This is my third look at the films that played the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada from July 14 to August 3, 2022 (you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here). South Korean genre cinema dominated the festival slate, so it’s also dominated my coverage of the fest. In my book, that’s a good thing. After writer-director Bong Joon-Ho won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the 2020 Academy Awards for his brilliant film Parasite, South Korean filmmakers are finally “on the map” after spending years in obscurity while making some of the most interesting cinema in the world.
This week I review one crime film and one comedy drama from that country and I’m throwning in one American horror film for good measure. Break out the notes section of your phone and jot down these titles so you can catch them when they hit streaming in the days or months to come.
Confession: This film from director Jong-seok Yoon is bound to divide audiences. On the one hand, it’s a clever crime film with a locked-room murder mystery and great performances from its entire cast. On the other hand, the film is filled to the bursting point with plot twists, flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, flashes sideways? In other words, some people will find it convoluted to the point of exasperation.
Yoo Min-ho (played by So Ji-seob) is the CEO of a hi-tech company. He and his wife are a popular power couple whose lives are splashed all over the internet and social media. His beautiful mistress has been found murdered, and he’s the prime suspect. Yoo’s defense attorney (played by Yunjin Kim, known to American audiences as Sun-Hwa Kwon from NBC’s Lost) arranges to interview him at a remote vacation home away from the prying eyes of the press. As they sit down for their meeting, Yoo seems more concerned about the PR backlash than the possibility of being arrested for murder.
The film unfolds in flashbacks as Yoo recounts the days leading up to, and following, the murder of his mistress. Is their discussion an actual Confession as the film’s title implies? Or does Yoo ultimately profess his innocence? And never discount the fact that Yoo may be an unreliable narrator, lying to his ace defense attorney because she doesn’t believe in taking on lost causes.
The premise may sound like a low-budget film that unfolds mostly in a single setting like an adaptation of a stage play. Confession is none of those things. It’s beautifully filmed, slickly edited and well-performed. Some viewers will buy into its twists and turns and go along for the ride. Others may roll their eyes in frustration as the narrative rug gets repeatedly pulled out from under them.
My advice? Decide for yourself. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I went along for the ride and enjoyed the trip. I think most of you will, too.
Glorious: Those who can’t do, teach. Well, someone forgot to tell Dr. Rebekah McKendry. The (sometimes) writer and (more often) director is a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California as well as being an author and prolific podcaster (Colors of the Dark, Shock Waves, Killer POV). But contrary to that snide little expression about doing and teaching, she knows what she’s doing when she steps behind a camera. Her talent is evident in Glorious, a horror film that had its world premiere at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Australian actor Ryan Kwanten (hunky Jason Stackhouse from HBO’s True Blood) plays Wes, a man riding the ragged edge of burnout or a mental breakdown. As we meet Wes, he’s sweaty and wild-eyed, fresh off a romantic breakup or the death of someone close to him. He talks to himself as he drives down the highway. He’s more a disheveled mess than a hunk. After tying one on in the parking lot of a rest stop, he wakes up on the floor of the rest stop men’s room.
When he gets his bearings, a commanding voice addresses him from behind the door of one of the stalls. The person seems to know Wes or at least know about him, but how is that possible? Is Wes losing his mind? Or does this person in a random men’s room stall possess knowledge about Wes that no one else could know? More importantly, is the presence behind the stall door even a person to begin with? Or is it something far more disturbing?
Glorious falls in the Lovecraftian subgenre of cosmic horror which tends to be the most underutilized type of scary movie in the horror marketplace. Is this really happening or am I going mad? can be a crutch in horror films with all the scares taking place during dreams or flashbacks. It can cause the ”horror” of the horror film to be without any real world consequences. But writers Joshua Hull, Todd Rigney and Dave McKendry don’t abuse the device, and it works well in Glorious. American horror fans will be pleased to know that the film hits the Shudder streaming service this Thursday, August 18th. It’s definitely worth a look. (But, we all need to acknowledge up front that the most chilling image in the entire film is waking up on the filthy floor of a rest stop men’s room. Ugh.)
Heaven: To the Land of Happiness: In my earliest days of watching South Korean cinema, I found the shifts in tone to be jarring. Slapstick humor could suddenly give way to extreme violence or melodrama. As I immersed myself further in films from that country, the drastic swings in tone started working for me. I developed a love for the feel of South Korean cinema especially their genre cinema.
Life is never just one thing. People may laugh at funerals or cry at an amusement park. Our very lives are blends of tones and sudden swings in mood and emotion. South Korean films understand this, and most importantly, South Korean filmmakers trust their viewers to be discerning, no need to dumb-down the story and its nuances.
Bong Joon-Ho’s masterful crime film Memories of Murder (released sixteen years before Parasite) opens like an episode of Keystone Kops as the bumbling detectives “round up the usual suspects” looking for the lazy way to wrap up their murder investigation. Then the humor slowly morphs into a dark crime masterpiece that rivals David Fincher’s Zodiac. In a world full of predictable movie formulas, these tonal shifts are a welcome dose of originality.
This South Korean sensibility permeates writer-director Im Sang-soo’s newest film, Heaven: To the Land of Happiness. Veteran actor Choi Min-sik plays a prison inmate referred to throughout the film as “203”. He’s on the brink of being released when he learns that his headaches and nosebleeds are the product of a brain tumor, leaving him with about two weeks to live. He won’t live long enough to enjoy the freedom that is so close at hand. Park Hae-il plays Nam-sik, an orderly at the prison hospital who is forced to steal the medication he needs to survive because he can’t afford it on his meager pay.
Early in the film Nam-sik finds himself transporting 203 through the facility just as hospital officials learn of Nam-sik’s thefts from their pharmacy courtesy of a newly-installed CCTV system. In short order, the man with two weeks to live is on the lam with a man who can’t afford the medication he needs to stay alive. The two spend the remainder of the film evading law enforcement so that 203 can fulfill his last wish – reconciling with his daughter whom he hasn’t seen in five years.
Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, I Saw the Devil) is the not-so-secret weapon that successfully grounds the film. Whether he’s comically careening down the streets on a runaway moped or contemplating the few days he has left on Earth, his gravitas sells every moment he’s on camera. Much like Al Pacino in the early years of his career, Min-sik provides so much information and emotional depth through his eyes. His smiles and laughter never quite reach his haunted gaze as he reflects on the bad choices he’s made and the time he’s wasted. Heaven: To the Land of Happiness is worth watching for his performance alone.
The joy of Heaven: To the Land of Happiness flows from the originality of the narrative. Some of the plot beats you expect are present and accounted for, but the story unfolds in ways you’re not expecting. I can just see an American remake where 203 learns that he was misdiagnosed and lives happily ever after with his daughter. This is not that film. And you’ll be grateful that it’s not.