foreign film

The Funeral

funeral

Zhong Tonghiu, a young model with a tragic past, receives an invitation to her aunt’s funeral. Even though this aunt isn’t a blood relative, and she hasn’t seen her in years, Tonghiu still decides to go. When she arrives at her aunt’s remote mansion, strange things begin to happen. Something sinister is happening and time is running out for Tonghiu.

The Portland Horror Film Festival was lucky enough to get The Funeral for its world premiere. The film comes all the way from China and was written and directed by Yujie Qiu in her directorial debut. With an atmospheric slow-burn style, The Funeral builds suspense as a strange mystery is unraveled. When we first meet Tonghiu it is when she experiences her mother’s suicide as a child. This leads to a lifetime of nightmares that only become worse when she goes to her late aunt’s mansion. Everyone in the remote mansion seems to have some sinister motive. The tension gradually grows until the climax of the film as Tonghiu tries to discover the truth.

While The Funeral tells a compelling story, the ending takes away from the overall impact of the film. I won’t go into too much detail of the actual ending, but I will say the ending makes sense after hearing the star of the film discuss it at PHFF. Leading lady Kunjue Li traveled all the way from London to be at the world premiere of The Funeral. The way she explained it to the audience after the film, there were multiple different endings filmed and she wasn’t aware of which one was chosen until she watched it with the rest of us. The ending chosen isn’t necessarily the best option to serve the plot, but Kunjue described the many rules and regulations involved in Chinese film. There is so much censorship that it is difficult to make any film, let alone a horror film. With this in mind the end of the film makes sense, but I can’t help but wonder how different the film would have turned out if it had been filmed in a country with less censorship.

Aside from the eerie story being told, The Funeral also has fantastic performances from the small cast. Everyone does a great job adding to the tension of the film, but there is one performance that truly makes this film stand out. Leading actress, Kunjue Li (Peaky Blinders, One Child) is completely entrancing as Tonghiu. She has a gentle innocence about her, but there is strength deep within that comes out as Tonghiu’s life is threatened. Kunjue even won the “Masque Rouge Award” at this year’s PHFF, which is given to the actor or actress the festival directors believe delivered the best performance.

Much of the eeriness of this film comes not only from the plot, but from the look of the film. The film is primarily set in a gorgeous yet dark mansion secluded in the countryside. What is especially impressive about the set design is that, whether in darkness or in bright light, there is an edge that implies something is wrong. There are also lovely visuals for the various dream sequences. Many of these scenes are filmed with a very soft focus, making it simple to determine what is reality and what is a dream.

The Funeral manages to be a compelling and chilling film, despite the lengths it has to go through to get through censorship regulations. The backflips Yuje clearly went through to make this film in China only proves her talent as a writer and director. She created a film that is fascinating, has great performances, and is beautiful to look at. Unfortunately the ending of the film suffers from having to follow China’s film censorship. Without the context of that censorship, I might not have appreciated the film quite as much. I would be curious to know what some of the other endings were and I hope audiences outside of China will get the opportunity to see them.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Cannibal Club

cannibal.jpg

A wealthy Brazilian couple live in the lap of luxury. While on the outside they appear to live a typical rich lifestyle, behind closed doors they get up to some eccentric activities. One of those activities is killing and eating young men. The husband is even part of a cannibal club that is exclusive to rich men. When the wife catches the leader of the club in a compromising position, the couple find themselves in a dangerous position that could cost them their lives.

Brazilian writer/director Guto Parente (The Mysterious Death of Pérola) takes his audience on a strange journey with The Cannibal Club. The plot overall follows a specific pattern. We see the two leads, Otavio and Gilda, as they go through a bizarre mating ritual that also involves them killing their next human meal. Then there is a small amount of intrigue as the audience learns about the cannibal club and the various wealthy and powerful men who are apart of it, including Otavio. This allows the audience to meet the leader of the group, and the one who Gilda catches in a compromising position. There is a bit of excitement as Gilda and Otavio try to find a way out of their precarious position without losing their lives, and in the process they recruit a new employee to help them. Then the film reverts back to Gilda and Otavio’s typical mating dance, but with slightly different results.

The Cannibal Club almost comes across as a combination of Eyes Wide Shut and Hostel, but it lacks the true intrigue and thrills of those films. There is a lot of opportunity to build in various twists to add to the suspense, but unfortunately the film feels rather monotone. There are a couple minor moments that might elicit a gasp, but they are mostly there simply for shock value and don’t add anything to the plot. There is also not a lot of focus on the cannibal club itself, despite the title of the film, and instead the focus is on Gilda and Otavio’s strange relationship. This is fine, except it leads to a rather lackluster subplot about the club and a bit of a missed opportunity for more tension and thrills. It also leads to a plot that at times is quite predictable.

