Four short reviews from Fantasia Fest, the biggest genre film festival in North America.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of Cam, the horror film about a camgirl fighting to get back control over her life and livelihood. Today, I conclude my coverage of Fantasia Fest, the biggest genre film festival in North America, with four short reviews of other films.
People’s Republic of Desire — Directed by Hao Wu
While Cam avoids a Black Mirror-esque tone, instead validating the work of camgirls as a conscious choice made free of peer or economic pressure, Chinese documentary People’s Republic of Desire leans into this alarmist approach completely. This choice of tone makes for a thoroughly soul-crushing film, but seems rather fair and justified in an economic and social context where young people find themselves without prospects.
Director Hao Wu follows three live-streamers: people who make money — and fans — by streaming the mundanities of their lives. They join others in a competition to see which live-streamer can get the most money from viewers over a defined period of time. We also get to see the phenomenon from the point of view of a few fans, and both parties appear equally obsessed with the ‘game’. Participants devote their entire lives to it, striving to become the most popular on the platform; meanwhile, viewers spend a lot of money, sometime all their earnings, to see their favourite live-streamer win.
Although at first presenting a shocking portrait of this phenomenon from the outside, the film eventually grants us a more exhaustive and rational view of its origins and consequences. As we meet people on both sides of the webcam, their desperate motivations soon become clear: like most phenomenons involving large sums of money, this one runs on economic anxiety. Live-streamers get into this business — sometimes spending thousands of dollars on perfecting their image and skills — because they want to make a lot of money fast. Viewers watch these idealised versions of themselves in order to escape from their hopeless reality, and spend money on tips or gifts because they want to see their favourite performers succeed where they have failed.
Though this live-streaming ecosystem may seem like a futuristic dystopia, Wu reveals that corporatization is already threatening to collapse it entirely. Big agencies seeking to capitalise on the economic despair of people on both sides of the screen are now getting involved. This makes the usual rules of the competition seem archaic: the winner is the live-streamer who is given the most money by viewers during the competition period, but agencies can gift a live-streamer a sum so huge that no amount of regular paying fans could ever catch up. As desperate as it appeared, the live-streaming mania actually used to belong to live-streamers and viewers. Now, corporate interests are once again making them all feel powerless.
“I don’t have any dreams” says one live-stream viewer in the film, facing the camera, her face completely emotionless. The film does give us some insight into why its protagonists’ outlook is so bleak, but one could have wished for more, if only to make the viewing experience slightly less maddening.
Amiko — Directed by Yoko Yamanaka
It might seem unfair to mention the age of a director when talking about their film — we want the work to speak for itself. But the fact that Yoko Yamanaka was only 20 years old when she directed her first feature, Amiko, seems relevant in this case: the film itself wears its insolent youth and rebellious nerve on its sleeve.
Amiko tells the deceptively simple story of a 16-year-old girl in love with a boy who, despite a romantic walk back together from school, seems to have completely forgotten about her. One year on from this encounter, the obsessive Amiko hasn’t moved on. He was her soulmate, she is sure of it. Although he’s now moved away to live with the most popular girl of the school, Amiko is determined to get him back.
Amiko is romantic, but her behaviour isn’t cute: alternatively angry or moody, she is always extremely dramatic — in other words, she is like a real 16-year-old girl. Despite — or perhaps because of — her own young age, Yamanaka’s insight into the outsized emotions of young girls is crystal clear and sharp, but she also brilliantly lets Amiko be her own, bizarre self. The film does not simply follow Amiko’s thoughts and moods, it enacts them, as in a surreal sequence where the young girl and two strangers on the subway break into song and dance.
Amiko’s nonlinear association of thoughts and ideas, sign of a lively mind, determine the film’s structure and its form: just like Amiko wouldn’t give up on a boy so easily, the film itself does not let its low budget stand in the way of visually daring and imaginative shots and sequences. This total alignment with Amiko makes for an experience in turns funny, disconcerting, and of heartbreaking recognition — her sense of loneliness and frustration, her boredom living in the province and her fear of the city are palpably felt.
Microhabitat — Directed by Jeon Go-woon
A slacker film in disguise, Jeon Go-woon’s Microhabitat follows Miso (Lee “Esom” Som), a thirty-something woman who works as a cleaning lady. Her rebellious streak is already visible in the way she works and uses her money. Unlike most characters in films about the struggle to make ends meet, Miso does not stretch herself out to save any money, and does not long for anything more than what she already has: cigarettes, whisky, and a one-room apartment to sleep in.
When the government suddenly doubles the price of cigarettes, Miso realises that she’d rather save on the apartment than on the cigarettes or whisky. Crashing from couch to couch at the places of her wealthier friends from university, our heroine gets to witness firsthand the extents to which shame and fear around money matters can push some people. In this difficult economic situation, none of these friends are pursuing the jobs they have out of pure preference: money is always a strong motivation. This attitude has even seeped into their own personalities, so much so that Miso has a hard time recognising them.
The neuroses of Miso’s well-off friends stand out from the quiet and steady rhythm of the film, which echoes our homeless heroine’s self-confidence and strength. Yet, as she stays with each person for a few days, Miso learns more about how they came to be in these unhappy situations — recently divorced, married to a rich but sexist man, taking drugs to do a highly demanding job, et cetera — and comes to empathise with them. Her generosity — which, of course, never comes in the form of money — is sometimes received with warmth, but other times, with anger and jealousy from people who have decided long ago that they could not afford unreciprocated favours anymore.
The unpredictable reactions from people that Miso hasn’t seen in years allow for both biting humour and poignant moments, and Jeon handles these changes in tone admirably in this light, entertaining, and quietly rebellious feature debut.
The Ranger — Directed by Jenn Wexler
From its very beginning, Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger proudly announces its status as a genre-savvy film for genre-savvy viewers. The film centres on Chelsea (Chloe Levine), one member of a punk band on the run in a national park after the band leader casually but brutally murders a cop. Already, the film teases the audience with our heroine’s general quietness and diffidence: in classic slasher-film tradition, she will surely turn out to be the most resourceful and brave when the big bad wolf arrives.
The trick, then, is to make everything that comes before the final moment of bloodshed interesting. In that regard, the band itself is probably the most successful aspect of the film: each character feels fully fleshed out, precisely drawn, and perfectly cast. The mean streak in Chelsea’s boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu), the band leader and amateur cop-killer, is particularly vivid. His mistreatment of Chelsea and her inability to stand up for herself are the first signs of darker things to come, her reserve hinting at a mysterious personal trauma which we know will be made clear by the end of the film.
Yet, after its opening scene in a NYC punk concert promised us so much, the film quickly loses momentum. The plot’s predictability feels less like an exercise in genre self-awareness than a mishandling of audience expectations. When the titular ranger enters the scene, his grotesque and violent obsession with the rules of the park is darkly amusing, but does not particularly stand out in a film that feels constantly turned up to 11.
Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room played on the dark irony of having aggressive-sounding punk musicians face off against actually violent neo-nazis; this disparity between the two groups was crucial to the film’s tone and to the characters’ relationship to violence. In The Ranger, the killer’s rampage is more traditionally positioned as symbolic punishment for the young punks who did not previously understand the value of life. But this significance feels lost on the film itself, which almost seems to forget about the dead policeman after a while. The Ranger follows the rules of the slasher film perfectly, but one wishes it had imbued them with more life.