Bitch (Fantasia 2017)

Bitch (2017)

It’s nice to know that, jaded as I am, a film still has the capacity to surprise me. Writer/director Marianna Palka’s biting indie Bitch is now showing at Fantasia Fest in Montreal, and is one of the more shocking, funny, and poignant films I’ve seen in a very long time.

Bitch opens with Jill (Marianna Palka) attempting to hang herself with her husband’s belt. Her failure to even commit suicide becomes a point of dark humor, as she grumblingly picks herself up off the floor and looks out the window to eye a mysterious dog that keeps coming around. We soon learn just what has brought Jill to this pass: she’s the mother of four children, ranging in ages from about five or six to thirteen, with a husband Bill (Jason Ritter) who works eighteen hours a day, has emotionally bereft affairs, and apparently misses the fact that his wife is having a breakdown. Then, one day, Jill just vanishes, inspiring a wild run to the school as Bill suddenly has to take responsibility for himself and his children. Furious, Bill finally returns home to discover that the children have found Jill – barricaded in the basement, naked, speechless, and snarling like a dog.

Bitch plays something like an absurdist take on other more realistic breakdown narratives (I found myself recalling Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence more than once). Jill finally cracks under the weight of having to be a constant caregiver to a family that both relies on her and hardly acknowledges her. Her devolution into a human canine, barking and snapping every time someone opens the door to the basement, is both pathetic and horrifying. The family suddenly find themselves without her support, their lives now centered around her, and falling apart because they can no longer depend on a woman who had become almost entirely invisible. Nowhere is this more obvious than with Bill, who spends the first half of the film with the stolid belief that Jill knows what she’s doing and is just trying to hurt him.

Bitch begins to take on the quality of a modern fabula, a stark, funny, and oddly moving take on contemporary patriarchy that reminds us of how far we really have not come. Filtered through a female lens, it’s a warning tale of a woman who, ignored as a human being, becomes an animal instead, roaring with anger and pain. Read as a fable, it can be forgiven some of the larger plot holes-like why the police aren’t more involved in all this-and the occasionally absurd lengths that Bill and his children go to keep Jill with them.

Much of the film centers on Bill, whose selfishness is coupled with his own desperation to fulfill the role of bread-winner in a rather dour corporate world that does not value him as a human being (there’s a recurring gag in which he continuously receives phone calls telling him that “everyone is waiting in the conference room, though what he does and why he’s needed is never made clear). Bill is as de-humanized, in his own way, as Jill, reaching out for a meaningless affair with a woman he barely knows, ignorant of where his children go to school, and never even able to have dinner at home. Ritter has one of the harshest and most poignant speeches in the film, as Bill begins to realize, all too late, just how culpable he is. The film’s clear and vicious attack on the patriarchal world that turns humans into machines, denying both humanity and nature, brings Jill’s suffering into relief. Freed of the burden of caring, of going through the motions to fulfill her proscribed role in society, she has found liberation only in becoming, and being treated as, a dog.

Bitch is a raw and emotional film from a deeply gifted filmmaker who bears continued watching. Avoiding easy answers, and allowing humor its space in what could have been a dour and painful narrative, the film exploits the abilities of its stars – there’s not a bad actor in the bunch – while developing a complex and intense cinematic language that evokes Jill’s anguished mental state. I’ve said it before, and Bitch inspires me to say it again: women are the future of film.

Bitch is currently playing at Fantasia 2017.

Sequence Break (Fantasia 2017)

Sequence Break (2016)

We’ve finally reached the point in horror filmmaking where directors and writers look back with fondness on the combination of schlock and awe that was 1980s horror. 80s Carpenter brought us The Thing and 80s Cronenberg brought us The Fly, so now we’re beginning to see films so clearly referential to both that they almost don’t need their own plots. Sequence Break from writer/director Graham Skipper, now at Fantasia Fest, is a horrific love letter to the 1980s, complete with pixelated horror graphics and some (very effective) body-horror a la Cronenberg.

This is the story of Oz (Chase Williamson), a young man who works at a shop repairing old arcade games. Informed by his boss that the shop is going to have to close, Oz hightails it to the nearest bar, where he meets fellow gaming enthusiast Tess (Fabianne Theresa), who takes a liking to him. The pair begin a sweet and tentative romance that is interrupted when a mysterious new game appears in the shop (along with a disheveled crazy man who occasionally appears to warn Oz about…something). As Oz becomes increasingly obsessed with the eight-bit video game, his world begins to fragment (literally) blasting him backward and forward in time and space as the game sucks him and Tess ever deeper into the void.

Sequence Break is one of those films with an intriguing premise that never completely pays off. It actually avoids being overly referential to its influences, instead attempting to build a world of its own design and with its own rules. What those rules are, however, becomes increasingly obscure, as the film never manages to create a coherent narrative around the fragmenting of Oz’s world. It’s not linear enough to be a mainstream horror film, but not fragmented enough to achieve the heights of surreal terror that it aspires to. The central romance, while sweet, still has a breath of wish-fulfillment behind it, with Tess almost aggressively pursuing Oz, who shyly ignores her for a good bit of the opening, more or less content in his anti-social world.

