FNC 2020: Moving On (2019) /Wisdom Tooth (2019)/The Thief’s Daughter (2019)

In an effort to wrap up the FNC 2020 coverage, the final reviews will be in multiple movies. The first is a trio of family dramas, each with their own angle and premise that makes them rather unique (and all three that I did enjoy) plus a focus on a female main character.

Moving On (2020)

Director (and writer): Yoon Dan-Bi

Cast: Choi Jung-Un, Yang Heung-Ju, Park Hyeon-Yeong, Park Seung-Jun

After her parents get divorced, Okju, her father and her little brother move in with a grandfather she barely knows. Life in the new family unit proves challenging for the already traumatized teenager. – Festival du Nouveau Cinema

A lot of Moving On is about coping. Coping with change in a world that feels like everyone is trying to move on as nothing had happened before and dealing with the inner feelings of neglect and loneliness. That is what Okju is dealing with throughout but not only her has some issues, her father also has some tough decisions while her aunt who has moved into the home as well have her own issues. Everyone tries to act like nothing is wrong in fear of their grandfather knowing about all their issues as he also has his own health issues that they worry about. And yet, in all this, the little brother seems to be the one that has escaped all these feelings. He gets a lot of the attention but at the same time, seems less scarred by these effects.

Moving On is a subtle films that focus on everyday people going through everyday issues and as they stay together in this home, they get to know each other’s issues and what bothers them or lingers in their thoughts from the past and present. As the family connections come into play, they each have their form of conflict and struggles that craft these characters especially the main teenage girl Okju who spends a good part of the movie trying to seek attention despite her quiet personality from small things like fighting to have a room to herself and her personal space to getting the attention of a boy that she likes and even the little moments that she shares with her father and aunt that all makes her feel special for little short moments.

Its hard to explain Moving On that makes it not feel like its fairly mundane however, the best movies (arguably) are those that use an everyday life premise and create believable characters and relationships. In this case, its one about a family going through divorce, break-ups and a change in living situation. The subtlety of how its executed really does give a lot of focus on an outstanding premise and story, heavily focused on each of the characters, especially with Okju.

Wisdom Tooth (2019)

Director (and writer): Ming Liang

Cast: Xingchen Lyu, Jiajia Wang, Weishen Wang, Xiaoliang Wu

Gu Xi and her half-brother Gu Liang lead a hardscrabble life in a village in northern China, where they struggle to make ends meet. Their unusually intimate relationship takes on a new dimension with the arrival of the charismatic QingChang, daughter of a rich businessman.  – Festival du Nouveau Cinema

Wrapped up in both a family drama featuring a close sibling relationship where the brother and sister’s life revolves solely around each other. However, as their lives take a turn for new opportunities, Gu Liang meets a new girl which opens up a mostly behind the scenes romance. Viewed mostly from the point of view of Gu Xi, she needs to adapt to a world where she isn’t the center of her brother’s world as an outgoing rich girl QingChang gets into the picture. Call it an unusual love triangle if you want but aside from the family/romance side, a fairly more subtle subplot lies in the little details of the dealings that Gu Liang and his best friend are involved in in the fish business as well as her boss’s issues due to her undocumented status.

One of the best elements of Wisdom Tooth is the link of Gu Xi’s wisdom tooth issue at the beginning that pulls back to it at the end as she finds back her way. At the same time, its the execution of the premise from the lighthearted sibling relationship at the beginning that defines them right away to its gradual addition of QingChang and the best friend which leads to a friendship between WingChang and Gu Xi as they try to bond together which all comes crashing down one day and she needs to make a huge decision. Set in the 1990s China backdrop and its cold weather in a part of a more northern China (I can’t remember the exact location) but the looming winter adds a lot to the setting and cinematography.

Aside from that, this story is heavily focused on its characters and the relationships between each of them. With that said, the entire cast does an outstanding job. The standout goes out to crafting the character of Gu Xi, played by Xingchen Lyu who is followed throughout as she starts to find herself by the end and her independence. At the same time, Gu Liang played by Xiaoliang Wu is also done really well. His struggle between his sister, his love relationship and his “career” is well-portrayed. The ending of the story is done in a fairly unique manner that I quite liked. If there was one little element that held the movie back, it would be the imbalance of how it treated the mixed genre of family drama, romance and crime thriller.

