapir. The script is fantastic and builds such wonderful characters to a beautifully crafted magical beast. The whole idea feels almost healing to watch. Despite its heartstrings tugging moments where certain details get unveiled as the story unfolds whether its promises seemingly unfulfilled between father and son or the family structure or even facing this grief and loss together and learning to let it go and live with it, there is a lot of positivity that the concept of a magical creature like the Tapir brings. It brings forth the many worries in the world from the news headlines that are narrated as the dream bubbles float right down to the little adventures and simple hope that kids believe in. Not to mention the little fantasy-like score/song that plays when the Tapir shows up that makes it all the more magical. Sure, the story is about family, grief and loss but it also balances the fantasy and adventure plus childhood innocence so well that the ending makes it all the more heartwarming.

Being a fan of live-action animation films and stories like My Neighbor Totoro, this film was like a homage but at the same time also created a beautiful little fantasy tale also that was both emotional and heartwarming. Everything was done with such detail in its script to how the beautiful shots are framed to the very fun little conversations that all call back to each other from the past to the present in context that its really hard to not praise the cinematography, the script and the overall direction of Hello! Tapir!

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: The Story of Southern Islet (2020)

The Story of Southern Islet (2020)

Director (and writer): Keat Aun Chong

Cast: Jojo Goh, Season Chee, Hong Herr Wong, Wei Hern Teoh, Ling Tang, Pearlly Chua, Mei-Sim Hoon

Cheong, a Chinese man, falls sick after a row with his neighbour. His wife Yan is desperately looking for a remedy to cure her husband. Throughout the journey, Yan endures strange encounters and unearthly experiences. Finally, Yan is convinced that she should seek help from the village shaman. Mysteries, legends and shamanism surround Yan with unknowns yet to be solved. – IMDB

The Story of Southern Islet is a 2020 fantasy drama with folk elements to it based on an autobiographical childhood experience from the director Keat Aun Chong. Not to mention this film is also his directorial debut. When talking about deities, it also stems into belief and faith and with this, a man who may or may not be cursed. Malaysia history or geography is a blind spot in my knowledge however, the setting here depicts a sensitive location set in the mid 1980s near Mount Keriang where the crossover of spirituality converges not only in Hinduism, Buddhism and Islamism but also shamanistic cultures.

As much as the film is about the people, its really a stepping stone to the introduction of these deities who each have their purpose even if it feels rather odd. The whole world isn’t exactly filled with danger and yet brings to life certain “superstitions” and their consequence. Each laying the different purpose confirming the belief in gods that bless different things really do exist much like the paddy rice field deity. It is the most enchanting to watch as Yan unknowingly encounters these different ones as the different stories come forward, the most notable at the shrine in the mountain cave about Princess Keriang.

The cinematography in this sequence is especially compelling. Much like the rest of the film which almost always has this off-centered frame for its shot which sometimes highlights what’s off screen but also for some, it also creates this symmetry or has this division of what can be seen and not seen by the characters. Not to mention that all this is held together by the beautiful area that it is set in.

The small town setting is perfect for this tale as it spans over the farmlands, rice paddies, mountains and caves. There is this emptiness and isolation in its setting. That does carry to the wife who is dealing with this as she encounters different people in a religions that she doesn’t quite believe, each performing their rituals or telling her what to do next. Whether its the shamans or other religious leaders, it leads her further down into this other spiritual world as the medical doctors can’t seem help her husband who gets worse day by day.

Overall, The Story of Southern Islet is a unique film. It dives into a world that is not commonly explored in films (and if they are, not on an international level, at least to my knowledge). Not completely unexplored as coughing nails was also used as a curse in an indie video game Home Sweet Home a few years back. However, the different stories of these deities are quite interesting. The film isn’t about its living characters so much as its about the different deities that get shown on screen, perhaps making the final reveal of what is cursing her husband so much more intriguing. Its a beautiful film with both a subtle haunting feeling and a fairy tale/mythical setting but growing with in an Asian culture, there are many unbelievable beliefs that seems ridiculous to some as it can’t exactly be explained but doesn’t deny the fact that its an experience unique to them, whether you believe it or not as the reality.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: All The Moons (2021)

All The Moons (Todas Las Lunas, 2021)

Director (and co-writer): Igor Legarreta

Cast: Haizea Carneros, Josean Bengoetxea, Itziar Ituno

All The Moons is a 2021 Spanish fantasy drama that tells the story of a little orphan girl who gets saved during the 3rd Carlist War in 1876 by a woman that see believes is an angel. The woman takes her in and tells her that she cannot be in daylight and at night, they must follow the orange light in the distance. Shortly after, when they get attacked and are separated, the little girl has to learn to survive with all of the unknowns in her life.

