It’s hard to think of an event less suited to the age of the coronavirus than a film festival—thousands of strangers from all over the place coming together to sit inside packed, air-conditioned venues for hours on end? A simple, sensible request is an impossible ask for some. Can you really be trusted to keep your masks on in a darkened room, even when nobody’s watching?

As the film industry spends its fifth month under lockdown, the pandemic has caused disruptions worldwide to the regular festival calendar. While other spring festivals like Tribeca and SXSW compromised by going virtual, Cannes considered such an option antithetical to the spirit of the event, so organizers instead announced a selection of films that would have been included in this year’s lineup, which will be taken to festivals later in the year with a “Cannes 2020” branding—if they happen at all. Meanwhile, Sundance, whose 2020 edition was the final festival to proceed more or less as normal (it may also have been a secret breeding ground for the virus) has already announced possible changes for Sundance 2021 in the event that no vaccine is yet available.

Despite concerns, one South Korean festival made a fresh attempt at pressing forward this month, keeping its functions very much alive. The Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN for short), the country’s largest showcase of genre pictures from around the globe devoted to horror, thriller, mystery, fantasy and sci-fi, drew the curtains on its 24th edition this week. 174 films from 42 countries were screened in eight brick-and-mortar theaters under strict quarantine procedures. No entry without face masks—that’s a given. No entry for those who have traveled internationally in the past 14 days. A maximum of 50 percent occupancy of theaters for social distancing measures. Check-ins requiring contact tracing—personal information to be shared with institutions in the event of a confirmed case of COVID-19. The monitoring of your temperature with both thermal imaging cameras and non-contact thermometers before every screening you’re scheduled to attend. The question of safety should be an obvious one, but as anyone trying to organize a festival will tell you, nothing is concrete and the facts are changing all the time.

After months of vowing to persevere, Telluride capitulated this week. Upcoming jamborees like Venice and Toronto are still up in the air. BIFAN, for us, was a reminder that there are rewards that await us at festivals—if we can get there, safely. These are Anthem’s ten highlights from BIFAN.

The 24th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival ran from July 9-16.

I. FINE ART IN THE MOVIEHOUSE

The posthumous work by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is a 70-minute audiovisual essay set on a dying Earth in the distant future, loosely adapted from Olaf Stapledon’s seminal 1930 novel of the same title. In Last and First Men, Tilda Swinton’s disembodied narrator—accompanied by Jóhannsson’s ethereal score—elegiacally intones good and bad news, calmly but desolately reaching out to us. The bad news is that she speaks from a time when all life on Earth is soon to be extinguished. And the good news? We have another two billion years of survival ahead of us, albeit with a number of extinctions and rebirths along the way. This profound and lyrical rumination on the end of days demands your full immersion. It is completely ravishing.

II. THE ENDING TO END ALL ENDINGS

Natalie Erika James’s Relic, a haunted house movie that is not so secretly about coming to terms with the gradual attrition of loved ones addled with dementia, boasts an uncommonly poignant and unexpected ending in the horror genre. We hadn’t stopped thinking about it since Sundance 2020 earlier this year, so it was a no-brainer to revisit the film at BIFAN on the basis of that alone.

Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote), mother and daughter, return to their family home when Edna (Robyn Nevin), their mother and grandmother, goes missing. When Edna mysteriously reappears, the two notice obvious signs of her haunted state. The end of the film sees Kay and Sam survive a violent struggle against an evil entity that’s taken a hold of the woman they once knew. But when it comes time to leave Edna to her fate and escape, Kay finds it in herself to turn back. After carrying Edna’s transformed, shriveled body to bed, Kay peels off disintegrating layers of her mother’s skin. She tenderly curls up beside Edna, making the terrifying choice to embrace her mother’s golem. Now joined in by Sam, they are three generations of women bound by their hereditary attachment. It is a powerful visual—a poetic payoff on a dicey gamble.

III. A STAR SHOULD BE BORN

We’re already privy to the towering acting chops on Nina Hoss, who headlines Katrin Gebbe’s Pelican Blood, which was crowned this year’s Best of Bucheon—BIFAN’s top honor. Anthem profiled the German actress back in 2012 when Christian Petzold’s Barbara was making the rounds. New on our radar, however, is her Pelican Blood co-star, Austrian-Turkish actor and rapper Murathan Muslu, who is yet little known outside of European circles. He seems ripe for a Hollywood crossover, and the tide is turning: Muslu recently starred in Patrick Vollrath’s hijacking thriller 7500. Trust that he won’t disappear quietly into the night—not around these parts anyway.

