Stop-Motion Strangeness – The House (2022)

In the three weeks since its debut airing on Netflix, the stop-motion animated anthology The House (2022) has generated a huge amount of buzz and an outpouring of positive responses. The exact nature of those responses, however, has left me somewhat puzzled. “Screw conventional storytelling” one reviewer gleefully cries – and yet all of the storytelling techniques on display are well established in short fiction (both literary and cinematic). The vast majority of viewers take it for granted that all three stories take place in the same house – which, to be fair, is also what animation house Nexus Studios would have you believe – and yet the worlds of the three stories are completely incompatible. There’s even one of those annoying “the ending(s) explained” articles whose existence so frustrates me – have we really gotten to the point where we assume that most of the audience for any given movie, no matter how straightforward, are incapable of understanding what it’s about? Ahem. Anyway. Before I stray too far from the work itself, perhaps I’d better circle back and take a look through each of the three stories.

I – And heard within, a lie is spun

The first (and in my opinion the best) of the three stories is set in what appears to be the Victorian era and tells the origin story of the titular house. Mabel (Mia Goth) lives in a small country house with her father Raymond (Matthew Goode of Downton Abbey), mother Penelope (Cranford‘s Claudie Blakley) and baby sister Isobel. They’re not particularly well off, but they’re content. Or they would be if not for Raymond’s wealthy relatives, who periodically descend upon the family to chastise them for their lack of success and generally criticise every last little detail. After one such tyrannical visit, Raymond gets plastered and stumbles off into the woods. Whilst relieving himself against a tree, Raymond is interrupted by the appearance of a mysterious carriage which glows with an unearthly light. The gentlemanly occupant (Barnaby Pilling) beckons him closer and offers him a deal.

Such an encounter traditionally indicates a visitation from either Faerie or Hell – and, as is the way with such bargains, if an offer seems too good to be true, you should probably back away slowly and politely decline. The next morning sees Mr. Thomas (Mark Heap) arriving at the house to formally conclude the deal on behalf of his employer. The terms are simple. His master, the architect Van Schoonbeek, has come into possession of the land surrounding their house. He has offered to build them a new house just behind their own – a house which is he is prepared to give them for free. All they have to do is give up their old house and move into the new one.

At first all seems well. The house is magnificent and they don’t even have to prepare their own meals – everything is done for them by unseen servants. They’re a little disconcerted at having to leave all of their belongings in a disused basement… but the architect is very particular about his work and has fitted the house with all of the aesthetically appropriate fixtures, so it would seem churlish to complain. Events take a more worrying turn when Mabel wakes the next morning to discover that the stairs connecting the rest of the house to the entry hall have disappeared! Mr. Thomas tells her not to worry – the architect is simply a perfectionist and is continuing to refine his work – but as Mabel makes her way through the house, she keeps encountering sinister blank-faced workmen performing ill-defined tasks who immediately cease their work and stare at her until she’s moved on. As time wears on and their surroundings continue to change on a daily basis, Raymond and Penelope gradually lose their self-determination and become integrated into their surroundings, leaving Mabel and her sister ever more desperate to find a way to leave the house.

This opening instalment is the work of Belgian animators Emma de Swaef & Marc James Roels, whose love of puppetry led them to transition into the world of stop-motion animation. Their medium of preference is wool, which provides an interesting texture to their characters’ large pale faces. Their interior design choices and careful selection of camera angles work together to create an impression of an impossibly large structure whose labyrinthine interiors could not possibly fit within the exterior dimensions, and aspects of the décor begin to verge on the surreal as the architect’s adjustments continue to unfold.

Despite having been in the industry for less than 10 years, Mia Goth has already worked with a number of notable filmmakers – her first role was in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013) and she has since worked with internationally respected directors such as Luca Guadagnino (Suspiria, 2018) and Claire Denis (High Life, 2018). Her Mabel is convincingly childlike with appropriate levels of nuance and she is more than capable of carrying the narrative on her shoulders. My favourite among the supporting cast was Mark Heap. Although on one level he will always be the disturbed painter Brian from Spaced (1999-2001) to me, his Mr. Thomas takes an entertaining journey from pseudo-sinister to clearly-out-of-his-depth as he finds himself subsumed within his employer’s design.

II – Then lost is truth that can’t be won

The second story shifts to the present day and a world populated by anthropomorphic rats. This time around the focal character is an unnamed property developer played by Jarvis Cocker – a name instantly recognisable to fans of the 1990s Britpop scene as the founder and lead singer of Pulp (1978-2002, 2011-2013). Due to the vagaries of the economy, the Developer is attempting to refurbish the house by himself in readiness for an upcoming property viewing, interspersed with a series of over-confident telephone calls to some unidentified person about their pending holiday in the Maldives – although reading between the lines of their conversation creates the impression that whatever the relationship between the two, it’s nowhere near as healthy as he believes it to be.

It will likely come as no surprise that the renovations do not proceed smoothly. His attempts to fix the rotisserie oven unearth an infestation of “fur beetles” which quickly gets out of hand and begins to dominate his dreams. On the day of the viewing he receives the wrong order of home-delivered groceries and is forced to cater what is supposed to be a high class event of hand-picked guests with canapés composed of potato chips and cheap biscuits. Shattered by the unmitigated disaster of an evening, a dim ray of hope appears in the form of a strangely shaped Odd Couple (veteran Swedish actors Yvonne Lombard & Sven Wollter) who are “extremely interested” in the house. Although visiting hours are long over, the Developer gives them a guided tour, culminating with the master bedroom – at which point the couple bid him a good night and settle down to sleep. Although this behaviour does set off alarm bells in the Developer’s head, he’s too exhausted by the day’s events to kick up a fuss and goes to sleep on the living room floor, clinging to the lifeline offered by their “interest”.

As the days progress the Odd Couple become more and more firmly ensconced in the house while the Developer finds himself constantly busy dealing with a resurgence in the fur beetle infestation. Attempting to enlist the police (Tommy Hibbits & Ayesha Antoine) to eject his unwanted guests, he’s taken aback when the officers who arrive turn out to have been sent by the person he’s been telephoning. As his bad dreams escalate into outright hallucinations and the strangely bulging bodies of the Odd Couple begin more and more to resemble bugs, the Developer’s life spirals further out of control with an inevitable downward trajectory. Although Jarvis Cocker isn’t exactly known as an actor, he acquits himself here in fine form, effortlessly bringing the viewer with him on his descent from desperation to despair.

I instantly recognised the style of Swedish animator Niki Lindroth von Bahr from her previous short film Something to Remember [Något att minnas] (2019), which I reviewed previously as part of the 2020 MIFF animation showcase. Her animation work characteristically juxtaposes anthropomorphic animal puppets with mundane human environments infused with a subtle menace, which is right on target for what this middle chapter demands of her. Outside of the world of animation, von Bahr has a separate career as a costume designer, providing the ritualistic outfits seen in the music videos of Fever Ray’s If I Had a Heart (2008) and Stranger Than Kindness (2009) as well as designing the costumes for David Bowie’s magnificent swansong Blackstar (2015).

III – Listen again and seek the sun

The final chapter takes us to an indeterminate near future of anthropomorphic cats in which the sea levels have risen sufficiently to flood Great Britain, leaving only a few lone houses to poke their upper extremities above water. Rosa (Susan Wokoma) is the house’s landlord, persisting in a bloodyminded fashion with her attempts at renovating the house for future tenants despite the clear futility of her actions. Sharing the property with her are Elias (Will Sharpe) – a shy fisherman with a hidden artistic propensity – and hopeless hippie Jen (Helena Bonham Carter), who blithely wafts her way through life oblivious to Rosa’s attempts to drag her back to “reality”. Rosa persists in pestering her tenants for rent on a monthly basis, despite the clear evidence that there is no way for any of them to get their hands on money – money which must surely have lost any value in the world in which they live.

Rosa is less than impressed by the arrival of a new tenant, Jen’s “spirit partner” Cosmos (Paul Kaye) – a new age traveller with all the pseudo-authority of a habitual scrounger masquerading as a guru. Infuriated by the easy way in which her tenants take to him, she is about to kick him out when she learns that he’s a skilled craftsman who could help her to repair the house. Instructing him to begin with the upper-storey floorboards, her newfound bliss is shattered when her inspection of the day’s work reveals that rather than repair the floor, he has decided to repurpose the boards as part of the foundation of a boat he’s begun to build for Elias. Rosa becomes increasingly frustrated as Cosmos’ influence appears to hold sway over her companions and while threatening to take away her residence from beneath her – but the story diverges in tone from the previous two chapters, leading a more hopeful resolution than the earlier stories might have led the viewer to expect.

This concluding segment was directed by Paloma Baeza, an English actress who quit the profession after finally gaining admittance to the National Film and Television School’s animation program – a notoriously picky establishment which only accepts 8 students per year. After her graduation piece Poles Apart (2017) won the 2018 BAFTA award for Best Animated Short Film, she began work on a still-in-progress feature-length CGI/live-action film titled The Toymaker’s Secret, written by her husband Alex Garland. There’s a clear line of progression in her style between Poles Apart and The House. While was a cartoonish aspect to the ursine characters in her earlier project, the cats seen here are more fully realised in all aspects – the crafting of each figure, the individualised body language which plays such an important part in making each character a distinct individual with their own interior life, and overall a more polished range of movement and design.

I’m mainly familiar with Susan Wokoma from her role as an agoraphobic cosplay designer in the SF comedy series Truth Seekers (2020), a performance which showed glimmers of the general frustration with humanity she allows to dominate here. Will Sharpe is fine, but his (appropriately) subdued performance has no hope of competing with Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Kaye, who slide effortlessly into their scene-stealing flowerchild roles.

The” House?

Although animation house Nexus Studios oversaw the commissioning of the various animators whose work makes up the visual component of The House, the writer behind all three scenarios is celebrated Irish playwright Enda Walsh. Working primarily for the stage, two of his plays have been adapted to film – Kirsty Sheridan’s Disco Pigs (2001) and Ring-director Nakata Hideo’s Chatroom (2010). Walsh also had the good fortune to work with David Bowie, writing the book for his stage musical Lazarus (2015), a new adaptation of the 1963 source material for Bowie’s most famous film role in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Although I haven’t been able to determine whether it was Walsh or the animation studio who first conceived The House, it appears that they were united in the brief that all three of the stories were to be set in the same house. But is that really the case?

