So I went to Fantastic Fest for the first time this year. Yes, first; it’s ridiculous that it’s taken me this long to get to a genre film festival that is practically happening in my backyard, but shit happens, I guess. On the bright side, it appears that I got to it after ticketing and line clusterfuckery from previous years has been straightened out, because the ticketing and “boarding” system is one of the most stress-free systems I’ve encountered in over a decade of going to conventions, conferences, and festivals.
Anyway, we had a very good time and saw some excellent movies, and ate far more Alamo Drafthouse food than is probably good for anyone. I’ve reviewed April and the Extraordinary World and The Witch for Tor.com, and my review of High-Rise should be up soon. Meanwhile I’ll finally put this space to use with some capsule reviews of the other films I saw. If anyone wants to hire me to write proper reviews for any of these…let’s talk.
The rest of the recap:
I’m trying to remember now who it was I was talking to who said that watching The Assassin was like looking at a Chinese scroll painting—whether it was the person who did the intro at the screening, or someone I met at the press luncheon. It’s a really accurate description—the movie is very beautiful, tells a story in a highly poetic, often elliptical way, and is also fairly high-context in terms of the culture that produced it. It was almost certainly one of the most beautiful films of the festival, and the leisurely pacing gave you plenty of time to take in the gorgeously shot settings—and it might also bore you to tears. I wasn’t bored, but I did often feel like there might have been some context I was missing.
The story is folktale-like in its simplicity: Yianniang (Qi Shu), a young woman trained to be a deadly assassin, is sent back to her home province with the assignment to kill her cousin, now the ruler of the province, and to whom she was once betrothed. The main part where I felt like I was missing something lay in the subplot about the political tensions between the province and the imperial Chinese government; it’s a conflict that drove a lot of the story and made a lot of the relationships highly fraught, but I couldn’t quite synthesize it with Yianniang’s storyline. Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous piece of cinema, and I’m glad I saw it.
The Keeping Room
Here’s a weird thing about FF: it is overwhelmingly attended by dudes. You can generally tell if there’s gender parity at an event by the line for the women’s restroom, I’ve found—if there’s a line, the more likely it is that there’s an equal or greater number of women in attendance than men. I almost never had to wait in line for the restroom at FF.
I feel like the event is underattended by women, which is a shame, because if you run the stats, I think you’ll find that in terms of percentage (and hell, probably even just in raw numbers), FF has more movies led by female characters and more female directors than your average parade of Hollywood-made summer films. The Keeping Room is a particularly strong case in point.
Part of why The Keeping Room works is because it uses the “under siege” genre trope really well: three women (two sisters and a slave) trying to protect themselves against a pair of Union soldiers who are raping and pillaging their way across the South in the waning days of the Civil War. All three of the women are well-written and strongly acted, and not just in the tired old “strong women” sort of way.
Generally the owner-slave dynamics aren’t shied away from; there’s also a sense that the disparities get flattened out in circumstances where women, regardless of race or class, are in a position of being victimized by men all around. Though that does call to mind an observation I saw recently that “dystopia” is what happens when the majority is subjected to the oppressions that minorities experience every day—a point underlined by an absolutely harrowing story that the slave, Mad (Muna Otaru), tells to the the sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) in the aftermath of a deeply traumatic scene. I believe the filmmakers were really trying very hard to keep Mad from being a device by which Augusta and Louise develop, and to make her a character with dignity and agency in her own right; I keep going back and forth on what I think about the extent to which they succeeded, particularly in relation to the consequences of one particularly upsetting twist in the plot.
But I’m really glad The Keeping Room exists, and it needs to be seen. Hopefully someday it’ll be less rare to see a movie driven by three women, and written by a woman to boot.
ETA: Also, I should add that The Keeping Room works because it’s a really well-done, suspenseful thriller. There are scenes that are positively agonizing from the sheer level of tension, and there is one payoff that actually made the entire theatre burst into applause.
Not to be confused with The Assassin. This is a rather daffy Japanese confection based on a manga and anime about a class of students being trained up to assassinate an alien that’s essentially a stretchy yellow space octopus with a huge round smiley-face head. Said space octopus—Koro-sensei—is also the target of the assassination; if he’s not killed, he’ll destroy the earth.
It’s a fairly absurd film, populated by cute girls and bishonen boys, but then about midway through, things take a startlingly dark turn, at which point Koro-sensei is no longer the most menacing character in the film. In fact, by the end, he’s regarded with considerable affection by everyone, which makes for some surprisingly emotional moments as the students’ efforts to assassinate their teacher get closer and closer to success.
Again, I think I’m missing some context here, but from what little I do know about Japanese culture, I suspect there is a fairly pointed satire on the Japanese educational system going on here. There’s also sharp class commentary—Koro-sensei’s students are the no-hopers of their school, and everyone assumes they’re destined for dead-end lives of no significance. Koro-sensei’s assassination curriculum, however, gives them meaning, direction, and a will to succeed—which is definitely not going to go down well with the head of the school.
Frustratingly, Assassination Classroom ends with a “to be continued”. They haven’t even tried to make this a standalone film; there are still lots of questions to be answered and some implications about Koro-sensei’s origins that definitely are due a lot of explanation.