Beef and Horror
At the "Super Fantastic" Bucheon Film Festival
Part One | Part Two | Part Three
By Cohen Perry
here is nothing like the initial suffocating burst of humidity when you step off the plane to let you know that you have landed in Korea during monsoon season. I guess that’s what I get for coming over during the summer. The occasional winter trips I’ve made, however, have been enough to familiarize me with an equally suffocating burst of freezing winds. Koreans often proudly proclaim, “Korea has four seasons!” but the seasons between blistering hot summer and bone-chilling winter are usually a mere two or three weeks long.
South Korea’s climate is quite different from my relatively temperate Pacific Northwest home in Portland, but then again, many things in Korea are different. From couples wearing matching outfits to gold-flaked fish-skin dinners, Koreans challenge the whole notion of “Keeping Portland weird” by normalizing the relatively strange in their homeland. For Westerners, a glimpse into the cultural differences begins as early as the flight, during which Korean Air offers endless free beer, slippers, glassware, and metal silverware. There are definitely some perks to traveling Korean style. Though I can’t say I enjoyed the beef and noodles, beef and rice, and beef hot bun as an alternative to the mediocre meals on American flights—so much beef!—travelers are guaranteed an adventure.
The reason I am here however, is not merely to partake in more Korean beef dishes, but to attend the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, or BiFan. (Before this year, the festival was known as PiFan. The organizers took a decade to change their romanization to the newer style that the host city uses.) This is my fourth BiFan, and each year is, as the festival slogan promises, “super fantastic.”
Bucheon is a small city. Its red-light district was its claim to fame, until some locals decided to spruce up the place by attracting film-loving families. They did this, oddly enough, by focusing on horrifying films from around the world. For many years, one of the festival’s most featured set of films had been their “Forbidden Zone,” movies often so unbearably grotesque and offensive that they were a sort of test of strength for viewers. This apparently did not appease recent mayors, as internal politics have caused a gradual shift from an almost exclusive emphasis on horror fare to a broad acceptance of all genres. This year, the Forbidden Zone featured only four movies—not a huge loss, though I do love horror, and the idea of a completely family-friendly film festival is a bit disheartening.
So, after a single night of jet-lagged insomnia, it was time for the festival to begin. The sleep deprivation, anticipation, and excitement on the two-hour long commute from my dad’s residence to Bucheon makes for a unique experience, because after so long inside a tunnel, inside a train car, crammed like sardines with nowhere to rest your head, you are greeted with an explosion of celebration and color. There is an army of volunteers, it seems like hundreds, ushering you around the city, all of them waving and smiling for hours on end. Music plays everywhere, and it seems like every fifty feet you have a new soundtrack to walk to. Giant banners, cartoon characters, and art plaster the BiFan grounds. Film is everywhere, people are everywhere, the city comes alive, and it is definitely reason to celebrate.
Monday, July 20, 8 pm
Local God (dir. Gustavo Hernandez)
The first film on my schedule was the Uruguayan horror film Local God, directed by Gustavo Hernandez. Three young band members decide to venture to a rural cave to record videos for their upcoming album. They stumble upon a bizarre idol, and soon find themselves haunted by a mysterious spirit dwelling within. The film does a great job with its pacing, but the really shines in its incredible cinematography. Nature is shown as both haunting and beautiful, holding a crushing and claustrophobic power over the main characters. The suspense is well timed and terrifyingly unpredictable, which was catalyzed by my effort to combat jet lag with a Hot 6 energy drink. The drink’s effects were as terrible as its name, and the heart-palpitations and effect on my nerves made for interesting additions to the screening, to say the least. I definitely recommend this movie, and it was a great way to get things started. I can’t emphasize enough how much the timing of the frightening scenes adds to this movie. The moments you anticipate a jump scare leave you hanging, while the moments you think you’re safe are a lie.
