For folks who don’t hear about regional or niche festivals because of the din of their larger, international counterparts, Fantastic Fest is an Austin, TX-based film festival, now in its seventh year, which focuses on genre fare. Unlike other such festivals like Los Angeles’ Screamfest, however, Fantastic Fest curates its selections from a wide variety of sources, and embraces a particularly liberal definition of “genre” which allows its programmers to assemble a schedule of films with remarkable eclecticism, and an almost shocking consistency of quality. Needless to say, no festival is completely full of winners, but in just the first few days of Fantastic Fest, attendees were able to see more good films than most festivals screen during their entire run.
The first film shown on Thursday morning was “Michael,” the directorial debut of former casting director Markus Schleinzer. Chronicling five months in the relationship between an insurance salesman and the 9-year-old kidnappee he keeps locked in his basement, Schleinzer’s film offers an uniquely nonjudgmental and yet disturbing portrait of pedophilia which some will perhaps understandably brand the blackest of black comedies. Personally, I didn’t find much to laugh about as Michael (Michael Fuith) engaged in one awkward interaction after another with young Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), pausing only to maintain the feeblest of connections to folks in the “outside” world. But much like Giorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” or Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” and “Cache” approached their subjects as a medium for both character study and cultural commentary, Schleinzer is never glib or excessively self-serious about his story, at least no more than the banality of its particular demands. Quietly devastating even as it holds audiences at arm’s length, “Michael” is an amazing debut and one of the best films at Fantastic Fest.
Next up was “Haunters,” a fun Korean action-thriller that plays a little like a combination of “Unbreakable” and “Mystery Men,” merging the former’s gravitas with the latter’s goofy-pal charm to create an engaging and provocative “real-world” superhero story. Soo Go plays Gyoo-nam, a laborer in a junkyard who loses his job but discovers unexpected superpowers after a vengeful thief named Cho-in (Dong-won Kang) tries to rob him at his new one. While we won’t spoil the film’s many rewarding surprises, writer-director Min-suk Kim (who previously scripted “The Good, The Bad and The Weird”) creates vivid and complex characters that complement one another not just narratively but tonally, especially in the case of Gyoo-nam’s two buddies, who despite the absence of powers of their own willfully join his cause to stop Cho-in, and provide the substitute family that neither he nor Cho-in had growing up.
Manifestation of their respective powers is at once spectacular and ominous, and not unlike the contrapuntal relationship between Professor X and Magneto – that is, if they were both underachieving orphans who found their purpose because of the other. Engaging, fun and yet substantive, “Haunters” is the sort of superhero movie that Hollywood filmmakers could learn from, if only to find a better balance between the often polarizing balance of realism and abject fantasy in stories about people with powers.
And finally, following in the footsteps of films like “Fire of Conscience” and “Man From Nowhere,” “The Yellow Sea” is a thrilling, often tough-to-watch Korean crime drama about a down-on-his lack cabbie whose desperate attempts to pay off his wife’s debts land him at the center of a gang war. Full of graphic knife fights and hatchet showdowns, the action is full of nail-biting tension, but it’s the characters that bring the story to life, even if there might be a few too many for the story to completely make sense. But as Gu-nam, Ha Jung-woo has a George Clooney-esque gravitas that gives his often pathetic travails quiet dignity (imagine if "Michael Clayton" was a cabbie and you’re on the right track), and Kim Yun-seok makes his crime boss Myung-ga alternately charismatic and fearsome, as gifted with diplomacy as he is with a sharp object. Again, there are ultimately a few plot details that aren’t quite clear by the time the last bit of blood has been let loose from its owner, but “The Yellow Sea” is absolutely worth seeing as another great example of the terrific filmmaking coming out of Korea these days. (Check out our longer review of the film from Cannes right here).
There’s plenty more to come at Fantastic Fest, so stay tuned for updates from the festival, including filmmaker interviews and more overviews of the programming.
Here are the tesaer trailers for the films: