As a festival grows in size and prominence, can it continue to maintain its identity? Slowly but surely, the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal has become one of the most important genre film festivals in the world. Celebrating its 21st year, the festival has never been bigger. Drawing journalists and guests that seemed unfathomable a decade ago, the festival has attained a level of success and influence in genre cinema that seems counterintuitive to its grungy beginnings. As a festival that has long featured transgressive and niche cinema – now that is has reached worldwide status, can it continue to be boundary pushing?

Due to its sheer length, Fantasia has always balanced a wide variety of cinema. To pin down its voice is difficult, as it has long privileged a wide variety of Asian films and films that challenge the conception of genre. The best measure of quality and success in a given year cannot be measured as much by what is good and what isn’t, but what films present something you have never seen before. During opening night, the festival’s General Director and Director of International Programming, Mitch Davis, introduced the new edition by saying, “We want to take chances on films that take risks.”

Fantasia International Film Festival

The Villainess

This year’s festival opened with The Villainess, which months before screened at the Cannes Midnight Screenings. Blending elements of melodrama, action, and fantasy – Jung Byung-gil’s film breaks boundaries aesthetically, while packing in enough plot to fill five films. To put it most simply, The Villainess is the story a trained assassin who was born into violence and must face with her past as she tries to raise her child. The synopsis barely gives way to the film’s sense of multiplicity: the protagonist Sook-hee is played by two different actresses, there are flashbacks within flashbacks and characters switch allegiances on a dime. While the film’s convoluted structure makes it difficult to follow at times, overall, it does little to detract from the experience.

Much of the discussion of the film has revolved around its stunning action sequences. While many filmmakers have adapted the aesthetics of video games to action, none compare to Jung Byung-gil. Opening with possibly the best sequence of the year, a first person camera enters a warehouse and proceeds to fight off countless gangster assassins.  Later on, we revisit this fight sequence from outside the factory and the sequence that approaches ten minutes is revealed to have elapsed in mere seconds. Rather than downplay the extremism of the sequence, Jung doubles down on it. Every action sequence is equally mind-boggling: a patient makes a great escape from an assassin’s school, a sword-fight unfolds on motorcycles and a fight continues even while a bus is in the midst of crashing.

The Villainess was one of three Cannes holdovers to screen at Fantasia this year. There was also Good Time (perhaps the best film of the year) and Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal (one of three Miike films screening at the fest). This might not seem to be a heavy lineup but it speaks for Fantasia’s clout that many filmmakers would choose to host their North American premiere here rather than at any number of other high profile fests.

Is this a good thing? Cannes is perhaps the festival of status quo. For every filmmaker that emerges from nothing as the next superstar, they are more likely to privilege in competition an old safeguard of filmmaking (in particular under the leadership of Thierry Frémaux). Fantasia has clearly earned the right of a tastemaker in its own right, championing first time and micro-budget filmmakers who are overlooked. Celebrating the genre output from Cannes offers a balance to the fest and perhaps serves to legitimise its more daring selections.

Some of the festival’s best finds this year came out of blind submissions, which is unusual for a festival of this scale. For Fantasia though, these selections are usually the festival standouts: they are often idiosyncratic, boundary pushing films from underground filmmakers. In recent years these have included standouts like Bag Boy Lover Boy (Andres Torres, 2014), She’s Allergic to Cats (Michael Reich, 2016) and Some Freaks (Ian MacAllister McDonald, 2016).

Fantasia International Film Festival

The Laplace’s Demon

Of this year’s blind submission titles (which included Ryan Prows’ Lowlife, Peter Vack’s Assholes, Roberto San Sebastián’s The Night of The Virgin and Kasra Farahani’s Tilt), the one that I fell for was The Laplace’s Demon. Directed by the first-time filmmaker, Giordano Giulivi, The Laplace’s Demon is shot in black and white and evokes the setup of William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill (1959): a group of scientists is brought to an island castle where they are faced with a puzzle that, should they lose, will cost them their lives. The film centres on the theory of the Laplace Demon, the idea that should someone know the precise location and momentum of every atom in the universe they can predict the future. Shot over seven years, the film uses rear projection in order to bring to life the grandeur of the film’s castle setting.

Once the scientists arrive on the island, they are quickly locked up and a shadowy figure on a fuzzy VHS tape reveals that he has successfully mapped out the future. As his final experiment, he pits the scientists against time and some giant chess-pieces, in order to test the veracity of his math.

