Best of Fantasia 2022

Image from Goodbye, Don Glees! (2021)
Image from Goodbye, Don Glees! (2021)

Our highlights from the 26th edition of the continent-spanning, genre-stretching Fantasia International Film Festival.

The Fantasia International Film Festival experience has always been a hybrid one for critics, simply because it’s too long for most to stick it out the whole time. The influential, long-running genre fest is three times the length of most film festivals, sprawling out over three weeks (July 14—August 3 this year) at a handful of venues in downtown Montreal.

The 2022 lineup, the fest’s 26th annual edition, included 135 feature films and more shorts than programmers could count, as they announced before in-person screenings—a respectable number, but hardly the most extensive slate in the festival’s 28-year history.

Given that this year’s Fantasia marked a return to in-person festivities after two years of geo-locked virtual screenings, perhaps a ‘dip’ in film selection numbers was inevitable. (It feels absurd to type that about a festival with more than 100 films on its slate, but these are the standards to which Fantasia holds itself.) Audience enthusiasm burned brighter than ever on the ground, however: local audiences turned out in droves during the week that our correspondent Katie Rife was on the ground, particularly for the festival’s thriving slate of Asian films, which dominated the larger of the festival’s two main theaters. 

Takashi Hirano’s Kappei, winner of The New Flesh Award for Best First Feature.
Takashi Hirano’s Kappei, winner of The New Flesh Award for Best First Feature.

Shin Ultraman was an especially hot ticket this year, the room packed with cosplayers who gave a standing ovation to director Shinji Higuchi. (Flattered by the attention, Higuchi took a selfie in front of the cheering crowd.) The audience also went wild for the dumb-in-a-good-way Japanese himbo comedy Kappei, which Annie calls “the live action manga adaptation you didn’t know you needed.” About a group of naive “doomsday warriors” dumped onto the streets of Tokyo after the apocalypse fails to materialize, the film ended up winning the festival’s New Flesh award for first time feature filmmakers. 

Across the street from Fantasia HQ on the grounds of Concordia University lies the second of its two main venues, home of the festival’s more esoteric fare. That’s where two divisive world premieres sparked controversy: First, All Jacked Up and Full of Worms took the audience on a dizzy joy ride through the sleaziest corners of the Chicago filmmaking underground. In a jury citation for All Jacked Up, MovieMaker magazine’s Tim Molloy said, “There were moments when I thought the theater might be raided and we might all be arrested. Instead, Fantasia being Fantasia, they earned rapturous applause.” And the Belgian serial-killer drama Megalomaniac—which ended up winning Fantasia’s top prize—shocked viewers with its uncompromising brutality and twisted psychosexual themes.

John Woo with his Career Achievement Award at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
John Woo with his Career Achievement Award at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Katie Rife also served on the jury for the New Flesh award, and was on the ground for a “short” six-day stay at Fantasia’s official hotel, around the corner from a converted nunnery that hosted nightly cocktail receptions. Her in-person coverage featured an interview with Fantasia Career Achievement Award winner John Woo, where the Hong Kong action legend discussed his inspirations, filmmaking philosophy and the most dangerous stunt of his career.

This was an especially good year for visionary American indies at the festival, as films from Amanda Kramer, Mickey Reece, Tyler Taormina, and newcomer Alex Phillips all made our picks for the finest features on offer. Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong are also represented in our heady, freaky, colorful, genre- and gender-bending selections, chosen by our Fantasia enthusiasts Rife, Aaron Yap and Alicia Haddick—with plenty of help from the Letterboxd community. 

All Jacked Up and Full of Worms

Written and directed by Alex Phillips

I should start off by saying that I do have a bit of a conflict of interest here, in the sense that I’m also from Chicago and am very protective of my city. (We’re all like that, don’t worry about it.) But I was unfamiliar with Chicago-based filmmaker Alex Phillips before attending an encore Fantasia screening of his debut feature, All Jacked Up and Full of Worms

Phillips’ film trawls the back alleys and fleabag motels of the Windy City, catching all manner of outcasts from addict throuples to murder clowns—not to mention the most disgusting sex doll ever made—in its grimy and deranged net. It starts off as an underground comedy in the taboo-breaking spirit of John Waters and his ’70s Dreamlanders; the type of film where everyone is high and naked and reveling in filth and degeneracy. Then the worms come in, injecting a psychedelic element that carries through as the film transforms, first into a sleazy serial-killer thriller and then finally into a punk puppet show version of Videodrome

