Diary of the 12th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival

4/7/03:

A good day for some movies. Although this was not the first day of the film festival, it was my first day seeing movies at the festival. So I made it a strong start and saw four movies, the most I'll be seeing in one day for the length of the festival. And, luckily enough, they were almost all very good. Frankly, I was disappointed in a lot of the films in last year's festival, but if today's films are at all an indication, this year is going to be much better!

Films I saw today: Mehmet, My Life as McDull, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Beyond Re-animator, Dark Water



Mehmet

Preceding my first film (My Life as McDull) was this rather clever, and quite funny, little short. The title character, our narrator, is a Turkish dog. Via voiceover, we are privy to his memories and desires. As he plods the streets at night with a gang of Neo-Nazi thugs (his owners), he dreams of his happy days when he was young in Turkey. He seems to have hooked up with the Neo-Nazis because they are trying to find Turks, the people with whom Mehmet desperately wants to be reunited. Of course, the Neo-Nazis want to find them so they can terrorize, beat up, and kill them, but Mehmet doesn't quite grasp such subtleties. The movie is actually a bit violent and controversial in subject matter, but it takes a light, entertaining tone towards its heavy subjects. It helps that you're seeing things through the eyes of a dog.

My only problem with Mehmet is not really with the film itself, but with the programmer's choice of including this film with screenings of My Life as McDull. Why show a film like this in front of what appears (from the description in the festival booklet) to be a children's film? Admittedly McDull turns out to be much more than a kid's cartoon, but it is animated, and the main character is a young pig, so it was natural to make certain assumptions. And indeed there were many small children in the audience at the particular screening I attended. But Mehmet is definitely not a children's film. Although it's told from the perspective of an innocent, naive character, his "friends" are violent adult Neo-Nazis whose dialogue is full of cursing and crude, hateful language. But anyway, it's a good film. If I had been given a separate voting ballot for this movie, I would have given it a Very Good.

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My Life as McDull

After I saw this film, I was really worried that I'd screwed up and seen the best film in the festival first, and that everything else would be a let-down after this. McDull is a really wonderful, cute, sad, beautiful, funny film, full of wisdom. It's a Hong Kong film (subtitled, of course), based on a comic book (although I suppose the term manga would be more appropriate). It's set in a sort of parallel, cartoon universe where talking pigs, ducks and cows live side-by-side with normal people. We follow the childhood adventures of a pig named McDull. He lives with his single mother (there is never any mention made of the father) in an apartment in the big city. His mother, though clearly loving, is a bit of a terror; she wants only the best for her son and often puts quite a bit of pressure on him to succeed. She hosts a cooking show and a cooking web site with useful recipes like Roast Chicken ("Take a chicken and roast it. Then you have a roast chicken.") The story is narrated by a much older McDull who is looking back on his childhood, with a good deal of wistful nostalgia, and with the distance, wisdom and perspective of age. It's a vision of the innocence of youth through the eyes of an adult.

Although much of the humor and wisdom of the film comes through its clever, playful dialogue, there's also large portions of the film told beautifully with nothing but images and music, and no words whatsoever. The film is animated in a colorful, childish kind of style (enhanced in some places by computer effects) which helps make clear that this story is taking place in the world of a small child. The movie is often sad and regretful, as McDull's mother's dreams for her son, as well as his own dreams, are never realized, but whenever the movie is in danger of getting too morose, the mood is lightened by the film's warm sense of humor. For the epilogue of the film, we jump from McDull's past into the present, and animation turns into live action. McDull is now portrayed by a grown man. Although, as I've said, the film is often sad, it ultimately takes hope from the happy moments in life, whether they are in the past and live on only in memory, or are still occurring now. My Life as McDull is a truly excellent and wonderful film. I highly recommend it.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

I took a break at this point, after my first movie, to eat some lunch at the Pagoda Noodle Cafe next door to the Ritz East theater (where I saw all my movies today). I had lunch with my girlfriend, Sarah, who had come with me to see this first film. She didn't enjoy it quite as much as I did (she had been expecting something a bit lighter and happier and kid-oriented). She took off afterwards (the rest of the films I saw today were not her cup of tea). Then it was right back to work for me!

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Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Quite a different film than My Life as McDull, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a very adult, very violent, live action South Korean film. It's part of Danger After Dark, the program that I tend to favor when choosing films to see at the festival. The programmer of Danger After Dark (Travis Crawford) told us before the film that if any movie in his program this year could be a called a masterpiece, this was the one. Although I rarely agreed with him about the movies he chose for his program last year, I have to agree with him on this. A series of unfortunate circumstances and poor decisions leads into a chain of bloody vengeance-taking in this brutal, no-holds-barred film. The story starts out following one character, a deaf-mute with hair dyed green who works in a machine shop (because of his handicap, he doesn't need to wear the requisite ear-protectors). His sister needs a kidney transplant soon, but a donor doesn't seem to be forthcoming, so he scrapes together what little money he has to buy the kidney on the black market. Things don't go as he'd hoped (I don't want to spoil the surprise for you, so I won't give you any more details), he doesn't get the kidney, and when an actual donor miraculously appears, he no longer has the money necessary to pay for the operation. Even worse, he's laid off by his seemingly heartless boss. So he and his girlfriend (who's a bit of a terrorist, though she seems to practice her particular brand of terrorism mainly by distributing flyers) cook up a plan to kidnap the heartless boss's daughter and get the money that way. As with most kidnappings, everything goes horribly awry.