All The Moons is a vampire film unlike others as it hooks onto the fantasy and drama elements and not a horror element. In fact, it never even uses the term of a vampire at any time, perhaps because its set in an ancient time before anyone has coined the term as what she is seems foreign to those that she crosses path with when they notice her differences to them. However, the journey is more of a character-driven one as the girl remains nameless for the a good part of the film going through many moons on her own. While moons usually refer to werewolves, this one is about the nights as vampires are nocturnal until she actually learns to live with sunlight, the process probably one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

All The Moons is pretty much held up with a fantastic performance by young actress Haizea Carneros who truly delivers. Paired with an outstanding script, the journey of her life is all about fear and loneliness at the start. A fear of not having lived long enough to slowly realize that life is more than walking the earth but also in the process of feeling pain and death. The immortality element that makes her life “lifeless”, a term she uses at the end. While surrounded by a few other characters, father figure, church and society, a friend, her journey is pretty subtle overall but the injustices or the bitterness builds up over time to make the final act very impactful.

Set in a beautiful backdrop with rolling hills and beautiful landscape, All The Moons also has a charming soundtrack. All the Moon is a drama so a little more slow in terms of pacing but it is very much about the meaningful script and the message behind what the girl learns through this unexpected and unknown she gets given as a gift which turns out to be more like a curse. The journey that she goes through is very thought provoking as it navigates through strong themes of life and death, loneliness and love carried by a fantastic performance going through something like 60 years in the past Spain as it overlaps two wars. All The Moons is a lot more than more than the common vampire films and is a hidden gem in this festival.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Martyrs Lane (2021)

Martyrs Lane (2021)

Director (and writer): Ruth Platt

Cast: Kiera Thompson, Sienna Sayer, Denise Gough, Steven Cree, Hannah Rae

Leah, 10, lives in a large vicarage, full of lost souls and the needy. In the day the house is bustling with people; at night it is dark, empty, a space for Leah’s nightmares to creep into. A small, nightly visitor brings Leah comfort, but soon she will realise that her little visitor offers knowledge that might be very, very dangerous. – IMDB

Adapted from her own 2019 short of the same name, Martyr’s Lane is Ruth Platt’s third feature film. This film is a British horror drama which balances the two incredibly well. While on the surface, the motions of a horror film is very apparent, the execution is in both its setting, sound design as well as the multilayered story that gets peeled back like an onion layer after layer to its heartbreaking fairy tale-esque supernatural ghost story.

Martyr’s Lane carried a wonderful script and premise. Nothing screams horror film as effectively as using children as their center, this one takes on two. The first is Leah (Kiera Thompson), the main protagonist living on this vicarage with her parents and her sister who right away realize that her relationship with them as a distance. Whether its the sibling rivalry between her and her older sister or the most loving teaching from her father or the quiet and distanced relationship to her mother, leaving her feeling lonely. Until she takes something from her mother that causes a lot of unexplained distress and she ends up losing it right when a little girl wearing wings (Sienna Sayer) comes to her window claiming that she’s an angel in the making and gives her nightly tasks to find what she has lost. These two little girls are the heart of the film. As young as they are, they are very smooth in their roles carrying the naivety that they should have but also being able to build their characters one visit after the next as these tasks start to reveal a more dangerous motive.

Leah’s nightly tasks takes her on an adventure as she moves around the vicarage grounds and discovers hidden little pieces. Some places being more hidden than the other. As she keeps looking, she starts finding little trinkets which start to piece together who used to be. These little clues are key to the story and each one increasing in danger as the simple game of 2 truths and one lie starts making these two little girls’ friendships grow. Much like her little tasks makes the vicarage grounds and her home a prominent setting to be in. There are horrors in the background unknown to Leah but the audience sees the fleeting figure in the distance that seems to be observing from a distance. While this sounds like most horror tropes, Ruth Platt executes them really well by building up the atmosphere to be increasingly unsettling and pairing it with some great sound design.

