Goldbuster (Sandra Ng, 2017)

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In her directorial debut, veteran comic actress Sandra Ng gives us a goofy farce, a compendium of horror movie tropes and references, and a sappy tribute to the underdog spirit of Hong Kong’s working class in the days of hyper-capitalisim and real estate speculation. She plays a ghostbuster hired by a handful of families to protect themselves from the evil spirits haunting their dilapidated apartment building. The ghosts are a scam, a scheme by a developer to get the last remaining tenants of a property to sell so he can tear the building down and make something new (the pull-away shot revealing the location is striking: a lone run-down concrete block surrounding by a massive ditch separating it from the city itself all CGI skyscrapers and hazy lights, an island of the real in the middle of an urban fantasy). Ng, no stranger to con games herself, quickly deduces the scam and helps the residents out-scare their ghosts, a game of horror movie one-upsmanship that turns into a full-scale zombie invasion.

Ng has been one of Hong Kong’s brightest comics for over two decades now, equally at home in slapstick, grotesquerie and wordplay, and while her film doesn’t have the classical misanthropy of Michael Hui or the blinding verbal games of Stephen Chow, it does recall her own Golden Chicken films in the way it explores how the feeling and ideology of a place can be expressed through the stories it tells itself. In Golden Chicken and its sequel (from 2002 and 2003), she plays a gregarious prostitute who recalls her life story in parallel to the history of Hong Kong, political and pop cultural, from the late 70s through the immediate post-Handover era. Goldbuster isn’t as expansive, but rather explores how stories of the supernatural can paralyze us and how fear is manipulated by ruling elites to bend us to their whim, Scooby-Doo as Marxist allegory.

While, pointedly, Goldbuster‘s location is never specified, it could technically take place in any Chinese city, that seems more a concession of vagueness for the Mainland market than any real conviction. In tone and purpose this is a resolutely Hong Kong film, where stories about housing complexes and tenants’ wars with their landlords have a long tradition, a byproduct of the housing shortages which followed the influx of massive numbers of refugees in the post-World War II and Civil War years. Chor Yuen’s House of 72 Tenants almost single-handedly saved the Cantonese language film from extinction in the early 70s, and in recent years as speculation and real estate bubbles have made affordable housing increasingly hard to find, the subject has become ubiquitous. Comedies like Temporary Family, which played here at SIFF in 2015, and last year’s Sinking City: Capsule Odyssey address it head-on, while Goldbuster folds the crisis into the fabric of its gonzo vision of a city driven to apocalypse by decades of unease and overdevelopment.

Each of its characters, generic types all of course, are refugees in some way from the past twenty years of economics and pop culture: scientists scammed out of their patents; a webcam girl; over-the-hill Triads, one of whom (the great Francis Ng (no releation) thinks he’s a cop); a doctor who failed to save his wife from some illness. The latter is the most melodramatic character, afflicted as he is by an adorable son and a penchant for whininess, obsessed with finding his wife’s ghost and somehow atoning for her death. This is the paralytic state the tenants find themselves in: trapped by fear and overcome with superstition, surrounded on all sides by rapacious capital. Only with the wit and heart of a scoundrel like Sandra Ng can they hope to defeat the forces waged against them. Another victory for the indigenous scrappiness of Hong Kongers against the powers of vague superstition and vampiric elites.

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Daguerrotype (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016)

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Halloween may have passed but it’s always a good time to watch a creepy movie by a great director, and that exactly what Daguerrotype, by Kiyoshi Kurosawa is. The artiest of the filmmakers to emerge in the J-Horror boom of the late 90s, or at least the one most likely to win awards at Cannes, Kurosawa’s formal precision and methodical rhythms have earned him comparisons to the usual suspects (Kubrick, Tarkovsky), and films like Cure and Pulse are indeed a far cry from the free-wheeling genre hysterics of Takashi Miike and Sion Sono. This isn’t his latest film (that would be Before We Vanish, which premiered this year, at Cannes), but rather the one that premiered last year, at Cannes, around the same time his other 2016 film, Creepy, was playing here at SIFF. It’s not getting a local release here in Seattle, but will be available on-demand starting on November 7.

