As the lights fade and the audience settles in for the film, it starts. First from one voice to the left. Then way in the back. Meow! Mew? The literal cat calls (with the occasional smartass dog bark or sheep’s baa) scatter around the Concordia University halls for the few dark moments between the house lights fading and the film commencing. These cat mews are nothing new to the audience, as they stretch far back into Fantasia International Film Festival’s history. (Their origin is debated, but the most commonly accepted origin story is that the mewing started after one screening of a Simon’s Cat short film.) Do not let the momentary rambunctiousness fool you into thinking that the participatory audience is going to be rowdy and interrupt the screening. After the film begins, you will be in the company of diehard genre film fans who will keep perfectly and politely silent for the rest of the film. That is, unless the villain gets decapitated in a particularly violent manner. Justice deserves applause.
The Fantasia International Film Festival celebrated its 20th installation this year, and it had plenty to celebrate. It is easily one of the world’s leading genre film festivals. Spanning a full three weeks in two constantly screening theaters on the Concordia University campus, Fantasia is more of a marathon than a sprint. Local Montrealers pace themselves and take in what screenings they can without losing their day jobs, and film industry professionals fly in from around the world for as much of the fest as their schedule allows. Unlike some of shorter four-to-ten day film festivals, there is an understanding that most people will come for a small sliver of Fantasia’s programming, forever fueling their FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Choosing the right week or two to attend the fest is a difficult task as there is no such thing as a “wrong” week of Fantasia. Every day brings world premieres, impressive film guests, and satisfied audiences. This year early attendees were treated to two genre godfathers: Takaski Miike and Guillermo del Toro.
Miike was on hand to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award from the festival. Wearing sunglasses, red metallic sneakers, and accompanied by his multilingual interpreter, the cinematic legend humbly enjoyed soaking in the appreciative applause of his fans. With a career spanning over 100 films, Miike was quick to credit Fantasia with being his first introduction to the West. Over the festival’s 20 iterations, approximately 30 Miike films have screened, including two this year alone. Miike is best known to horror fans for creating the slow-burning Audition and highly tense Ichi the Killer, but Miike’s two screenings at this year’s festival showed his other interests as a director.
Terraformars and As the Gods Will both are based on popular Japanese manga series. Each has a playful tone, and an alarmingly high body count, but that is where the film’s commonalities end. Terraformars is a science fiction-fueled battle where we are rooting for a team of human-insect hybrids to reclaim Mars from the humanoid cockroaches who have taken over the planet. It is essentially a mash-up of Starship Troopers, The Martian, and Power Rangers, and plays out like an interspecies land war. Not only do you learn a bit about entomology, but you also get to watch powerful creatures battle one another for Martian domination.
As The Gods Will has similarly preposterous circumstances, though far less exposition. In fact, most of the characters have no idea what is happening. What we do know is that the film opens with classmates being killed by a massive doll head that has been brought to life, sitting impatiently at the front of their classroom. This disembodied head is toying with them and their lives, but they soon figure out the rules of his deadly game. Violating the rules of the game (which is essentially red light/green light) results in the student’s head exploding, complete with a blood geyser. As soon as the rules of this game are mastered, and the game bested, the few survivors are whisked off to the next deadly challenge. Closely resembling the feel and pace of Sion Sono’s Tag, As The Gods Will showcases Miike’s ability to balance death with delight. Mourning and mischief are not mutually exclusive in Miike’s worlds.
In attendance to accept the Cheval Noir Award was Guillermo del Toro. The jolly Mexican director endeared the audience with a one-hour Q&A following the screening of the documentary Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complexi. A fairly standard exploration of the history of special effects and creature creation, the film briefly highlights del Toro’s work in creature design as well as the now necessary marriage of digital and practical effects. Del Toro speaks with such conciseness and insight that it is as if his flowing thoughts are all specifically designed to be soundbites. He told the audience that he thinks of his films as if they were his children, and of being willing to die for his art. He speaks of his long-delayed At the Mountains of Madness as a miscarriage, with a deep sense of loss and pain. He also spoke of the importance of Fantasia and other genre film festivals, to bring together the monster kids of the world and inspire them.