And almost before we realize what's happening, the movie switches up on us, and now the story begins to follow the boss. In a disturbing and disorienting criss-cross worthy of Hitchcock, the man you've grown to hate becomes sympathetic, and the character you'd come to sympathize with so deeply becomes the bad guy. Both men want revenge, ultimately on each other, and you understand and sympathize with both of them. When the moment comes and they finally face-off, you understand completely the boss's line, "I know you're not a bad guy, but you do understand why I have to kill you now, right?" Although the film starkly depicts a great deal of awful violence and sadism, it does not glorify this violence. In fact, its point seems to be that if you choose to be violent, your actions will inevitably lead only to more violence. The film is occasionally quite funny, but is far more often a dark and deeply unsettling portrait of the worst of humanity. It shows us the frightening extremes of rage and brutality that people can go to, and how easily they can get there.

Postscript: Unfortunately, I had one of those horrifying moments during this film when I realized I was going to have to go to the bathroom before it was over. I tried to choose a time when it looked like nothing important was about to happen, but of course by the time I got back a pivotal plot point had passed and a major character was dead. I didn't want to disrupt the film for my fellow viewers, so I waited until the movie was over to ask a guy sitting nearby what had happened when I was in the bathroom. So, thanks, guy. Sorry about that.

My Poll Rating: Very Good (At the time that I voted on this film, I was still shaken by its harshness and wasn't quite sure how I felt about it. Now, after having recovered from the film somewhat, I would amend my vote to an Excellent.)

Intermission

At this point I went to visit my friend Star, who accompanied me to the next film.

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Beyond Re-animator

The third film in the Re-animator series, which all star Jeffrey Combs as the title character, Dr. Herbert West. West is a sort of modern day Dr. Frankenstein, except his undead patients tend to be more violent and less intelligent than Frankenstein's monster. The story actually comes originally from a very short piece of fiction penned by H. P. Lovecraft, an American master of the horror genre, but director Brian Yuzna and star Combs have updated the story to the present and infused it with a dark, leering brand of ghoulish humor. The films all revel in the gore and violence they depict, so Beyond Re-animator was another extreme contrast to my previous film; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance probably depicts far less actual on-screen violence than this film, but Mr. Vengeance is ultimately a far more violent film because it really means it--the violence feels real and awful and lasting. Beyond Re-animator is clearly kidding us. It's all so over-the-top that you just have to laugh (and occasionally also wince).

I know I really enjoyed this kind of thing in the two previous films of the series, but either I've changed (perhaps only in terms of my mood at the time, in light of the previous movie, or perhaps in some more long-lasting, substantial way) or this movie is a lot nastier and less fun than the previous films in the series. It seemed clear to me that the filmmaker delights in depicting women as nothing more than screaming sex objects who either torture or are tortured, who demand sex or run from it. In this film, many slimy, hideous creatures (including a prison warden) attempt to (and often succeed in) molesting women. Women are forced to kneel and bark like dogs. I realize it's a standard horror trope to treat women this way, but it's taken here to an extent that is really almost sickening. In fact, the movie is full of standard horror tropes that Yuzna has dusted off and paraded in front of us with glee. To a certain extent this is comforting and amusing. The story line, characters, and situations are often very familiar. You barely have to pay attention. An actor comes on the screen and within a few seconds you've pegged down which stereotype his character fits into and you can stop paying attention to him and just wait for the inevitable pay-off.

Take, for instance, the opening of the movie. Two kids are sitting in a tent telling ghost stories on a dark night. Then they hear something outside. Turns out the tent is just in the backyard of the one kid's house, so they creep inside the back door ("Hey, how come this door is open?" Uh oh.) to try to figure out what made that noise. Meanwhile, we are treated to an evil-peeping-eye cam--someone is looking in the window of the house from the bushes at a beautiful young girl in her nightie. This is the sister of one of the kids. They scare her coming in (the old cat jumping out of the closet trick), and start clowning around. The boy ends up with his head between his sister's legs--one of the first of the really disturbing Freudian-type sexual elements in the film. The boy later grows up and falls for a girl who reminds him of his sister...

