By Katherine Connell
A maze is designed to puzzle and possibly frustrate; conversely, the pleasure of a labyrinth is in submitting oneself to a route that, when traversed, might reveal the mind of its designer. This is certainly true of the late Obayashi Nobuhiko’s Labyrinth of Cinema (2019), one of the headlining films of Montréal’s Fantasia Festival 2020, which joined many other festivals in making a pandemic-induced pivot online this year. Though a self-proclaimed “genre festival,” Fantasia’s kaleidoscopic programming dissolves the often restrictive notion of the “genre” tag by juxtaposing a wide range of films in surprising ways. Festival-circuit debuts from earlier this year, such as Jeanette Nordahl’s contemplative crime/family drama Wildland and Zoé Wittock’s first feature Jumbo (about a young woman who comes to terms with her attraction to inanimate objects), would not normally be considered genre films, but their expressive intensity makes them an entirely natural fit with Fantasia 2020’s slate of offbeat romcoms, unconventional documentaries, action movies, thrillers, manga adaptations, and grisly horror.
At a festival where everything falls under the umbrella of “genre,” categorization is much less useful than seeking out unexpected pairings (and pleasures)—a philosophy that is exemplified by Obayashi’s cinema. At the beginning of Labyrinth’s nearly three-hour odyssey, three young men—an aspiring yakuza, a cinephile, and a film critic—attend the Setouchi Kimena on its closing night for a dusk-to-dawn marathon of Japanese war movies, where they meet a spectral young girl named Noriko. A thunderstorm begins to rage outside, the flashes and booms setting up an audiovisual motif that circles back to Hausu’s (1977) indirect preoccupation with the atomic bomb, allowing Obayashi’s first feature to echo in his last. As the storm builds, an upbeat musical number begins and Noriko beckons the three men to join her in literally entering the films on the screen, plunging the trio headlong into a time-tripping tumble through the feudal era, the Boshin War, the Sino-Japanese conflict, and the Pacific War.
The magic of Obayashi’s filmmaking hinges on his conception of the frame as endlessly malleable and permeable, rather than a restrictive box. His signature manoeuvres are on full display in Labyrinth: flamboyant effects and delightfully archaic transitions, vibrant colours and artful intertitles (here inscribed with poetry by Chuya Nakahara), the sublimely artificial backdrops and painterly sets that suggest that the dramatis personae who inhabit them are both present and not—which is of course always true in the cinema, but rarely felt with such immediacy. Obayashi’s commitment to absurdity and non-linearity also remains, but if his images (and narratives) are absurd, they are never nonsensical: each wild frame seems always to be the right image, brimming with meaning even as it resists rational interpretation. As we close in on the centre of Obayashi’s Labyrinth, we are brought ever more near to what one character, doubtless acting as the director’s mouthpiece, refers to as “the soul of film”: something tactile, alive, and immensely pleasurable even as it can be false, manipulative, and grossly complicit in historical horrors.
Neil Marshall’s much-anticipated opening-night film The Reckoning also looks back to such horrors, transporting us back to 17th-century England at the height of the Great Plague and witch-hunting fever. The film’s co-writer Charlotte Kirk stars as Grace, a recent widow who is scapegoated by her community following the suicide of her plague-stricken husband. After rejecting the sexual extortion attempts of the local squire, Grace is branded a witch and subjected to torture by a vicious witchfinder (Sean Pertwee, a Marshall veteran from Dog Soldiers  and Doomsday ). Leaning heavily into an ahistorical form of feminism, The Reckoning’s attempt to mine historical witch trials for a metaphor about post-millennial misogyny doesn’t work, although its portrait of pandemic panic can’t help but resonate. Even as it is melodramatically overdone (particularly in Grace’s stoic and plainly Christlike endurance of torture) and baroque bordering on the goofy (in its straight-faced commitment to a CGI Satan), there is nevertheless a certain catharsis in watching such a “big” film, which functions as both a respite from and an affective match to our experience of a contemporary global plague.
Generational curses are a useful genre device for exploring the unnerving ways that the past can emerge in the present. Critiquing patriarchy and traditional family values by placing its story of ghosts, possession, and haunted houses in a distinctly Hindu context, New Delhi-based director Sidharth Srinivasan’s Kriya opens in a packed nightclub pulsating to beats courtesy of DJ Neel (Noble Luke), who soon catches the eye of Sitara (Navjot Randhawa) on the strobe-lit dancefloor. All too eager to get laid, Neel follows Sitara back to her palatial home, only to be greeted by the sight of her soon-to-be deceased father, his limbs tied back and mouth covered by a metal muzzle, with his family holding vigil around him. Something is definitely off, and though Sitara’s younger sister Sara (Kanak Bhardwaj) ominously tells Neel that there’s still time to leave, it’s clear that he’s already doomed. The eerie cinematography by Karan Thapliyal and Lakshman Anand, whether amplifying the tactility of peeling wall paint and cobwebbed windows or hyper-focusing on single, crystallized droplets of blood running down the phantasmal body of a sleepwalking ghost, provides the ideal atmosphere for the escalating series of revelations about the cursed family, leading to a shocking climax in which Neel—fulfilling the tradition that a male son or relative preside over funeral rites—becomes possessed and takes the place of Sitara’s father, beginning the cycle of the curse anew. The film’s ending, a near repeat of its opening scene, reveals Srinivasan’s skepticism about the extent to which progress can be made or intergenerational trauma resolved.