Taken purely on a thematic level, I can more or less see where Walsh is coming from. Each of the three stories explores the relationship between a core individual or group of people and the house in which they live – broadening out to consider issues such as the contrast between the concepts of “house” and “home” and the materialistic drives of society which make such a vital possession such a source of contention. To take an overly simplistic view of the three stories, the first could be said to explore the consequences of selling out your happiness and sense of identity for material gain, while the third can be seen as a directive to free yourself from hanging on to possessions which have lost their meaning. The middle chapter is more difficult to pick apart. Is it an exploration of what it means to “own” a house or piece of land? Is it a veiled examination of indigenous people reclaiming their land from the coloniser? Both are possible readings, but other elements of the story could easily be used to argue against these interpretations. Although this section of the film works well on a narrative level, I remain unconvinced that there is any one coherent reading that could satisfyingly be applied to it.

Returning to the actual narrative as presented onscreen, regardless of authorial intent, I believe the only sensible way approach the movie is as three completely separate stories – past, present and future – featuring a house as an important location. This has nothing to do with the switch from human protagonists to anthropomorphic rats to anthropomorphic cats – I’d be quite happy to accept this simply as a stylistic choice made by each of the animation teams. But if the writer intended to create three stories which fit together on a narrative level, then he’s completely failed. At a pinch, I’d be willing to consider that the house in parts 2 and 3 could be the same house – although the state in which the house is left at the end of part 2 left me dubious that it could endure long enough to appear in part 3, and that’s not even considering the failure of any of the surrounding houses to last. But the arcane nature of the house in part 1 – and the general weird fairy tale aura of horror in the story itself – is inconsistent with the house seen in part 2, and is completely incompatible tonally with the cautiously optimistic part 3.

But these complaints have more to do with how The House has been marketed rather than its contents. At the end of the day, what remains are three independent stories with a loose thematic link, each of which doubles as a showcase for their respective animators’ creativity and talent. Each story works well on its own terms and features a strong range of performers providing the voice-over talent. In my opinion the movie starts with the strongest story and ends with the weakest – but my reaction to the final story may have been negatively affected simply because its more hopeful tone felt out of place when compared with what had gone before. (And yes, I recognise the contradiction in going against my own rhetoric by allowing the first two stories to colour my opinion of the third.) I expect that the writer’s intent was to use the final story to revisit the thematic concerns of the first story by providing his protagonists with a means of escape – and while for me this felt forced and false, I suspect that others will be more positively inclined.

Meat Loaf Tribute – Roadie

Last week saw the passing of renowned rock musician Meat Loaf (born Marvin Lee Aday), who shot to fame with the release of his 1977 debut album Bat Out of Hell – an album whose worldwide popularity transcends its deceptive cover’s promise of a more hard-edged metallic sound (a promise which, I must confess, has left me constantly disappointed by the sound of his musical output). His success as a singer, however, has somewhat overshadowed his surprisingly extensive career as an actor – a body of work which, to my mind, is far more interesting. Most people called upon to name a film in which he’s appeared would likely latch on to his cinematic debut as Eddie in the cult classic musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). If pushed, they might recall his cameos in Wayne’s World (1992) and Spiceworld (1997), or his supporting role in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). But I’ve yet to meet anybody familiar with his starring role in the rock & roll comedy road movie Roadie (1980), an obscurity I first encountered years ago buried amongst the late night/early morning programming on some commercial TV station or other. Revisiting it for the first time earlier this week with some trepidation, I was pleasantly surprised to find that – while it’s definitely not without its flaws – it stands up to repeat viewing better than I’d expected.

Roadie opens, appropriately enough, with a road – a stretch of open highway on which multiple armadillos are gambolling away. (I mention this not because the armadillos have any wider significance – I just happen to be inexplicably charmed whenever I happen across an armadillo onscreen, especially when they turn up outside any sane context such as in the original 1931 Dracula.) Playing over the top of this arid scene is Cheap Trick’s theme tune “Everything Works If You Let It”, whose title and lyrics act as an effective mission statement for what is to come – a fairly simple plot taking place against a series of loosely associated incidents which also serve to showcase a cross-section of American rock music.

Travis W. Redfish (Meat Loaf) is a Texan good ol’ boy truck driver who makes a living delivering Shiner beer with his best friend B.B. Muldoon (Gailard Sartain). In his spare time he helps out his father Corpus C. Redfish (Art Carney) with the family business, a salvage company which repurposes all sorts of random detritus into various Rube Goldberg-like lash-ups. En route to Austin for their latest delivery, Travis and B.B. happen across a broken-down tour bus. On any other day they would have driven past without a second thought (other than to laugh at the helpless city slickers) – but on this fateful occasion, a smile and a wave from a pretty girl (Kaki Hunter, better known for the Porky’s trilogy, playing the improbably named Lola Bouilliabase) brings Travis to a screeching halt. No sooner has he finished repairing the vehicle than Lola has charmed him into driving them the rest of the way into Austin, where Hank Williams Jr. and The Bama Band are waiting for their equipment. Setting up in record time, Redfish earns the admiration of big-time music mogul Mohammed Johnson (a pitch perfect performance from Don Cornelius, the creator of the hugely influential music showcase Soul Train [1971-2006]). Determined to retain the services of his “lucky white man” (but constitutionally incapable of getting his name right), Johnson leans on his jealous subordinate Ace (Joe Spano, shortly to become a series regular on Hill Street Blues [1981-1987]) to ensure his presence at their next gig, and Ace in turn leans on Lola to exert her charms.

Careening from one musical performance to another, Travis swiftly earns himself the title of “the greatest roadie that ever lived” – a reputation which means little to him since he doesn’t have a clue as to the identity of most of the people he meets and has very little interest in their music. The closest he comes to expressing any interest is with Hank Williams Jr. – and even then, only because Redfish is familiar with the work of his long-deceased father Hank Williams Sr. Lola, on the other hand, is all about the music – so much so that she’s developed the psychic ability to know what’s currently playing on any radio station. Lola’s ambition is to become “the greatest groupie who ever lived”, with the more specific objective of making her way across country to meet Alice Cooper – who, she claims, has promised to have dinner with her, although her refusal to provide further details casts some doubt over her veracity. Despite her stated goal, it’s clear to the audience that she’s fallen just as hard for Redfish as he has for her, although it takes her much longer to realise this – just long enough for the traditional separation and reconciliation plot beats to play out before the film’s end. Unfortunately there’s one aspect of Lola’s character which does not stand up at all well today (and must, I would hope, have seemed a little squicky even at the time the film was made) – she’s only 16 years old (albeit played by a 24-year-old). Although the writers make it clear that she’s still a virgin and doesn’t have sex with any of the musicians they encounter, this is still a film in which the happy ending revolves around a man in his 30s hooking up with a 16-year-old girl – and I can’t really fault any viewers for whom this plot element is a dealbreaker.

Comedically the film is all over the place. Much of the stronger material revolves around Travis and Lola – the two actors have good chemistry with other, and Meat Loaf is surprisingly effective at playing both the physical and verbal aspects required of him. Particularly well crafted is the scene in which Travis and Lola are obliviously trying to do their laundry with a detergent box full of cocaine. A surprisingly streetwise old lady (Lenore Woodward), diagnosing the difficulty and spotting an opportunity, swaps her box of laundry powder for theirs just before the cops turn up to arrest them. An exquisitely timed exchange of crossed dialogue ensues, with the two pairs carrying on completely unrelated conversations which accidentally intersect, before one of the cops samples the goods and runs screaming from the launderette (last seen with soap bubbles pouring from his nose and mouth). Less effective are the scenes back home in Texas with the Redfish family which punctuate the film. Beloved American comedian Art Carney (who would no doubt be appalled that I mainly know him from The Star Wars Holiday Special) is clearly having fun as Travis’ father, spending most of his time in an electric wheelchair surrounded by gadgets. Unfortunately he’s paired with a badly written and grotesque performance from Rhonda Bates as Travis’ sister Alice Poo. Bates apparently made a career out of this sort of role – the tall, skinny hick who will go to any lengths to secure her man (in this case Travis’ best friend B.B.). To be fair to her, I have no doubt that she achieved exactly what she was aiming for in her performance – but it’s something that I found indescribably painful to watch.

Amongst the many luminaries of the rock & roll world to be found here, only two stand out for their ability to act as well as play – Blondie’s lead vocalist Deborah Harry and Alice Cooper (coincidentally the same two individuals whose presence led me to set the VCR for this film all those years ago). Deborah Harry takes the unlikely role of Lola’s romantic rival, beginning her flirtation with Redfish with some sexual innuendo about power cords before performing a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. After a scene in the back of Blondie’s limousine provides definitive proof of the complete lack of acting talent among the rest of the band, their potential love connection over dinner is disrupted by a food fight with fictional band Snow White (invented for the film) which results in Debbie leaving with their singer. (Snow White’s membership is made up entirely of the short-statured. There are seven of them. Yes, that’s right. Add one more tally in the “reasons to be offended” column.) Harry herself was no stranger to acting, having already appeared in four films prior to this. Having recently played the lead role in Union City (1980), her next film saw her playing a significant part in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and she’s continued to pop up sporadically in all sorts of acting roles ever since. Notable cameos in this section of the film include the actual Mayor of Austin, Carole McClellan, as a sheriff come to shut down the gig; and Marcy Hanson (Playboy‘s Playmate of October 1978) as a groupie who admires Lola’s look. (Marcy had previously co-starred alongside Rhonda Bates in short-lived 1978 sitcom The Roller Girls.)

Alice Cooper proves more than willing to puncture his shock-rock image by showing the viewer the man behind the makeup, a mild-mannered politely-spoken happily-married man who always keeps his promises and is visibly uncomfortable at having to wear his full leather-and-live-snake ensemble for his dinner with Lola and Travis. Although his acting CV is less extensive than that of either Deborah Harry or Meatloaf, by this point he had already been part of the much-derided Beatles-without-the-Beatles film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) and would next turn up as the lead in horror movie Monster Dog (1984) – although I know him better for his cameos as Street Schizo in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) (in which he stabs somebody with half a bicycle) and as Freddy’s father in the previously reviewed Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991).

Other musicians appearing include folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; Roy Orbison (who joins Hank Williams Jr. onstage for a crowd-calming duet of “Eyes of Texas”); Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys; Rick Crow and Asleep at the Wheel; Todd Rundgren’s band Utopia (standing in as Alice Cooper’s backing band); and Peter Frampton. The most memorable performance comes courtesy of new wave band Standing Waves, appearing here as the fictional punk group Spittle who refuse to play without their cocaine rider until Redfish goes apeshit and dumps them unceremoniously onto the stage. Roaming between band members with a menacing look in his eye, he keeps shoving the singer away from his mike stand in order to carry on a shouted conversation across the club with Lola – an exchange which proves so enthralling to the audience that the band improvises an on-the-spot accompaniment using their dialogue as the lyrics.

