Y’know, watching as many movies as I have lately and finding amusing ways to blab about them on the internet isn’t as easy as I make it look, Olympian god of internet writing that I am. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like maybe my sense of reality is starting to crumble. But Enrique, the largemouth bass I met at the Copacabana last night tells me not to worry, so for now let’s get on with the show.
While Fantasia’s policy towards Asian genre movies usually tends toward quantity, they usually go for quality when it comes to quirky documentaries about stuff you didn’t even know was a thing. Last year it was Toy Masters, the one about the history and ongoing legal dispute over the creation of He-Man. This year, the doc to see is Rewind This!, which takes a look at the oft-forgotten world of VHS collecting, the history of the medium, and pretty much anything else VHS-related the film makers could throw in.
In a world where a lot of kids these days (with their new-fangled eye-phones and Netflicks) don’t even know what a VHS tape is, there’s still a passionate and committed community dedicated to collecting and preserving the things, and the first step in the right direction Rewind This! takes is to put that passion front and centre. A good documentary hinges on just how much of a shit the people involved give about the subject, and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone in Rewind This! who doesn’t thoroughly give numerous shits, and their passion is one of the many things that makes the film such a delight to watch.
One of the other things is the surprising number of appearances by the likes of b-movie legends Lloyd Kaufman, Frank Henenlotter (I squee’d, I admit. Scoff if you want, Basket Case was amazing), even Anime demigod Mamoru Oshii and Hobo with a Shotgun director Jason Eisner.
I could really rave about this film. There’s a real love and (I keep using this word, I know) passion on display. It’s evident the film makers put a lot of blood, sweat and toil into the film, which all comes together with the kind of intensity and drive that puts it easily in the top three films I’ve seen at the fest this year.
Unlike here in the west, cell-animated films and TV shows are still very much the top dog in Japan, where fully CGI animation is still something of an oddity, a word that describes After School Midnighters with alarming accuracy.
As I’ve been wont to mention before, Japanese films and TV have a tendency toward the surreal (the same way I have a tendency toward massive understatements) but even I was taken aback by the plot of this one. After drawing all over an anatomy dummy (a dummy which walks around and talks by night and has jet engines in its armpits), three – let’s call them “precocious” – little girls are shanghaied into completing a series of challenges to recover three medals, the uniting of which grant them a single wish. On the way they encounter everything from gun-toting, half-skinned rabbits named after the Corleone brothers, a demonic housefly, a time machine, talking posters of classical composers, digital witches and a bunch of other weirdness that come across like it was written with a bunch of random crap written on cards taped to a dart board.
I mean Jesus wept guys, there’s being a little wacky and then there’s writing your movie like a mad-lib.
But what really comes across as off-putting is that the film feels like it’s aping North American animated films, particularly something like The Nightmare Before Christmas. The character designs, writing, the bombastic chase scene at the end, all feel like someone made an effort to make the film feel like a North American production. But it still has this distinctly Japanese feeling to it, leading to it inhabiting this strange liminal nether-realm, neither anime nor American cartoon.
It’s almost like someone in Japan is trying to get back at North Americans for all those awful early 2000s cartoons like Totally Spies or Teen Titans, like a nerd who went on the Atlas workout and is now kicking sand into the faces of his enemies, weeping openly and screaming “See how it feels now?!?!”
The story of the Generals of the Yang family is one of the more beloved myths of Chinese folklore, with the Knights of the Round Table probably being the closest English counterpart, and every few years someone drags it out, dusts the old gal off and puts it to film to stir up feelings of patriotism and hopefully make some cash.
The one doing the dusting this time around is Ronny Yu, celebrated Hong Kong action director, and still trying desperately to get us to forget Warriors of Virtue.
For those uninitiated, the story involves the seven sons of Song Dynasty general Yang Ye, who set out to rescue their father after he’s betrayed and left for dead by a scheming rival, in a series of pitched martial arts battles and dramatic death scenes.
Like most Hong Kong action movies these days, the movie tends toward melodrama the same way I tend towards a bottle of Tums after two or three barbeque chicken sandwiches. Given that the story’s a few hundred years old, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when let slip that not everyone makes it back alive from the rescue mission, and it seems like each death scene is more prolonged and heroic than the last, which does get grating after a while.
The movie does deliver pretty well on the action front though. Each brother has some unique weapon or skill to show off, and while the movie is playing the action fairly realistically (meaning we don’t get tons of super over-the-top kung-fu awesomeness like in some of the Shaw Brothers versions of the story), there are some pretty awesome fight scenes. The best is probably the archer brother’s last stand, although 2011’s War of the Arrows still managed to do more cool stuff with archery.
While Saving General Yang is fairly fun, it isn’t the best martial arts movie you’ll see at Fantasia this year (that honor is seemingly going to Bushido Man) and probably won’t end up being one of the standouts.