We look at the return of a tokusatsu giant to the big screen, a feature-film extension of a legendary Taiwanese series, and a South Korean romp about a man and his dead dad’s haunted car.
(This dispatch is part of our 2022 Fantasia Film Festival coverage.)
2016’s Shin Godzilla felt like such a breath of fresh air for a creature and a genre that’d long run around in circles. Hot off the back of America’s take on the MonsterVerse, which traded allegory for AAA-budget Hollywood spectacle, Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno reinvented the character in a huge, sprawling disaster flick that was just as much about the inefficacy of Japan’s bureaucracy to handle existential threats as it was an eye-opening spectacle. Now, the pair are back (Higuchi directing, Anno writing) to adapt another classic ’60s kaiju staple for the modern day with Shin Ultraman, and boy, it’s a winner.
Less haunting and harrowing than Shin Godzilla, Shin Ultraman feels very much in the sprightly, campy spirit of the ’60s TV series from which it spawned. In the wake of Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, more and more kaiju are springing up all over Japan, prompting the creation of an alien-fighting force called the SSSP. (The country has seemingly learned its lesson after the first film, thank God; there’s far less bureaucratic gridlock to speak of here.)
The SSSP — composed of a series of extraterrestrial experts, including Shinji Kaminaga (Takumo Saitoh) and their leader Tamura (Drive My Car‘s Hidetoshi Nishijima) — struggle to fight the beasts but receive some unexpected help in the form of a silver-clad, humanoid giant. He fights off the latest kaiju (though Shinji dies in the battle). That’s Ultraman, an alien from the Planet of Light, sent to explore and defend humanity. Taking Shinji’s body and impersonating him at the SSSP, Ultraman settles in with the rest of the team, defending the planet from both kaiju of all stripes and more nefarious aliens who want to use the chaos to achieve their own ends.
This emphasis on old-school, episodic tokusatsu action is maybe Shin Ultraman‘s biggest strength. After all, who doesn’t love watching dudes in rubber suits punch each other while buildings crumble around them? Granted, the film leans on CG to achieve these effects, but Higuchi’s direction (clearly influenced by his time on Attack on Titan) is tight and interesting, keeping the slightly-controlled chaos and wrestling-inspired moves we watched on TV screens as kids. Anno’s script is similarly committed to the bit, but places refreshing emphasis on the characters.
The five leads of the SSSP are particularly endearing, doing their best to solve such massive threats from the confines of a sanitized office setting (occasionally studded with various models and starships from the otaku member of the team). And all throughout, whether it’s between the team or between Ultraman and one of several aliens who want to influence human affairs, Shin Ultraman‘s focused on whether humanity deserves to live, grow, and explore our potential. When it takes a breath to discuss these ideas, Shin Ultraman lends some stellar context to its intergalactic punch-ups.
While the effects don’t quite hold up by the standards Western audiences are used to, they lend Shin Ultraman‘s choreography-heavy battles a good deal of charm. The creature designs are fantastic, from gloppy kaiju monsters to an alien menace who looks like the front facade of a suit of armor — the kind of thing you certainly couldn’t do with a man in a suit. The film was a megahit in Japan when it premiered last year, and further success indicates Anno and Higuchi are set to cap off the trilogy with Shin Kamen Rider. That’s something I’d certainly love to see. (But follow it up with Shin Super Sentai too, I beg of you!)
Keeping things light, we move on to a goofy cross between a mob thriller and Herbie: The Love Bug with director Kwon Soo-kyung‘s Stellar: A Magical Ride. Car loan shark Young-bae (Son Ho-jun) is down on his luck: his best friend Dong-sik (Lee Kyoo-hyung) has bolted with a $300,000 Lamborghini filled with illicit cargo, and their boss (Squid Game‘s Heo Sung-tae) tasks Young-bae to track him down within 24 hours or else. If that’s not enough, Young-bae’s father has just died, leaving him with nothing but a barrel full of debt and a ramshackle Hyundai Stellar that barely runs. But even though the AC doesn’t work, the radio only plays one song, and the car can’t huff and puff any faster than 50 km/h, he’ll have to use it to find Dong-sik and get himself out of trouble.