Making his performance debut under the band name Meat Loaf Soul in 1968, Meat Loaf made his pivotal breakthrough as part of the original L.A. Roxy cast of The Rocky Horror Show in 1973, leading to his reprisal of the role of Eddie in the 1975 movie. The year of the film’s release saw him begin work on debut album Bat Out of Hell (with supporting musicians including members of Utopia), whose release in 1977 made a permanent impression on the musical landscape. Although appearing in a wide variety of roles since then – both serious and not-so-serious – Roadie remains, as far as I’m aware, the only film in which he played the lead role. His final screen appearance was as one of the main cast of the Syfy Original paranormal action TV series Ghost Wars (2017-2018), appearing in 7 out of 13 episodes.

If you were to ask me to program a Meat Loaf double bill, my unquestioned – and completely unironic – choice would be… Spice World! No, wait, hear me out. Really. The most obvious connection between the two films is that in both films Meat Loaf plays a roadie – truck driver Travis W. Redfish in one, bus driver Dennis in the other (almost certainly a conscious homage). But there’s another link to one of Roadie‘s stranger plot elements, a part of B.B.’s backstory which is alluded to briefly in passing and then forgotten about entirely until it re-emerges in the final genre-bending scene. A plot element which, it could be argued, is also homaged in the Spice Girls’ own uncanny roadside encounter. True, Spice World owes more to A Hard Day’s Night (1964) than to Roadie… but I think pairing it with Roadie would be more fun.

Roadie is hardly a lost masterpiece – its sense of humour is wildly uneven and it relies on a core plot conceit which may be irredeemably compromised to some viewers. But the material which works holds up better than I expected and (to my mind) outbalances the less successful elements. Anybody with an affection for Meat Loaf, Blondie and/or Alice Cooper should find something here to entertain them – at least enough to justify a single viewing out of curiosity.

Lynch, Maddin, Strickland, Phạm – Four Short Films

I had no idea what I was going to write about this week. None of the movies I watched struck enough of a chord to inspire me to share them with others. I’ve had much better luck with my choice of TV viewing – but for a blog with the word “eclectic” in the title, I feel like I’ve spent far too much of the last year simply defaulting to writing up yet another K-drama. So in an attempt to better meet my own brief, I spent this morning diving into a more or less random selection of short films and have picked the most interesting four to share with you. Featured here are three of my favourite directors – David Lynch (Eraserhead), Guy Maddin (The Heart of the World) and Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) – plus, for a bit of variety, a Vietnamese director I’ve never previously encountered.

Stump the Guesser (2020) is a typically delirious work from Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, whose oddities derive from a divergent celluloid history in which the style and techniques of early 20th century cinema never went away. Maddin lovingly conjures the more fantastical elements of Soviet cinema to tell the tale of The Guesser (Adam Brooks), a carnival worker with an uncanny knack for guessing the answer to any question he’s asked, such as the age of a man of ancient appearance (41) or the number of fish concealed upon the person of a fishmonger (Randy Unrau) who is temporarily triumphant until, much to his chagrin, the Guesser pulls a tiny flapping minnow from his trousers. All is well for the Guesser until one tragic day he is confronted by a man (Greg Blagoev) who asks no question but simply stretches forth a dangling pocket watch. Frantic at the discovery that someone has finished his last bottle of Guessing Milk, the Guesser’s performance swiftly unravels after the Pocketwatch Man spontaneously vanishes into a puff of smoke. Before long he has fallen in love with his own long-lost sister (Stephanie Berrington) and had his Guessing Licence revoked by the Guessing Inspector (Steven Black) – with an additional demerit for incest. A chance encounter with dodgy Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko (Brent Neale) leads the two to join forces, as the Guesser seeks to help him prove his theory that genetic heredity is a myth so that he can marry his own sister. Needless to say, things don’t work out quite as he would wish – or, indeed, as anybody not occupying Maddin’s headspace might expect.

Amongst the film’s many visual highlights, the sequences in which the Guesser applies his brain stand out for their inventive range of techniques. Operating at the height of his powers, the camera zooms in on the Guesser’s forehead to reveal a duplicate of his own head in miniature. When trying (less successfully) to guess the eye colour of his yet-to-be-identified sister, an iris-like halo radiating from their two heads shimmers with alternating sprays of colour as each prospective option temporarily disrupts the black & white image. The Guesser’s final mental exertions result in a sequence reminiscent of the hallucinatory climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as astronaut David Bowman descends into the monolith.

By focusing solely on Maddin I’m being unfair to his collaborators Evan & Galen Johnson, who have shared writing and/or directing duties with Maddin on all of his works since 2014 – but while I’m sure that they were an integral part of the creative process, it’s difficult for me to say much more about their specific contributions as Stump the Guesser is very much of a piece with Maddin’s solo work. I’ve written more about a selection of Maddin’s work here, which includes Seances (2016), an experimental online work to which Evan Johnson contributed some story elements – although since Seances is a project which randomly generates a new story every time you watch it, it’s impossible for me to say whether I previously encountered any elements of his work there!

Many of Peter Strickland’s short films can be seen as companion pieces to his feature length works, experiments in form which have the purity of focus of a short story exploring themes which, in a longer work, are of necessity are merely part of a more complex whole. Strickland’s last feature, the previously-reviewed In Fabric (2018), was heavily influenced by the phenomenon of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos – an element on which Strickland elaborated for his short film Cold Meridian (2020). GUO4 (2019) is a precursor of sorts to his next feature, which he has said will explore homosexual male relationships in a similar way to his exploration of a female couple in The Duke of Burgundy (2014) (if “similar” is at all an applicable term to an artist whose works are quite distinct).

Paying homage to the homoerotic photography of Bob Mizer, GUO4 is constructed entirely from a montage of still images. Focusing initially on the harsh metal cabinets and flaking wood of a men’s changing room, the rattling discordance of the soundtrack by experimental noise duo GUO foreshadows the violent interchange to come. The appearance of the two naked male protagonists (Csaba Molnár & Gyula Muskovics) heralds the beginning of an ambiguous interaction which sees them first sizing each other up before beginning to shove each other back and forth – but whether this is the aggression of rivalry or simply a rough form of foreplay is obscured by the inability to hear their voices or to see anything other than disjointed montages of still images, suggesting movement while eliding the details that link each image to its neighbours. The choice to keep switching the focus to their swinging genitalia suggests there’s something more sexual going on here, but aggression dominates the imagery – and while the two men end up joined together horizontally on a bench, it remains impossible to tell whether either man is actually enjoying himself – their wide yet silent mouths conveying an impression more like yelling than moaning.

Although the ambiguous nature of GUO4 is clearly deliberate, I found it hard to latch onto what Strickland was aiming for beyond an experiment in filmic narrative technique. While there is clearly an escalation in the interactions between the two men, it felt to me like this particular Strickland short just stopped after 3 minutes without reaching a conclusion. It’s possible that the forthcoming release of Flux Gourmet (2022) will throw some light on what role this film plays in Strickland’s development, but for now I’ll have to go with the assessment: “reasonably effective but puzzling.”

The Unseen River [Giòng sông không nhìn thấy] (2020) from Vietnamese director Phạm Ngọc Lân is a gently-paced meditation on interrupted journeys, dwelling on the moments of indeterminacy in two human relationships. At one end of life we have lo-fi indie pop duo Naomi & WEAN playing an unnamed couple in their 20s, visiting a Buddhist monastery in search of a solution for WEAN’s insomnia. Although everyone they know insists that they belong together, including the young monk (Hoàng Hà) with whom they consult, they don’t yet know where their relationship is heading. At the opposite end, an older woman (Minh Châu) visiting a hydroelectric plant has a chance encounter with an old flame (Nguyên Hà Phong) from a relationship that never quite happened due to the vagaries of life taking them in different directions – although the ghost of a connection remains in the presence of the man’s dog (Gilmo), the offspring of a puppy given to him by the woman long ago.

Largely dialogue-free, much of the film’s running time consists of peaceful contemplation of the river and its surroundings, with the soundtrack dominated by gently rippling aquatic sounds. These sounds are complemented by the multi-mirrored columns of the Buddhist temple, breaking the imagery up into strips of light and colour in a visual echo of the ripples of light and sound generated by the river. The few dialogue-based scenes are formal in their writing and mannered in their delivery, with the older couple’s scenes in particular registering as two people moving around independently of each other while reciting speeches with which they have no emotional connection – and yet somehow they work, as if the serenity of their surroundings is allowing them to tap deeper into themselves to bring forth words they didn’t know they contained. Although the juxtaposition of the two pairings might suggest that the older couple provide a glimpse of the younger couple’s future, the film shies away from making any such connection and I suspect that this would be too simple a reading – the overall meditative tone sits more comfortably with a focus on an indeterminate now in the middle of life’s flow, an invitation to live in the present without undue concern for the outcome of things which can’t be guessed.

What Did Jack Do? (2017) is a film noir vignette which sees director David Lynch playing a homicide detective interrogating a suit-wearing capuchin monkey (“Jack Cruz”) at a train station. The surreally disjointed interrogation plays out as a mixture of cliched noir dialogue, a protracted series of bird metaphors which are more literal than usual in the genre, and some typically Lynchian non sequiturs which seem less deliberately obstructive and more like two sides of a conversation which don’t entirely occupy the same reality as each other. Out of the confusion forms a relatively straightforward noir tale of suspected infidelity leading to murder – although in this case the femme fatale is a chicken named Toototabon.

As is usual for his acting roles, Lynch plays a version of himself with little interest in making any effort at delivering naturalistic dialogue, utilising his lack of performative range to underline the strangeness of the encounter. Jack’s dialogue is delivered through a set of human lips smoothly superimposed over the capuchin’s own mouth – although no human performer is credited for his side of the exchange, my guess is that the voice is either that of Michael J. Anderson (Twin Peaks‘ Man From Another Place) or, more likely, Lynch himself speaking through a slightly slowed audio filter. Jack even gets the opportunity to burst into song towards the end, an original composition by Lynch in collaboration with sound mixer/editor Dean Hurley which crosses the lyrics of a Julee Cruise song that never was with the style of a faded crooner. Also making a brief appearance is Lynch’s wife Emily Stofle as a waitress delivering two steaming cups of coffee with a side serving of exposition, preceding a short but pivotal cameo from Toototabon herself (the least of the performers – I suspect nepotism).

Whether or not you’ll like What Did Jack Do? will depend entirely on what you think of David Lynch’s work in general. If you’re a fan like me, you’re already on board; if you don’t get what other people see in him or his work, this short film is unlikely to make you a convert. It’s pure Lynch in whimsical mode, doing his best to dump the experience of living in one of his dreams directly onto the screen for those on a similar wavelength.

