Saturday, April 7, 2012

Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF) - Day #1 (Friday, 4/6)

My first day at the festival, hereafter to be referred as BIFFF, was a rewarding and enjoyable one. The night before, when Gert was off at the opening night ceremonies, I spent my first real solo time in the city, managing to navigate my way around the myriad of twisting, turning, inner-GPS defying streets.

Seriously, you know how when you’re out in the forest and you decide to go off-trail for a while and lose your way, but then stumble upon a field of psychedelic mushrooms, chow down on them, trip out for the rest of the day and after waking up in the middle of the night in a pile of your own sick, try to navigate your way back to the car in the dark but just keep passing what looks like the same pile of rocks over and over again? I mean, we’ve all been there, right? Right?

That’s what Brussels was like on Thursday night as your humble narrator continually got lost and found reeling through the lookalike avenues of the Belgian capitol city. I’d look up to where I could see the top of a tall building off to my left, but then when I turned the corner and looked up again, the building was now magically on my right or not visible at all, even though logic and would dictate it should have remained where it was. The best part was being a mere five minutes from Gert’s abode and helplessly going in circles for the better part of two hours because nothing but NOTHING looked familiar. Finally ended up in a hotel lobby on the internet, Google-mapping my way to freedom.

Anyway, back to the BIFFF. I had already made up my mind that I was going to try to see as many films as humanly possible (there are approx 60 being shown throughout the 13-day fest), as well as interviewing any filmmakers whose schedules and mine could coincide (as of this writing, I have 10 interviews on the roster). So, this was the beginning of a marathon adventure. Luckily, I immediately got off on the right foot with the excellent press team (headed by Jonathan Lenaerts and peopled by the lovely & capable quintet of Sophie, Alexandra, Roxanne, Ellie and Laura), and from there on, it’s been smooth sailing.

The early afternoon found me manning the handheld DSLR for a video interview with Terry Gilliam, who had been inducted into the Order of the Raven by BIFFF officials the night before. Said interviews were originally slated to be held on a repurposed double-decker bus (with “Jameson” emblazoned on the side – hence its being known as the “Jameson” location on the master schedule), but Terry G. opted to stay outside to enjoy the sunny if brisk weather. I’ve seen a number of documentaries with the iconoclastic filmmaker, so I had an idea as to what to expect, and the newly BIFFF-beknighted Gilliam did not disappoint. Congenial and chatty, extremely engaging and intelligent, he whizzed through our allotted 15-minute slot and was kind enough to pose for a few snapshots afterwards. Be interesting to see the interview once it’s all pieced together.

First feature of the day was Switzerland’s Sennentuntschi, followed by Shuffle, Jet Li in The Sorcerer and the White Snake, Xavier Gens (Frontiers) was on hand for his latest feature The Divide, and the evening wrapped up with the Taiwanese Zombie 108. Needless to say, it was pretty much movies, movies, movies from start to finish, and even though the skies were lightly sprinkling by the time we wended our way home, our spirits were not dampened in the slightest and our clothes only moderately so.

Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps (2010) (1st viewing) d. Steiner, Michael (Switzerland)
Based on a classic cautionary legend, Switzerland’s first big budget horror effort is a doozy. A feral woman (Rubber’s Roxane Mesquida) shows up in a mountain village following a priest’s suicide, sparking a wave of dread throughout the god-fearing citizens. Police lieutenant Nicholas Ofczarec dodges the hysteria and ends up falling for the mysterious girl left in his care, though flashbacks to her experiences with a trio of mountain farmers hint that she may not be as innocent as she seems. While there is a serious stripe of sexual violence throughout, a device I usually find to be a tiresome and lazy means of eliciting sympathy for and/or vilifying characters, the rape scenes here go beyond mere cinematic shorthand, leaving us miles from the standard revenge pic. Steiner and co-writers Stefanie Japp and Michael Sauter also walk an intriguing line between twisted realism and supernatural goings-on, one that never quite resolves itself (for better or worse depends upon the viewer, I suppose – I would have preferred a slightly less obtuse resolution). A superbly realized production, one that hopefully will soon find its way to DVD in spite of its unwieldy title.

