FANTASIA 2001: MORIARTY Revels In The Wonder of METROPOLIS, LYLIA, TELL ME SOMETHING, and More Shorts!!
Published at: Aug. 4, 2001, 5:15 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Sunday morning didn’t happen, as far as I’m concerned. I slept in, almost defiantly, refusing to wake up until the very last possible moment, at which point I practically leapt from bed, showered, and sprinted over to the Imperial, where I slipped into the VIP section for the North American premiere of a film I’ve been very interested in for a while now, METROPOLIS, an animated science-fiction film from director Rin Taro and screenwriter Katsuhiro Otomo.
"Every epoch dreams its successor." – Jules Michelet.
That simple quote opens the film, and in many ways, it sums up one of the key appeals in science fiction for us as audiences. The science fiction of any decade reflects the time in which it was written, and each decade seems to redefine what the chief aesthetic is in sci-fi for that age. When you look at something from the ‘30s or the ‘50s or the ‘60s or the ‘70s, there’s no doubt what you’re looking at. There’s no doubt when it was made. Occasionally, we’ll see directors make throwbacks to early eras in sci-fi, but they rarely have the same kind of life or spark that the originals did, because they’re not nearly as organic. They’re dreams that came not from some internal place, but are instead recycled dreams, someone else’s.
When I first heard that a feature film was being made from the comic by Osamu Tezuka, I wondered if it would work at all. It’s nearly 50 years old now, already an homage in its own right to the Fritz Lang original. Even with a screenplay by Katsuhiro Otomo, I wasn’t sure it sounded like something that would live and breathe on its own. Then I saw a few images from it and read quotes where James Cameron spoke in near-ejaculatory rapture about the film, and I decided to go into it with as subdued a set of expectations as possible.
Director Rin Taro has created something truly magnificent here. It’s science-fiction that has the ability to visually awe an audience, something I haven’t seen in a while. One of the many disappointments of A.I. for me was how unoriginal many of the film’s "big images" were. BLADE RUNNER, Universal Citywalk, and WATERWORLD in a blender does not spell "visionary" in my book. At the start of this movie, though, we are introduced to the newest edifice in Metropolis, a towering structure of glass and steel designed to be a culmination of mankind’s history of imagination and science, The Ziggurat. As the camera races up and down the massive building’s full length, dixieland swing blares happily from the soundtrack, and there’s a sense that Rin Taro is drunk on this futuristic landscape he’s created, barely able to contain his glee at showing it to you. Fireworks go off, crowds cheer, and an airship races by overhead before the main title comes up. This early incongruous use of music as underscoring is a good indicator of some of the sonic surprises the film has in store, and I’m not sure if that’s because of Toshiyuki Honda, who’s given the "music" credit at the beginning, or if there’s a music supervisor who should share the praise. Either way, the sound of this film is just as important as what you see, and I’ll go more into that further down.
Inside the Ziggurat, there’s a major party underway, and we start to learn about the world of the movie. Robots are used in all levels of society because of their skills and ability, but they’re creating social friction. The man responsible for building the Ziggurat is Duke Red, a powerful businessman who claims to have no political ambitions even as he works behind the scenes to gain control of the city and, if all goes well, the world itself.
Outside, robots stage a demonstration that is broken up by The Malduks, a private security force headed by a kid named Rock, funded by Duke Red, dressed like Hitler Youth. Rock refers to Duke Red as "Father," even though he’s just an orphan who was taken in by Duke Red and raised to be exactly what he is, a personal henchman. The robots are looking to create some sense of sympathy or parity for themselves in society, and although it is The Malduks, Duke Red’s guards, that shoot down and destroy the robot protestor, it is Duke Red himself who heads up a secret project that may push artificial life forms past humans to a position akin to that of Gods. The scientific part of his plan is being handled by Dr. Laughton, a researcher who has been set up in a private lab deep in the bowels of the city.
Shunsaku Ban and his nephew Kenichi travel to Metropolis, not only to see the unveiling of the Ziggurat, but also on official business. Shunsaku is a private investigator, and he’s been asked to help police look into the matter of Dr. Laughton and his dealings with international organ smuggling. He’s wanted for vivisection experiments by an international group of authorities. Shunsaku asks for help from the police, but the best they can do is offer him a robot guide to the city, something that is seen as almost disgraceful.