Hong Kong Double Feature – The Twins Effect

What’s in a name? Knowing only the genre – Hong Kong action with fantasy elements – what would you expect from a series of two movies named The Twins Effect? Would you, as I did, expect a plot in which two siblings (probably estranged) must come together to discover a shared supernatural power which enables them to overcome some sort of great evil? Would you make the (quite reasonable I thought) assumption that the second movie builds on the world established in the first? And how surprised would you be to learn that they were in fact two entirely unrelated stories designed as star vehicles for a Cantopop girl group named Twins?

On the lookout for a local equivalent to J-pop duo KinKi Kids, Emperor Entertainment Group signed up part-time models Charlene Choi (already a budding actress) and Gillian Chung to form bubblegum pop band Twins in 2001. The following year saw the release of their first album and their appearance together in two lightweight comedies. The Twins Effect [Qiān jī biàn] (2003) is their third outing together, a martial arts vampire comedy which takes itself seriously for the first 10 minutes – a massive fight scene which sees two vampire hunters and a horde of the undead demolishing a train station (plus a train or two) – before tossing away all pretence and flooring the accelerator for silliness.

Although the opening sequence would have you believe that vampire hunter Reeve (Ekin Cheng) is the protagonist, he quickly takes a back seat to his female co-stars – his younger sister Helen (Charlene Choi) and his new apprentice Gypsy (Gillian Chung). Helen is a hot-tempered young woman with an impressive set of lungs whose ability to scream should be registered as a deadly weapon. Enthralled by her public confrontation with her cheating boyfriend (Chapman To), pretty boy goth Kazaf (Edison Chen) immediately falls for Helen and offers his shoulder to cry on. But Kazaf isn’t just any goth – he’s a vampire prince who refuses to suck blood, living instead off a supply of bottled blood sent by his father. Kazaf and his entourage, led by his loyal retainer Prada (Anthony Wong), have set up home in a large church in the middle of Hong Kong so that Kazaf can spread his wings away from the boredom of court politics – which is fortuitous since in his absence the evil Duke Dekotes (Mickey Hardt), last seen battling Reeve in the opening sequence, has been killing off the royal family to accumulate plot tokens which will allow him to achieve some vaguely defined ultimate power.

But don’t worry too much about the plot framework – it only really exists for two reasons: to provide an excuse for the action scenes; and as a backdrop against which Helen and Gypsy can pursue their romantic goals while becoming BFFs. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start when Helen discovers that Gypsy has used some of her toothpaste, leading to a protracted fight sequence which escalates to ridiculous proportions, similar in tone to the comically endless battle between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live (1988) over whether or not to wear sunglasses. Gypsy’s determination to impress Reeve almost gets him turned into a vampire, while Kazaf’s determination not to let Helen down forces him to wear dark clothes and masses of sunscreen on their midday wedding-crashing date. Of the two romantic pairings, the Helen/Kazaf relationship is far more engaging and occupies more screentime – a particular highlight sees Kazaf showing off his pimped-out coffin, complete with fur-lined upholstery, electric lighting and a kicking sound system.

The film is rife with cameo performances, most notably from Hong Kong action legend Jackie Chan. Making his first appearance as the groom at the wedding to which Helen invited herself, he turns up again at a crucial moment as an ambulance driver just as Helen and Kazaf are escaping from the bad vampires. This provides the perfect excuse for a Chan speciality, a Buster Keaton-inspired comedy fight sequence which allows a character with no fighting skills to pratfall his way to victory (or at least safety) against all odds. Chan’s high-kicking bride is played by Karen Mok (A Chinese Odyssey – reviewed here), a Cantopop legend with 17 albums and more than 40 film appearances to her name. All three members of short-lived girl group 3T can also be seen here in smaller roles: Mandy Chiang has the largest role as Momoko, the estate agent who brokers the deal with the vampires and catches the eye of Prada; Maggie Lau takes part in the ambulance chase as Nurse Maggie; and Yumiko Cheng appears as a wedding guest.

The Twins Effect II [Qiān jī biàn èr Huādū dàzhàn] (2004) jettisons the modern day for an indeterminate historical fantasy setting ruled by the evil Empress Ya Ge (Qu Ying), whose response to the perceived betrayal of her paramour High Priest Wei Liao (Daniel Wu) was to outlaw love and to turn all men into slaves – all except for the High Priest, who castrated himself. Spring (Charlene Choi) is a slave dealer with no ethical qualms about her livelihood, while Blue Bird (Gillian Chung) is one of the Empress’ elite agents. This time around the theoretical hero of the piece – improbably named Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in tribute to Ang Lee’s wildly successful film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [Wò hǔ cáng lóng] (2000) – is played by Donnie Yen, the action director of the original The Twins Effect, who provides an appropriately brooding heroic presence. If this were a conventional wuxia adventure, Yen’s character would dominate proceedings as we follow his heroic journey to find the magic sword and overthrow the evil Empress. By now, of course, we know better than to expect any such thing – and he remains largely in the background, only coming to centre stage for an impressively staged battle with Jackie Chan (playing the reanimated terracotta warrior Lord of Armour Wei Cheng) which, while being a thing of beauty in itself, serves no other narrative function than to keep the “hero” busy while the real main characters get on with the story.

As with The Twins Effect, the focus is on the adventures of Choi and Chung’s characters as they pursue their respective beaus-to-be. Spring has been commissioned to find the missing amour of the corpulent Marshall Edo Bowman (Xie Jingjing), mistakenly interpreting her infuriatingly vague description as referring to escaped slave Blockhead (Wilson Chen). Blue Bird has been despatched on a mission to retrieve a map, stolen by master thief Peachy (Edison Chen), which has ended up in the hands of his two friends – Blockhead and Charcoal Head (Jaycee Chan). Whilst following the map to its destination, the two women fall in love with their respective lunkheads – one of whom, it turns out, is the rightful King who will claim the sword and lead his people to victory. Amongst the supporting cast, Fan Bing-bing – one of China’s most prominent actresses – stands out in an early career performance as Blue Bird’s rival Red Vulture, adding a nuance which hints at the stronger roles to come in films like I Am Not Madame Bovary [Wǒ Búshì Pān Jīnlián] (2016) (reviewed here). Providing the obligatory music-industry cameos this time around are Steven Cheung and Kenny Kwan of boy band Boy’z, who play two of the nameless slaves.

Similar in tone to its predecessor and featuring action sequences which are arguably superior to the original, The Twins Effect II is unfortunately weighed down by tired tropes of stereotyped male and female behaviour. The film’s matriarchal society is an ugly caricature and the prophecy of the Empress’ fall is framed in terms of restoring the balance by having a man take over. Although the filmmakers scramble frantically at the end to make it clear that the heroes will be establishing a society based on equality between the sexes rather than male dominance, it’s too little too late. There’s also a painfully unfunny character played by Tony Leung Ka-fai (an otherwise talented actor) whose attempts to masquerade as a woman are so wince-inducing that they verge on transphobia. Add that to the decision not to examine slavery as anything other than a comical trope and you have a film riddled with problematic elements which run the risk of outweighing its more enjoyable aspects.

Choi and Chung have good chemistry with each other, as you’d hope for a duo who collaborated to create 16 studio albums between 2002 and 2012. Of the two, Clarence Choi gets to have more fun, quivering with frustration in the first film and luxuriating in casual venality in the second. Gillian Chung is more contained in both, occupying more of a “straight man” role with touches of the conventional female romantic lead. They would appear together in 14 films (and one TV series) between 2002 and 2007, eventually living up to their band name by playing competing sets of good and evil twins in the far-more-accurately-titled The Twins Mission [Seung ji san tau] (2007). Both performers have continued to appear separately, with more than 50 other roles each on their respective CVs.

The Twins Effect was co-directed by Dante Lam & Donnie Yen – although to my mind Yen, who doubles as action director, makes a far more significant contribution to the film’s success than Lam. Donnie Yen is one of the action movie genre’s most prominent performers, and while his name may not be familiar as that of Jackie Chan or Jet Li, his face is likely to be just as familiar – indeed I recently saw somebody online confidently identifying a picture of Yen as Jet Li simply because they recognised his face and knew he wasn’t Jackie Chan. Yen won Best Action Choreography at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards for his work on The Twins Effect and I’ve talked about him at greater length in my review of Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen [Jīng wǔ fēng yún – Chén Zhēn] (2010).

The Twins Effect II was co-directed by Corey Yuen & Patrick Leung – and once again it’s the action director, in this case Corey Yuen, whose contributions are most crucial. One of the Seven Little Fortunes (whose more famous members include Jackie Chan & Sammo Hung), he’s worked extensively in both Hong Kong and Hollywood action cinema. To select just a few highlights, he was martial arts director on the wild fantasy romp Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain [Xīn shǔ shān jiàn xiá] (1983); action director for John Woo’s Red Cliff [Chi Bi] (2008-2009); and solo director on the Jet Li-starring Fong Sai-yuk [Fāng Shì Yù] (1993) and its sequel.

If you’re looking for intricate plotting and nuanced characters, then boy have you been reading the wrong review! The Twins Effect movies are lightweight pieces of fluff hung on a loose plot framework which they will happily jettison if it gets in the way of the fun. Some viewers will find the movies funnier than I did, while others will find the humour to be gratingly annoying – but even then, fans of Jackie Chan should at least enjoy his appearances. I doubt that I’ll ever watch either of these films again, but I’m happy to have seen them.

As a special bonus for the curious, along with the usual trailers (which make the movies look more serious than they are), I’ve included a promotional clip for the theme song from the first movie, recorded by Twins with guest vocalist Jackie Chan.

Anna and the Apocalypse – A Zombie Christmas Musical

What better way to wrap up the year (and the Christmas season) than with a high school musical comedy depicting the crumbling of society under the influence of a viral zombie outbreak? OK, I’ll admit that my usage of the word “better” might be controversial, but Anna and the Apocalypse (2017) is a fun way to undercut the more saccharine seasonal offerings and wallow in a bit of darkness while still coming out with a smile on your face.

The origins of Anna and the Apocalypse go back to 2009, when Scottish arts student Ryan McHenry began to speculate about how much better High School Musical (2006) would be if a horde of zombies had slaughtered the cast. The resultant 18 minute short film Zombie Musical (2010) is a fairly crude but effective production, showing the signs of a promising creator who has yet to achieve a more professional polish. We follow Anna (Joanne McGuinness) on the morning after a zombie outbreak as she dances along to school with music blasting in her ears, oblivious to the signs of carnage around her – a sequence clearly owing a debt to Shaun of the Dead (2004). Reaching the school as her song concludes, she is immediately attacked by a zombie, only to be rescued by axe-wielding fellow student John (Stephen Arden) – who finds himself captivated by her eyes. Young love threatens to bloom, but they are attacked by a sleazy PE teacher (Calum McCormack) who leaves John tied up with a zombie while he sings a pervy song about how happy he is to have female companionship to accompany his reign over the school. John and Anna both escape and reunite just in time for John to be bitten and succumb to zombiehood, leaving Anna to go on a zombie-killing spree until she’s finally overwhelmed by the hordes.