Tuesday, July 21, 5 pm
The Santiso File (AKA The Santiso Report) (dir. Brian Maya)
My next film, The Santiso File, started off as a promising Argentinian drama (or action film, I don’t really know how to classify it) in which director Brian Maya suffered from too great of a vision. Santiso (Carlos Belloso) is a star journalist who loses his young daughter to a bombing, but maintains a sort of supernatural attachment to her that makes him believe she is still alive. He makes it his life goal to prove she is living, while everyone around him thinks he has gone insane. The cinematography here held a faint resemblance to the goofy-but-serious techniques in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and though this movie is definitely not as profound, it has a certain charm that kept me interested. About halfway through, however, the story becomes convoluted: Nazi experiments, global politics, love, fatherhood—the list of themes is extensive, but the focus is unsure. The movie could have used some more time in the editing room, though I enjoyed it despite its faults.
(Wednesday, July 22, 2 pm)
Hellions (dir Bruce McDonald)
Three films in and I already hit one that I almost refuse to discuss—but for good reason! Hellions, a Canadian effort directed by Bruce McDonald, stands as one of the best of the best for this fest. The hardest part about reviewing movies, especially horror films, is that I don’t want to give too much away, but at the same time want to describe enough to pique your interest. Well, Hellions is so good that I simply won’t describe any plot points out of fear of ruining a pure experience. What I will say is that it is one of the most original horror films I have ever seen. It’s an accomplishment of controlled chaos, unique style, incredible pace, superb acting, and awesome music. The story itself descends into a sort of acid trip, and uses the viewer’s confused state against them. I noticed that some reviewers found it subpar, and even unoriginal. I can’t fathom how they came to this conclusion, and wonder if the “artistic” direction was a bit too much for them, as it used highly-stylized colors in certain moments. Regardless, that’s what adds to its uniqueness— it’s amazing, and you will go see it.
Wednesday, July 22, 5 pm
Emelie (dir. Michael Thelin)
Emelie, not to be confused with Amélie, is an American film directed by Michael Thelin. My immediate reaction upon leaving the film with my dad was, “Wow, it’s like they saw Home Alone and decided to make an adult version of it.” It's not a comedy by any means, and won’t go down as a classic, but it is a very creepy story about an obsessive babysitter. I was entertained, but there nothing made it stand out—it’s just your run-of-the-mill thriller with some bad people trying to kidnap some good people, only this time the good people are under thirteen. The ending was a bit weak, but it's still worth your time for the novelty of watching an adult-themed Home Alone. Sadly, with okay movies like this, there just isn’t much to say.
Wednesday, July 22, 8 pm
Extraordinary Tales (dir. Raul Garcia)
The next film brought back some memories. I grew up on Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, I’m drinking from a Poe mug as I write this, so it’s natural that I would be excited about Extraordinary Tales, a conglomeration of different actors, directors, and writers such as Roger Corman, Guillermo del Toro, and the late Christopher Lee, coming together to tell a number of Poe short stories through different animated styles. Unfortunately, this was the third film of the day and I was exhausted, so the oral storytelling fashion in which the film was presented meant an extremely difficult battle against falling asleep. The voices were ever-so soothing, and the comfort of hearing the deranged stories that I remember from my childhood lulled me to sleep at times—but only for a minute!
My one major complaint about the film was the choice in stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” It’s not as if the stories themselves are bad, but I felt that “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for instance, didn’t really lend itself to being animated. I was expecting there to be more action, as in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but the artists very much stayed in tune with leaving a majority of the scary elements to the imagination. There was also a loose narrative that attempted to thread the stories together, but it fell a bit flat and failed to engage. There was, however, an awesome recording from the legendary Bela Lugosi set to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which was the absolute highlight for me. All in all, it’s an entertaining look at some unique approaches to the retelling of classic stories. They were represented completely different from how I imagined them when reading, but they also lost some of the fright that Poe so eloquently delivered. I think the film would make a great introduction to Poe’s stories, though I really wish they had skipped the arcing narrative between segments.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three
Cohen Perry wrote about Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face in the spring 2014 issue. His writing on film has also appeared in Videoscope.