Shuffle (2011) (1st viewing) d. Kuenne, Kurt (USA)
Borrowing its central conceit from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, T.J. Thyne stars as a man who, every time he falls asleep, randomly wakes up in a different day of his life, from age 9 to 92. Essentially a drama with sci-fi leanings, writer/director Kuenne uses his narrative novelty to create a mystery for Thyne (and the audience) to solve as he attempts to first discover the reasons behind his bizarre temporal malady, then to prevent the death of his beloved Paula Rhodes. The black and white cinematography lends an arty touch, and while the storyline and performances occasionally dip into the schmaltz pool, the feel-good ending doesn’t come off as distastefully saccharine.

Sorcerer and the White Snake, The (2011) (1st viewing) d. Ching, Siu-Tung (China)
Shamelessly robust period fantasy very much in the same vein as the director’s Chinese Ghost Story trilogy, supersized for a modern day CGI-primed audience. Jet Li stars as an elder Buddhist monk who spends his time combating demons, one of which turns out to be mortal-loving snake woman Shengyi Huang who falls for herbalist Raymond Lam. Their charming romantic scenes give way to an epic, morally ambiguous battle with Li attempting to crush true love’s sway in the name of his religious stance. The satisfying and oft-told story (most famously visited in 1958’s Panda and the Magic Serpent) has greenscreen and pixilated action sequences galore, although admittedly some of the CG work barely rises above SyFy creature feature fare. All the human performances are appealing, even if the “battle” sequences consist of little more than the actors waving their hands around, pushing post-production lightning bolts and colored ectoplasm with abandon, a station that must be just the slightest bit humbling for one of the world’s great cinematic martial artists. Great, full-blooded score by Mark Lui.

Divide, The (2011) (1st viewing) d. Gens, Xavier (USA)
In the wake of a nuclear attack on the U.S., a disparate group of apartment dwellers take refuge in Michael Biehn’s basement shelter, creating a petri dish of human interaction. As one might imagine, things do not go smoothly: tempers flare, might makes right, and the thin veneer of social cordiality slips away as food and water rations dwindle. The performances are fairly across the board in an ensemble that also includes Courtney B. Vance, Lauren German, A History of Violence’s Ashton Holmes, Rosanna Arquette (in probably the most demanding, least glamorous role of her career) and breakout star Michael Eklund who should enjoy a bump in visibility following his charismatic villainous turn here. Unfortunately, there are gaping logistical holes in Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean’s script, and much of the characters’ behavior does not ring true considering the circumstances – one of those many occurences where people only act the way they would if they were in a movie. Not to say that humanity’s ugly side wouldn’t show its face; if anything, it seems to take far too long for things to head south with this particular grouping of individuals. If you’re able to switch off your brain and simply revel in the theatre of human cruelty and degradation, there are rewards to be had, but only if.

Zombie 108 (2012) (1st viewing) d. Chein, Joe (Taiwan)
The midnight offering of BIFFF’s first full day bears the distinction of being Taiwan’s vanguard (and at this point) only full-scale zombie feature. Unfortunately, other than that, there isn’t a whole lot of distinction to be had, since it’s pretty much just another high-energy undead flick pitting cops and gangsters against the shambling hordes. The characters range from silly (a bon mot-tossing American free runner) to thoroughly unpleasant (a nauseating nutjob holding half a dozen women – and another handful of zombies – captive in his basement). The makeups (especially on our aforementioned sadist, who looks like nothing more than someone wearing a latex mask, complete with visible seams) and zombie characters are another mixed bag, evoking as much eyeball-rolling as thrilled gasps. Bottom line, with the exception of the main druglord’s arm’s balloon/squid prosthetics, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before and better.

2012 Totals to date: 126 films, 108 1st time views, 64 horror, 16 cinema

Pick of the Day: Sennentuntschi


  1. About Zombie 108, please remind that the total production fee is only USD 250,000

    i think this is a good attempt for Taiwan to kick the first start for a real zombie movie. I heard that there will be a Zombie 108 Part II later on 2013, but not yet confirmed.

  2. Thanks for the info, nelnel. I agree that the film is quite impressive for its low budget in terms of spectacle and energy. However, it does cover very similar narrative ground to so many other zombie features, and in such a crowded field, my hope would have been for it to have found something new to say instead of simply covering the same shambling undead ground.

    I'm a big champion of low-budget horror, and for $250,000, Joe Chien and his team have done themselves proud in terms of pulling off such an ambitious effort. I only wish they had managed to tell us a new story at the same time. Nevertheless, I very much look forward to Chien's future efforts, as he has a "rock n' roll" style that should appeal to a wide audience, and I wish him luck.