Those viewers who were frustrated by the long-running dream sequences in Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (2019) will likely be similarly impatient with German filmmaker Michael Venus’ Schlaf (Sleep), a much quieter take on the generational-curse conceit that pays clear homage to The Shining (1980) by transporting Stephen King’s haunted-hotel terrors to a rural German town backdropped by xenophobia and racism. Tormented by recurring nightmares of an ominous edifice, Marlene (Sandra Hüller) visits the site of her fears, the Sonnenhugel Hotel; overcome by this collision of dream and reality, Marlene is hospitalized, prompting her adult daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) to follow in her footsteps. Of course, Mona is visited by similar nightmares, including a flaxen, Incubus-like figure, past suicides at the hotel, and a feral boar—a symbol so tenaciously repeated that it must be designed to recall the animal’s function as an anti-Semitic symbol in historical German visual culture.
The fugue state between dreaming and waking (which resonates with much of the current year) is also explored in Canadian writer-director Anthony Scott Burns’ hallucinatory, neon-lit Come True, in which a team of university scientists carries out groundbreaking research that allows them to view the dreams of unknowing participants. Though lacking the sophistication (or perhaps the budget necessary to realize its vision) of comparable narratives like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) or Inception (2010), Come True is commendably unpretentious and pursues stimulating lines of inquiry about academic practises and surveillance technologies. Astutely picking up on the intrinsic horror of a multibillion-dollar corporation suggesting that it is giving you the freedom to “be your own boss,” documentarian Noah Hutton’s fiction-feature debut Lapsis extrapolates the exploitation of contract labourers in the gig/sharing economies into a near-future where desperate “independent contractors” are tasked with pulling cables through a forest to aid the next step in global-financial connectivity. Less high-tech, Montréal-based Amelia Moses’ vampire film Bleed With Me explores a triangle of tensions between the timid, paranoid Rowan (Lee Marshall), her confident, maternal friend Emily (Lauren Beatty), and Emily’s boyfriend Brendan (Aris Tyros) when Rowan begins to suspect that Emily is drinking her blood in the nights during their shared holiday at a snowy Québec cabin. Carefully written, beautifully shot, and impressively restrained, Bleed With Me avoids the clichés of the genre as it uses vampirism to explore the complex desire between Rowan and Emily, which drains them both.
If Bleed With Me presents desire as implicit, hidden, and erotic, Ben Hozie’s PVT CHAT attends to its more messy, explicit, and precarious manifestations. One of Fantasia’s most anticipated titles due to its lead Julia Fox, who gave a breakthrough performance in last year’s Uncut Gems, PVT CHAT focuses on the virtual relationship between web gambler Jack (Peter Vack) and Fox’s dominatrix camgirl Scarlet. Though the setup is rather conventional, PVT CHAT is worthwhile as a transgressive exploration of carnality, presenting a relationship that two characters enjoy, though it’s unclear what either is getting out of it. While Scarlet’s online performance is a literal job, Jack’s is desperately focused on courting Scarlet to reveal her authentic self to him. Scarlet is a multifaceted, fascinating character (no doubt made even more convincing by Fox’s own past work as a dominatrix), but the film’s view of the relationship between sex worker and client—however grittily framed—is ultimately romanticized. Unlike writer-director Isa Mazzei’s past Fantasia hit Cam (2018), PVT CHAT hasn’t thought deeply enough about dodging familiar tropes to feel like it’s really breaking the mould.
The shift of most festivals to online or partially online formats during COVID-19 inevitably compels one to read their programming selections against the present moment, however tenuous such readings may be. Set in 1999 Arkansas and backdropped by Y2K anxieties, Brea Grant’s vivid, campy 12 Hour Shift—which follows ER nurse Mandy (Angela Bettis) over the course of a night shift as her illegal organ-harvesting business implodes—couldn’t be farther from being “about COVID,” but its presentation of a hospital as hellscape exceeds the container of its narrative and brushes up against the all-too-real. A tonal opposite to 12 Hour Shift, Sabrina Mertens’ Time of Moulting is composed of 57 scenes that map the coming-of-age of a young girl whose family rarely leaves the house nor interacts with the outside community, leaving dark desires to ferment and ultimately materialize. Time of Moulting commands the threshold between boredom and terror with piercing accuracy, and watching the film while in social isolation or distancing only further twists the knife.
When my Fantasia viewing came to a close, I thought ahead to at least a year of more online festivals and possible second waves of the pandemic. Momentarily, my anticipation of the onslaught of post-COVID readings of new films was clouded by pessimism, and I felt prematurely weary of a year filled with reviews evaluating films by measuring their relevance to “our current situation.” As soon as this thought entered my head, it was banished by the memory of Labyrinth of Cinema, essentially a reminder that loving cinema is a lifelong commitment to navigating film’s poetic entanglement with the real. I’ll stick it out.