Of course, the movie doesn't travel constantly along the established tracks of films that have come before it. There are some surprises, and some genuinely funny and entertaining moments. Take, for instance, the scene wherein a woman is forced to have oral sex with a hideous, half-man, half-rat. (This gets better, I swear.) She bites his penis off and spits it into a corner of the room. A rat, who was brought back from the dead earlier and is now full of evil, runs off into the walls with the penis. During the final credits, the rat and penis fight. Such an epic battle has never before been depicted on screen.

And of course, Jeffrey Combs is excellent, as always. Frankly, there's not nearly enough of him in this movie. West's sarcastic, arrogant, bitter attitude toward everything is conveyed beautifully by Combs with well-timed sneers and expert reading of his wonderfully ridiculous dialogue. But despite Combs's great work, I really felt there was just something lacking from this latest installment in the Re-animator series. Or maybe rather than lacking something, it just had too much going on--too much sneering nastiness, too much slimy, adolescent, gross-out humor. Anyway, I didn't ultimately enjoy it very much.

My Poll Rating: Poor

Postscript: I forgot to mention the interesting fact that, very likely because this film was co-produced by Spanish companies, we ended up with a print that had Spanish subtitles. This added to the silly surreality of the film, but was also rather distracting. I kept wanting to look down there and read those subtitles, and they kept not making a lot of sense.

Intermission

Here I took another break to grab some food. I had thought to just grab a slice of pizza, but luckily for me and my continued health, the pizza place was not open, and I ended up getting a salad at Cosi. At least I won't be eating all nasty, snack-type foods during this movie extravaganza... After grabbing my salad, I met up with a bunch more of my friends to take in the next film (and thank goodness...).

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Dark Water

After a very silly, not-at-all scary "horror" film, I went to see the seriously horrifying Dark Water. From the makers of the original Japanese film that last year's The Ring was based on (the original is known as Ringu) comes this (in some ways, rather disappointingly) similar (though also similarly genuinely frightening) follow-up. The similarities are not surprising since both films were based on horror novels by Koji Suzuki, and both were directed by Hideo Nakata. Again the story revolves around a single mother and her young child, and their encounter with a frightening supernatural force. (Actually, there are even further similarities in terms of story, but I'm going to try to give away as little as possible here.) Nakata is expert at using a combination of camera placement, set design, lighting and sound to saturate perfectly normal environments, actions, and objects with absolute horror. If you see this film, you will fear water, elevators, and little girls.

I think part of the reason why Nakata's films are so horrifying, and why they seem to linger with you for such a long time afterwards (besides his use of striking imagery), is that they make use of really basic fears that we all share. Dark Water (again, like Ringu) works on a two-sided fear inherent in the parent-child relationship--the fear of the parent that she will lose her child, that she will somehow fail to protect the child; and the fear of the child that she will be abandoned by her parents and left all alone. We can all relate to one or the other side of this fear (and in many cases, both sides), which is part of what makes the film so effective. And it is effective. There is a particular scene where the little girl plays hide and seek in her kindergarten. You sense immediately that something else is going to find her. Then you see it coming, with dark water welling up all around...

I really thought I was going to just go ahead and scream like a little schoolgirl (which would have been appropriate) a number of times during this film. I ultimately managed to keep myself in check, but it was a near thing. Even so, the film is not completely successful. The movie often does shock and frighten, but some scares misfire, perhaps because you see them coming too far off. It seems as if the filmmakers were working for a dumber audience this time, as they often belabor their points, and present us with characters that can be a bit slow and dimwitted. We often know what's going to happen long before they do, and I found myself wanting to yell at them a number of times. Of course, some of this is just that good old horror movie dramatic irony ("Don't open that door! There's a monster behind it!"), but sometimes it's taken to an extent that is annoying or even comical. Also, as I mentioned, the movie labours a bit too hard to make certain points. It seems desperate to make sure we understand what's going on, and keeps flashing back to things we've just seen to make sure we didn't forget. Also, the final line of narration is completely unnecessary, since the point it states has already been made by the film itself, through its story. But despite an occasional misfire, the film succeeds in getting under your skin, and staying there. Nakata convinces us that we can meet ghosts in our own living rooms; that the places we thought were safe can easily be invaded by horrifying entities from beyond the grave. When I got home to my apartment that night, turned off the lights, and lay there listening to my leaky kitchen faucet dripping and dripping into the sink...let me tell you, that was fear.

My Poll Rating: Very Good

Epilogue

The viewing of Dark Water was followed by a long discussion with my friends, and a nice long walk through the dark city streets, during which we tried to stay together as long as possible. :) All in all, a good day of movies. I was a little disappointed in Beyond Re-animator, but who knows, I may just have been in a bad mood. Maybe when and if I see it again in the future, I will appreciate it on its own levels, and see something in it that I was missing this time. I'm not sure if any of the following films will be as good as, or live up to the promise of, the very first film I saw in this year's festival (McDull), but we'll see what comes. As always, I'm cautiously optimistic.

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Jim Genzano





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