McHenry leans heavily into the horror aspects of the scenario, which sometimes sit uncomfortably in juxtaposition to the musical numbers – risking tonal whiplash for some viewers. It’s not a complete success as a black comedy, but it is at least a good first draft. Zombie Musical won Best Producer (Short Form) at the British Academy Scotland New Talent Awards, generating enough of a buzz for production company Black Camel to commission McHenry to develop a feature-length version. Sadly, during the development process McHenry was diagnosed with an obscure form of bone cancer – and although he continued to work on the script with collaborator Alan McDonald, McHenry finally succumbed to his cancer in 2015, two months after the release of his second short film Toast (2015). With many of the behind-the-scenes crew having been part of Zombie Musical, the production of Anna and the Apocalypse became a labour of love – a concerted effort to ensure that their friend’s final creative efforts saw the light of day.

Where the constraints of time and budget required Zombie Musical to restrict itself to three core cast members and a plot occupying no more than a few hours of a single day, Anna and the Apocalypse takes full advantage of its additional length and budget – expanding the core cast to eight characters and spreading out the action across three days. The story opens on the second last day of school before Christmas, as everybody prepares for that evening’s musical production before dispersing to their respective homes or holiday destinations. Anna (Ella Hunt), our protagonist, is desperate to escape her small town world and has been saving up to take a gap year to travel the world – a revelation which makes her widowed father, school janitor Tony (Mark Benton), go ballistic, claiming that it will ruin her educational prospects (a screen for his concern over the prospect of losing his last remaining family member). Her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is doing his best to be supportive of Anna’s decision, but is hampered somewhat by his unrequited love for her. Steph (Sarah Swire) is an insecure Canadian who has been abandoned for Christmas – her girlfriend has other plans and her parents are enjoying themselves in Mexico. Her attempts to use the school newspaper to shine a light on the town’s homeless problem are ruthlessly squashed by the tyrannical Vice Principal Savage (Paul Kaye), flexing his power as he prepares to take over as Headmaster. Steph recruits budding filmmaker Chris (Christopher Leveaux) – who needs to beef up his demo reel for his final class assignment – to help her out by filming a video blog on the homeless to circumvent the school’s censorship. Chris is in an adorably soppy relationship with Lisa (Marli Siu), who is anxious that Chris’ additional filming may cause him to miss the saucy Santa torch song she’s been working on as the headlining number of that night’s musical. And finally there’s Nick (Ben Wiggins), the obnoxious jock bully who has an inexplicably mututal thing for Anna.

The three days of the action break neatly into three acts. Day 1 introduces the central characters, establishes their motivations, and builds to the evening’s musical performance while a scattering of ominous announcements and occurrences hint at what is to come. As the second day dawns, everybody who attended the musical has barricaded themselves inside the school waiting for the army to come to their assistance. Heading obliviously to school in a larger-scale restaging of the opening from Zombie Musical, Anna and John eventually notice what’s going on and take refuge in the local bowling alley with Steph and Chris. The third day follows their journey from bowling alley to school as they attempt to reunite with their friends and family, accompanied by Nick and his posse. Those who make it as far as the school discover that Savage has gone off his rocker and let the zombies in, setting the stage for a final confrontation with Savage. Although opting for a less bleak ending than Zombie Musical, Anna and the Apocalypse doesn’t shirk on the bodycount and it should come as no surprise that not all of the core cast will escape from the movie alive.

There are three different versions of Anna and the Apocalypse in circulation – the theatrical cut; the extended cut; and the shorter US cut, which made the dubious decision to shorten some of the songs and sanitise some of the character interactions (amongst various other pointless trimmings). Both the theatrical and extended cuts are available on Second Sight’s blu ray release. While the extended cut is roughly 10 minutes longer and includes an additional song, the differences between the two versions go beyond simply inserting extra footage. The extended cut has been re-edited from the ground up, selecting different camera angles or alternative footage in the reconstruction of scenes from the theatrical cut – some of the songs even gain additional lyrics. One notable difference comes in the very first scene, which sees Anna switching off her dad’s car radio in the middle of a crucial news item. In the theatrical cut, the newsreader is about to reveal that a cold-like virus sweeping the nation is actually a lethal pathogen; but in the extended cut, this has been changed to a local new story about the local Santa Claus (appearing later in zombie form played by Calum McCormack from the original short) being in bed with the flu – similarly ominous, but less obviously so. The extended cut also makes more effort to establish what a sad and lonely individual Vince Principal Savage really is, before revealing information about his later actions which casts him in a darker light. The preponderance of minor differences makes it difficult to really say whether one version of the film is better than the other – but, if pressed, I’d probably suggest the longer cut for those who only plan to watch it once.

Toby Mottershead composed three songs for Zombie Musical, one for each cast member – but while serviceable, none of them are particularly memorable. The musical duties for Anna and the Apocalypse have been handed over to Roddy Hart & Tommy Reilly, who successfully encompass a range of styles in their 12-or-13-song soundtrack (14 if you count the deleted song only viewable as part of the special features – a forgettable country-tinged piece which would have been a significant drag on the pace of the first third of the film). “What a Time to Be Alive” starts the film off with a conventional Christmas-song sound, returning at the film’s conclusion in a Harry Connick Jr.-style arrangement. “Break Away” is a pop rock number showcasing Anna and Steph’s concerns, while “Hollywood Ending” is an annoyingly catchy musical anthem which establishes the rest of the character dynamics and would probably count as the break-out single (and has the virtue of rhyming “isnae” with “Disney”). Day 2 opens with “Turning My Life Around”, a piece of motivational pop which soundtracks Anna & John’s journey to school, and ends with synthpop isolation lament “Human Voice” – the song I’d be most likely to listen to outside the film. Nick and his mates get an “Eye of the Tiger”-inspired 80s rock anthem “Soldier at War” to show off their zombie-killing skills, while the mentally disintegrating Savage gets to lose his shit completely with the Rocky Horror-tinged “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now”, leading up to Anna’s action finale “Give Them a Show”, a song which owes more than a little to the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001). But apart from “Human Voice”, my favourite songs stem from the musical-within-a-musical – the ridiculous rap “Fish Song” and Lisa’s show-stopping sauce-fest “It’s That Time of Year”. The duo of Hart & Reilly have since gone on to writing songs for the 2020 revival of the Animaniacs cartoon (which I presume has considerably fewer zombies).

For me, the unquestioned star of the production is Sarah Swire. Her acting decisions invest her character with a social awkwardness and rich emotional life extending far beyond the dialogue she’s given and I found myself captivated by her whenever she was on screen. While this would have been sufficient for me to laud her talents, I was blown away to discover that she was also the choreographer. While I might quibble about some of the movie’s musical choices, I have no such qualms about the dancing – each of the musical numbers is impeccably choreographed, whether showcasing individual characters or focusing on the ensemble as a whole. “Hollywood Ending” is an especially good example of her work, a number which I find musically very annoying but which serves a vital role in establishing character dynamics. Swire’s contributions serve to complement the lyrics impeccably while allowing the ensemble the maximum opportunity to show off their dancing skills in a way which serves the story and makes effective use of the camera. Much of the rest of her CV consists of short films or one-off appearances on Canadian TV shows, but she recently completed a longer stint playing twin sisters in Murdoch Mysteries (2020-2021).

Ella Hunt brings a reserved charm to her lead performance as Anna, allowing her quiet competence and dry wit to draw the audience along on her journey. She’s also no slouch as a dancer – “Turning My Life Around” provides the clearest showcase for her terpsichorean talents, using her long limbs to create an illusion of gangly awkwardness which in reality is exceptionally smooth and controlled. Part of the ensemble in Les Misérables (2012), she was a series regular on Cold Feet (2016-2017) and went on to play Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law in Dickinson (2019-2021). Malcolm Cumming brings a comic glee to his role as the hapless John, while Christopher Leveaux (Aaaaaaaah!, 2015) and Marli Siu (Alex Rider, 2020-2021) are simply adorable as the mutually besotted couple who come to a bittersweet end. Ben Wiggins left less of an impact on me, but may be familiar to viewers of Pennyworth (2019) as Spanish. Mark Harmon was decent as Anna’s father, but as he’s indelibly imprinted in my mind as the doomed dad from the first episode of the Doctor Who (2005) revival series, I have very little else to say about him – especially when compared to Paul Kaye’s relish in the role of Savage, gradually escalating from poisonous malice to scenery-chewing lunacy. In a lengthy and varied career, he’s probably best known for playing Thoros of Myr in Game of Thrones (2013-2017).

If you’re after a high school musical comedy Christmas horror movie with splashes of gore, you’ve come to the right place. It swept the awards at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, winning Best Feature Film: Gold, Best Ensemble Cast, Best Comedy, Best Music and Best Title Sequence. I’m not going to claim Anna and the Apocalypse as a work of genius, but the love of the people who made it is palpable and there are far worse ways to spend your time. And Sarah Swire is a treasure.

Elves – A Christmas Horror Story

Having revisited an old favourite, it’s time for something new. Hiding amongst the usual farrago of saccharine Christmas programming is Elves [Nisser] (2021), a 6-episode Danish fantasy-horror series which has nothing to do with Santa’s workshop.

It all starts with a typical family Christmas holiday. Mads (Peder Thomas Pedersen) and Charlotte (Lila Nobel) want to get away from the urban bustle of Copenhagen for some quiet family bonding time over the holiday season, renting a house in the rural backwoods of Aarmand Island – a location only accessible by a ferry from the mainland. Their 16-year-old son Kasper (Milo Campanale) is unimpressed by the lack of wifi, with a typical teenager’s appalled attitude at having nothing to do but – shudder! – spend some “quality time” with the family. His 12-year-old sister Josefine (Sonja Steen) is far more open to their destination, chafing at the bit to get out there and explore their natural surroundings – but her parents (and her mother in particular) are reluctant to allow her to leave their side, refusing to think of her as anything other than a child. Josefine is particularly put out at their repeated refusal to get her a dog. Every year her mother refuses on the grounds that she’s not old enough to be responsible for another creature’s care – and one suspects that, with the weary inevitability familiar to many a perennially fobbed-off child, it won’t be too long before she’s told that she’s too old to need a pet.