Del Toro keenly described Fantasia as a shrine, and not a church. It is where the faithful come to worship their celluloid gods, and not a place to be seen by the flashier side of the industry only on the high holy days. This description of Fantasia feels perfect. The festival is not showy or glamorous. The focus is not on the red carpet, or on the A-list star. But it is a very accessible gathering of genre fans who want to see the cutting-edge of what is next in their beloved fantasy worlds.
The appearance of Miike and del Toro as a pair happens to speak strongly to Fantasia’s roots. Originally founded as an exhibition of Asian cinema for Montreal, the festival expanded to include genre cinema with equal affection. Even the name of the festival reflects the two sides to the fest’s programming focus—Fantasy + Asia = Fantasia.
A highlight of the Asian cinema offerings at this year’s fest is Lowlife Love. Rather than a love letter, prolific Japanese director Eiji Uchida instead uses his voice to pen hate mail to Japan’s scummy micro-budget cinema scene. The director in question is a washed-up sex addict who is tragically still riding the small goodwill created from his first feature in 1999. He lives with his mother and takes advantage of young actors who believe his egocentric lies. What we see is a seedy version of Japan’s film world, where both men and women use sex as currency and everyone just wants to “make it,” whatever that means. The bumbling comedy plays like Japanese Bowfinger, without character ambition or resourcefulness. Though Lowlife Love has no fantastical elements, the film’s charm and strong voice made it a natural choice for Fantasia’s programming.
Other films that were not to be missed this year included the Polish mermaid musical nightmare The Lure, the zombies on a Korean bullet train film Train to Busan, and Richard Bates’s pitch-black comedy Trash Fire. These three epitomize Fantasia’s genre-bending, accessibility, and expertly assembled line-up.
Beyond the festival’s films and catcalls Fantasia strives to continue to break fresh ground with its newest feature: virtual reality. Dubbed “The Samsung Fantasia Virtual Reality Experience,” this installation lived within one theater’s lobby for four days of the fest. With ten different short films to experience it was an interesting appetizer to an emerging medium. Holidays: Christmas VR (starring Seth Green) is a quick ten minutes with a frantic father trying to give his son the perfect Christmas. After using his flexible moral compass to get the last virtual reality headset, he is unable to shake the experience from haunting him. The viewing experience toggles between watching the film in a virtual cinema to jumping into the character’s own virtual reality experiences. Not only is the viewer experiencing the virtual reality, but they also get to relate to the characters experiencing their own first experiences with virtual reality. The novelty of the virtual reality gimmick is even able to buoy a bland zombie short like War of the Dead. The story and acting is nothing we haven’t already seen, but the ability to glance back and forth between zombie and victim is a fun way to take it all in.
After hours, Fantasia earns its reputation as a summer camp for the greater genre film industry with its regular pub night. On any given night during the three weeks of the festival you will find attendees taking over the back terrace of the nearby Irish Embassy Pub. Old friends get to connect and introduce new friends to one another, and nearly any combination of filmmaker, critic, and fan seems to blissfully make sense. Though I tragically turned in early the night that Miike decided to stop in for a pint, I did manage to say hello to the eccentric Larry Fessenden and spy the Troma-rific Lloyd Kaufman sporting his beloved Tupac hoodie. I don’t bring this up to start a name-dropping contest, but rather to highlight how communal and accessible Fantasia is to professionals and fans alike.
With such universal goodwill within the industry, it is always sad to see another Fantasia come to a close. The films themselves are traveling to other festivals—Fantastic Fest often overlaps programming with Fantasia—and the filmmakers and fans likewise have headed home. And all of us have begun the countdown to next year’s fest. Such a magical shared experience is no accident, and the people who make Fantasia possible year after year have all of our faith that next year’s fest will be just as wonderful as the last. Until 2017, bon cinema!