As the world continues to be ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more film festivals are adapting and heading to the web. Giving a wider audience access to an increasing number of fascinating films from across the globe, these festivals are offering various types of viewing experiences, and we hear at The CriterionCast are attempting to bring you the latest and the greatest from these festivals. And so begins a series highlighting some films from the ongoing Fantasia International Film Festival.
Starting off this dispatch from Fantasia, we’re going into a world yours truly knows almost grotesquely well, pro-wrestling. Now, instead of your run-of-the-mill portrait of an artist as a young person type documentary that is the typical form for pro-wrestling documentaries, this time directors David Darg and Price James shines a light on one of wrestling’s most controversial figures. No, not a problematic titan from the glory days of territorial wrestling, instead former WCW World Heavyweight Champion and whipping boy for a certain generation of fan, David Arquette. Entitled You Cannot Kill David Arquette, this fascinating documentary takes a look at Arquette’s moment in the wrestling spotlight, the negative response that time still gets to this day and, as the narrative is more or less centered around, the actor’s return to the ring and the hardships he faces during that period. While it’s stylistically and structurally not breaking much ground, Darg and James have an incredible understanding of and deep-seeded interest in the blurry line between film and wrestling, in both the form they take and also the wear and tear the artist takes on their journey to the top. Watching a seemingly “washed up” actor who admits to not having a successful audition for about a decade take literal and figurative bumps in and out of the ring is utterly captivating, and while wrestling fans will find this to be absolute catnip, there’s a nuance and maturity to the storytelling that will make even skeptical fans of documentary cinema take to it.
Next up is one of Fantasia’s most exciting debut features, a film from first-time feature director Sabrina Mertens entitled Time Of Moulting. This terrifying new German chiller introduces viewers to Stephanie, a young child living what superficially seems like a relatively normal life. However, not all is as it seems, as her life slowly devolves into something much more grotesque at the hands of a distant father and a mother herself slowly succumbing to madness in their home. Going from what seems like a coming of age tale into something closer resembling a perverse modern fairy tale, Mertens’ direction is claustrophobic and harrowing, embracing the home setting to craft a film that seems to be rotting from the very inside. At just roughly 80 minutes the film isn’t the most dense or narratively expansive work seen at this year’s festival, with Mertens building what seems like a film structured as a series of vignettes from an increasingly bleak life. However, this structure leads to a film of incredible intrigue, a film that gets to some haunting truths about trauma and the monsters it births both literal and figurative. The performances here are uniformly great, but it’s very much a tone piece, a coming out party of sorts for a director far beyond her years. With mature, assured direction and an atmosphere that only elevates the grim proceedings, Time Of Moulting is a troubling, uncomfortable rumination on trauma that’s one of the festival’s very best discoveries.
Speaking of coming of age horror films, Detention is next on this dispatch. A hit at festivals like Busan and Rotterdam, Detention takes viewers to early 1960s Taiwan during a point in history known as The White Terror, with martial law fully in place. A moment of monumental oppression, with dissident thought all but snuffed out, this moment in Taiwanese history still haunts the island to this day, and plays as the backdrop for one of Fantasia’s most terrifying horror films. Co-writer/director John Hsu uses this as the setting for a story about a group of students at the Tsuihua Secondary School, where a professor, Professor Zhang, runs an illicit book club, only to disappear sending the school into complete upheaval. One of his students, Fang, may have pined for him silently but after his disappearance she wakes up in the school only to have it shift entirely to some strange hell on Earth. Making her way through this new dark version of her school, she meets a young man named Wei, and the two embark on a journey through this new hellscape with the hopes of getting to the bottom of what happened and how the hell they got there. Blending a coming of age tale with a historical drama doesn’t seem all that groundbreaking, but what makes Detention so superlative here is its use of horror imagery to elevate both genres at play. Hsu’s film is gorgeously rendered, a harrowing blend of history and fairy tale that feels vaguely reminiscent of Spanish horror films, with the horrors of real life remembered leading to nightmarish visions. It also helps that the film carries with it an incredible lead performance, with actress Gingle Wang turning in a tender and human performance that gives real heart and humanity to a film that is very much otherworldly, particularly when the source material is taken into account. Based on the videogame of the same name, there is a real videogame-type atmosphere at play here, with the narrative playing out with similar pacing and narrative twists as that of a prototypical survival horror game. It’s really a superb little gem.
Finally, rounding out this dispatch is what will likely be one of the festival’s most polarizing films. Entitled PVT Chat, the film stars Julia Fox in her biggest role since shattering hearts in last year’s Uncut Gems, with the actress taking on the role of internet cam girl caught in the web of a young blackjack swindler. Directed by Ben Hozie, the film introduces itself with a proverbial bang, showing the very heart of the central relationship, with co-star Peter Vack masturbating during a call with Fox’s magnetic model. While its far and away one of the more, dare I say audacious, films of the festival (the nudity, for example, is ever present yet few films are less erotic), it’s also one of the more evocative. At its very core it’s a film about the way we connect in the digital age, and while it does show the wild influence the Julia Fox’s recent collaborators the Safdie Brothers already have on a very specific strain of independent filmmaker (I mean, even Buddy Duress shows up), there’s some real nuance and texture to an otherwise funhouse mirror reflection of modern life. The performances are uniformly good, particularly Fox who is again utterly tragic here, proving that while she’s one of the great bombshells of our generation, there are few actresses working today more emotionally genuine and vulnerable. She’s a one of a kind performer and is at the very top of her game here in what will, again, be one of Fantasia 2020’s more polarizing films. Consider me on the side that thinks this is a truly special work.