En route to their cottage, a sudden thump suggests that they’ve hit an animal – but when they get out to take a look there’s nothing in sight, just a sticky black residue on the front of the car. Ignored and dismissed by her elders once again, Josefine is the only one interested enough to follow the trail of black away from the road towards a large electric fence. Her attempts to explore are soon thwarted by the arrival of a couple of threatening locals – Møller (Rasmus Hammerich) and Anders (Lukas Løkken) – who make it clear that the family should leave immediately and, in future, stick to using the coastal road instead.

Fed up with her family treating her like a child and concerned for the animal she’s sure that they hit, Josefine sneaks out of the house when everyone’s asleep and returns to the scene, discovering – to her shock and delight – a baby elf! Determined to nurse it back to health, she hides the elf in their run-down abandoned barn, naming it Keeko in imitation of the creaking, insectile sounds of its speech. The cute little acorn-headed creature with wood-like skin doesn’t seem interested in apples but is very receptive to pieces of bacon – although its reliance on a meat-based diet raises some concerns from Kasper when, shortly after learning of its existence, he stumbles across the body of a dead cat.

Although Josefine’s consideration for the health of stray wounded woodland creatures is admirable, something she’s failed to consider is that there might be other creatures like Keeko out there in the wilderness. Older creatures perhaps. Bigger. In sufficient quantities to justify the existence of a large electric fence which the locals are reluctant to discuss. A fence which was built 15 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of an “accident” at the no-longer-functional lumber yard which saw a significant number of fatalities in the community. And that perhaps propitiatory offerings of cattle might not be sufficient to alleviate any feelings of anger caused by concern for a missing child.

Elves is the brain-child of writer and executive producer Stefan Jaworski, co-creator of the Danish crime series Those Who Kill [Den som dræber] (2011), which was later adapted to US television (2014) by Glen Morgan (The X-Files) with Chloë Sevigny in the lead role. Although most of Jaworski’s credits are in the crime genre, it’s his work for children’s fantasy television which is more relevant here. Denmark has an annual Christmas tradition (dating back to 1962) of the Julekalender – a 24-part family TV series airing daily from the beginning of Advent (1 December) until Christmas Eve. Jaworski has created two previous entries in this tradition: Christmas in Valhalla [Jul i Valhal] (2005), in which three children release a chained man named Loke from a cave in return for three wishes, inadvertently starting Ragnarök; and Tinka and the King’s Game [Tinka og kongespillet] (2019), which follows the titular (much more human-looking) elf as she competes to succeed to the throne after her father’s untimely death. Elves is a tonal hybrid between this more child-friendly fare and his other venture into horror, the American horror movie Shookum Hills [aka The Devil Below] (2021), which shares the plot conceit of an unexplained “industrial accident” (in this instance a coal mine fire) concealing the existence of more monstrous activity. Although Elves probably isn’t appropriate for younger children, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be accessible to readers of YA fiction as the violent incidents are kept largely off-screen, although wary parents should be aware that there are visible splashes of blood and some bodies on display.

Sonja Steen does well in her first screen role, proving quite capable of sustaining audience attention as the character with the most screen time. Although her character’s determination to pursue Keeko in the face of danger becomes frustrating at times, the actress’ performance is convincing enough to sell this as a character choice and not just a plot contrivance. The rest of her family are decent enough in their roles, but it’s the actors playing the island’s residents who are more interesting to watch. Ann Eleonora Jørgensen is the most compelling as Karen, the island’s matriarch – the closest thing the townsfolk have had to an official leader since the inciting “accident”. Jørgensen has worked with Jaworski before, playing the mother of the three children in Christmas in Valhalla and its theatrical sequel The Gold of Valhalla [Guldhornene] (2007). Playing her granddaughter Liv is 16-year-old Vivelill Søgaard Holm, whose only prior role in Resin [Harpiks] (2019) saw her in a similar role as the child of rural parents who are oddly obsessed with folktales. Although her character was clearly created to provide a potential romantic interest for Kasper, she’s far more nuanced and more interesting to watch than the somewhat dull teenage boy played by Milo Campanale. Rasmus Hammerich is likely to be a familiar face to fans of nordic noir, appearing in the third season of the hit Danish/Swedish crime series The Bridge [Bron/Broen] (2015); the second series of post-apocalyptic SF thriller The Rain (2019); and the supernatural thriller series Equinox (2020). Also appearing in The Rain are Lukas Løkken – a core cast member through all three seasons, seen here in a smaller role as Møller’s short-lived assistant – and Lila Nobel.

Esben Toft Jacobsen’s creature design has a suitably organic feel, creating a race of elves which are so exceptionally suited to their woodland environment that they are almost indistinguishable from it, ratcheting up the sense of suspense whenever a character trespasses upon their home territory. The elves are realised via a combination of puppetry, practical costumes and CGI, giving them a tactile presence which would be lost in a purely CGI creation. Like Jaworski, Jacobsen is a creator whose work bridges strikingly different worlds. He’s primarily known as a creator of children’s animation, the writer/director/designer/storyboard artist/editor of two features – The Great Bear [Den kæmpestore bjørn] (2011) and Beyond Beyond [Resan till Fjäderkungens Rike] (2014) – and the odd little TV series Kiwi & Strit [Kiwi og Strit] (2016-2021). This is not what you’d expect of someone who would go on to co-create a dystopian television series about the aftermath of a rainfall-based viral outbreak, the above-mentioned The Rain (2018-2020).

Taking up only six 20-26 minute episodes, Elves is a fairly quick watch. Although it would have been possibly to edit the whole series together into a roughly 130 minute movie, the storytelling benefits from being broken into chapters, while also allowing more space for the characters to breathe. The plot is straightforward and not particularly innovative, but this does make it more accessible for younger viewers looking for a bit of a scare – or for tired adults looking for an easily digestible dark fantasy confection. Although I’d take issue with a couple of character decisions in the final episode, it comes together fairly well and I never felt like it wasted my time.

AD/BC: A Rock Opera

I’m not a fan of Christmas movies – but I do like trawling through unloved genres in search of gems which deserve a wider audience. AD/BC: A Rock Opera (2004) is one such gem, a neglected comedy special from the early 2000s which purports to be a lost Christmas rock opera from the late 1970s in the style of Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), starring actors from such British comedy classics as The Mighty Boosh (2004-2007), Little Britain (2003-2007), Big Train (1998-2002), Brass Eye (1997-2001) and The IT Crowd (2006-2013).

Creators Matt Berry and Richard Ayoade first worked together on Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004), a “revival” of a non-existent 1980s TV series created by a mass-market horror novelist with delusions of talent, interspersed with interview footage of the original cast “remembering” the show’s troubled production history. Co-creator Ayoade played Marenghi’s publisher Dean Lerner, the money behind the series, earning him the woodenly-acted role of the main character’s boss. Berry played Todd Rivers, an alcoholic womaniser past his prime who was cast as the series love interest but kept out of the spotlight by the jealous Marenghi.

Ayoade and Berry take a similarly meta approach to their co-creation AD/BC. Matt Berry (composer and co-writer) plays Tim Wynde, a would-be singer/songwriter with two dud albums behind him who (feigning ignorance of the spate of religious-themed rock operas in the early 1970s) has decided to make a musical about the birth of Christ focusing on the innkeeper in whose stable the child was born, casting himself (of course) in the central role of Innkeeper. Richard Ayoade (director and co-writer) plays expressionist dance enthusiast (and brother of the lyricist) C.T. Homerton, seen here only in his fictional persona as Joseph. Rounding out the central cast are Julian Barratt as Roger Kingsman, lead singer from The Purple Explosion, in the role of business rival Tony Iscariot (a tip of the hat to Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, who played Jesus on the original 1970 Jesus Christ Superstar concept album); Julia Davis as Maria Preston-Bush, a folk singer forced to sing outside of her natural vocal register in the role of the Innkeeper’s wife Ruth; and Matt Lucas as Caplan Joyce, a figure from the world of professional wrestling who lends his bass tones to a cameo role as God.

The deliberately banal plot is pretty straightforward. Business hasn’t been great for the Innkeeper, who’s jealous of his more successful rival Tony. Hearing his laments, God tells him not to worry because somebody really important is coming to town and will stay at his inn. Jumping to the conclusion that this can only mean that megastar stand-up comedian King Herod (Dan Antopolski) is coming to town, the Innkeeper reject’s Tony’s generous offer to buy him out and unceremoniously ejects all of his current residents – including his wife’s aged mother – to make away for Herod and his entourage. This is the last straw for the long-suffering Ruth, who packs her bags and heads off to hook up with Tony (an old flame dying to get back into her pants). Railing against God for his own stupidity, the Innkeeper refuses to give Joseph a room but grudgingly allows him to “stay in the shed”. While Tony practices his seduction techniques in front of a mirror, the Three Wise Men (Lucy Montgomery, Lydia Fox & Sophie Winkleman) meet up with the Three Shepherds (Noel Fielding, Karl Theobald & Tom Hillenbrand). Everybody heads off to the stable to witness the birth of the saviour and all of the Innkeeper’s problems are solved – Ruth forgives him everything; Tony wipes the Innkeeper’s debt and tells him what a cool dude he is; and everybody sings about “makin’ love in the morning, makin’ love in the evening, last thing at night, shepherd’s delight” – you know, the true meaning of Christmas.

The production bears all the hallmarks of a vintage low-budget production which has been poorly maintained. Opening with an archival tape leader identifying the date of transmission as 1978, Wynde’s introductory section about the show’s creation is afflicted by glitches and variations in speed typical of a worn and stretched videotape. The style of the production (directed by Ayoade in the slipshod style of his character) is clearly ripped off from the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, stealing shamelessly from its visual stylings (multiple zooms, freeze-frames, a pretentiously self-important montage of B&B signs) and applying them in a haphazardly amateurish way which reveals the creative vacuum at its heart. Other aspects of the production are similarly indebted to this primary source: the opening number “Spreadin’ Holy Light (Part 1)” rips off the choreography from “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem”; the guitar riff and main melodic line of “Tony’s Challenge” are strikingly similar to the movie’s opening number “Heaven on Their Minds”; Matt Lucas’ performance as God is heavily influenced by Bob Bingham’s Caiaphas; Julian Barratt’s Tony Iscariot is reminiscent of Barry Dennen’s Pontius Pilate; and Julia Davis’ Ruth appears to be modelled on Carl Anderson’s Judas Iscariot. But let it not be said that Matt Berry’s Tim Wynde isn’t an equal opportunity plagiarist – he also rips off Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” for “Joseph’s Song”, and “La Partie de Ruth” owes a lot to “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell (1973).