I’ve been told that METROPOLIS took five years to make, and I can understand why. Every scene features layer upon layer of visual detail. This city is amazing, almost impossible to comprehend all at once. I’ve watched the film four times now, and I am still just starting to pick things out. The city is a major character in the film, and the way it’s laid out and explained to us as viewers is marvelous. Each time we slip from one section of the city to the next, there’s a whole different vibe, a whole different soundtrack. Zone 1, just below the surface, is where the lowest classes live, and it’s as high as most robots are ever allowed to venture unless they’re working. I love the heavy swing jazz sound of these sequences. It’s somehow dead right, even though it seems like such an odd choice. There in Zone 1 is where Laughton’s built his lab, and it’s where he shows Duke Red what his money has been funding... the construction of Tima, a superbeing who is part mecha, part orga. She’s got real organs, but she’s enhanced in every way. She’s also about to be brought online, ready to take her place in the Throne Of Power on top of Duke Red’s Ziggurat, from which she is designed to rule the world. Rock, who has been secretly following the Duke’s plan, is offended at the idea of something artificial sitting in that throne when he believes it should be the Duke himself who sits there, supreme and secure in his power. To that end, he ventures to Laughton’s lab to try and destroy Tima before she is ever allowed to draw a breath. Rock refuses to believe that Duke Red would hand over control of everything to a mere robot, and he kills Laughton, then sets fire to the lab, leaving Tima to be destroyed by the flames and slipping away before he can be spotted by anyone.
Kenichi is the one who ultimately saves Tima from the raging flames. She is activated during the fire, brought those final few steps towards life, and when Kenichi saves her, he doesn’t know she’s anything other than a beautiful girl around his age, confused and afraid. Kenichi and Tima are lost in the conflagration, falling several Zones down, and they’re believed dead. Only Rock realizes that they lived and goes after them, still trying to protect Duke Red, not caring what the Duke wants, sure that he is doing the right thing. He’s confused by Duke Red’s emotional connection to Tima, upset by it. Duke Red shows more real love and interest in his creation than he does in Rock.
We meet a variety of types of robots in this film, like the Albert II model called "Fifi" that helps save Tima and Kenichi, and I love the design work on all the different types. To me, these look like they all have function, purpose. Seeing the sort of shadowy half-life they live, I believe that society has absorbed these creatures into itself, even if it’s in a dysfunctional manner. In so many ways, this film does what A.I. failed (in my estimation) to do. It asks what responsibility we have to the things we build, and what we will do when we build something more refined and powerful than ourselves. It asks if we would be able to love these things of ours, if we would be able to forge real meaningful, complex relationships with them. Kenichi and Tima develop a fascinating rapport that’s based in large part on the idea that neither of them knows quite what to make of the other. Tima is fascinated by Kenichi and imitates him, learning from him. Kenichi is enchanted by this ethereal waif, and feels responsible for her, protective of her.
Duke Red isn’t interested in peace between robots and humans, though. The Ziggurat turns out to be part of his plan to take over control of the higher functions of all robots in the city, and he tests his ability in a truly sad scene in which all various robots go on rampages under his control, and when they are shot down and destroyed, the resultant public outcry is exactly what he hoped for. Secure that he’s able to do what he set out to do, he kills the city’s President and takes over as the primary political force.
Keep in mind... all of this is just in the film’s first half hour. There’s a ton of story here, a ton of action, a fair amount of comedy, and any number of images that will leave you gobsmacked, dumbfounded. METROPOLIS is something much, much better than I expected. It’s the kind of film I’ll return to time and again, a vision of the future that is not so much prediction as it is reflection, a nostalgia piece both for the look and feel of ‘30s Art Deco fantasy and the work of Osamu Tezuka, a film that takes homage and elevates it to inspiration. METROPOLIS works better as a whole than it has any right to work, and I found myself completely transported by it. By the time "I Can’t Stop Loving You" started to play during the film’s climax, it made perfect sense to me for Rin Taro to use the dulcet tones of Ray Charles over scenes of an entire city falling apart, crumbling under the weight of its own design. I found myself greatly moved by the film, and I must admit... as an overall film experience (sight, sound, story, color, composition, sense of discovery), nothing compared to METROPOLIS for me in the entire Fantasia film festival. I think it’s a classic in the field of animation as well as sci-fi, and would advise anyone in LA to check the Egyptian’s schedule to see when this is showing as part of the upcoming Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror Festival. For everyone else, keep your eyes peeled this fall, when Columbia/Tri-Star is talking about a theatrical release for the picture. It’s a bigscreen experience that every serious fan should have at least once.