Daguerrotype finds the director working in France, in French and with an all European cast (the French title, Le secret de la chambre noir gives a much better sense of the film’s eerie vibe). Tahar Rahim plays a young man who gets a job assisting a photographer (Dardennes regular Olivier Gourmet) at his suburban mansion (or “old house with some land”). The photographer uses 19th century equipment and techniques to create life-sized and disturbingly like-like photographs of his daughter (Constance Rousseau), which require dressing her in old dresses and locking her into place using a terrifying brace so that she can remain totally immobilized for the inordinately long exposure times the daguerrotype process requires (they start at an hour and get longer as the film goes along). He previously used the process on his wife, now deceased and possibly haunting the house. The young man falls in love with the daughter, who wants to be a gardener, and so a real estate scam begins. The movie is essentially a film noir, except instead of Lana Turner seducing a working class guy into murdering her husband, it’s a ghost (or two) doing the seducing. Call it “The Ghost-man Always Rings Twice”.

But, like any film noir or horror film, to reduce it to its plot is to highlight its essential absurdity. Daguerrotype is far more mysterious an object than that, a black hole of a movie that sucks you in with the gravity of its deliberate movements, then revels in the terror that is the absence of explanation. Possible interpretations of the facts of the film abound (perhaps too many), but mostly it seems to come down to an act of revenge against the impulse to freeze things in time place, to stop the gradual process of change, both men ultimately driven by an obsolete patriarchal desire to lock women down, as wives, daughters, lovers, subjects. The entropic destruction of the father is inverted in the panicked scheming of the worker, both leading to their inevitable and not especially surprising doom. But perhaps most upsetting is that there’s no satisfaction to be found in this revenge, no cathartic joy at the destruction of an immoral system. The ghosts seem to be just as scared as we are.

Vampir-Cuadecuc (Pere Portabella, 1971)

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In 1970, Jesús Franco made Count Dracula, a vampire movie starring Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom. It was a mostly faithful telling of Bram Stoker’s story: a naive and handsome man travels to Transylvania to conduct a real estate deal with an aged Count, becomes trapped and escapes back to England just as the Count arrives and begins sucking the blood of a young woman, who happens to be the best friend of the young man’s fiancée. Led by a scientist named Van Helsing, the young man and three other men figure out what the Count is, kill the woman who has herself been turned into a vampire and then go back to Transylvania to kill the Count. Franco was a director of notorious reputation, one who frequented the low-budget, pornier corners of European cinema for most of the 160+ films he directed. Count Dracula is the only one of his movies I’ve seen, and it isn’t terrible, but neither is it particularly good: Lee is terrific, as always, and there are some nice atmospheric moments. But the movie progressively becomes dumber as it goes along, either straying from Stoker’s original or cutting out the connective tissue that in the novel help the characters’ actions make some kind of sense. By far the best thing about the movie, though, is that Catalan experimental filmmaker Pere Portabella was there to chronicle its making.

Far from a conventional behind-the-scenes documentary, however, Vampir-Cuadecuc is more like a stealth remake of the same movie, using not only the same actors, but the same takes. It’s shot entirely in black-and-white, with a creepy soundtrack composed almost entirely of drones and ambient noises (passing trains or airplanes, workers hammering away): the world as it might sound from inside a coffin. The black-and-white is grainy and high contrast, with brilliant whites and deep blacks, bringing an eerie edge to scenes that in the conventionally flat-lit, color photography of the original are bland and somnolent.

The film follows the chronology of the original almost exactly, cutting out some of the more useless parts (including the entirety of Kinski’s one-note performance as the lunatic Renfield), filming the scenes as they are being filmed, but from unintended angles, such that we see the lights or cameras or behind the stage walls. Similarly we see the actors before and after their performances, getting into and out of character or simply walking around the set looking beautiful (Soledad Miranda lights up the screen in a way she just can’t as the zombified Lucy in the Franco film), often accompanied by jaunty elevator music. At the most basic level, the difference in quality between Franco and Portabella’s films can be seen in the fact that (in the version I saw, there are different cuts) Franco’s runs a seemingly endless 96 minutes, where Vampir-Cuadecuc is a very nice 69 minutes long.