Those lucky few with access to the DVD release have the privilege of being let in on some of the behind-the-scene dramas of the fictional rock opera. Composer/star Tim Wynde is featured in a 20-minute profile Wynde: Behind the Man, a special supposedly filmed shortly after the original production but aired only on Spanish TV in the 1980s (with Spanish subtitles throughout and some of the interview questions clearly overdubbed in Spanish). Contrasting with his view of events are the DVD liner notes by lyricist/director Solomon Homerton, whose brother Charles Thaddeus Homerton appeared in the production as Joseph. Each of the creators portrays the other as a talentless hack. Wynde provides a vague story about being contractually paired with Somerton but claims to have written all the lyrics himself – although a physical tick suggests he’s being economical with the truth and he later states that the only good thing about the production was the music. Somerton provides a more detailed account of answering an advertisement from a composer seeking a lyricist, observes that Wynde didn’t write any of the lyrics on his solo records either, and draws attention to the obvious unoriginality in Wynde’s musical compositions – although his claims that the lyrics are the production’s only saving grace demonstrate an equally deluded sense of the quality of his own achievements. Adding the icing on top of their rivalry cake is the love triangle formed with lead actress Maria Preston-Bush, who hooked up with Wynde shortly before the project began but left him for Somerton during its production. (In this instance, life imitated art in a different fashion – Julia Davis, who played Preston-Bush playing Ruth, is actually involved with Julian Barratt, who played the actor playing Ruth’s love interest!)

Director Richard Ayoade is probably better known for his deadpan comic persona in roles such as Moss in The IT Crowd and as the host of The Crystal Maze (2017-2020). He directed one other TV series after AD/BC – the self-starring Man to Man with Dean Lerner (2006) – before moving on to music video clips for Arctic Monkeys, Super Furry Animals, Vampire Weekend, The Last Shadow Puppets, Kasabian, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Radiohead and The Breeders. He made one more trip into the world of TV comedy with the “Critical Film Studies” episode of Community (2011) in between making two feature-length films – the award-winning teen relationship comedy-drama Submarine (2010) and the comedy-thriller Dostoyevsky adaptation The Double (2013). Matt Berry is best known for playing a series of deep-voiced self-obsessed assholes in various comedy projects, but is also a talented musician with multiple albums to his name (1995-2021). Julian Barratt is best known as the composer/co-writer/co-star of The Mighty Boosh, in which he is often undeservedly overshadowed by his co-star Noel Fielding (appearing here in a few small roles, along with fellow Boosh alumni Rich Fulcher, Lucy Montgomery and Dave Lambert). Julia Davis has built herself a career pushing the genre of black comedy into some very dark directions in series such as Jam (2000) and Nighty Night (2004-2005).

AD/BC: A Rock Opera (2004) is deliberately dodgy and derivative. It may be difficult to take for those who demand a more polished production style, but it’s a clever and witty reconstruction of incompetency which is far more entertaining than your standard shiny-but-empty Christmas fare. I recommend it unreservedly to any fans of the main performers – and if, like me, you’re also a fan of the movie Jesus Christ Superstar, you’ll find plenty of easter eggs here to delight you.

Underwater Love: A Pink Musical

Take the memories of a high school romance that never was. Swap out one of the characters for a water spirit. Add a maverick director of Japanese sex cinema. Filter through the lens of an internationally renowned cinematographer. Serve with a garnish of German synth-pop. Whatever it is you’re now imagining, you’re probably still unable to fully anticipate the oddities of Underwater Love [Onna no kappa] (2011).

The first thing the viewer will encounter is a screen filled with a vibrant pink – immediately evoking its genre status as a Pink Film (pinku eiga), a term which broadly stands in for Japanese sex cinema (an oversimplification, but there’s no need to go into the details here). As the backdrop slowly modulates through different shades of pink, a narrator provides a brief introduction to the characteristics of the water spirit known as the kappa – a creature from Japanese folklore which has a beak and a turtle shell, needs to keep its head moist and likes to eat cucumber.

The twee tones of the opening theme merge into the crunching sounds of a cucumber being eaten as we’re treated to the sight of a gorgeously filmed lake covered in algae and lotus plants, panning upwards to reveal the kappa Aoki (Umezawa Yoshiro) chilling out chest-deep in the water. After contemplating this beatific scene for a good 90 seconds, the camera speed accelerates the pace of ripples and breeze to allow a smooth transition into the rolling boil of a cooking pot at a nearby fish factory. Here we meet Asuka (Masaki Sawa), one of the factory workers, who expresses a childlike delight at finding that one of the fish from their latest haul is still alive. Attempting to hide it from her co-workers, she suddenly breaks into a song-and-dance number. All of the women join in while a man in a pot spins awkwardly across the screen. At the sudden cessation of the song, Asuka remembers the fish in her hand and dashes outside to return it to the lake – only to see it immediately eaten by the kappa, who thanks her and does a clumsy little hand dance. By the time she returns with her co-workers there’s no sign that he was ever there – but her excitement at her discovery causes her to finally grant her boss (Yoshioka Mutsuo) permission to announce their engagement.

Driving home from work, Asuka is surprised by the sudden appearance of the kappa in the middle of the road. He casually informs her that he is her old high school friend Aoki, who drowned in a swamp and came back as a kappa. Unsure which fact to be more freaked out by – that he’s a kappa, or that he’s come back from the dead – she calms down pretty quickly after he informs her that this sort of thing is perfectly normal, taking him home so they can catch up. Reacting guiltily when her fiance Hajime turns up, she first tries to hustle her betrothed out of the house before submitting to his badgering libido in order to distract him from the splashing noises in the bathroom.

Asuka is treated to another surprise the following day when Hajime introduces the factory girls to their new part-timer – Aoki, “disguised” in a hat, dark glasses and face mask. Informing his employees that their new co-worker suffers from a sensitivity to sunlight, Hajime seems blithely oblivious that Aoki’s mask barely conceals the shape of his tortoise-like beak, let alone the fact that his shell is blatantly poking through the back of his shirt and his hands are green. This doesn’t appear to put off Asuka’s friend Reiko (Narita Ai) in any way – observing Aoki’s dejection when Asuka refuses to take him home with her, she drags Aoki off to an abandoned house in the woods for sex, completely unphased – if anything, excited – by her discovery that he’s a kappa.

In between attempts to reconnect with Asuka, Aoki hangs out with a weird guy in a multi-coloured dress who’s constantly drinking and smoking. This turns out to be the God of Death (Moriya Fumio) – apparently Asuka is destined to die for some unspecified reason in the near future, so he’s just kicking around with his mate Aoki until her time arrives. Aoki isn’t really cool with the idea of his high school crush dying in her 30s, so after being discovered in her house by her jealous fiance, he convinces her to run off with him into the wilderness to save her life. Venturing into the swamp where he died to meet his fellow kappas, Aoki convinces their elder (Satō Hiroshi) to relinquish his “anal pearl” (shirikodama) in order to save her life. Yes, I said “anal pearl” – but believe it or not, this isn’t a weird sex thing – this is actually part of kappa folklore! Normally the transaction goes the other way around – kappas would supposedly feed on the life force or soul of their victims by extracting it through the anus in the form of a ball. They also have three anuses themselves – which I suppose explains how the elderly kappa might have an anal pearl to spare. Presumably, then, by reversing the process and inserting the shirikodama – which is depicted here as a large gristly pink ball – Asuka is adding another person’s lifespan to her own, although the script sees no reason to explain any of this. Interrupted in the process of washing the pearl, Asuka defeats the God of Death in a sumo match before finally completing the uncomfortable process, only to discover that Aoki has died. Bringing him back to life through sex, he turns back into a human and they go at it again before he disappears into a puff of glittery smoke.

Having broken off her engagement, Asuka reads the old love letters that she and Aoki never sent each other during high school, cherishing the memory of their brief reconnection and hoping for their reunion in a future life. Cut to Aoki the kappa holding a tape deck, kicking off a final dance number in which Asuka is joined by the rest of cast (in full costume) for a joyous song-and-dance finale!

Director Imaoka Shinji is known as one of the “Seven Lucky Gods of Pink” (shichifukujin), an umbrella term coined to refer to an informal grouping of roughly contemporary filmmakers who stand out due to their individual styles. Given the plot details described above, it should come as no surprise to learn that Imaoka is one the more idiosyncratic directors working in the pinku arena – especially when you consider his apparent lack of interest in the sex scenes which are supposedly the genre’s raison d’être. Not only are the sex scenes (four) outnumbered by the musical segments (six), but so little of what is going on is visible on screen that you could be forgiven for assuming that the sex isn’t real – although according to Jasper Sharp in his invaluable reference work Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema (FAB Press, 2008), this is entirely characteristic of the director’s approach to depicting real sex acts. The most explicit thing seen on screen is an act of fellatio performed upon the knobbly green prosthetic standing in for the kappa‘s penis – all other instances of genital contact are kept very much offscreen.

It’s difficult tell which is more astonishing – the plot of the movie, or the fact that no less a luminary than Christopher Doyle was enlisted as the film’s cinematographer. Born in Australia but having lived most of his life in Hong Kong, Doyle has won 60 awards at festivals around the world in the course of his career, including four Golden Horse Awards and six Hong Kong Film Awards. A long-time collaborator with Wong Kar-wai (acting as cinematographer on 9 of his 15 films), other notable directors with whom he has worked include Stanley Kwan, Chen Kaige, Gus Van Sant, Barry Levinson, Jon Favreau, Zhang Yimou, Philip Noyce, James Ivory, Fruit Chan, M. Night Shyamalan, Jim Jarmusch, Neil Jordan, Shimizu Takashi, Mark Cousins, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Asia Argento. Although Underwater Love seems an unlikely project to draw his attention, the opening scene of immediately catches the eye with its sumptuous depiction of the aquatic habitat and it’s in the outdoor scenes where Doyle’s work really shines. Although the factory scenes feel flat by comparison, the film’s celebration of youthful play suggests that this is a deliberate choice, and the scenes shot in the abandoned house – the scene both of Aoki’s lost youth and his playful sexual awakening – are the most vibrant of the indoor scenes.

Although lead actress Masaki Sawa seems an unlikely casting choice for something sold as a sex film, she brings the requisite sense of childlike exuberance to make her character work, throwing herself enthusiastically into the dance routines and infusing the film with joie de vivre. Most of her other work is outside the pinku genre, such as the “O is for Ochlocracy” segment of ABCs of Death 2 (2014) and the American/Japanese horror film Temple (2017). Umezawa Yoshiro’s deadpan performance as the kappa might stem from a lack of acting ability, but it supports the suggestion that all of this is perfectly normal and his dorkily incompetent dance is kind of endearing. Narita Ai is fun as the factory worker who does sex work on the side so she can save up to move to Tokyo. Moriya Fumio’s strange interpretation of the God of Death as a cross-dressing dirtbag seems even more unusual when you consider that he co-wrote the script and song lyrics with the director – but when you consider the context he’s working in, his amateurish performance certainly isn’t out of place.