In a review she really doesn’t want her mom to see, Lynn Betts writes All Jacked Up “[tops] a typical Cronenberg in terms of reprehensible sexual deviancy, substance-induced depravity and all sorts of body horror bits and bobs, and yet it’s also hilarious? Honestly I have no idea whether I loved or hated this movie.” And Sam simply comments, “Gross! (that’s a compliment).” If those descriptions intrigue you, don’t be shy. Come, eat the worm. Unlearn your shapes. Find your Clown King. Be free. KR

Country Gold

Written and directed by Mickey Reece

Mickey Reece is beloved among fans of weird cinema for his seemingly effortless talent for “earnestly going bizarre places and bizarrely going earnest places,” as Tabitha puts it in her five-star review. But Country Gold, the continuation of a planned trilogy that began with Mickey Reece’s Alien in 2017, sees Reece spreading his artistic wings with his tribute to shaggy-dog ’70s dramedies (“Is there any other decade?,” he joked at a post-screening Q&A) in this typically talky, boldly stylized, and uncommonly warm entry into his growing filmography. 

Reece stars as Troyal Brux, a legally distinguishable version of Garth Brooks, that plays up Brooks’ salt-of-the-earth values and childlike sense of wonder while, as Keenan writes, “us[ing] the star as a costume for a different kind of character,” the likes of which only Mickey Reece can create. What starts off as a goofball comedy about a “true blue American good boy who just loves to crack open a cold piss juice with the boys” turns into a surreal trip down a multidimensional rabbit hole, before transforming into an affecting meditation on fame and mortality. 

Reece regular Ben Hall, as hard-partying country legend George Jones, is the “magic glue” that holds the film together. Jones invites Troyal out for a debaucherous night in Nashville that challenges both men’s deeply held beliefs about themselves. And yes, Chris Gaines does make an appearance in a bar bathroom. KR

The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra (다섯 번째 흉추)

Written and directed by Park Sye-young

This may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s coming around to a point: Film critics watch a lot of movies. And the thing about movies is, most of them are neither amazing nor terrible. It’s all variations on a theme, which is why critics tend to go nuts for films that offer viewers something truly different. The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is one of these films. 

The first feature film from prolific shorts director Park Sye-Young, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is a sensitive monster movie about human connection. As Seoul-based critic Pierce Conran puts it, the film “is pitched somewhere between the bizarre and manic ickiness of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and the dreamy haziness of the cinema of Wong Kar-wai.” He adds that the analogy is incomplete, which is true—there’s also a bit of Everything Everywhere All at Once in the film’s long view of human life and the enduring power of love, along with multiple elements that can’t be compared to anything at all. 

After all, none of those films are about a moldy mattress that gains sentience and absorbs both the happiness and the heartbreak of those who lay on it, eventually growing wormlike tendrils that rip out the spines of unsuspecting passersby at the exact spot referenced in the title. It’s dreamy, organic, romantic, disgusting—and only 62 minutes long, so why not, right? Madeline states its odd appeal beautifully when she writes, “This is a movie about a mattress with a fungus growing in it and it made me weep because of how beautiful it is that humans can feel love.” KR

Goodbye, Don Glees! (グッバイ、ドン・グリーズ!)

Written and directed by Atsuko Ishizuka

Goodbye, Don Glees! marks an opportunity for well-regarded anime director Atsuko Ishizuka to make the jump from TV productions to her first original feature. The film follows the titular “Don Glees”, two bored teenagers named Roma and Toto, who are searching for adventure in the quiet rural town they call home. Soon, the duo grows to a trio when they meet a new kid named Drop. After a forest fire during the local fireworks festival is blamed on the “Don Glees”, they go on an adventure to recover the missing drone that could prove their innocence—setting the stage for a journey of self-discovery in their last summer before high school.

Although anime is far from immune to childhood coming-of-age stories, what helps Goodbye, Don Glees! stand out is the rarity of naturalistic male friendships which believably capture the innocence of adolescence on screen. Ishizuka balances sincerity and sarcasm in their banter in such a way that you can’t help but feel like the fourth member of this adventuring brigade. Even within a lean 90 minutes, we’re given space and time to connect with these characters strongly enough to make the film’s turn towards the melodramatic feel earned and emotionally resonant.