By removing all of the dialogue and stripping out the extraneous plotting, Portabella captures the fundamental anxiety of horror cinema, spooky sounds and images that harken all the way back to Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dreyer’s Vampyr. The only spoken words come at the end, with Lee reading from Stoker’s book itself, a far better conclusion than Franco’s limp and silly climax. It’s the stripped down, elemental adaptation of Stoker’s text counterpart to Francis Ford Coppola’s blown-up, operatic version. Taken together, there’s no reason for anyone to ever make another Dracula movie.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Paul WS Anderson, 2016)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
                               —William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming”

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The long-awaited sixth film in Paul WS Anderson’s survival horror saga has finally arrived, and it’s everything his believers could have hoped for. When the last film in the series came out, Anderson attracted a lot of attention in certain quarters as a symbol of so-called “Vulgar Auteurism” sparked by comparison of Resident Evil: Retribution with The Other Paul Anderson’s The Master, released the same week in September of 2012. The White Elephant/Termite art comparisons were irresistible to the wags of film twitter, and thus a movement was born, or at least a trend piece. The next six months or so were abuzz with discussions pro- and contra- Auteurism such as the film world hasn’t seen since the heady days of the Paulettes and the Sarrisites, a veritable Algonquin Roundtable of blog posts and tweet threads. Not above drifting with the winds myself, and binging on contemporary action cinema in a desperate attempt to keep conscious while caring for a newborn, I wrote a multipart essay on the Resident Evil films, Anderson and Auteurism in general, using the director and his films as raw material for an application of the critical method as Andrew Sarris initially described it back in the 1960s. I concluded that Anderson hadn’t quite reached the highest echelons of Sarris’s scheme, because he hadn’t yet established the kind of tension between himself and his material that marks the nebulous “interior meaning” that is the hallmark of personal filmmaking. I therefore placed him in the “Lightly Likable” category and wrote:

Anderson’s films can more rightly be described as competent treading of well-worn terrain. His last few movies, however, show potential, and so I’m unwilling to write Anderson off as an impersonal filmmaker. Perhaps he has it in him to perform the auteurial jujitsu necessary to turn the generic qualities of his movies into virtues, into a truly compelling and original statement about the world and/or the cinema itself, merging the blankness and fungibility of his characters with the schematic structures of their worlds and the interchangeability of their dialogue to say something truly meaningful. But I don’t think he’s made that complete a filmic statement yet.

Well, it’s four years later, and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is that statement.

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Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)

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Preposterous in all of the best ways, and some of the worst, the latest film from once-overhyped, now underrated auteur M. Night Shyamalan is as confounding as any film Hollywood is likely to produce this year. Ostensibly a horror film of the ‘girls trapped in a basement by a madman’ subgenre, like last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, it somehow ends up being a rape-revenge superhero movie, like a DC Comics version of Elle. With a barely taped together plot, a streak of goofy black comedy and a cheap, exploitative perspective on real-life trauma, the movie is clearly the work of some kind of a lunatic. But what a lunatic!

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The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)

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A more harrowing or dread-inducing film you’re not more likely to find this year on Seattle Screens than Robert Eggers’s colonial fantasy The Witch. Set in 1630 and with dialogue partially based on diaries from the time, Eggers tells of a Puritan family living alone in a deep dark wood, and the evil that preys upon them there. Long a metaphorical vehicle for all manner of issues (the hunting of witches being analogized most famously as anti-Communism in The Crucible, while more recently witches themselves have become celebrated as free-thinking proto-feminists) or moral lessons, Eggers strips away the subtext of his folktale in favor of an experiential trip inside the mind of Puritan true believers. It is established right from the opening scenes that there are witches and that they are of the purest evil. It remains for us to suffer along with a people whose darkest imaginings are made manifest.
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The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, 2015)

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After a decade or so of wandering in the big-budget wilderness, a victim as much of hype as hubris, M. Night Shyamalan has made perhaps his most perfect film, or at least his best film since the 1999-2002 run that made him a household name. Ingeniously adapting to the budgetary and compositional constraints of the found-footage horror genre, turning an archetypally generic story into a jump scare machine both hilarious and deeply sad. Two kids, Becca age 15, an aspiring filmmaker, and Tyler age 13, an aspiring rapper, leave home to visit their grandparents for the first time. Their mother (the ubiquitous but nevertheless always great Kathryn Hahn) ran away from home at age 19 and hasn’t spoken to her parents since. But the kids being older now, a rapprochement is in order. The kids head to the country via Amtrak while mom goes on a cruise with her boyfriend. Becca has a dual purpose: she’s also going to make a film about the trip and her family, and this film in progress is the movie we’re watching.

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