One of the stronger parts of this film are the performances. A highlight for me was Ana Luiza Rios (The Last Breath) as Gilda. She is equal parts charming and sinister. It is amazing to watch her be confident and seductive only to then eat a human being with a smile, and Rios portrays her very well. Her husband, Otavio, is played by Tavinho Teixeira (Batguano). Otavio is as cold-hearted as they come, yet he has a soft spot for Gilda. Teixeira does a great job of portraying the two sides of Otavio and his on-screen chemistry with Rios. These two breathe some life into the film that is often times on the dull side.

Another aspect of The Cannibal Club that adds some interest is the visuals. The cinematography alone is very beautiful and enhances the idea of Gilda and Otavio’s opulent, wealthy lifestyle. Especially with how the various locations are filmed, everything looks incredibly expensive, shiny, and unattainable. While they are used at a minimum, the practical effects are also very well done. In one specific scene at the beginning of the film the audience is shown a victim getting butchered and chopped into prime cuts of meat. Not only are the practical effects in this scene frighteningly realistic, they also stand out in the lavish home the scene is set in.

The Cannibal Club has some successful elements, the lack of tension in the plot results in a rather forgettable film. Many parts of the film will feel reminiscent to similar films that came before it, all of them focusing on wealthy clubs who prey on the less fortunate, yet this film doesn’t carry the suspense or excitement of its predecessors. The performances by the two leads are enough to hold my interest and the stunning sets, cinematography, and effects give the audience something to catch the eye. Despite these more successful features, the film will likely be forgotten by the time people pick their “best of 2019” films.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10

Snowflake (Schneeflöckchen)

snowflake

Two criminals come across a strange screenplay. As they read it, the pair realize the screenplay says exactly what they have said and done, and what they will say and do. They try to track down the writer of the screenplay in order to change their fate, all the while dodging attempts on their life by hitmen hired by a mysterious woman.

Of all the films you will or have watched in 2018, none will be quite as meta as Snowflake. The film was written by Arend Remmers (Unsere Zeit ist jetzt) and directed by Adolfo J. Klomerer (A Time of Vultures) with William James as guest director, this being James’s directorial debut. The film takes place in Berlin in a not-so-distant future where criminals run rampant. Between the lawlessness, the filming style, and some of the music choices, the film almost has the feel of an old Western. The plot is broken up into chapters, allowing the audience to focus on specific characters in each chapter and learn new pieces of the puzzle leading up to the final act when the various characters come together. Some of this information is given in non-sequential order. This particular method seems to help get you more in the mindset of the two criminals as we learn new information right along with them.

The meta aspect comes in the form of a screenplay within the screenplay. The two criminals find the writer of the screenplay (who is also named Arend Remmers). The man is a dentist trying his hand at his first screenplay, yet for some reason everything he writers appears to be happening in real life. It creates many layers that can be confusing at times, but by the end everything comes together rather nicely. There is the screenplay of the film audiences are watching, which is also the screenplay written by the dentist, which is happening to the characters in their real lives.

Snowflake has compelling characters from many different backgrounds. Each one is very well developed, making the audiences feel invested in their fates. The characters audiences will be especially invested in are the two criminals, the vengeful woman who wants to kill them, her friend/bodyguard, a singer who may be a guardian angel, and a cannibal hitman. The one thing virtually every character has in common is revenge. The thirst for revenge is a what drives most of the lead characters in Snowflake, and therefore it drives much of the plot. The only character who feels out of place with the film is a vigilante who wears a full-on superhero costume and uses electricity to fight criminals. This character does not fit in with the overall tone of the film, and his storyline could honestly be entirely cut from the plot. Aside from him, the rest of the characters are fascinating and dynamic.

This is a film that has a very talented cast. The most enjoyable to watch are Reza Brojerdi (Homeland) as Javid and Erkan Acar (The Key) as Tan. These two men are the criminals at the heart of Snowflake. Despite some of the more violent antics these men get up to, there is something completely endearing about them. Both Brojerdi and Acar are so enjoyable to watch, and they are able to bring humor into some of the darkest situations. Another notable performance is Xenia Assenza as (Unsere Zeit ist jetzt) as the tragic Eliana. While all the characters in this film have dual natures, showing that no one is purely good or evil, it is the most apparent with Eliana. She is a victim, but Assenza’s portrayal shows how the thirst for revenge can bring out the evil in even the best people. Honorable mention goes to other memorable performances from the likes of David Masterson (American Renegades), Alexander Schubert (Triple Ex), and Adrian Topol (Franz + Polina).