Although set in contemporary times, Sequence Break remains solidly enmeshed in 80s technology and culture – even aggressively so, as Oz refuses to buy a cell phone or a laptop. The nostalgic throwback does stand Sequence Break in good stead, with some excellent body horror elements that would make Cronenberg feel squicky. But there’s nothing underlying it. The crazy man prowling the arcade shop at night? Well, he’ll figure in, and you’ll probably be able to predict just how within the first twenty minutes. The melting video game controls that become a stand-in for sexual intercourse? OK, interesting notion, but what are you going to do with it? I can accept the body horror, the physicality of descent into a blank, eight-bit world, if only I managed to find something more than just grossness at the back of that horror. Sequence Break often feels like a film made by people who watched The Fly and Dead Ringers over and over, and never totally got what they meant.

I found I wanted more exposition, not less, to fully understand what was at stake within this narrative. Is Oz becoming the game? Getting pulled into it? Why did it show up when it did? And so forth. But unfortunately, it seems that the actual underlying ethos of the film is pretty trite, as becomes apparent with several revelatory scenes prior to the somewhat inexplicable climax. This has been done before; many times, in fact. While repeating a plot arc that has worked well in the past is far from a crime, Sequence Break never manages to achieve something truly unique. And that’s what it needs: a hook, a unique element that isn’t just about diverging timelines and the occasional nihilistic raving.

Sequence Break does not quite live up to its ambitions. It’s nowhere as shocking as it wants to be, falling back on old, somewhat time-worn tropes of self-realization that are so predictable as to be boring. The eight-bit images flicker across the screen, reminding us of a time when video games were massive things you played at arcades, and movies made do with the limited technology they had. But, really, we’ve seen all this before. Just watch The Fly.

Sequence Break is now showing at Fantasia 2017.

The Final Master (Fantasia 2017)

The Final Master (2015)

By now there have been a number of films dealing with Wing Chun, the martial art form made most famous in the west by Bruce Lee and his master Ip Man (whose story has been made into a series of films starring Donnie Yen). The latest of films to explore the form is The Final Master, coming to North America via Fantasia 2017, that tells the story of a Master who seeks to defeat eight dojos in Tianjin, so that he can open his own dojo and keep Wing Chun alive.

The Final Master opens with the machinations of Master Chen (Liao Fen), who partners with Grandmaster Zheng (Chin Shi-Chieh) to plot a pathway into the martial arts community of Tianjin. To achieve notoriety without angering the Martial Arts Council of Tianjin, the pair decide that Chen must find a disciple, who will then go on to defeat eight of the nineteen dojos in Tianjin. Then the disciple will, in turn, be defeated by Zheng, thus allowing Chen to prove his worthiness to open a dojo without offending or threatening the council. Chen agrees, and marries a Tianjin woman named Zhao (Song Jia) and takes on as a disciple Geng (Song Yang). But soon Geng proves that he’s a prodigy, and a dangerous one at that, while the further machinations of the Martial Arts Council and one of the major dojo leaders, The Madame (Jiang Wenli), might wind up imperiling Chen, his disciple, and his life.

The winding and at times confusing nature of The Final Master’s narrative makes it a struggle to follow closely. Director Xu Haofeng treats his subject with respect but not portentousness, injecting a good bit of humor both into the script itself and in the way that his camera captures the action and dialogue. There’s an archness to many of the scenes, with quick cuts that move from fight to a new plot point without much establishment. This works, for the most part, forcing the viewer to pay close attention, and to even enjoy a laugh, at times at the expense of the other characters. Regionalism winds up in the crosshairs, with the need to maintain honor becoming more important even than survival. The whole point of Chen’s saga is to keep Wing Chun alive, but his efforts are also self-aggrandizing, as he exploits his disciple and attempts to navigate the very thorny world of regional and familial pride, not to mention the complex philosophies that guide the martial arts schools.

The Final Master actually manages to violate several of the tropes of the martial arts genre without blinking – we never seen Chen actually training Geng, but skip right to the latter’s fights with the dojos. The triumph of the “good” master against the bad (or proud) ones never fully materializes, as the film’s primary antagonist The Madame exhibits her own sympathetic reasons for opposing Chen as she does. The women, in fact, are quite potent forces in this world, with The Madame set against the palpable anger and passion of Zhao, who both seeks independence from male dominance, and has fallen in love with her arranged husband. Male violence and pride is further mirrored in female desire to carry on the names of those they have lost, and to carve their own way in a world that fails to fully prize them.

But what The Final Master does best is Wing Chun. The fight scenes are visceral without ever becoming brutal. The film truly showcases martial arts as art forms and not only fighting forms – fighting correctly, elegantly, intelligently is every bit as important as winning. There are scenes of breathless action, and humorous asides – including one fight in which Chen faces off against twenty armed thugs while discussing needs and desires in marriage with his wife. The final fight scene, which takes up about ten minutes of the film’s runtime, is gorgeously choreographed, featuring every bladed weapon Chinese martial arts has to offer.

If the result is an occasionally messy film, I can forgive The Final Master, for it is also a sharp and beautiful one, that both embraces the artistic schools of fighting, and has a sense of satiric humor about how ridiculous are the elements of pride, honor, and rigid hierarchy that keep people in line. The dojos fear the loss of their art forms, yet guard their secrets jealously. Chen wants to keep Wing Chun alive, yet will sacrifice one of the few men capable of elevating the art. The contradictions are mirrored in the film style itself, at once respectful and critical, serious and satiric. The more I think about The Final Master, the more I like it. And, in any case, it’s worth it just for the choreography.

The Final Master is now showing at Fantasia 2017.