Fantasia 2019 Report: At the Mercy of the Programmers

For someone as obsessively Type A as me, the lead-up to a film festival as compact and curated as Fantasia can prove quite nerve-wracking. As an event that unfolds primarily in two screening rooms conveniently located across the street from each other, the choices of films to see are limited to what can be crammed within (semi-reasonable) waking hours. Coming to visit from out of town, then, presents quite the gamble. When I booked my international travel to Montréal for one weekend of Fantasia, there was neither a schedule nor a single film selected. It was a roll of the dice whether I’d be satisfied by the films slotted into the dozen or so slots of my visit. 

But for all the belly-aching in advance, I forget what a pleasant experience it is to show up and have, at best, a coin toss of a decision awaiting the screenings. Unlike a Sundance or Toronto, where an out-of-nowhere discovery can alter the delicate alchemy of a meticulously plotted itinerary, a festival like Fantasia offers precious balance for the stressed cinephile. There’s comfort, too, in knowing that your festival journey was likely plotted by a programmer with a plan of their own. Unlike a more sprawling event where a seemingly infinite combination of schedule mutations is possible, Fantasia’s staff can schedule in ways that allow for planned collisions of films, thematic throughlines and other collective experiences. 

Take my first night at the festival, which played out like a harmonic chord progression. Up first on Friday was Onur Turkel’s Black Magic for White Boys, a project the filmmaker first developed in early 2016 but fleshed out with extensive reshoots in the years that followed. This New York tale presents itself at first in the form of a magic movie, which loosely connects with science-fiction or fantasy (though Turkel’s film is decidedly of the more realist strain). But the magician and his disappearing act makes for arguably the least interesting of the many story threads in this multi-pronged narrative. It’s what his powers get co-opted to do by two wealthy middle-aged men that gives the film its resonance. 

Oscar, played by Turkel himself, lives lavishly off an inheritance and minimizes any personal responsibility. The latter comes under serious threat when his new girlfriend becomes pregnant with his child, and Oscar’s response is to look for a way to deploy magic to make something other than a rabbit disappear. If that sounds irreverent, it’s arguably no match for Oscar’s chum Jamie (Jamie Block), a slimy New York real estate mogul willing to move people of color out of highly valuable Brooklyn buildings by any means necessary … including magical disappearance. And if your Trump klaxon isn’t going crazy yet, don’t worry — he has a conversation with three black women where he derides the term “racist” as having no meaning. (In case anyone needed a reminder that genre movies are more of a pressure release valve than an escape mechanism!) Black Magic for White Boys ends up resembling the kind of urbane satire that might make Turkel’s counterparts in Manhattan blush, but its thematic bite pierces the skin. Magic, for Turkel, represents a means to explore the ways in which people look for silver bullet solutions to complicated problems — only to cause more issues that accountability and ingenuity might have resolved. 

Friday night continued with the Pierce Brothers’ The Wretched, perhaps the most archetypal genre film festival selection I saw at Fantasia. A teen child of divorce with a broken arm goes to visit his dad for the summer at a beach town (very Spielbergian), and his envy of the nuclear family next door leads him to observe some strange occurrences. Well, Ben is also a teenage boy, so peeping at the wife initiating sexual foreplay with her husband also piques his interest. What he comes to suspect is that the neighborly matriarch has become possessed by a creature from the nearby woods and now seeks to make the town’s children vanish. This is literal, yes, but the scarier element of her powers stems from her ability to gaslight their families into forgetting the kids existed in the first place. 

The Wretched delivers on the horror it sets out to provide first and foremost, yet it fell a bit short of the reopening of childhood trauma standard established in the introduction to the screening. (I can’t blame a festival emcee for trying to get a crowd amped.) Brett and Drew Pierce succeed most not in the volume of jumps or frights they generate. Rather, The Wretched marks them as filmmakers to watch because of how deftly they can code switch between various moods and tones. The film alternates between being a family drama, a twisty thriller, a high school coming-of-age story and a creature feature. The transitions between these wildly disparate modes of filmmaking never feel forced or jerky in the slightest.

Then, it was time for the obligatory midnight movie — you can’t go to a genre festival and claim you’ve experienced all it has to offer without seeing the shenanigans that occur after the clock strikes twelve. Friday’s only programming in this slot was Arielle Dombasle’s Alien Crystal Palace, making its North American premiere. The programmers introducing the screening suggested it was “probably the only screening in North America” after they reminded the audience that tickets were non-refundable. I don’t envy the task of trying to prime an audience to watch a vision as gonzo as this one, but they compared it to The Room, which is … certainly some company to be in. Unlike Tommy Wiseau’s cult classic, however, I left Alien Crystal Palace with little doubt that the filmmaker intended for her film to turn out as schlocky and hammy as it did. 