L’ILYA couldn’t have been any more different in tone than METROPOLIS, and it’s that sort of abrupt tonal shift that makes a full day of FANTASIA viewing so interesting. You never know exactly what’s going to hit you next, and it demands a sort of limber willingness from a viewer. I’m impressed by how many of the same faces show up over the course of each day of films, and how open the audiences seem to each new sensation. Festivals are defined by their crowds as much as they are by what’s being shown, and that’s one of the reasons Fantasia seemed special to me.
Tomoya Sato, the writer/director of L’ILYA was on-hand to introduce the film, and he seemed nervous about how people would react to the film. He shouldn’t have been worried. He’s made a very strong, very sad film that handles a taboo subject like suicide in modern Japan with sensitivity and a precise touch. The description of the film in the Fantasia program compares it to AFTERMATH, the Nacho Cerda film which is a milestone of explicit imagery, a blistering shriek of a film, but L’ILYA seems far more gentle to me, more like a bitter memory softly whispered in the dead of night. It’s the story of a woman who videotapes suicides as her art. She won’t stop the people, and she won’t help them kill themselves, either. She is an impartial viewer, a silent witness in those final moments, unwilling to offer either condemnation or solace. When she edits the footage together, she cuts off the parts where these broken souls explain their decisions. She gets right to the action, so to speak, creating endless loops of these final moments. A businessman a few years from retirement who feels that living just for his family "is stupid" hanging himself, taking a moment to adjust his hat first. A young man who’s been framed for some unnamed crime shoots himself in an empty apartment. A girl who is heartbroken over a lover she barely knew opens a vein in a sink and lets her life slowly ebb away.
At one of her showings, we see the crowd as they pass in front of the screens, watch them dancing and eating and laughing and basically using these time capsules of despair as wallpaper to party in front of. It’s a cutting commentary on the way most people view art, and it drives home the callousness of what it is Ilya is doing. She may believe that there’s value in collecting these things, but it’s just one more mild shock to the system for most people, one tiny bit of horror they tune out even as they congratulate themselves for being sophisticated enough to "enjoy" it. At a dinner with her boyfriend and her manager, she discusses whether there’s anything to be gained by including some of the monologues of these suicides. Ilya dismisses the words of the suicides as "garbage," and her boyfriend is struck by the harshness of her words. When they’re alone later, he takes her to task for her attitude. She doesn’t understand why he’s so upset until he kills himself and leaves her nothing: no note, no explanation, no clues as to why. Ilya is forced to confront a side of suicide she’d never faced before, the perspective of the survivor, and it’s too much for her to bear. She finds herself unable to imagine any reason to continue her own life, and the film builds to a climax with a surprisingly, almost achingly beautiful ray of hope. Ilya lives, but she’s got scars both internal and external now, emotional and physical, and an understanding of pain that goes beyond the surface. It is a lovely, powerful film, and it suggests that director Sato has something important to say. In his Q&A after the movie, he admitted that he was worried how people would feel about his film after sitting in the audience for CITIZEN TOXIE and watching their reactions. Let’s face it: Troma fans are not your normal film viewers, and just because they scream and yell for a Troma film doesn’t mean they’re going to behave like that for other films. L’ILYA was received in the spirit it was intended, smart and challenging.
BTW, to the guy who wrote me to suggest that I only gave CITIZEN TOXIE a good review because Lloyd Kaufman included Ain’t It Cool News in the "Special Thanks To" list at the end of the film, that’s silly. Besides, I wouldn’t say I gave it a good review. Troma films exist beyond criticism, like Russ Meyers films or kung-fu movies. Either you are willing to go for that particular ride, or you’re not. There’s no way to qualify the movies in typical critical terms.
After L’ILYA and the Q&A, they showed two more shorts, both by Korean filmmakers. First up was COMING OUT, a sexy and funny little short about a girl who confesses something unthinkable to her friends and family: she is a vampire. She proves it to them in a series of truly hilarious and unnerving scenes that culminate in one particular friend practically begging to be bitten. The girl ends up between her friend’s thighs, drawing blood from the tender flesh there, and there are unmistakable overtones to the imagery. There’s a great scene in a park, in which the girl proves what she is to her friends, and there’s a fall-down funny coda to the thing. It’s not a long piece, nor is it a deep one. Director Kim Ji-Woon demonstrates an able comic touch, and the two female leads are both nimble comic actresses I’d love to see again.