A Thief’s Daughter (La Hija de un Ladron, 2019)

Director (and co-writer): Belén Funes

Cast: Greta Fernandez, Eduard Fernandez, Alex Monner, Tomas Martin, Adela Silverstre

Her father is a convicted, her boyfriend rejects her, her brother is troublemaker, her baby needs money and she’s half-deaf of one ear. Bad times to be Sara. – IMDB

A Thief’s Daughter is a movie about coming to terms with what is the current situation and striving for a better day than settling for the life with a criminal. Sara, played by Gerta Fernandez is the central character as she moves through her various responsibilities as a mother, a girlfriend, a sister, an employee and as a daughter. The relationship between her and her father is the plot that constantly builds throughout the film. However, Sara’s life is a struggle in general. As she finds a more stable job to support her desire to get her younger brother’s custody, her relationship with her father is further worsened along with her brother’s attachment to their father. The feeling of loneliness is what gradually becomes more apparent as she ends up dealing with everything on her own, whether its her own doing or the better choice to keep away from the trouble.

A Thief’s Daughter has relatively decent pacing. The different relationships she has all outlined and built upon throughout to give them all purpose and depth. Her father’s presence although not completely apparent, it appears with enough context to highlight their issues. Its a great work of the writing that gives this looming sense of dread that something bad could happen to Sara when her one good thing being finding a stable job at a school kitchen due to all the conflicts that happens to her throughout. In the end, it becomes a worry that hits her about whether she will be alone for the rest of her life, a rather heartbreaking revelation for Sara, a character that tries her best to do the right thing by everyone but rarely seems to get treated with the same about care from others. There’s a lot that’s done very well in A Thief’s Daughter. Its subtle and quiet but Sara’s character really does end up being rather powerful. Especially when faced with people that don’t seem to stick around her life and her father who she finally stands up to about her own feelings.

That’s it for this Festival du Nouveau Cinema features.
A good batch of family drama with central female characters overall which are all well worth a watch.

Fantasia Festival 2020: The Undertaker’s Home (La Funeraria, 2020)

The Undertaker’s Home (La Funeraria, 2020)

The Undertaker's Home

Director (and writer): Mauro Ivan Ojeda

Cast: Luis Machin, Celeste Gerez, Camila Vaccarini, Susana Varela, Huga Arana

Set in a funeral home where the undertaker Bernardo (Luis Machin), his wife Estrella (Celeste Gerez) and stepdaughter Irina (Camila Vaccarini) live, The Undertaker’s Home sets up in a world where they reside with the presence of the spirits that have been gone. They live with rules set to not cross certain lines and not go to their haunted bathroom and spirits communicating in whatever means with them. What starts out as just rules to follow that create inconvenience eventually becomes much more serious as they realize they aren’t just living with spirits but there is a demon invading their home that is making the situation more dire.

The Undertaker’s Home has a few good points. For one, it keeps a simple equation of using the one setting. Luckily, the setting has fairly extended grounds with their main living quarters and the room, the funeral hall in the next building and the outside grounds which is where they have a port-a-potty. Right off the bat, the movie’s opening scene sets the tone right from the get-go with the music being a big part of the eerie element to build the atmosphere and the camera navigating throughout the setting to place where everyone is and the little hints of things to be unveiled as the story develops.

Second, the premise is rather unique. Having spirits among the living is something that most horror movies have as a background but to have people living consciously with spirits making the first half of the film fairly strong as its unique to see them encounter these and then also see how they have learned to ignore and cope with it. We never see the spirits or demon fully revealed, which is something that leaves a lot to the imagination and it helps that the cinematography focuses on the characters reactions whether than show their point of view which leaves some space for the viewer’s imagination to stew.

Third, the characters are rather good as well. There is sufficient amount of conflict and through their arguments and conversations, you can find the family dynamic. It drops a few hints as to a lot of their family issues and drama. Each of these characters, especially that of Bernardo is rather odd. They have their own little secrets. Bernardo’s character is one odd character and becomes more and more unsettling to watch as the story unravels.

The deal with The Undertaker’s Home is that, a lot of its merit comes from the beginning part and the whole setup of the film in the first part. There are some tense moments in the final act but the story seems to lose a little bit of its direction. As it brings in the demon plot, things start taking a more normal horror film path. At the same time, something to note about the film overall is that the first act sets out straight away that most of the fear and unsettled atmosphere is created by its looming, crescendo and strong music direction that blends in some sound effects to make it especially eerie and easy to get under the audience’s skin. However, once the music starts becoming a familiar element of the movie, the second half becomes less effective as the music blends more and the uneasiness is no longer there but replaced by the actual intensity created by the scene as the demon shifts into the plot. Question is, without the background music, it feels like the tropes are more obvious and the movie is not quite as scary and its intended to be. In that sense, it loses a little bit of the unique elements that was created in the first half and loses some steam.