Many who caught the film at Fantasia praised the unique nature of telling such a tale through the medium of animation, where down-to-earth stories can feel harder to come by. Josh admits, “I cannot recall the last time a movie [about] platonic friendship between three pals has hit me this hard,” while AmazingPancake6 compliments the ways in which the film “deals with the struggles of growing up and discovering what one wants to be in life whilst making your eyes marvel at the breathtaking animation.” AH

Happer’s Comet

Written and directed by Tyler Taormina

Shot surreptitiously in suburban Long Island with a crew of two, Happer’s Comet is even more enigmatic than writer and director Tyler Taormina’s 2019 debut, Ham on Rye. The film has no dialogue and no real plot—“No Plot, Just Vibes” enthusiasts, take note—and consists mostly of studied tableaus of empty living rooms and intimate close-ups of suburbanites expressing their truest selves under the cover of darkness. And yet, it’s a breathtakingly hypnotic piece of work. 

The film opens on a lingering shot of an ear of corn rotting in a mud puddle, typical of what Sean Erickson calls “an alluring romanticism mixed… with a foreboding, mysterious darkness” that permeates the viewing experience. Surreal touches like the midnight roller skaters who occasionally whiz through the frame and a cornfield with an otherworldly aura deepen the mystery; Emma writes that it “perfectly capture[s] the feeling of wandering the streets of suburbia at three in the morning,” with what Chris Cabin calls “the allure of seemingly endless twilight.”

The key to Happer’s Comet is its immersive sound design, which Taormina created himself after four months of weekend night shoots came together into the final film. This is a film best watched in the darkest room on the biggest screen possible, with the volume turned all the way up so Taormina can envelop you in muffled voices reverberating through walls, the swishing of corn stalks in an autumn breeze, and the electric hum of air conditioners at night. KR

The Harbinger  

Written and directed by Andy Mitton

The Harbinger does something that few films set during the Covid-19 pandemic, even the horror ones, have been able to do: Accurately capture the feeling of imminent doom that permeated everything in the first few months of lockdown. I can practically hear all your eyes rolling to the backs of your heads, and it’s true—this movie shouldn’t work as well as it does. It even has a demon dressed as a plague doctor! How hacky is that?

Not hacky at all, actually, thanks to the heavy, ominous mood Canadian writer-director Andy Mitton establishes early on in his pandemic-era spin on A Nightmare on Elm Street. Mitton’s grasp of dream logic is very strong. And while the film isn’t above indulging in a jump scare every once in a while, what makes The Harbinger more than just another well-crafted genre exercise is the feeling of emptiness and unease that lingers long after the movie ends. 

The fear here isn’t just of death, or creepy kids, or a monster stalking us in our dreams—although the movie does have all of those things. Mitton is playing on the existential terror of being forgotten, of everything we’ve ever done and everyone we’ve ever loved being erased from history and no one noticing or caring that we’re gone. As Jason writes, it’s “a dark, depressing, heavy, and scary film in more ways than one.” KR

Mercenaries from Hong Kong (Lie mo zhe)

Written and directed by Wong Jing

Each year, alongside exciting new releases in the genre field, Fantasia also offers up some much-hyped restorations, like this world premiere 2K presentation of Wong Jing’s 1982 feature Mercenaries from Hong Kong. While this early effort from the prolific director is relatively free of the comic crudities (“the yucks are kept to a bare minimum,” as Carlo V puts it) that would later become his brand, it still strays blissfully far from what anyone would deem tasteful, tonally consistent filmmaking. If nothing else, it’s an invitation—“written with all the sophistication and nuance of a 10-year-old”, Andrew observes—to feed your lizard brain with 90 minutes of charmingly frenetic, action-packed mayhem.

Any lack of grace in the choreography is more than compensated for by Wong’s decision to jam the film’s threadbare The Dirty Dozen-slash-The Wild Geese men-on-a-mission plot with as much gnarly, reckless lunacy as possible, from stupefying stunts to proto-“heroic bloodshed” gunfights. The icing on the cake? Watching sturdy Shaw Brothers regulars such as Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, and Johnny Wang Lung-wei get down in badass matching track-fits that Matt calls “one of Dignan from Bottle Rocket’s wildest dreams.”