The final short in this particular grouping was ONION, directed by Mi-Jeong Lee, one of the programmers of the festival. It’s a nine minute piece, part of a larger project Mi-Jeong is working on, and it’s long on mood if short on story. Karen, one of the volunteers for the festival, plays a woman who is making her way through a Metro station. She seems disconnected in some way, uncomfortable in her own skin. The film is basically a moment between her and a man she passes, a fleeting fantasy that is visualized for us. It’s obvious that Mi-Jeong is fascinated by people and what makes them tick, and I’m curious what she’ll be able to do with more time to explore her ideas.
Next up for the evening was THE ISLE, a Korean film that John Robie and I both reviewed at Sundance of this year. It’s funny... in that setting, THE ISLE seemed extreme, shocking, and there were a number of critics there who could barely make it through the film. In the context of Fantasia and some of the things I’ve seen here, it seems almost gentle by comparison. One thing’s for sure... it’s a film of considerable visual power, one that sticks with you. The only reason I didn’t watch it again on this particular night was because I was hungry. The editor of French PREMIERE and I decided to head over to Schwartz’s, a Hebrew deli that is known for its smoked meat sandwiches. The place is tiny, seating less than 100 people total, and was packed when we got there. We squeezed in at one of the tables, ordered our dinners, and basked in the particular glow of food that you know is terrible for you but delicious anyway. We ended up in a nice conversation with the couple next to us, and the guy turned out to be a huge AICN fan, something I was finally starting to get used to by this point in the week. Every time I travel these days, I am struck by how widespread our readership is, and I’m never less than pleased when I get the chance to meet you guys face to face.
After a brief stop at the Delta to freshen up, I headed back to the Imperial for the final film of the night, the giant Korean hit TELL ME SOMETHING. Before it began, we were treated to a short called THE ANATOMY CLASS, and when I say "treated," I mean it. Hats off to director Zung So-Yun, a female filmmaker with a wicked sense of humor. Instead of just one joke, though, there’s a number of them in this quick story about sacrifice and duty and the nature of little girls. A class full of 12 year old girls is told that they will need three subjects for the day’s autopsies, and three soldiers come marching into the room to commit suicide "for the good of education" right in front of them. When their teacher is called away, the girls are left to their own devices, and immediately take a peek into the pants of the different men. They are surprised by the size and tumescence of one particular member, then surprised again when the owner of it sits up, not quite dead yet. In their shock, they set the poor bastard on fire, immolating his body and creating the need for them to sacrifice one of their own number to replace him "for the good of education." I found myself laughing out loud at nearly every line of dialogue, every new shot. This is a very, very funny film, and if there was a more sincerely joyful image than a whole classroom full of girls dancing to the Eurythmics song "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves," then I missed it. The short left a big smile on my face, and I was in the right mood for what followed.
TELL ME SOMETHING is a police procedural, a Korean cousin to BASIC INSTINCT or SE7EN, and I can understand why it’s one of the biggest box-office hits in that country’s history right now. It’s a clever film, and it plays hard. The gore in the movie is shocking, in your face in the best way, always used in service of the story. Dismembered bodies start showing up around Seoul. A torso here with a head missing. Another torso with the head from the first body shows up somewhere else, but with the legs missing. It’s like some horrible jigsaw game, and it gets to the point where the mere sight of a black plastic garbage bag becomes a source of genuine dread. Director Yoon-Hyan Chang does a great job racheting up the suspense over the course of the film, and this is a great example of something I’ve said before. You don’t have to reinvent the genre each time out as long as you do your job well, and TELL ME SOMETHING is a solid, well-built thriller even if you do know the general shape of things as they unfold. A disgraced cop is given this case and told that there will be great rewards if he manages to make an arrest. Weary before he’s even begun, he asks, "Is this redemption?" It takes a while before he’s even able to identify the bodies, but once they know who’s been killed, a pattern quickly emerges. Each of the dead men was at some point romantically involved with a particular woman. As the detective tries to decide if he should be protecting her or arresting her, the crimes continue, and the killer becomes brash, aggressive. This reminded me in some ways of the early Argento films that I love so much like DEEP RED, but there’s one misstep that deflated my enthusiasm at a key point. There’s one ending too many, and the final twist feels dishonest, tacked on. If you can overlook this lapse in judgement, you’ll have enormous fun with this "hard gore thriller," yet another example of just how interesting Korean cinema seems to be at the moment.
When I left the Imperial, it was with the sinking sensation that my time in Montreal was finally coming to a close. All I had left to look forward to was Monday’s movies, and I’d already seen CASTLE IN THE SKY and MILLENIUM ACTRESS, the first two scheduled films for the day. I had some other obligations the next day, so I headed to bed as soon as I hit the hotel, anticipation and exhaustion racing through me in equal measure.