The Undertaker’s Home has a lot of elements done right. In fact, the way it creates the soundtrack and the sound effects to create the building uneasy and unsettling atmosphere is really well done. Except, when I step back to think about it, the story itself lacks a little bit of spark. Perhaps it has to do with the final act being heavily focused on the stepdaughter and while she makes a great scream queen, her role at the end is more “scream-queen”-esque and not so much depth. There is one transition twist that I do think is a little disjointed even if the meaning of it is vaguely apparent as a little detail mentioned from the beginning part. In a nutshell, it feels like there are a lot of unique ideas here but some of them didn’t get the time to be more fleshed out.

TADFF 2019: International Shorts After Dark

Toronto After Dark Film Festival

Compiled as 8 short films from various international locations, a few of them from the USA and screened as the International Shorts After Dark, here are 6 of the 8 shorts reviewed. One of them called Bar Fight was paired with a feature during Fantasia Festival in July so the review is linked at the bottom.

Maggie May (2018)

Maggie May

Director (and writer): Mia Kate Russell

Cast: Lulu McClatchy, Katrina Mathers, Sophia Davey, Ditch Davey, Don Bridges

Maggie May is about a sister who stays back to help out after their mother dies to end up in an accident which leaves her dying but her sister Maggie May simply ignores it. Sometimes, the scariest thing is not what someone does but in some situations, what someone doesn’t do. That is what powers the horror and unsettling feeling in Maggie May.

While the short itself is done fairly well, there’s this over exaggeration (perhaps deliberate) of the character of Maggie May and that makes it too over the top to make it feel as horrifying and more just a loathing in general to watch. What does work for the concept itself is the whole idea of passivity being more dangerous than the other way around in some cases. However, what does balance it out is the whole process of dying with the sister and the both the psychological and physical changes that she goes through hoping for help but also noticing the pieces around her fading away.  There’s a decent amount of blood and gore that somehow balance with the psychological elements of the whole story and pulls through a fairly effectively little short.

Puzzle (2019)

Director: Vincenzo Aiello

Cast: Marie Wyler

In a fairly concise story, Puzzle is a rather creepy one as it is based on the premise of a woman finding puzzle pieces around her home. As she pieces them together, it reveals something frightening. This one is very well-executed. It keeps its setting confined in a room mostly while using the puzzle pieces to each lead to the next one and it having the final unveil of what and possible who is responsible and yet, it still manages to keep some mysteries, mostly because its less than 5 minutes and the ability to craft something rather unnerving is already very impressive.

Eject (2019)

Eject

Director (and writer): David Yorke

Cast: Elena Saurel

Eject is about a woman that finds her arm has a USB port and proceeds to plug it in and ends up in another place where she can sort through files of her life. There are some fairly horror elements here and yet, characters finding too good to be true situations and using it to their advantage is not a new concept although this one for being a short did leave a fairly precious deeper message (in my mind but I might be overthinking) about the impossibilities of casting everything bad out of life as that isn’t reality. Its the mechanics of how this dimension works that becomes the mystery and the horror all wrapped up together. Its not a long short, less than 10 minutes and yet, long dark tunnels and empty room with a cabinet and a mysterious door leading to who knows is the unknown factors that add to this short film.

La Noria (2019)

La Noria

Director (and writer): Carlos Baena

La Noria is a Spanish animated short with no dialogue about a grieving boy who sees creatures in his attic who ends up showing him compassion.

La Noria is possibly the best short so far in all of the shorts shown at the festival. The animation is absolutely brilliant. On a visual level, the color palette is beautiful. The creature designs are also incredibly creative. There’s something of a Christmas holidays setting but somehow its the tint of light that works here. What starts off as failing to put together a ferris wheel and remembering his father turns into an intense walk through  his home festering with all kinds of creatures, all different in their appearance and having their own characteristics but all takes a surprising turn of events to something very touching. This one shows off the concept of being able to deliver an effective story with the power of visuals and sound effects and score to give it all it needs. Even the ending credits are done fantastically.

The Haunted Swordsman (2019)

The Haunted Swordsman

Director: Kevin McTurk

Cast: Jason Scott Lee, James Hong, Franka Potente, Christopher Lloyd

In terms of uniqueness, The Haunted Swordsman is a short that definitely fills that criteria. Its a ghost story puppet film that takes a horror adventure following a samurai in a world of witches and creatures. Made with 36 inch tall bunraku puppets and in live action, The Haunted Swordsman is a lot of fun filled with sufficient amount of horror, fantasy and adventure.