Ghost stories at this point are a dime a dozen nowadays. Its such an overused tropey category for the most part but Martyr’s Lane is different. Similar to a lot of other films at this edition of Fantasia, it breathes new life to a familiar horror subgenre by creating a thoughtful balance between horror and drama and adds in a hint of mystery and hidden secrets to put it all together. There are so many little elements worth discussing in Martyr’s Lane and yet, the film’s gradual reveal is one that is well worth discovering so less talk to keep this completely spoiler-free. While I haven’t watched Ruth Platt’s previous two features (but will definitely catch up sooner rather than later), her storytelling abilities and directorial finesse is one to absolutely look out for in the future.

*Martyrs Lane has its world premiere at Fantasia Film Festival on August 19th. It also will be landing on Shudder on September 9th.*

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: When I Consume You (2021)

When I Consume You (2021)

Director (and writer): Perry Blackshear

Cast: Libby Ewing, Evan Dumouchel, MacLeod Andrews, Margaret Ying Drake, Claire Siebers

A woman and her brother seek revenge against a mysterious stalker. – IMDB

When I Consume You is a 2021 American horror thriller which revolves around siblings trying to make it together in the world until one day Wilson finds Daphne dead in her apartment. While the police claim its drug-related, he knows it isn’t and goes to follow what he knows to discover that her sister might be caught up with something supernatural which has now turned its attention to him. While he has relied on his sister in the past, he needs to find his own courage to face it. There’s a lot to love about When I Consume You. Whether its the plot, the characters and the cinematography plus of course, the horror element.

The plot is well-written and executed well. The focus on the siblings is a good one where they have hard lives and issues which are shown right at the beginning, outlining the two siblings contrast in personality and their bond. As the film layers out the whole situation and the threat that Daphne is protecting Wilson from, the film takes a rather more violent turn. The story also adds in elements of beliefs bringing in a symbol and the heart sutra. Having learned the heart sutra before, this was something rather interesting to see appear in the film. Its a little more than a horror film in that side as Wilson’s character finds an inner strength that he didn’t have anymore. The essence is in character building and bond that the siblings have that are very convincing which makes them all the more worth cheering for in the face of evil. A lot of credit does go to Libby Ewing and Evan Dumouchel who is great in their respective roles as Daphne and Wilson.

The horror element comes from this threat: a lingering figure in the closer with glowing yellow eyes which constantly appears throughout the film and remains unknown as to what it is until the end. To be fair, the effects for this has an unsettling feeling that builds. At the beginning, the effects actually made it a bit funny as it does feel a tad unreal and not too fitting with the tone of the film. However, as this mysterious stalker character starts being built up, it starts having a much more unsettling feeling overall.

The cinematography is definitely a standout here despite this odd shift occasionally to the first person perspective bringing some found footage wobbly camera elements on screen, which was a little less enjoyable as it felt like it pulled away from the film itself. However, on the overall element the cinematography does help create the tension and unsettling elements plus some scenes are crafted incredibly catchy. It packs in both horror and mystery which makes it all the more intriguing. There’s one part where its completely dark except for some neon pink lights on the background and phone screen and the sound effects with just a hand sneaking in to touch the phone screen which was an awesome stylistic scene. There are a lot of these moments which work very well.

Overall, When I Consume You is a wonderful horror drama/thriller with a great supernatural horror element and touching on the occult as well. It was both intriguing on its thriller elements but also managed to bring some unsettling feelings build up the horror elements and blends it well with the more drama elements for the characters itself.

*When I Consume You had its world premiere at Fantasia Film Festival on August 18th.*

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Baby, Don’t Cry (2021)

Baby, Don’t Cry (2021)

Director: Jesse Dvorak

Cast: Zita Bai, Vas Provatakis, Boni Mata, Troy Musil, Helen Sun

Baby, A withdrawn and sensitive 17-year-old Chinese immigrant from a troubled home, is living in the outskirts of Seattle. One day, she meets a 20-year-old delinquent named Fox. Together they embark on a twisted journey to escape their hopeless fate. – IMDB

Baby, Don’t Cry is a 2021 coming of age romance and family drama that takes a look at both a cultural element for the main character but also a coming of age for Baby (Zita Bai), a simple and troubled seventeen year old with a filmmaker dream who ends up meeting a bad boy Fox (Vas Provatakis) and has a whirlwind relationship with him. As much as it is a visceral romance, it also embodies a lot of happy moments. The film uses not only the third person film angle to capture but also has a second camera which is that of footage filmed from Baby’s perspective to see what she sees. The family element is also presented here as Baby’s life is further emphasized by her troubled family situation mostly due to her mother’s unstable situation which creates a roller coaster of emotions having both good and bad days in their relationship.

