Masaaki Yuasa simply can’t be stopped — or at least that’s what it has seemed like for the past two decades, during which the prolific and equally eccentric animator slowly built his iron-clad reputation alongside a definitive collection of singularly free-flowing television series that he directed, wrote, and storyboarded. While he’s been working in the anime industry since the early ‘90s as a key animator and character designer — catching a break in 2004 when he was asked to direct an adaptation of a little-known manga called Mind Game and produced an instant cult phenomenon — he’s rarely given himself much downtime. Yuasa carries with him a consistent track record of at least one animated undertaking per year, whether it be a feature-length work, a series (televised or streaming), a short film, or the occasional freelance opportunity (his wonderful episode of Adventure Time). Science Saru, the animation studio he founded in 2013, serves as his current base of operations, a space of true creative freedom from the artistic and economic burdens of the modern-day anime industry. Yet even with that allocated breathing room, Yuasa keeps pushing himself — and he’s only gotten better because of it.
His best (and most notable) serial works — The Tatami Galaxy, Ping Pong The Animation, and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! — are deceptive in their ambitions: they can come off as wildly unkempt to an untrained eye, jumping from one plot point to the next (usually adding another side character with yet another richly detailed backstory into the fray) with little regard for narrative lucidity. A clear Tex Avery influence can be ascertained from a lot of these antics; much like Frederick, Yuasa loves irrelevancy, sexual deviancy, and breakneck pacing. In reality, that’s more the animation itself getting in the way of what’s really going on; there’s a rigid psychological framework that ultimately guides all of these programs, with air-tight narratives that eventually emerge through the visual commotion. Then there are his films like Inu-Oh, which is, rather unfortunately, quite representative of Yuasa’s filmic output, none of which are bad per se — this writer has a particular fondness for Ride Your Wave and Night Is Short, Walk on Girl — but are clearly lacking when compared to those other listed efforts in his filmography.
Set in 14th-century Japan during the Muromachi period, Inu-Oh chronicles the titular character, a cursed non-performer who’s so hideously deformed he must cover every inch of his body with clothing, including a gourd-shaped mask for his deformed face. He has one hand growing out of the side of his head and another that’s several feet long; but whilst performing, his body mutates and becomes more beautiful with each passing song. The sole musician willing to work with a creature as hideous as this is Tomona, a blind biwa player who’s mysteriously connected to the heavily-clothed dancer he begins to tour the land with in order to perform the forgotten tales of the slaughtered Heike clan, and whose sightlessness serves as a forced juxtaposition for the cultural compliance he’s forced to submit to toward the film’s conclusion. But before we can even get there, the film takes an absurd amount of time to set up the historical particulars of the given conflict, dumping a lot of lore upfront that feels all but disconnected by the end: two warring nations, a bunch of ancient artifacts, and some ghostly gobbledygook involving some particularly not nice father figures. It’s from this juncture forward — it takes about 50 minutes to complete the basic setup — that Inu-Oh becomes a full-on rock opera, where the narrative thrust comes to a complete halt in order to make room for the multitude of maimed musical numbers that take up the bulk of the remaining runtime.
While the extended duration and small-screen format of the television medium certainly helped add dimension to his previous outings, it also seems as if Yuasa’s films simply aren’t interested in the same type of observed behaviorism that’s found in his long-form work, and Inu-Oh certainly seems to prove this claim with how often it pedals in empty spectacle over tangible complexity. It joins a list of titles that regularly trade in Yuasa’s sloppiest storytelling tendencies, none of which are deal-breakers, but they do make things increasingly difficult to wholesale accept on a thematic level: unbridled, destined love; a friendship that’s momentarily tested; and heartbreak that’s always mended before the end credits. They’re simple ideas, sure, but told with the same scattershot style that switches between multiple points of view. Each rivulet can make for fun excursions, but all lack the fully-felt emotional depth that’s made Yuasa such an endearing figure for this long.