The songs and score are provided by Stereo Total, a Berlin-based synth-pop duo comprising French novelist/musician Françoise Cactus (vocals, drums, theremin, guitar) and Brezel Göring (sampler, synthesizer, melodica, mandolin, guitar), with additional orchestral parts performed by the Elbipolis Barock Orchester. Forming in 1993, they remained a going concern until the death of Françoise Cactus earlier this year from breast cancer. Their contributions to Underwater Love are breezily poppy, jaunty and spiky, built on a simple melodic base which complements the sense of shambolic childhood experimentation infusing the film. Imaoka & Moriya’s lyrics are occasionally jarringly at odds with what is actually going on in the film, but that never really seems to matter.

It’s difficult to identify a target audience for Underwater Love, since it’s so defiantly its own thing. As a sex film it’s decidedly unerotic, with two of the four scenes (which occupy a vanishingly small amount of screen time) deriving their main appeal from the more fantastical elements. The performances are about as far as you can get from any naturalistic style of acting and the dance skills of the performers are largely absent. The kappa prosthetics are serviceable but will convince no one – the director doesn’t even make any attempt to hide the real human lips behind the kappa‘s beak. There is some beautiful imagery on display courtesy of Christopher Doyle, but it’s hard to imagine that a dedicated follower of his work would see this particular project as an essential viewing experience. And yet there’s an overall charm to the whole production which is infectious – and if you’re willing to buy into the musical style of the songs, the final number will have you leaving the film on a feel-good high. Is it a good film? Probably not – but I think that’s the wrong question to ask and I feel churlish for even suggesting it while its lingering memories continue to raise a smile, bopping away in an ungainly fashion in the background of my mind.

Bring It On, Ghost!

Yes, it’s late November, but I still see no reason to let go of Halloween. The main television series keeping me entertained last month was Bring It On, Ghost [Ssauja Gwisina] (2016), a supernatural horror romantic comedy which should appeal to fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) – flipping the template of the central pairing to match a university student moonlighting as an exorcist with a teenage ghost.

Park Bong-pal (Ok Taec-yeon) is a 23-year-old Economics student who aces his classes but has no interest in making friends. He can also see ghosts. And punch them. He first discovered these abilities when, as a young child, he witnessed a billowing black cloud pushing his mother into traffic. Not long afterwards his father pretty much disappeared from his life for reasons he doesn’t understand, and he was ostracised and/or bullied by his fellow students in the belief that his abilities were evidence of a curse. The only reliable presence in his life has been Monk Myung-cheol (Kim Sang-ho), a washed up exorcist who was once at the top of his profession but whose abilities have been minimal to non-existent for as long as Bong-pal has known him – he’s even listed in Bong-pal’s phone as “Fake Monk”. Bong-pal has a single goal in life – to earn enough money to pay for the unspecified procedure which will remove his abilities. To this end he has secretly been working as an exorcist for hire, beating up ghosts until their ectoplasmic forms disperse into the ether – although, since he’s not a very good fighter, he’s mainly picking on the weak ghosts and running away from those who fight back.

That all changes when he meets Kim Hyun-ji (Kim So-hyun), the ghost of a 19-year-old high school student who has been lingering on Earth for the past 5 years without any memory of where she lived or how she died. Masquerading as a client, she contacts him via email to book him for a job at an abandoned – and notoriously haunted – high school. At first Bong-pal makes the mistake of assuming that she is the target, not the client, and Hyun-ji takes great pleasure in giving him a thorough ass-kicking. As it turns out, she lured him to there to deal with another ghost who had been stalking her – the ghost of a teacher masquerading as a Sadako-type spirit who haunts the girl’s toilets and kills trespassers. The two prove to be an effective team, making two key discoveries during the course of the fight. For Bong-pal, the key discovery is that Hyun-ji is not just a better fighter than him, she is also able to spot other ghosts’ weak points. Hyun-ji’s discovery is more personal – tumbling down the stairs together during the fight, a chance meeting of their lips caused her to briefly flash back to the moment of her accident for the very first time. Will kissing him again help her to remember more? Amidst the various “I need to kiss you but it doesn’t mean anything” hijinks that ensue, the two make a deal – she will help him to fight ghosts and he will use some of the proceeds to keep up her energy by buying her food (which ghosts can only eat if prepared for them by a human) and clothing (which, like ghost money, must be burned for her to possess).

Filling the role of main villain is Joo Hye-sung (Kwon Yul), the new young Professor of Veterinary Science at Bong-pal’s university, fortuitously filling a position which suddenly and not-at-all-suspiciously became vacant between semesters. Quickly attaining heart-throb status among the female student body – including, much to Bong-pal’s dismay, his secret crush Lim Seo-yeon (Baek Seo-yi) – it soon becomes clear that he’s a far more sinister figure than his friendly demeanour would suggest, with an unexplained animal mutilation and the disappearance of a student just the tip of the iceberg. Stronger than he appears and expert at covering his tracks, he nevertheless attracts the suspicion of Detective Yang (Yoon Seo-hyun), who continues to delve deeper into Hye-sung’s activities despite the lack of any concrete evidence, attracting the ire of his boss.

Rounding out the supporting cast are PE student Choi Cheon-sang (Kang Ki-young) and Computer Science student Kim In-rang (Lee David), the founders and sole members of the university’s about-to-be-deregistered ghost-hunting club. Accidentally discovering Bong-pal’s abilities while filming a video for their YouTube channel, they desperately try to entangle themselves in his life in order to retain their clubroom (which doubles as their rent-free residence) and achieve internet fame. Along the way they rebrand themselves as a social eating club, sneakily recruiting Bong-pal’s crush to ensure his presence, and set themselves up as commissioning agents for his exorcism work, becoming the cowardly sidekicks of his de facto Scooby gang.

Bring It On, Ghost is based on a web comic which was originally serialised on Naver between 2007 and 2010. Although I can’t comment on its faithfulness to the original, Lee Dae-il’s script is effective at juggling the comedy, horror and romance aspects of the underlying concept. Although the various ghostly antagonists are capable of looking like normal humans, most of the time they appear in a classically scary form – all pale skin, bleeding eyes and facial contortions. Their motivations, on the other, are never quite so clear-cut and as the story progresses there’s a gradual shift in emphasis in the way the ghosts are portrayed. The ghosts of the first few episodes are outright malevolent, but are generally presented with a twist – the long-haired female ghost of the first episode turns out to be a perverted male teacher; the ghost dragging people into cupboards turns out to be trying to hide them from the ghost of the man who killed her. A dash of nuance is introduced with the ghost of a celebrity who killed herself as a result of internet bullying – her vengeful quest to eliminate all of those who hurt her is complicated by the fact that her main antagonist also left comments using hacked accounts, opening up innocents – including Cheon-sang – to her attack. From this point on the stories begin to introduce more sympathetic ghosts, shifting the emphasis increasingly towards attempting to understand them rather than simply punching them (although there are still plenty of fights to keep the viewer entertained).

This shift from antagonism to empathy parallels the development of the relationship between Bong-pal and Hyun-ji. Conscious of the awkwardness of asking an audience to identify with a relationship between a university student and a high school girl, the showrunners make it clear that while Hyun-ji was 19 when she died, she would now be 24 and is thus one year older than Bong-pal (although since the actress was 17 and the actor 28 at the time of filming, this may still present a problem for some viewers). Initially pursuing him only with platonic intent, Hyun-ji is the one who takes the lead in the relationship and it takes Bong-pal some time to come around to the idea that he might be falling in love with her. Once they finally give into their feelings for each other, the audience will of course begin to have some concerns about how a love story between a ghost and a human can possibly have a happy ending – concerns which I was pleased to see Monk Myung-cheol raise and to which all three characters give due consideration. But while I’m reluctant to say too much for fear of spoilers, I can assure the hopeless romantics in the audience that there are further twists and revelations to come which make such a happy ending possible – while also redressing any power imbalances inherent in the perceived age gap.

Despite this gap, Ok Taec-yeon and Kim So-hyun make a charming on-screen couple. So-hyun in particular displays a talent at acting which belies her age, even taking into consideration that she was a 10-year veteran by this point. She attracted a great deal of attention for her role as a villainous young queen-to-be in Moon Embracing the Sun [Haereul Pum-eun Dal] (2012) and starrred more recently as folk heroine Princess Pyeonggang in River Where the Moon Rises [Dari Tteuneun Gang] (2021). Ok Taec-yeon, best known as the main rapper of Korean boy band 2PM, made a shift from romantic lead to main villain earlier this year in the dark comedy/crime series Vincenzo [Binsenjo] (2021).

Kim Sang-ho, who brings a wounded dignity to his (mostly) comic role as the hapless Monk, is likely to be familiar to viewers of hit zombie historical drama Kingdom [Kingdeom] (2019-2020), in which he plays the bodyguard to Prince Chang. Kang Ki-young’s exaggeratedly physical performance as the obnoxiously over-confident and socially awkward leader of the ghost club is very much in line with his sous chef character in the previously reviewed Oh My Ghost [O Naui Gwisinnim] (2015) – intentionally irritating, but funny too. Lee David fills the straight man role in their comedy double-act, but shows off more of his range in films like The Fortress [Namhan sanseong] (2017) and Swing Kids [Seuwingkijeu] (2018) (reviewed here). Lee Jung-eun, who played the Shaman in Oh My Ghost, has a guest appearance in episode 2. And I was delighted to spot comedian Kim Hyun-sook, who played Reporter Jo in Are You Human? [Neodo Inganini?] (2018) (reviewed here), in a final episode cameo appearance as a dodgy Shaman – a character who appears to be set up as a foil for Monk Myung-cheol just in case there was enough demand for a second season.

Lee Dae-il’s follow-up script Life on Mars [Raipeu On Maseu] (2018) took on the unexpected challenge of adapting the hit UK series Life on Mars (2006-2007), shifting the action from England in 1973 to South Korea in 1988 and winning that year’s Asian Academy Creative Award for Best Adaptation. Director Park Joon-hwa went on to make What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim [Kimbiseoga Wae Geureolkka] (2018), another web comic adaptation, in this case a romantic comedy about bonding through shared trauma.

Basically, Bring It On, Ghost is a lot of fun. It does go dark in places, but nothing that a Buffy fan shouldn’t be able to cope with. The first (subtitled) trailer below provides a good introduction to the characters, the basic premise and the sense of humour. The second trailer, which lacks subtitles, showcases more of the action – but I mainly included it because the opening 20 seconds (which don’t appear in the series) made me laugh.