Dombasle’s bonkers concoction of self-conscious kitsch gloriously sends up navel-gazing prestige filmmaking — both in its output and its creation. It’s complete with a detective plotline, and he’s flanked by police officers in tight leather. Oh, and French New Wave legend Jean Pierre-Leaud shows up as an Egyptian god, in case this whole thing isn’t weird enough. I would struggle to explain the film, in part because of its ludicrous nature but also because I was running on fumes by this point in the night. Toward the end, Alien Crystal Palace begins to spin its wheels and stops doing much we haven’t already seen it do. But for all those tempted to nod off or lose attention, don’t. Some of the film’s most bizarre flourishes happen in the background of otherwise unremarkable scenes, like a dialogue-heavy scene in a local police station where — if you look close enough — it appears that the people they arrested are being tortured like at Guantanamo. 

I wound up seeing three South Korean films at Fantasia — it was supposed to be two, but the third was an audible after getting shut out of a retrospective Shaw Brothers screening. (You try to be a good student of cinema and finally attend an older movie at a festival, and look where it gets you!) Don’t feel too bad, as my backup option, Kang Hyo-jin’s The Dude in Me brought down the house in a way that no other film I saw at Fantasia did. The packed crowd in the festival’s largest screening room laughed riotously at the punchlines and vocally cheered after a satisfying fight scene. 

The Dude in Me, like the other two Korean films I saw, did not intend to make any sweeping statements about the nation from which it hails. It provides a fresh take on the body-swap comedy, even as it reminds us of the age-old lesson that it sometimes requires looking at our lives through someone else’s eyes to recognize the faults we possess. The locus of the mind/spirit transfer is definitely a new one as a portly teenager falls off a roof onto businessman Jang Pan-su just as he’s about to win control of his company away from the heiress daughter of the departing owner. The new body opens up a number of doors for him, from the superficial pleasures of providing a glow-up that transforms the young man’s social standing to the deeper conflicts of confronting the consequences of a decades-old fling. Yet even at the emotional core of The Dude in Me, there’s a bold sense of humor that recalls Back to the Future in the way it uses twists in physics to propose an absurd romantic connection. The film might lose some of the early plot threads involving Jang Pan-su’s business exploits, but Kang more than makes up for it with the uproarious humor at every turn.

It was a little less obvious, though, what films like Kim Yoon-seok’s Another Child and Park Noo-ri’s Money were doing lurking in the Fantasia lineup. Don’t get me wrong, both were fine works. But about halfway through Money in particular, I asked myself why I was seeing a financial drama (with some fairly thrilling moments) at a genre-specific film festival and not in the TIFF Contemporary World Cinema sidebar or the Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Competition. The same went for Another Child, a family drama with the gentle touch of Hirokazu Kore-eda. There’s a tension at any genre film festival between feeding red meat to the audience and expanding the notion of what genre can be altogether. These both felt like films on the latter end of the spectrum — worthy filmmaking but perhaps a bit out of place in the selection. 

Elsewhere at Fantasia, I was reminded of two other lessons that apply to any kind of film festival, genre or otherwise. The first is being wary of getting distracted by premieres with flashy stars. Look for the films that are programmed in spite of not having celebrity wattage, not because they do. This is a veiled way of saying Malik Baderman’s Killerman, a movie that takes its audience to be gullible enough to buy Liam Hemsworth as a Jewish gangster, was perhaps not the best use of two hours of my time. I’ll just leave it at that. 

And the second lesson is that, when possible, take the time to go to a shorts program. They’re the film festival equivalent of eating your veggies — not the most appealing prospect from afar, but you always end up feeling better for building them into your diet. Fortuitous scheduling allowed me to attend Fantasia’s “Born of Woman” program, a block of nine female-directed shorts. Let me just say, to anyone who claims there is a dearth of women in the pipeline to direct features (especially in the genre realm), these shorts make for a forceful rejoinder.

Yfke Van Berckelaer’s Lili turns the casting couch into the horror scene it is with just one forceful, riveting take. Erica Scoggins’ The Boogeywoman featured some of the most striking sound design and editing I’ve seen in a short film, and all to augment a story of sexual confusion and terror for a young girl menstruating for the first time. And the program’s closing short, Valerie Barnhart’s Girl in the Hallway, made tremendously effective use of mixed-media animation to drive home the emotional impact of a harrowing true story. I hope this is not the last I see from these talented directors.

That’s all for meow — Fantasia insiders, you get me, but everyone else can Google it — I’ll be back next week with a deeper dive on some of the films and trends I observed out of Fantasia.

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Marshall has been writing about movies online for over 13 years and began professionally freelancing in 2015. In addition to Crooked Marquee, you can find his bylines at Decider, Slashfilm, Slant, and The Playlist. He lives in New York with his collection of Criterion discs.

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