Baby, Don’t Cry isn’t the normal film and has a rather unique voice. It takes a different angle on the Chinese immigrant as a teenager and the struggles to fit in and thrive while not exactly being from a wealthy or immensely, controlled family although it still grounds itself on a more closed parent who talks about bringing shame. However, Baby tries to fit into society despite some of the stereotypes that gets thrown her way. Plus, the film also lacks some groundedness as it floats between past memories, fantasy and the present reality. Much like how Zita Bai flips the characters around bringing in the sexual fox spirit in Chinese folklore which is usually a feminine character and reverses it into a male character and directly names the male lead Fox. Something that I have to admit escaped me until I saw the Q&A session after its screening.

The whole tone and pacing is a little odd at times and even the moments of adding in the fantasy and real elements sometimes even feel a little abrupt however its hard to not be wrapped up by the happy and sweet romance between the two struggling youths that seem absolutely improbable that would have crossed paths other than perhaps destiny and fate bringing them together but also seeing a little bit of power struggle between the two. They do have some fantastic chemistry that in parts of montage moments via Baby’s camera sees all the happiness between the two as they do all kinds of things together but also can switch incredibly quickly to this darker, tense and rather toxic feeling between the two that just can’t seem to find a balance whether its Fox wanting to walk away from the relationship or Baby reacting in her own way. Its this push and pull between Baby and Fox that makes their relationship intriguing to watch especially as it does open up the withdrawn Baby that we see at the beginning of the film.

Baby Don’t Cry is a rather odd film overall and it probably has to do with the main character Baby portrayed by the film’s writer Zita Bai in such a way who has a lot of rather quiet moments but manages to still be an interesting character to discover as she goes on this unique coming of age story. Its not the typical coming of age and yet it wraps up a lot of elements that might or might not be too abstract to be noticed by its audience. Whether if its a relationship between the mother and daughter highlighting some elements of the Chinese family structure albeit the more broken one presented here or the romance between Fox and Baby, it works for myself as I do love hearing other Chinese voices presented in film.

*Baby, Don’t Cry has its world premiere at Fantasia Film Festival on August 11th*

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Dreams On Fire (2021)

Dreams On Fire (2021)

Director (and writer): Philippe McKie

Cast: Bambi Naka, Masahiro Takashima, Akaji Maro, Saki Okuda, Shizuku Yamashita, Medusa Lee

A vibrant and intoxicating look into Japanese dance and subculture communities. – IMDB

Dreams On Fire is a 2021 drama about the journey of a young dancer Yume who moves from her small-town against her grandfather and mother’s wishes to Tokyo to make it big in dancing however along the way, she meets a few good and bad people that assist and hinder her journey.

From the director of short film Breaker previously shown at Fantasia Festival, Philippe McKie has the North American premiere of his directorial feature film debut with Dreams On Fire that casts dancer Bambi Naka in her first leading role in the role of Yume. Yume’s journey through Tokyo isn’t exactly an unexpected one however, it is unique to the Tokyo landscape as it leads her from one place to the next that exceeds the hostess club that she lands her first job at to a lot of underground bars and clubs from fetish to cosplay and so on. Through the process she learns about the hurdles of becoming of a dancer on all fronts both from the people she meets to the things that happen to her, something like building a social media following having its importance and the importance of image, making her simple dream of being a dancer much more complicated than it seems. Much like most dance films, it all dials down to a big dance battle that almost rounds out as the movie also starts off in a dance battle.

With the different locations, the music style and dance styles all vary and change making the movie every more so colorful both literally and metaphorically. Along the way, Yume also breaks out of her shy shell and really openly expresses herself more and more. The film shifts through these locations mostly showing different dance scenes, dance studio, the hostess club where she works and anchoring itself in her little rental room which is an empty little box with a table and computer and nothing else, truly highlighting the starving artist part of her journey. The part of the charm of the film is the underground settings, each with their own distinctive elements starting with the gold and chandelier almost tacky cosplay hostess club that Yume’s starting working at where the people there are mostly horrible as expected to the darker settings from S&M club and her introduction into different music like heavy metal and folk. The film really dives deep into the diversity of Tokyo’s underground scene.