The unfolding action is a compelling reflection on the nature of destiny that challenges the conception of free-will. According to the director, the biggest cinematic inspiration for the film was Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on life and death, The Seventh Seal (1957). Aesthetically Giulivi’s vision is far more reminiscent of Italian horror, but conceptually, The Laplace’s Demon owes its spirit to the Swedish master. As eerie as the film can be, its true strength lies in its meditations on the spiritual condition of man. As much as this is a film about the power of destiny, the film’s ultimate strength is the focus on ego. The film’s final moments challenge the shadowy figure’s power, suggesting the ability to predetermine the action of flawed and ego-driven humans is a minor accomplishment when faced with the infinite universe.

Fantasia International Film Festival

Mohawk

Not all of the festival’s new discoveries wowed, though. In 2015, Ted Geoghegan made his feature length debut, We Are Still Here, a competent throw-back horror that melded the haunted house and possession genre. Geoghegan’s new film, Mohawk, held a lot of promise as he set out to make a film about the perspective of the Mohawks of upstate New York during the war of 1812. Centred on the experiences of a young Mohawk woman, Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn), the film becomes a chase/revenge film once a squad of racist American soldiers enters the picture.

In spite of the film’s goal to create a film told from the perspective of the indigenous characters, that intention does not translate to the screen. The film has a lot of problems: muddy cinematography, iffy location scouting and an unfocused narrative. Above all else, the film struggles to maintain a strong point of view, as it devotes a substantial screen time to the American soldiers, diminishing the perspective of the Indigenous characters.

Racism is central to the film’s narrative as the American soldiers led by Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) initiates a conflict with the Mohawks for little other reason than he doesn’t like them. Most of the central part of the film is focused on the American quest to eradicate and humiliate the native characters, including gruesome and extended scenes of violence leveled against them. While it is still rare for a film to take into account the humanity of Indigenous characters, it feels pornographic to revel in their suffering.

This is especially significant as the film fails to contextualise the violence as systematic, as indigenous people continue to be abused and oppressed by the State in America and abroad. There does not seem to be an active sense to challenge preconceptions or structures of power and the film fails to resonate beyond its specific context with the biggest takeaway being, “boy, people were really racist during the war of 1812 (but racists are human too, mmmk).”

Since its earliest days, Fantasia has had an incredibly strong short film program. It’s been ten years since they first released a short DVD collection through Synapse Films. Since then, new technology has flourished and filmmaking has become accessible to an even wider filmmaking public. At the very least, this has allowed new voices and new opportunities to flourish for emerging filmmakers.

Fantasia International Film Festival

iMedium

A movie like Alfonso Garcia’s IMedium, a first person film shot on a mobile phone, was inconceivable ten years ago. The film is about a mother looking to find her daughter’s killer, so she downloads the title app in order to communicate with the dead. The film maintains the point of view of the phone itself, eerily conflating a rising sentience of technology with the spiritualism of the past. The film points to a rising class of filmmakers growing up with cameras in their pockets and hints at a new cinematic language that is slowly emerging from the omnipresence of recordable devices. IMedium was featured in Fantasia’s most notable short film programs, Small Gauge Trauma, a “showcase of provocative and cutting-edge international shorts.”

If this year’s Small Gauge Trauma program had one highlight, it is Home Education, a UK short directed by Andrea Niada. The film depicts the experience of a young girl whose father lies dead upstairs. Her mother is convinced this is a “test” and if they can prove that they truly miss him, he will be resurrected. The short focuses on rot and decay as the mother speaks of the destructive properties of dust and dirt. She explains that, scientifically, “hard” objects such as rocks do not decay but “soft” ones such as flesh can never escape deterioration. The young girl is inquisitive and in spite of her limited home-school education, primes herself to work around the horrors of degradation.

The film has an aloof energy and a sensuality that evokes both smell and touch, sensations that can only be invoked through the power of suggestion in an audiovisual medium. It has a blistering energy that takes its time and revels in aesthetic diversions. While driven by a haunting narrative, the film follows the wistful lead as her mind wanders, breaking from the story to explore the forest outside. Animal bodies in decay litter the forest floor, drawing the girl further from her mission to find a gift. This detour operates in a poetic mind-space rather than within a linear storytelling model.

Other notable shorts include, Taste (Adrian Selkowitz), an LA-themed witch story with reality TV aspirations; Undress Me (Amelia Moses), where a college hookup turns into a haunting body horror; Dead Horses (Anna Solanas, Marc Riba), a stop-motion animation with a child’s point of view of war; Thursday Night (Gonçalo Almeida) where a dog dreams of ghosts and demons; and Creswick (Natalie Erika James), a harrowing examination of relationship with an ageing parent through childhood fears.