The story itself is a lot of fun as it starts with a samurai on a quest with a severed head, The Navigator as his companion guide, whichever it is in search of the The Black Monk, voiced by Christopher Lloyd. The samurai being voiced by Jason Scott Lee and The Navigator voiced by James Hong. The score itself blends well with the samurai tale elements and for a puppet film, the action is incredibly on point. A lot of compliments go to the attention to detail given to the puppets and how great it all looks as well as the puppeteers who make it all come to life convincingly. Its definitely a realm well worth looking at. While this is a short animated film at about 15 minutes or so, the samurai is sent on a quest, giving this concept and story a lot of potential to explore further and hopefully, director Kevin McTurk will do just that in the future.

Place (2019)

Place

Director: Jason Gudasz

Cast: Emily Green, Nick Hurley, Stella Edwards, Emmanuelle Roumain, Willy Roberts

Place is a short about a couple the goes into their new home to find the electrician dead in a freak accident to find that something seems to also be inhabiting it.

Place is about a family adjusting to all the ghosts in the place. While the ghosts never quite reveal itself, it does take over the family one by one. It gives them a rather edgy character and each of them change in their own way as they each take on a different oddness to them, whether its their change in how they talk. A lot of it is rather deliberate and possibly in a fairly dark comedy sort of way. Each of them interact with it in a different form as well. The character changes are a bit abrupt for a short, it needs to be paced fairly quickly. However, the daughter in here does bring in those little details of giving out clues of what legends are in the equation, inhabiting their place. Place is quite odd but then its meant to be that way with those little details which adds to the story plus it does have a rather good twist at the end.

Other shorts in this showcase not reviewed here:

Bar Fight (Fantasia Review)
Your Last Day on Earth

Fantasia Festival 2019: The Incredible Shrinking WKND (2019)

The Incredible Shrinking WKND (El Incredible Finde Menguante, 2019)

Incredible Shrinking WKND

Director (and writer): Jon Mikel Caballero

Cast: Iria del Rio, Adam Quintero, Nadia de Santiago, Adrian Exposito,  Jimmy Castro, Irene Ruiz, Luis Tosar

The Incredible Shrinking Wknd is a 2019 drama about a girl going on a reunion weekend away at a cabin who ends up getting stuck in a time loop that decreases in time with each reset.

The incredible Shrinking WKND opens to a group of six friends who are having a reunion at the cabin. As they learn about each other’s current state and about their future plans, Alba (Iria del Rio) and Pablo (Adam Quintero) seem to be the couple who seem to be fine on the surface but after dinner, Pablo suggests to break up. As she goes for a hike the next day, she goes into the old weapons factory area, a point of interest for the group and ends up triggering a time loop where time freezes and she wakes up again on the car ride to the cabin. As Alba wakes up each time, she starts from enjoying what feels like an infinite time loop to realizing that it shrinks by the hour with every reset. What starts as a fun little time loop that she can be in control soon becomes a journey of self-discovery and  at 30, a late growing up to adulthood as she embraces her feelings, her friends and her love.

Let’s face it, time loop stories are tricky. They can get repetitive and they can get lost. Its hard to say that WKND doesn’t  get repetitive but the script remembers to always make each time a little different, especially in the first few loops and as Alba transitions in her different revelations from denial to finally wanting to make amends. It works through some of this by doing speed cuts of the crucial parts, putting more focus on the changes and the meaningful parts to see new discoveries and the character development for Alba. While the middle section does feel like it dwells a little too long and then picks some sections to focus on over and over again, it does try to put together the pieces at the end.

WKND is heavily focused on one character. While the other 4 friends and her boyfriend are very much present here and there in each loop in different ways, they all have their own new bits of information that gets revealed , Alba is the main focus. Iria del Rio is compelling in this role. Every reaction as she breaks down to her enthusiasm to her revelation and uncertainty of what will happen and trying to figure out how to escape the time loop becomes a journey that is satisfying because she becomes a character who grows and one that is worth fighting for as she strives to improve. Its a change from the girl that started this movie who didn’t seem to care about anyone, was insensitive, irresponsible and had no direction.

At the end of the day, WKND is a time loop movie with depth. It dials down to a good execution of the content and a close look at one character’s growth. However, all this is small compared to what makes this Spanish indie unique and that is its choice of how it presents the film. The constant narrowing screen is gradual and at first, might not even be noticeable. All the effect of time urgency as well as packing in the crucial details of the shot closer together gives it a somewhat claustrophobic feeling. Its a big question of what happens after, when there is no more hours of the same day to take away and how Alba will use that final hour. This final element makes cinematography stand out and is the truly unique element of this film experience.

The Incredible Shrinking WKND has an encore screening at Fantasia International Film Festival on July 22 at 4:35pm at the Hall Auditorium.