Credit: Fantasia International Film Festival
by Jake Pitre Featured Festival Coverage Film

Selected Films from Fantasia Retro: A Chinese Ghost Story, The Cassandra Cat, Beauty and the Beast

August 14, 2023

The programmers at the Fantasia International Film Festival can be counted on, year after year, to assemble a strong lineup of retrospective screenings, from new restorations to rarely seen 35mm prints. The 2023 edition was no different, with its 4K restoration of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy among some of its highlights. But there were other notable titles this writer had the opportunity to view, and below is a roundup of those that left a considerable impression.

Patrick Tam’s My Heart Is That Eternal Rose, from 1989, left the biggest impact. It’s a film somewhat at war with itself, as one feels Tam being pulled on one hand toward pulpier or more mainstream elements of the Hong Kong film industry, and to his more eccentric personal style on the other. Far from feeling like a compromised production, though, the film manages to blend these competing affects and aesthetics seamlessly into something entirely its own, clearly indebted to the tropes of heroic bloodshed films and the most romantic of melodramas, but transcending into what Sean Gilman has called “Romantic Bloodshed.” In Tam’s version of this world, to yearn is to exist and vice versa; the only thing promised is tragedy. Its characters, like us, are nevertheless drawn intoxicatingly further and further inward, unable to turn away from fate.

A similar intoxication beguiles while watching A Chinese Ghost Story, the legendary Hong Kong fantasy-swordplay film from director Ching Siu-Tung. Even though the English subtitles on the screening’s 35mm print seemed like a particularly poor translation, not a bit of the film’s saturating stylization is missed. Often compared to The Evil Dead, A Chinese Ghost Story is a true horror-comedy, swinging from gross-out effects work to absurd drawn-out gags, and back to blissful wire-fu action sequences with ethereal villains and graceful heroes. By the time we jump to Wu Ma, an all-time Hong Kong cinema veteran who is perhaps best-known for this role, rapping an incredible Taoist ditty through the forest while gusts of leaf-filled wind swirl maniacally around him, it’s clear we’re in the midst of an entirely unforgettable cinema experience. The film moves rapidly, barely resting for even a moment on images, both grand and eternally beautiful, as well as those of zombie-skeletons moving in stop-motion work that somehow even seems lovely. And as a bonus: the film is yet another reminder that the best foley sound is found in the billowing robes of a wuxia warrior. 

But this writer was already a keen, fluent fan of these two filmmakers, and of Hong Kong cinema more generally. The real surprise of the retro program, then, came in The Cassandra Cat, also known as When the Cat Comes, a 1963 Czech New Wave film directed by Vojtěch Jasný. If you’re familiar with The Cremator or Closely Watched Trains, you might be able to anticipate some elements of Jasný’s film that are typical of the New Wave, including an absurdist approach to comedy and a satirical take on politics (including the region’s particular postwar communism). The Cassandra Cat, though, is not quite as cynical as those films tend to be, opting instead for a brighter, looser level of cutesy pandemonium. Presented in a 4K restoration by the Czech National Archive jointly with Janus Films, what stands out most are the film’s colorful flourishes, where characters are revealed to be their “true colors” once the titular cat lays its eyes on them, chaotically dancing around awash in red, yellow, purple, or gray through exhaustive scenes of manic frenzy. In some ways, The Cassandra Cat resembles Věra Chytilová’s Daisies from a few years later, especially in the impression it lends of being caught within an unstoppable whirlwind that seems to belie meaning, except when laid out together like a structure of feeling. The political undertones to the sustained anarchy are a bit less obvious in this case, as Jasný seems to rib more lightly on the corruption of the elite, but part of the gambit is, of course, the straightforward nature of what we’re seeing, the very literal visualization of revealing the inner self through garish splendor. We are, quite warmly, invited to enter this environment with the help of Jan Werich as our host, peering in on the lives of the townspeople and establishing for us the lay of the land both visually and thematically. It would be too easy to call what we see psychedelic, or even pop art, for this is a far more specific fairy tale, in which children learn about the sinful nature of their parents and of the adult world through a madcap fantasia of whimsical havoc. 

Staying within the realm of Czechoslovakian fairy tales, Juraj Herz’s take on Beauty and the Beast likewise returns us to the land of cinematic yearning and breathtaking creature design. Presented in a new 2K restoration by Národní filmový archiv, courtesy of Severin Films, this Beast is a wondrous birdlike figure, draped and moving like the Phantom of the Opera around his dank and dark castle. Herz, by this point already an international success as a New Waver, emphasizes the troubling and truly terrifying elements of this classic story, reveling in shadows of the moon and a bizarrely grounded underworld of lurking creatures and decaying corridors, through a moral about wealth and the self, rendered in Gothic detail. All this is counteracted by the Beauty, named Julie and played with endlessly buoyant awe by Zdena Studenková, a character so willful, optimistic, and persistent that you can’t help but find yourself fully in her corner, fervently rooting for her as she navigates a horrific curse she volunteered for while nevertheless falling under its spell. This give and take, the dreary and the spirited, defines this grim and decadent interpretation and the tragic romance at its center, a conflict of psychological and cultural values made lushly and eerily manifest. 

All singular works, meritorious in unique ways and reflective of distinct movements in cinema history, these four highlights from Hong Kong and Czechoslovakia, taken together, once again affirm Fantasia’s careful, unbeatable genre programming.

Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 4.