On its own, that premise is enough for a fairly diverting action comedy (especially given Son’s admirable capacity for slapstick). But it also turns out that, somehow, the Stellar might just be imbued with his dead father’s spirit: all its malfunctions feel purposeful, and they get him out of trouble as much as they get him into it. It makes for a few really cute sequences, especially when those interventions turn the tide every time Young-bae’s pursuers catch up with him; it even makes the difference in its John Wick-esque chase through a nighttime dock.
It’s all very adorable, even if it sputters in a few places in the middle stretch. The odyssey, after all, is just as much a way to get Young-bae to reconcile his bitterness toward his late father, whom we see in flashbacks was a decent if distant man who threw himself into his work as a taxi driver (the Stellar was his stalwart mode of transport). The pieces don’t all fall into place — we never see the root of Young-bae’s beef with his dad in life — making the whole thing feel a bit uneven. (It really picks up once Young-bae and Dong-sik reunite in the later stretches of the film, making me wonder why we couldn’t have just had a whole road trip gangster comedy with Son and Lee’s infectious chemistry.) It may not shake the firmament of South Korean action comedy, but Stellar: A Magical Ride will get you from Point A to Point B.
Of course, Ultraman isn’t the only long-running Asian television phenomenon to get the big-screen treatment at Fantasia; from Taiwan, Demigod: The Legend Begins serves as a spinoff/prequel/theatrical installment of the long-running Taiwanese fantasy series Pili. What’s most notable about the show and film, though, is its use of Taiwanese glove puppetry (budaixi) for its characters — ornately-costumed cloth puppets with expressionless porcelain heads. It’s a marvel to behold, especially considering how director Huang Wen-Chang (whose family has been keeping the tradition alive for generations, most recently through Pili’s popularity) captures the puppetry’s fluidity through twirling wuxia camerawork and judiciously-applied CGI.
The story, such as it is, may be overwhelming to Western audiences unfamiliar with wuxia (or, indeed, overly familiar with its tropes) or Chinese mythology. The film acts as an erstwhile origin story for popular Pili character Su Hua-Jen, who’d become the godlike warrior White Lotus; when we see him here, though, he’s a simple martial artist and physician, swimming in debt because of his zest for learning. But he’s tempted to settle his debts — and gain access to the Limitless Celestial Book, a tome he’s spent his life dreaming of reading — with a request from the Lord of Globe Castle: kill his patient in a way that looks natural. This sets in motion a series of events that will lead Su to become the master warrior he was destined to be.
As someone unfamiliar with the series, or even the style of puppetry Demigod makes use of, it can be a challenging watch. The story never strays far from its wuxia roots, and the convoluted swings and roundabouts of its story are liable to make your head spin if you don’t have the cultural baseline to follow its dips into Buddhist mythology and the like. The palace intrigue is similarly head-scratching, as you struggle to follow who is allied with whom and what everyone wants.
But as pure spectacle, Demigod is an impressive technical accomplishment: the budaixi puppets are uniquely expressive, aided by ebullient voice acting (all from the same actor, even for the female characters) that serve that feeling of heightened fantasy. The fights are well-rendered, especially within the constraints of the format: Huang’s camerawork and editing are occasionally too herky-jerky to follow individual movements, but that feels born of necessity considering the puppets’ capabilities. And when Huang goes wide to showcase a flourish here or a shocking geyser of crimson blood there, it’s downright thrilling. Demigod soaks itself in blockbuster scope, which is impressive considering the miniature scale of its presentation.
It’s far more The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance than Team America: World Police in its tone, and they even set up a sequel in the post-credits (presumably another character from the show), so they’ve got their eyes set on a whole universe. If you’re a Pili fan and can follow the story, you’re sure to love this one. If not, well, the puppets are fantastic.