In an environment where film festivals are struggling to figure out how much access to give both attendees and press, The Montreal-based Fantasia International Film Festival has always been a godsend of genre offerings, especially for American press who want to cover virtually. Here we are with the 25th edition of the fest, and the first few days’ worth of films have been well worth it. We’ll be covering all month long, so keep an eye out for these dispatches as we go.
This year’s fest opened with writer/director Julien Knafo’s absurdist zombie comedy Brain Freeze, in which an affluent island community off the coast of Quebec suddenly falls prey to an infestation of zombies — created by the mutant fertilizer from a Monsanto-like agro conglomerate meant to keep the rich golfing all year long. These zombies don’t necessarily lust for brains; they just want to bite and murder and spread their numbers. The only folks who don’t fall prey, of course, are a slothful teenage boy named André (Iani Bédard), who drinks nothing but Diet Coke, and his baby sister Annie. They run into a paranoiac survivalist security guard named Dan (Roy Dupuis), who hauls around his zombified daughter (Marianne Fortier) in search of a cure.
Zombie movies are never short on social commentary, and Knafo certainly has plenty of targets here, from the uncaring companies who do anything to hide accountability to the idleness of the rich and the obliviousness of smartphone-addicted kids. But that obviousness sometimes get in the way of more sophisticated laughs or thrills, Knafo’s approach sometimes proving too dry for the Shaun of the Dead-level gags the film’s clearly going for. Some jokes work great — I’ll never not laugh anytime someone has to use a severed hand to unlock a phone — but it’s in service to some pretty creaky, unoriginal commentary. (One subplot involving a far-right radio host goes particularly nowhere apart from serving as an unnecessary Greek chorus. And don’t get me started on the mute, sexy twin lady corporate assassins.)
That said, there are some visceral thrills to be had. The zombies themselves, snarling shufflers whose blood, guts and eyes turn verdant green as the eco-virus takes over, are rendered with suitably gooey precision. Andre and Dan have some curmudgeonly chemistry, the two prodding each other over their differing flaws (the former’s laziness, the latter’s gruff stubbornness). And the whole thing wraps up with a suitably morally grey ending befitting Romero. It plods along predictable formulas, but there’s enough to satisfy zombie fans in need of a quick bite.
On to headier stuff with Seth A. Smith’s surrealistic head-scratcher Tin Can, yet another film about a mysterious plague wreaking havoc upon humanity. (Wonder where they got that from?) Here, the infection in question is Coral, a strange illness of unknown provenance that slowly turns its victims into a blue, fungal mass. A group of scientists is working diligently on a cure, including Fret (The Expanse‘s Anna Hopkins, who’s slowly building a Trapped-in-a-Box Cinematic Universe), though progress is scarce and most patients end up getting taken down to quarantine, never to return.
Mere minutes into the film, Fret is bashed over the head, and wakes up in a 3’x5′ canister hooked up to tubes and wires. Slowly, she pieces together her situation: She’s been trapped in a VASE, a preservation program in which hopeful Coral patients wait out a cure in life-preserving canisters that are meant to slow down the disease. With little but her wits (and communication with other VASE occupants in tin cans of their own nearby), she works to escape and find those responsible.
For the film’s first half, we’re trapped in the box with Fret, left only to imagine what the others around her (including Simon Mutabazi’s John, Fret’s ex-husband who wounded her emotionally before falling prey to Coral) even look like. Then the second half hits, and Smith tumbles headlong into abstraction, turning Fret’s desire to escape into a broader journey to reinvent mankind — all depicted through the vertical slits of a metal creature overseeing the VASE pods. To say more would spoil (or would it? The film’s press notes require a full spoiler-filled synopsis to fully explain the thing).
At first blush, Smith’s premise reads like similar trapped-in-a-box thrillers like Buried and Oxygen from earlier this year. But his approach is much more akin to atmospheric sci-fi art films like Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow, all geometric shapes and artful framing and squicky emphasis on body horror atmosphere than the dissemination of a straightforward story. The dripping, squeaking soul of David Cronenberg is well and truly here, Smith’s lo-fi aesthetic blending antiseptic metal and plastic with the sweat, shit, and moisture of rapidly-failing human bodies. The sound design, much like its brushed-metal production design, is impeccably visceral, easily trapping us with Fret in a situation so impossible to understand that it must merely be felt.
But for all its aesthetic virtues (especially considering what must have been a modest budget), Tin Can‘s headiness still makes room for a fundamentally human story at its core — about human frailty, jealousy, and the heaving surrender of our own bodies in the end. Coral or no, we’re all looking for a way to cheat death; Tin Can depicts that struggle in all its bloody pain and grim beauty. It’s a real stunner, and makes Smith one to watch.
On to some goofier, more brightly-colored shenanigans with Tsutomo Hanabusa’s adaptation of the manga (and subsequent anime) Tokyo Revengers, best described as Bill and Ted meets Battle Royale. At the core of it all is Takemichi (Takumi Kitamura), a twenty-something loser who learns one day that his high school girlfriend Hinata (Mio Imada) and her brother Naoto (Tosuke Sugino) have died at the hands of the rapidly-rising Tokyo Manji Gang. But after he has his own near-death experience, he suddenly finds his mind transported back to middle school, ten years prior.
Eventually, he learns that he has the ability to jump back and forth ten years in the past, linked to Naoto (whom Takemichi saved in his first trip back to middle school, and is now a detective). Together, the two figure out how to use Takemichi’s power to save Hina, mostly by scheming to stop the Manji Gang from even starting.
Feature-length adaptations of long-running stories can be riddled with problems — see Shyamalan’s attempts to squeeze the entirety of Avatar the Last Airbender‘s first season into two hours. But there’s something nice and clean about Hanabusa’s work here, adapting presumably the first arc of the manga (I’m admittedly unfamiliar) into a streamlined, funny, action-packed romp about the ripple effects our past can have on the present.
What’s most endearing about Tokyo Revengers is that, while it’s got its fair share of action (including a fairly well-staged climactic fight between two rival gangs), Takemichi’s approach is a lot more Back to the Future than Tokyo Trial. Instead of just going up to the main boss and killing him, he finds himself befriending the rival gang that’s set to kill Hina in ten years’ time — his hope is that, by connecting to the better natures of Mikey (Manjiro Sano) and right-hand man Draken (Yuki Yamada), he’ll prevent them from turning down such dark paths in the future. It’s as much a slice-of-life drama as it is a yakuza throwdown, and the mix of the two makes for thrilling, adorable results. Not to mention, the adaptation’s attempts to emulate the anime characters’ gravity-defying hair make it extra cute — all short-cropped bleach-blonde hair and purple pompadours.
The Fantasia International Film Festival runs August 5 through August 25th both in-person and virtually. Buy tickets here.