As Fantasia draws to a close, we’re catching up on some of the smaller films from the fest before they slip from our fingers into the Montreal air.
First up is Indemnity, a surprisingly lean and confident (albeit familiar) action thriller from South Africa’s Gambit Films, proof positive that the most interesting action pictures are coming from places outside Hollywood. At its core, it’s a meat-and-potatoes conspiracy caper At the center of Indemnity is a traumatized firefighter named Theo Abrams (Jarrid Geduld), still reeling from the mental anguish and PTSD that came from a particularly bad blaze that killed several people around him. Meanwhile, his wife Angie (Nicole Fortuin), an investigative journalist, gets wrapped up in a conspiracy involving defense contractors and shadowy government figures — and despite failed warnings, she ends up dead in their bed one morning, with Theo suddenly becoming the prime suspect.
From there, Theo goes on the run, becoming a tense mix of John Wick and Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, smashing and crashing his way through setpieces and plot beats that would feel familiar to anyone raised on 1990s Hollywood action films. But despite this familiarity, there’s a certain charm to Indemnity that makes its pastiche sing a bit more than you’d expect. Maybe it’s the committed performance from Geduld (who handles his choreography with a bruiser’s brutality), or the comparatively homespun nature of the production. Indemnity does a lot with a little; it clearly doesn’t have Hollywood’s resources, but it uses those limitations in uniquely charming ways. Dustups in prison vans and elevators have a wincing vitality that only seems to come when a film feels like it’s putting its actors in real danger.
That said, you can feel the seams when it comes to the script — cutting away from Geduld feels a chore, as we’re saddled with a pair of detectives (Gail Mabalane and Andre Jacobs) following Theo like Tommy Lee Jones without the charm. Taute’s script struggles when it’s not ushering its lead from one setpiece to another, recycling a hackneyed conspiracy script that offers few surprises (even when some third-act twists attempt to surprise you). The cast does its best to spice up blankly expository scenes that go on far too long, but you’re mostly just waiting for the next time Geduld has to hang from a building with nothing but a bedsheet to keep him from plummeting to his death. Still, for all its throwback charm, Indemnity scratches an itch even Netflix’s recent spate of mid-budget action thrillers doesn’t often satisfy.
Despite sporting a kookier premise and some decidedly fascinating casting choices, Vincente Amorim’s Yakuza Princess fares much worse. Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Beyrouth, Yakuza Princess promises innovation in its setting — a Beat Takeshi-style yakuza thriller set not in Japan, but the sprawling Japanese communities in São Paulo, Brazil — but can’t quite shake its herky-jerky script and some deeply flawed performances.
Akemi (MASUMI, a singer making her feature film acting debut) is an orphan who was sent to Brazil as a child after her grandfather was murdered; she knows little of her family otherwise. But fate comes a-knockin’ when she turns twenty-one: turns out she’s the heiress to a vast chunk of the Yakuza crime syndicate, and the current bosses want to keep her from claiming her inheritance. The only person she can really count on for help is Shiro (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a mysterious assassin who wakes up in the hospital with no memory and nothing but a mystical katana to his name.
If all that sounds hokey, it’s because it is — and Yakuza Princess moves too slowly and takes itself too seriously to really take advantage of that premise. The idea of exploring São Paulo’s Japanese neighborhoods sounds intriguing, but Amorim’s direction and script (co-written with Tubaldini Shelling, Kimi Lee, and Fernando Toste) don’t establish what makes this place unique. For all intents and purposes, this could have been set in Toyko with few changes. The cast doesn’t help, either; MASUMI gives a pretty flat performance as Akemi, shining only when she commits to the fight sequences. Rhys-Meyers, for his part, is particularly disappointing (whether due to culture clash or the weaknesses of the script), spending most of the runtime looking deeply unsure what to do with himself. (It’s telling that I remember little about Rhys-Meyers’ performance except for the all-too-rare sighting of his own, erm, katana as he wanders nude through a hospital post-amnesia.)
Otherwise, it’s the same stop-start rhythm of exposition, katana/gunfight with reams of unconvincing CG blood, neon-lit confrontations, rinse repeat. And at nearly two hours, the whole thing becomes a chore quite easily. As a Yakuza crime thriller, and a bloody action movie with hints of mysticism, there’s not a lot about Yakuza Princess to recommend.
And now, for a breath of fresh, gentle air with the decidedly (and deliberately) Miyazaki-esque Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko, the latest from Studio 4°C (Tekkonkinkreet, Mutafukz, Children of the Sea). In fact, it borrows so much from My Neighbor Totoro that its central character, the vibrant-but-clumsy Nikuko, is openly compared to the Ghibli mascot. Set in a sleepy seaside town, Ayumu Watanabe’s film follows Kikuko, the awkward, frustrated daughter of the title character, and their respective slice-of-life dramas. Kikuko struggles with bullies and crushes at school, compounded by her mother’s innate nature as the town’s good-natured punching bag. (Nikuko, as we learn in the opening minutes, is an almost pathologically selfless figure who moves from one bad relationship to another, sidling into more and more debt as men rip her off and leave.)
It’s a classic mother-daughter dynamic the film takes great care to explore, highlighting the stark differences between each woman both physically and spiritually. Kikuko is shy, withdrawn, and cynical, with short-cropped hair and muted clothes. Nikuko, on the other hand, is a figure of big size and emotion (many jokes are made about her size, especially from Kikuko, which teeter a little too much into outright fatphobia to feel all that charming), which both charms and puts off many people in the town. Both of them have trouble fitting in, a problem amplified by Nikuko’s tendency to move from place to place whenever her relationship at the time turns sour. And as she starts a dalliance with a neighboring ramen shop owner, Kikuko feels that pattern starting again.
At times, Nikuko feels almost too lean on story, content to idle through its characters’ pet concerns and episodic scenarios with little regard for an overarching tale. But within those moments there’s no small amount of grace: For all of Nikuko’s flaws, her unabashed embrace of herself and her size takes the sting out of the many fat jokes the characters (and the film) lob at her. If anything, Kikuko feels like the problem — she’s a mopey teen far too concerned with her own affairs to avoid treating her own mother like trash. Still, that’s leavened by some late-film revelations about the nature of their family dynamic, and the recognition of how much of Nikuko she takes for granted.
Lady Nikuko never truly feels like it steps out of the shadows of its influences, especially the magical realism and humanism it clearly wants to ape from Ghibli’s works. (Animals talk here, but since the other characters don’t acknowledge it, it seems solely for our benefit.) But as an easygoing rural slice-of-life drama, it proves a welcome respite from the murder, gore, and mayhem the rest of Fantasia has offered us this year.