Writer: Paul Attard
The Girl from the Other Side
It goes without saying that Japanese anime is a permanent part of the international cinephilic sphere. There are many reasons why the appeal and success of this animated medium passed beyond its homeland’s borders to attract a zealous worldwide audience, but one undeniably primary cause for it is that anime (and manga) — regardless of auteurs, animators or studios — has formed a distinctive aesthetic and vision. Bearing this in mind, it’s notable that Yutaro Kubo and Satomi Maiya’s debut animated feature, The Girl from the Other Side — adapted from the eponymous, best-selling Monthly Comic Garden’s manga series written and illustrated by Nagabe — immediately presents as anything but a familiar anime. The film tells the story of a curious and adorable little girl named Shiva, a fairy-like, doll-sized child with silver hair and pale skin. Abandoned in a forest, Shiva soon makes the company of a bizarre, horned creature with dark fur known as an “outsider” who, unlike his ominous, devilish appearance, is revealed to be a well-mannered, wise, and kind-hearted character who carries himself like a sharp-dressed, fanciful gentleman. Kubo and Maiya shape their film around this stark contrast between the two characters, centering this uniquely improbable friendship as its focal point, a cutie and the beast fable reminiscent of something like Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, but filtered through a spookier and more melancholic atmosphere.
To take a deeper read to this charming relationship between the innocent Shiva and her anonymous, demon-looking guardian — who has forgotten his name and is referred to by the angelic little girl as “teacher” — it’s not hard to consider their light-and-dark dichotomy as a sort of yin-and-yang relationship which consistently completes itself and shapes an equilibrium between the two throughout their mutual journey of self-realization. Half post-apocalyptic tale and half medieval gothicism, The Girl from the Other Side is set against a pastoral background of dark woods, green meadows, and abandoned villages, occupying a realm where the world of the humans and cursed malevolent creatures are divided into “Inside” and “Outside.” Indeed, the narrative is indebted to a classically fabulist design, and it’s a sensibility that extends to the film’s visual character: in being truthful to the original manga source, the directorial duo construct their classically hand-drawn and tenderly vibrant animation in the fashion of antique illustrated children’s books, sometimes even recalling old Eastern European cartoons. Beautifully simple and yet full of colorful details, The Girl from the Other Side’s execution gives the aesthetic impression of a sketchbook, utilizing its frames more as pages, and lending the overall design a peculiar and particular vintage quality.
It’s through this unique style — the animation’s distinctive visual texture (replete with artificial light effects), the narrative’s slow-paced rhythm, and an ambient neoclassical score (composed by club jazz trio Schroeder-Headz) — that The Girl from the Other Side effortlessly lulls its viewers into a world that is simultaneously arcane and serene, allegorical and lyrical, macabre and affectionate. It slides easily between delightfully sinister and affectingly sincere, while keeping itself deliberately open to lots of mystical ruminations and philosophical interpretations — it may not be accidental that the film speaks to our post-pandemic age, depicting an imaginary world and era in which a strange curse spreads and threatens human life. In fairness, for all those implications, the film’s primary story and world-building are still considerably thin and could benefit from richer development, which would, in turn, help its tendency toward repetitiveness, but the sumptuous moodiness and fanciful flourishes that Kubo and Maiya bring to the proceedings — which is also echoed in the voice work here from Rie Takahashi (adorably teensy-weensy as Shiva) and Jun Fukuyama (commanding and calm as the Teacher) — provide more than enough pleasures to keep viewers invested until the film’s chaotic but poetic climax. In the end, The Girl from the Other Side can best be understood as a bewitching and at times bizarre bedtime story, one, through its strength of form and invention, fully capable of and committed to throwing viewers into (and suspending them within) otherworldly realms of trippy imagination and whimsical fantasy.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
Mickey Reece’s Country Gold also stars the director as country music artist Troyal Brux (clearly modeled, at least visually, on Garth Brooks, whom Reece vaguely resembles). According to an opening news segment, Troyal is verging on legendary status, his records having outsold the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson. We’re introduced to him as a man of both tremendous ego and almost absurd social naïveté, doing things like complaining his way through a commercial shoot or merely bragging endlessly about his talent. These early sections of the movie resemble Reece’s off-kilter version of a Danny McBride comedy; certainly Troyal would fit in with the inflated loser at the heart of something like The Foot Fist Way.