There is a certain gritty aesthetic in this film. The gorgeous cinematography and coloration create that grittiness. It allows the filmmakers to emphasize the lawless, Western feel of Snowflake. The effects are also quite important in a film where violence is such a crucial aspect of the plot. This film does a very good job of making the various wounds, injuries, and prosthetics look raw and realistic. All these artistic elements combine to immerse the audience in this crime-filled world.

Snowflake is a veritable nesting doll of revenge tales layered upon each other in a fun and meta way. The different story lines seem unrelated, but as more is revealed leading to the bloody climax, everything ties together. The only aspect of the plot that doesn’t work as well with the others is the random superhero. The structure and artistic elements of the genre-bending German film transports the audience to a unique world and leads down many paths of revenge. With multiple strong performances of fascinating characters, this is a film cinephiles will want to seek out.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Lake Bodom

Lake-Bodom-2016

In 1960 four teenagers were murdered at Lake Bodom in Finland. Decades later, two teenage boys invite two girls to go camping with them. What these girls don’t know is that they are going to the same spot where those teens lost their lives so many years ago. One of the boys is determined to test his theory about who committed the murders. Once the group arrive at the lake things quickly go down a dark and twisted path that some may not survive.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is that the murders in 1960 are true. Four teenagers went camping at Lake Bodom, and only one survived, although he suffered terrible injuries and mental trauma. To this day the murders remain unsolved. Instead of doing what most films do with true events, and trying to recreate them on film, the filmmakers of Lake Bodom decided to simply use that as a springboard for their story. The previous murders are acknowledged and used as the motivation for this new group to camp in the same spot. From there the plot dives into intrigue, deception, betrayal, and many equally interesting layers.

What makes Lake Bodom stand out to me is that every time you think you have things figured out, a new layer to the story is revealed. While I love that about the film because it keeps the audience guessing, it also felt like there may be one too many layers to the plot. If the filmmakers had held back just a little bit the film would have a stronger overall story. It is almost as if they try to put too many twists and turns into the plot to the point where it is hard to determine where the filmmakers wanted to go with the film. Despite that, I will say the layer that could be taken out does at least make audiences call into question if what they see is real or not.

Lake Bodom is the most visually stunning film I have seen so far at the Phoenix Film Festival/International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival. Every single shot looks like it is a work of art. The cinematography in the forest setting is not only gorgeous, but is done in a way that looks eerie as well. The filmmakers even do a great job of filming primarily at night, but there is enough light to clearly see what is happening. This is not easy to do without the artificial light being completely obvious. While watching the film it just looks like moonlight, and that only adds to the creepy atmosphere and beautiful style of the film.

The entire cast of Lake Bodom is amazing. Nelly Hirst-Gee (If You Love) portrays the innocent and broken Ida. She is the damaged one of the group and has to go through more of an emotional transformation to find her own strength, and Hirst-Gee does an amazing job in that role. Mimosa Willamo (Headfirst) plays Nora, the strongest personality in the group. Willamo stands out because, much like Hirst-Gee as Ida, she reveals the many aspects of Nora in a compelling way. The two male leads, Santeri Helinheimo Mäntylä (Bitwisards) as Atte and Mikael Gabriel (Flowers of Evil) as Elias, also give excellent performances. Both male characters can come across as creepy and sweet in turn, and both actors convey that very well. One thing they all have in common is that at different points during the film you call into question each of their motives and intentions.

Since this is more of a slasher film, most of the effects are on the minimal side. There isn’t a ton of blood and gore. There is enough blood to feel realistic for the injuries, but not so much that it turns into an over-the-top bloodbath. The kills themselves are also fairly minimal. There is really only one death that is a bit more unique. This one stands out because the way this character is killed fits in so well with what they say just before their death. This is clearly a deliberate choice by the filmmakers to give the audience a bit of an “ah-ha” moment. Also, by keeping things simple with the effects, it forces audiences to focus more on the story at hand.