This year’s winner of the Cheval Noir, the award for best International feature, went to Agnieszka Holland & Kasia Adamik’s Spoor. In the Klodzko Valley, Janina Duszejk lives with her two dogs until one day they disappear. In the aftermath of the disappearance, mysterious and violent crimes strike the area and Janina is convinced she knows the true culprit. Spoor is part murder mystery and part comedy and with an upbeat soundtrack by Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz, it has an unusually rustic feel, often seeming like an eccentric folk-song come to life. The chorus of animals, ranging from insects to vengeful stags, sets up an otherworldly perspective where man has to fight for his position within the natural world.

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka gives an incredible performance as Janina. She has a way of moving that evokes the utilitarian relationship that Janina has with her body, serving her farm and animals. She has strength and deliberation as she has the confidence of someone who knows how to read the stars and navigate a storm. This extends to the film’s love scenes, where her body becomes vulnerable because of its strength. The film treats sex with an incredible sensuality and playfulness, which serves to highlight the manic patriarchy of the townspeople who refuse to see her as anything but an old biddy.

Ultimately Spoor’s final act feels a little silly, though the weight of its implications in regards to the rest of the film holds some weight. The final moments reflect on the film’s opening sequence which presented Janina’s routine as a natural Elysium where she lived in perfect bliss with her animals. The gestures of the natural world, in particular, the creeping light of the morning sun, are dashed in the still depiction of proud and reckless violence. Within the scope of the film’s universe, animals like dogs and deer occupy a higher spiritual existence than most humans and the film’s montage will often divert away from overt storytelling in privileging images and perspectives of creatures and critters.

Fantasia International Film Festival

Bad Genius

In stark contrast to the comic and even meditative pace of Spoor, one of the major highlights of the competition and the festival is Bad Genius. Directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya, this Thai film is one of the best films of 2017. The film depicts an elaborate school cheating operation and uses the tropes of film noir and action cinema. It begins as a number of implicated students are being questioned about their involvement in the cheating scheme, each diverting their own culpability.

Imagine a film that captures the breakneck montage of De Palma’s Mission Impossible with the social conscious of Ken Loach. Bad Genius has a breakneck pace that shifts through different timelines and perspectives, without ever becoming confusing. The film focuses on a high-achieving but also financially inaccessible high school which accepts two scholarship students a year. One of those students, Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), becomes the central orchestrator of the cheating plot once she realises that the school is not respecting the financial agreement of her acceptance.

Lynn creates a cheating scheme for a few friends that quickly expands to a significant part of the student body. With each exam sequence, she is faced with a new challenge that threatens to see her academic career crumble. The stakes are high for Lynn, as her success means she can continue to make money in order to alleviate the financial burden her father is under, but the risk is that she will be expelled from school, dashing her dreams of studying abroad.

Why take the risk then? That’s where Bad Genius takes on issues of class within Thailand, framing the film as a social rather than a moral issue. While most students in Lynn’s class are able to study at a prestigious school due to their wealthy families, she is there exclusively due to merit. When she is accepted into the class, she uses her math skills to negotiate for her father a free-pass that will allow her to study without condemning her family to debt. The school works around this agreement by imposing mandatory taxes and payments that her father keeps secret from her.

The cost of any failure on Lynn’s part, whether she is unable to maintain her grades or if she is caught cheating, will literally ruin her life. Conversely, her classmates who are willing to pay big in order to please their parents were born with a “get out of jail free” card. If they are caught cheating, they will always be able to pay another school to accept them and if Lynn does not accept their agreement, they will merely find someone else who will. The stakes for Lynn are astronomical, serving the film’s life or death montage style beautifully. The final cheat, the largest in scale, takes guidance from heist films. As each element has to fall into place at just the right moment, the unfolding action seems edited, like the rising spell of an orchestra. Each new instrument bringing a new layer of tension, until it reaches a catastrophic crescendo.

As Fantasia is an absolute behemoth of a film festival, running at three weeks, this barely covers the entirety of its selection. Yet, it speaks towards the festival’s diversity and celebration of established filmmakers and exciting new voices. Fantasia may be more established than it was just a few years ago, but it maintains its singular spirit in programming films that take risks and push audiences into uncomfortable places. This might not always work, but there is no doubt that nearly every film I saw this year lived up to the promise of showing me something I have never seen before.

Fantasia International Film Festival
13 July – 2 August 2017
Festival website: http://www.fantasiafestival.com/festival/2017/en