Things take a turn when Troyal receives a letter from his idol, the iconic George Jones (Reece’s frequent collaborator Ben Hall), who invites him to Nashville to hang out. Troyal’s obvious glee at getting to spend time with a living legend slowly becomes a slide into melancholy and eventually some actual self-reflection as Jones not only takes him along on a night of debauchery, but also reveals that this is his last night of consciousness — he’s chosen to be cryogenically frozen so that he can be reawakened in the future.
This bit of absurdism doesn’t seem remotely out of place in Reece’s filmmaking — just look at the way last year’s haunting and inventive Agnes shifts gears halfway through from a spooky exorcism movie into something altogether more thoughtful — and he deploys it as the perfect weapon to force Troyal to examine the legacy he thinks he’s building, not just as a musician but as a husband and a father. He’s also made to reckon with his healthy ego; it quickly becomes clear that he’s a sincerely vulnerable guy, especially when that ego is attacked, as in an early scene in which Jones chastises him for ordering a well-done steak.
Reece’s images in Country Gold are concise although not quite as stylized as in previous films, and that suits the shagginess of the story here. His usual placid frames and measured pacing wouldn’t make sense in this weird and occasionally vignette-ish film, even while it maintains his typically uncanny dreamlike sensibilities. This prolific and increasingly essential Oklahoma DIY filmmaker has been steadily pumping out one idiosyncratic piece after another, year after year, like clockwork. The rewards offered in this latest work might not equal those of Agnes, or especially that of his masterpiece, the Elvis Presley biopic Alien, but it’s a similarly singular outing nonetheless. Put simply, nobody else is making movies like this.
Writer: Matt Lynch
Yoon Seo-jin‘s debut feature Chorokbam opens ominously. After an aging nightwatchman (Lee Tae-hoon) investigates the loud meowing he overhears, he makes a grisly discovery on a nearby playground: a dead cat, cruelly hung up by its neck on a jungle gym. The man calmly buries the kitten and finishes his shift, heading home under the first rays of sunlight. It’s an opening sequence that recalls Gummo’s infamous cat-drowning scene in its jarring (but thankfully simulated) animal cruelty. Chorokbam’s episodic structure resembles the American underground classic’s loose vignettes as well, although Yoon does steer clear of Harmony Korine’s venomous and chaotic impulses, opting for a calmer, more controlled, and overall more coherent approach to this existential family drama.
The grim episode which opens the film turns out to be an eerie sign of things to come, as the man soon learns that his father has passed away. While him, his wife (Kim Min-kyung, who passed away in August of last year and to whom the film is dedicated), and their adult son (Kang Gil-woo) try to navigate this tragedy, their lives begin to unravel amongst economic anxieties, frequent fights, and festering unhappiness. The unfortunate family reunion at the deceased patriarch’s funeral devolves into petty squabbling that quickly escalates into physical violence, the deceased’s daughters lobbing insults, and eventually fists, at each other, before their brother finally intervenes. Since his sisters are unwilling, it falls on him and his reluctant wife to take care of his father’s estate. But as the months go on, mounting pressures, intense depression, and continued misfortune threaten to tear the family apart for good.
Though the death of the father is what kicks off the sparse narrative, the family unit at the center of the film has obviously had to contend with a myriad of issues for a while. The married couple leads a dreary and loveless life, the husband frequently complaining about his wife’s “bitching,” and the wife unhappy with the husband’s blasé, emotionless demeanor — a mask of detachment which hides a deep-seated pain and world-weariness, only made worse by his father’s death. Meanwhile, their son, unable to make ends meet on his salary as a social worker, lives with his parents, occasionally spending his nights at hotels so he can enjoy some free time with his girlfriend, and it’s unclear if the parents are even aware of his relationship. The two talk about getting married, which would enable them to own a home of their own, but their plans remain vague, buried under a layer of half-joking noncommitment. The characters’ conversations often revolve around money, homeownership, and their uneasiness about the future, reflecting ever-growing concerns over South Korea’s disappearing middle class.