Lake Bodom is a film filled with murder, betrayal, obsession, and deception. The many different aspects of the film add a lot of intrigue, but it also makes the film seem convoluted at times. Despite that it is still a stunningly filmed story with superb acting from the four leads. It also gives audiences a great mystery that twists and turns in ways that will keep you guessing from start to finish. This is another film that will appeal to many different types of horror fans and non-horror fans alike.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Raw

raw

A young girl begins her studies at a prestigious veterinary school that her whole family has attended. She was raised as a vegetarian but is forced to eat raw meat during a hazing ritual at the school. Her body reacts to the meat in an odd way, but now she has had a taste for meat and wants more. Once she gets her first taste of human flesh, there is no going back. From that moment on the girl’s life spirals out of control as her hunger grows.

A young girl coming into adulthood and discovering her own sexuality can be complicated and messy all on it’s own. Add to that a burgeoning hunger for human flesh, and things can escalate quickly. What I most enjoy about this plot is how it amplifies what is a normal coming-of-age story by adding the unique cannibalistic element. This young girl, Justine, is already an outsider because she is younger than her veterinary school peers, and therefore still developing into the woman she will become. She is even more of an outsider once she discovers her own unusual eating habits. Justine is alone and has no one to relate to. Even with her own sister attending the same school, she still has no one she can confide in as she goes through her many changes. This can be seen as a metaphor, as the desire to eat human flesh directly relates to her burgeoning sexual desire. It is very fitting that this film was written and directed by a woman, Julia Ducournau, because this is a theme that can only be accurately conveyed by someone who has experienced the changes a woman goes through. Ducournau’s storytelling makes it so you feel Justine’s isolation and confusion on her journey. As a woman it is impossible not to empathize with her, even with the added oddity of her dietary desires.

Obviously the cannibalism, and how it acts as a metaphor for Justine’s developing sexuality, is the driving force of this story. Yet it is also very much about the relationship between two sisters. While Justine is going through her whirlwind of changes she has her sister, Alexia, as a constant presence. Much of what Justine is going through Alexia has herself experienced, so one would expect Alexia to be her sister’s guide and confidant throughout everything. Unfortunately, their relationship is very much the definition of sibling rivalry. While the two love each other very much, they also hate each other like many sisters do. There is a breaking point in every relationship, and yet again the cannibalism acts as the catalyst that threatens to explode their sisterly bond. Many of the themes in Raw, such as the female journey to adulthood and the sibling relationship, feel reminiscent of one of my favorite horror films, Ginger Snaps

The performances by both sisters are delightful. Garance Marillier (Mange) is absolutely marvelous as Justine. She gives the audience a complete transformation from a naive young girl to a sexual, hungry being in a way that feels natural and somewhat visceral. Marillier also manages to feel like a relatable character throughout her transformation. Considering the more eccentric aspects of her metamorphosis, that is quite a feat. Ella Rumpf (Tiger Girl) acts as an excellent counterpoint to Justine as her sister, Alexia. Alexia’s personality is an interesting juxtaposition compared to Justine’s in how differently she responds to various situations. Rumpf’s performance is surprising on more than one occasion and keeps the audience guessing what she will do next. Marillier and Rumpf together create an extraordinary duo that displays the many facets of human nature.

Raw is a very visually stunning film. Of course it is going to have great practical effects as it is a cannibal film. The practical effects in the cannibal scenes are excellent, but they aren’t quite as over-the-top as much of the early buzz for Raw would suggest. It is surely grotesque, but nothing that horror fans haven’t seen before. While the various gory bits were very well done, I found the practical effects used to create the animals to be especially impressive. Since Justine is in veterinary school she obviously will have to dissect an animal at some point. There is a scene where a dog cadaver is dissected in one of the classes. This dog not only looks real on the outside, but on the inside as well.  These effects are great, but I found the cinematography and use of color throughout the film to be the most beautiful aspect of Raw. Many shots are done in such a way where there is chaos concurring all around but your eye still focuses on Justine and the silence within her. These shots are typically used to emphasize her isolation, even when she is surrounded by others. There is also a heavy use of blue and red tones in many scenes. This colors add beauty to scenes that might not otherwise be considered beautiful.

In recent years there has been an increase in horror films that provide an interesting take on the human experience. These films are intelligent, thought provoking, and often times focus on women and the trials they face. Along with the likes of It Follows and The Witch, Raw fits into this unique horror film niche. The coming-of-age story about a girl discovering her sexuality isn’t something one would typically consider horror, but horrific elements are added to the story as a mechanism to exacerbate emotions and events throughout the story. When you add the extra layer of cannibalism to the plot and use it as a metaphor, you get a horror film that forces audiences to see things in a new light. Raw is a beautifully told tale that is gruesome and, as a woman, very familiar. While this might not be what audiences typically expect from a horror film, it is what they should be asking for more of.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Save