Deep-cut connoisseurs of this era of Hong Kong cinema can thank Arrow Films for the wonderful 2K restoration, which will be available on the second volume of their Shawscope Blu-ray series, coming soon. AY

Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin 

Directed by Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger

Following the calamitous French premiere of his film Rape of the Vampire in 1967, Eurocult auteur Jean Rollin and his haunting, weirdly personal body of work—a challenging, but rewarding space that toggles between erotica, vampiric horror and pure tone poem—was pushed to the margins of film culture. As Michael writes, “the New Wavers were breathing most of the oxygen in the room” at the time, leaving French genre cinema with “less love.” Serving both as a rigorous primer and corrective reappraisal, Dima Ballin and Kat Ellinger’s documentary Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin is an irreverent, affectionate overview of his life and films.

Mostly a talking heads affair featuring generously interspersed clips of Rollin’s films, Orchestrator of Storms isn’t “formally revolutionary,” but should prove to be “deeply engrossing for any fan of the artier end of horror,” as Andrew states. Close acquaintances, writers, and historians persuasively discuss the elements that helped shape Rollin’s cinematic imagination. His films are psych-tinged, improvised, melancholic zones that were dreamt into reality with the barest of means, but are infused with the resourceful, restless imagination of an outsider and the searching soul of a poet. For the curious, this will be the push you’ll need to devour his entire back catalog. AY

Please Baby Please

Directed by Amanda Kramer, written by Kramer and Noel David Taylor

The sexually confused love child of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Streets of Fire, Please Baby Please is a well-thumbed homoerotic pulp novel come to life. One of two colorful Amanda Kramer pastiches to screen at Fantasia this year (the other, Give Me Pity!, sends up retro primetime variety specials), Please Baby Please takes place in a world populated by gender-bending beatniks, melodramatic drag queens, and sensitive jazz boys aching for the rough touch of a leather daddy. Alexandre says it “interrogates the queerness of the ‘50s by viewing it through a multifaceted and fun modern lens” that recalls the work of John Waters and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, both of whom come up often in the film’s Letterboxd reviews.

Twitchy mannerisms and a deconstructed cat eye render Andrea Riseborough barely recognizable as Suze, a bohemian type living in ‘50s NYC with her husband Arthur (Harry Melling). Suze and Arthur are the Brad and Janet of the piece, an ordinary couple plunged into a raging inferno of pansexuality and gender experimentation after a fateful encounter with a gang of street toughs outside their apartment. Blessed with appearances from Cole Escola as a sob sister in pink and a gentleman caller bearing one gigantic red rose, Please Baby Please drenches viewers in what Travis calls “a firehose of desire” soaked with queer camp, unabashed theatricality, and lots of bisexual lighting. KR

Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン)

Directed by Shinji Higuchi, written by Hideaki Anno

Comparisons between Shin Ultraman and Shin Godzilla were inevitable, considering Hideaki Anno’s involvement in the production of both films (although this time, he stepped back from the director’s chair in favor of longtime collaborator Shinji Higuchi). The high praise leveled on Anno’s Godzilla reimagining put pressure on Higuchi to deliver a similar film about another iconic character of Japanese tokusatsu history. What’s clear is that this fun and loving reimagining is not walking the same path. That works to the film’s benefit, as it boldly sets itself apart as a unique, yet faithful love letter to a 50-year-old titan of Japanese pop culture.

In the same way that Shin Godzilla updated the political commentary of its origins for the modern day, this film takes the hope that Ultraman offered millions of kids who grew up on the franchise and gives them an opportunity to relive that experience on the biggest screen possible. The film is still open to critiquing Japanese bureaucratical incompetency, as well as societal apathy and ignorance to the unknown. But this is ultimately a two-hour toy-box movie where monsters and heroes duke it out, while two creators whose careers started with Ultraman fan films have fun with an absolutely raucous, goofy and entertaining blockbuster.

The longtime fans of the character on Letterboxd have plenty of praise: “From the very first scene, the title cards and the music, it’s clear that Shin Ultraman is first of all a homage and a love letter to Shōwa-era Ultraman, and especially Akio Jissoji and their directorial style. If you approach it with this frame of mind, you’ll definitely be entertained,” writes Matteo. Even non-fans found enjoyment in their first introduction to the character. Maybe the film can serve as a lesson to Hollywood on how to effectively update a character for modern audiences on the big screen. As Maj puts it, Shin Ultraman is “evidence that with creativity and heart, modern blockbusters can be whatever you want them to be.” AH

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