But even with the potent socioeconomic subtext, Yoon’s primary concerns are more abstract. While green dominates the first-time writer-director’s frames (the film’s title translates to “green night”), its shades ranging from lush to sickly, he often contrasts the rich saturation of nature with the washed-out tones of the city. Composed by Hiroyuki Nagashima — known for his work on cult films such as 964 Pinocchio and August in the Water, as well as the “Cannon Fodder” segment from the underrated 1995 anime anthology Memories — the beautiful soundtrack similarly fades into silence every so often, to make room for the hectic urban soundscapes of busy streets, loudspeakers, and police sirens. However, the film generates its most pensive, mournful moments, whenever the two opposites coalesce, such as when the son smokes a cigarette at night, surrounded by the muted greenery of a park, the faint sounds of cars speeding by, and accompanied by Nagashima’s tender, melancholy arrangements.
Regrettably, Chorokbam does venture into overt sentimentalism from time to time, namely when the score lays on the emotionality rather thick, even if the scene would’ve been perfectly capable of communicating it on its own. This emotional bludgeoning act does get overbearing, but the film still shines with numerous genuinely affecting moments, and there’s a scene in particular that’s downright startling in its grotesque, twisted beauty. There are traces of the fantastical that only rarely reveal themselves, but which permeate the film’s anguished, oppressive atmosphere. Its deliberate pace might be off-putting to those hoping for more straightforward genre spectacle, but as a slow-burning drama with a subtle undercurrent of magical realism, Chorokbam offers a striking, if imperfect, experience.
Writer: Fred Barrett
Mercenaries From Hong Kong
One of the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival’s archival presentations is the new restoration of Wong Jing’s 1982 film Mercenaries from Hong Kong. Already here at the beginning of his career, directing his third film after more than a dozen credits as screenwriter over the previous five years, Wong Jing is resolutely, purely, unapologetically himself, even if he’s credited as “Wang Tsing” (the Mandarin spelling of his name, following the conventions of the Shaw Brothers studio at the time). Mercenaries is an all-star action-comedy, a genre Wong would revel in for the rest of his (still going strong) career, making some of the grossest, rudest, clumsiest, least graceful, and most highly entertaining films of the past 40 years. Working for the Shaws in the last years before they completely gave up on filmmaking in the face of challenges from Golden Harvest and Cinema City, Wong has access to their deep bench of contract players, and he packs as many familiar faces into his film as he can grab.
Ti Lung plays a righteous professional killer who, as the film opens, murders a bunch of guys who have kidnapped and drugged a young woman. He doesn’t rescue the woman — he’s just out for revenge because these guys did the same thing to his 15-year-old sister. This sparks a Triad group led by Yuen Wah to go after him, but he’s quickly hired by a mysterious Mrs. Ho to go to Cambodia and bring back the assassin who killed her father. To this end, he assembles a team of the eponymous mercenaries, which include such Shaw stalwarts as Johnny Wang Lung-wei, Lo Lieh, and Wong Yue. A good twenty minutes or so are spent putting the team together, during which time our band of killers manages to get not one but two sets of matching tracksuits, which they model together at the local mall before Yuen Wah and his gang show up. But eventually he gets sorted out and the gang heads off to Southeast Asia, where nothing good ever happens to Hong Kongers in 1980s Shaw Brothers movies.
The rest of the film proceeds as a series of hyperbolic action sequences (explosions, stabbings, machine guns, crossbows, grenades, hidden pneumatic darts — the works) punctuated with new bits of breathless exposition reversing the loyalties of guys both good and bad. And that’s exactly what we’re here for with a Wong Jing film. He’s a director who promises nothing but more. More infantile jokes, more ridiculous outfits, more gratuitous blood and sex, more insane plot twists, more fights in shopping mall hallways, more, more, more. At one point, Ti Lung even exclaims in anguish to an opponent he considered a comrade, “I know you’re quick with a blade, but I never expected your character to change even faster!” And how could he, since he’d never seen a Wong Jing film before.
Writer: Sean Gilman