A good part of Yume’s journey is in the people that she meets along the ways. As much as she meets bad people like the hostess club boss who threatens her often to keep coming to work and has a lack of respect in general, she also meets a lot of good people along the way who appreciate her talents and while doesn’t quite understand her journey, refers to other dance-related gigs and jobs however, perhaps its the people the she meets on her own paths that are the most charming. Of course, that’s not to say that Bambi Naka as Yume isn’t great because she does a great job and it helps that her dancing abilities are really outstanding and the growth throughout the film moving from one dance choreography to the next is embodied so well. The one that definitely stands out is her dance studio teacher played by Genta Yamaguchi who is a colorful person in general. Every scene is so fun and light-hearted and absolutely bubbly. Much like later on when she meets ChoCho (Medusa Lee), a Chinese fashion school graduate that moved to Tokyo to be in what she believes is the no.1 fashion location and ends up teaming up with Yume with her costumes. Not to mention that, I strongly believe that the jacket she wears in final battle is the one that is in Breaker (not sure if anyone can confirm this or not?).

Dreams On Fire is an absolutely journey that keeps to familiar outline of a dance movie and yet also breaks out of it by highlighting its locations and stepping up the diversity of music and dance as it moves through so much variety on the artistic level. The movie is a trip, not only for Yume but the viewer. At times, the cinematography is also a trip from rotating camera angles to aerial shots to long neon-lit alleys or distorted dreamy sequences used blurs and bright colors. Overall, Dreams On Fire is an absolute treat.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Agnes (2021)

Agnes (2021)

Director (and co-writer): Mickey Reece

Cast: Molly C. Quinn, Hayley McFarland, Rachel True, Zandy Hartig, Ben Hall, Jake Horowitz, Chris Browning, Sean Gunn

Rumors of demonic possession at a religious convent prompts a church investigation into the strange goings-on among its nuns. A disaffected priest and his neophyte are confronted with temptation, bloodshed and a crisis of faith. – IMDB

Agnes is a horror drama and it really does separate itself in film structure and plot point exactly like that. The first part is set in the nun convent and focuses on a nun who seems to be possessed by a demon and the church sends a priest and his neophyte to perform an exorcism. When things don’t go exactly as planned, one of the young nuns end up leaving the convent and this starts the second part of the film which is rooted more in drama as she tries to start her life outside of the convent while struggling with her faith. The setting change also creates an atmosphere and tone change between the first and second part of the film.

The first part of Agnes takes place in a nun convent as one of the young nuns called Agnes goes into a rage suspected to be a demon possession. The nun convent setting works really well to build up the horror atmosphere. There’s a gloomy darkness to the whole set-up. The nuns themselves also have a contrast to this as they are fairly solemn but also have an air of this odd comedy as they talk about the priests coming in to help with the exorcism, an exception to their usual life which usually is without presence of any men living in the same quarters. Whether its the interaction between the nuns and the priests and the tension between the them versus the situation at hand which seems to be resolved as planned, the whole situation does get fairly out of hand. The situation itself sparks a lot of questions in terms of questioning the rumors surrounding this priest as well as the faith and belief in the whole idea of exorcism and demon possession as a whole, leading up to how the situation towards Agnes is done which leads to another young nun Mary leaving the convent.

The second part focuses on Mary after she leaves the convent. The transition is rather abrupt however the contrast also changes the tone to be more along the lines of a drama as the reasons of why she decides to leave is revealed as well as a bit of her back story that is relevant as she starts to have signs of being possessed as well. It all dials down to this part really bringing up the key points of the plot itself regarding faith and religion while also touching on dealing with trauma to a certain extent. This second part also bringing in cameo role with Sean Gunn as a comedian who thinks he is more funny than he actually is.

Agnes is both a slow-placed and odd movie and yet, the whole focus on nuns and the convent really is a unique sort of setting and probably less used (at least from my own experience) making this refreshing. The plot itself questions the existence of possession which is also an interesting direction to take the horror premise creating perhaps a more psychological angle to it. While its a little abstract and between the lines for some of its messages, the film does approach this in an interesting style both from some imagery inserts in between scenes as well as a unique sense of humor especially between the nun and priests and the possible hint towards some sort of temptation and resistance.

*Agnes is screening on demand throughout Fantasia Film Festival on its virtual platform from August 5th to 25th. You can find more info HERE.*