Yokai And Thongchai And Pod, Oh My!
By Peter Wong
Advocates for expanding the boundaries of fantastic film would benefit from checking out a good film festival to find effective examples. Such showcases for cinematic art may not provide either a smorgasbord of fantasy films or Sci-Fi Channel-style "blow up the BEM" fare. But the better fantastic films that do get programmed marry the excitement of the fantastic with stylistic story telling. The Blair Witch Project, 28 Days Later, and Mirrormask, for example, played the Sundance Film Festival before getting theatrical release.
The Rotterdam International Film Festival is an excellent source of such material. This year’s 35th Festival screened "Homecoming" from Masters Of Horror . Other offerings included a children’s film that balanced classic themes with irreverence, and an Amelie-style musical fantasy that also decried global warming.
The Great Yokai War is the children’s film firmly rooted in Japanese mythology. Director Takashi Miike tells the story of Tadashi, a city kid who hates his forced re-location to the sticks. His schoolmates routinely bully him. His semi-senile grandfather constantly mistakes him for a dead son. His tendency to get easily spooked also embarrasses him.
When Tadashi gets selected as the village’s ceremonial Kirin Rider, the boy fears his life has hit bottom. The Kirin Rider bravely champions truth and justice, something Tadashi feels incapable of doing even on a pretend basis. But the boy must soon mature into a real warrior. The evil Lord Kato is capturing and killing yokai (Japanese spirits) to create an army of half-yokai, half-mechanical creatures. These creatures are soldiers in his plot to wipe humanity off the face of the earth. Only Tadashi, aided by a handful of yokai who have escaped capture, stands between Kato and the destruction of humanity.
The film’s plot does indeed resemble that of dozens of urban heroic fantasy anime features. It’s not an accident, for the film is a loose remake of a 1960’s feature. On a visual level, though, the film’s special effects wonderfully outstrip the 1960’s original. The yokai-machine hybrids look like a combination of skinless Terminators and mythological demons. More impressive is a crowd scene where every inch of the screen is filled with yokai. Though computer animation made this scene possible, seeing a literal cast of thousands fill a live-action screen still leaves adults in unashamed child-like awe.
Miike does treat his source material with irreverence. Tadashi’s grandfather barfs into the sacred Kirin Rider outfit. But Miike’s irreverence never descends to outright mockery of the genre’s tropes. The toppling of a temple may be greeted with a character’s blasé "Don’t worry about it. It’s only Gamera." Yet that moment of comic relief doesn’t make Tadashi’s struggle ridiculous.
For the titular yokai war is the medium for following the very human story of Tadashi’s maturing process. Though the boy suffers setbacks, his eventual growing into the hero’s role symbolizes his first steps towards adulthood. Humans’ ability to see yokai turns out to be a metaphor for Tadashi’s journey. But the film’s logical culmination of this point may annoy adult fans of fantasy.
For a fantasy that doesn’t treat adults as children, one needs a story featuring a smoking, drinking and cursing teddy bear. Thongchai is just one of the wonderfully oddball characters populating the Bangkok of Wisit Satantienang’s musical romance, Citizen Dog. The title derives from the fate "afflicting" people who find a job in the Thai city. Country bumpkin Pod moves to Bangkok in search of work. But his fear of growing a tail soon pales when compared to the sheer weirdness of Bangkok life. The crowds around Pod burst into the same song. Accidentally severed fingers get re-attached with ease, despite being stored in sardine cans for several days. Besides Thongchai, other strange characters inhabiting Bangkok include Kong, a motorcycle taxi driver killed by a rain of motorcycle helmets, and Jin, a neatness-obsessed maid who occasionally carries on conversations with characters in a magazine romance serial.
Needless to say, Pod develops a crush on Jin. The film soon charts the convoluted course of Pod and Jin’s relationship.
Citizen Dog’s Thailand is a study in candy-colored chaos. Bangkok may not be an eye-blazingly bright world where personal happiness is assured. Characters have their hearts broken to the point where heavy drinking and worse become natural responses. Yet the world of Satantienang’s film feels ruled by its inhabitants’ acceptance of outrageous coincidences. Jin, for example, moves to Bangkok because of a paperback book with a blank white cover that falls into her hands from a doomed plane.
In a way, Citizen Dog may remind some viewers of Amelie’s fantastic Paris. Yet the world of that French film felt hermetically sealed off from the current century. Terrible things happen in Citizen Dog’s world, such as people beaten to death by the police. But the Thai film also reminds people to look beyond life’s awfulness and notice the sources of happiness in front of them.
The Great Yokai War and Citizen Dog may eventually reach American theatres or home video. The Miike film was voted Audience Favorite at the San Francisco Indie Fest, and some of Miike’s previous films have been commercially released. Luc Besson’s Europacorp may distribute the Satantienang film in North America.
But why let one’s curiosity regarding worthy films be dependent on a distributor’s whim? A film festival appearance is at least a certainty. If nothing else, places such as Rotterdam’s festival may be the only sure venue for catching Edgar Honetschlager’s Dada fantasy Erni. That charmingly strange short film’s titular character is a talking chicken in a suit.