Third part of my Fantastic Fest recap.
Also: my review of High-Rise is now live at Tor.com. That one was a bastard to write, is really long (approx. 1600 words), and probably could have been at least twice that length with all the things I could say about that movie, J.G. Ballard, British politics, architecture, feminism, and so much else.
Man vs. Snake
Basically, if you liked King of Kong, you’ll enjoy the hell out of Man vs. Snake: the story of one man’s quest to achieve the highest ever score on an obscure video game called Nibbler. Nibbler is one of those “snake eats stuff, grows; don’t run into your own tail” games, but due to some quirks in the design and mechanics, you can rack up tons of lives over time, which makes it a perfect game for marathoning. (If you need to go to the bathroom, take a walk, or grab a bite to eat, ensure that you have a crapton of lives saved up, and then let the game run itself while you’re gone.)
The protagonist of the documentary is Tim McVey (not to be confused with McVeigh), a gentle, unassuming man who works in a machine shop in Iowa, not far from Fairfield and the famous Twin Galaxies video arcade. Back in the 1980s, McVey set the Nibbler score record, becoming the first to break a billion points. Not long after, however, a teenager in Italy beat McVey’s score. Years later, McVey decided to see if he could break the record, and the rest is the substance of this documentary. As with King of Kong, there are some impressively outsize personalities (Billy Mitchell, a longtime friend of McVey, is a key player in the story), and there’s even a bit of intrigue.
It’s a fun, charming film; there’s a particularly clever use of animation to illustrate the flashbacks that I liked a lot. But as far as I’m concerned, the secret hero of this film is Tim’s wife, Tina, who remains unflappably supportive of her husband throughout his efforts to reclaim the Nibbler crown.
This film was frustratingly almost-good. It’s very nicely shot and the sound design is really good, and the actress who plays Caroline, the tormented lead, does fine work with what she has—but unfortunately what she has spends way too much time spinning its wheels on the plot and using the “creepy figure reflected in the mirror” trope to excess.
It’s a fairly straightforward “woman moves into haunted apartment in creepy building” sort of story, and there are echoes of films like Roman Polanski’s The Tenant in there (only perhaps with childlessness rather than transvestitism). There’s the bones of a good story there, but it’s lost under a lot of irritatingly repetitive scenes (how many times can someone not see the creepy thing in the mirror, I ask you) and a script that doesn’t quite rise above the basics. It’s probably the only film I saw at the festival where I found myself checking my watch.
At some point late in this film, I wrote in my notes: “I am never going to work late in an office alone ever again.”
The movie opens with Kim Byung-guk, an unassuming Korean salaryman, going home and brutally murdering his entire family with a hammer. (What is it with Korean films and hammer violence?) The next day, the police come to his office to investigate, and the focus of the story shifts to Lee Mi-Rae, an anxious, browbeaten intern who is treated with scorn by her coworkers and who worries about whether she will successfully be able to transition from intern to full-time. Kim was the only person in the office who was ever kind to her, and the police become very interested in her when they begin to suspect that Kim may still be hiding somewhere in the office building.
Lee is shy, a bit fragile, and easily cowed, which earns her status-obsessed coworker’s disdain, and as the film progresses, she becomes increasingly frayed, particularly when a prettier, more popular intern joins the team. Meanwhile, the company is trying to cover up as much as they can of Kim’s work circumstances before his crime—and then things take a hard left turn into violence and instability.
Office has the trappings of a police procedural and murder-mystery thriller, but it really seems more like a savage attack on Korean corporate culture. Being an American, I can’t say how typical Lee’s terrible workplace might be, even in less exaggerated form, but nevertheless anyone who’s held down a soul-sucking corporate job, surrounded by people they can’t stand, will relate. And depending on how much you’ve hated that job, you may actually feel a little bit of vicarious glee in the third act.