IV. NEW BLOOD IS NOT ALWAYS NEW

What shitty rock have we been hiding under? We’re so late to Joko Anwar, and it’s a regrettable travesty. Indonesia’s prolific genre filmmaker remained a main staple at BIFAN 2020. Last year, he even put on a masterclass, which we missed out on because, well, at the time, “Who the hell is he?” Things will never be the same again, certainly not after watching Impetigore. This guy knows horror front to back. First and foremost, and through and through, he is a film nerd in the tradition of Guillermo del Toro and Álex de la Iglesia. These guys will seldom let you down.

Impetigore, which received the Méliès International Festivals Federation Award for Best Asian Film at BIFAN, is the tale of a young woman (Tara Basro) who travels to the remote village where she was born, only to discover that the cursed community blames her for the black magic put upon its children. Now the only way to break the spell that causes babies to be born without skin is by killing the last surviving heir of the village’s elder, whom the locals believe to be our protagonist.

V. FAILURE TO LAUNCH

You should know that we’re embroiled in a complicated relationship with Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, which tells the story of a pious young nurse (Morfydd Clark) who experiences beatific visions and spirals into an obsession about saving the soul of her dying patient (Jennifer Ehle). Glass, Clark, and Ehle is a filmmaking love triangle made in heaven, and Saint Maud is no doubt a strong picture, especially from somebody who’s making her audacious debut as writer and director. So it’s not about the film, mind you. Rather, it’s that the A24 title has failed to launch into cinemas after two separate attempts, in April and just this week. Where we’re concerned, it has indiscriminately put our profile on Clark on indefinite pause. A24 knows they’re sitting on something potentially very valuable and their resistance to just dumping Saint Maud on digital platforms should be enough to keep future audiences in suspense until that fateful day arrives.

VI. GAME ACTRESS

The problem—or pleasant surprise, as the case may be—with going into a movie blind is that sometimes, based on a single image, you falsely anticipate a musical, when in fact you couldn’t be more off the mark. Arnaud Desplechin’s Palme d’Or-contending police procedural Oh Mercy! combines multiple narrative strands to paint a sympathetic picture of a precinct in the city of Roubaix as they investigate two young women suspected of murdering their elderly neighbor: Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier). They are questioned separately and together, and these harrowing interrogations make up the meat of the film. Seydoux and Forestier are both fantastically desperate as dead end citizens, but this film belongs to the latter. To say that Forestier was well-cast in her role would be a gross understatement. The French actress is somebody to keep our eyes on. Her game has never felt so real, which portends even greater things in her future.

VII. COURSE CORRECTING SXSW

Lo-fi sci-fi on a nano-budget is a precarious proposition because what it amounts to so often spells secondhand embarrassment. Not only does Noah Hutton pull it off with Lapsis, which picked up the Jury Prize at BIFAN this year, it also calls into question this year’s Grand Jury Prize-winning film at virtual SXSW that Lapsis was pitted against. Let’s be honest about one thing: Hutton’s objectively far superior film was completely robbed. What even was that other movie?

Lapsis takes place in a five-minutes-from-now kind of future where the gig economy has run amok, the health care costs are exorbitant, and the digital divide has never felt greater. For Ray (impressive newcomer Dean Imperial), a middle-aged Luddite from an unfashionable corner of Queens, it means getting by one day at a time. As his little brother Jamie (Babe Howard) suffers from a fictitious fibrosis-like disease called “omnia” and the bills pile up, Ray finds himself shunted into the gig economy as a “cabler” whose job it is to painstakingly run wires through a mysterious forest to an enigmatic “quantum box” that helps run the world’s new computing system. It promises quick and easy money, but as he soon finds out, the spoils promised by corporate America to him and other contract workers don’t come without some serious strings attached.

VIII. IS IT KOSHER?

Not to alarm you or anything, but also on offer at BIFAN this year was straight up softcore gay porn. It proved a real endurance test to sit through Hideo Jojo’s Dangerous Drugs of Sex. Forbidden Zone is the festival’s provocative sidebar reserved for “extreme and dangerous movies that challenge taboos and pose a problem for the freedom of expression.” An adaptation of a yaoi manga series, Jojo’s film centers on a straight salaryman (Sho Watanabe) who drunkenly tries to commit suicide, but is saved by a mysterious gay stranger (Takashi Kitadai) who holds him captive and rapes him repeatedly. In a truly bizarre twist, the salaryman, believed to have become accustomed to the pain and pleasure of his torment, decides that he doesn’t want to run away after all and ends up falling in love with his sadistic captor. Surely, the film asks a lot of its audience. Also, you will never be more convinced of the fact that no matter how uncomfortable things get, you’ll never see a Korean moviegoer walk out on something without seeing it to the end.

IX. TAKING NO PRISONERS

William Friedkin is an unapologetic hard-ass. That’s what you take away from watching Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, an intensely personal interview with the iconic director about the making of that groundbreaking 1973 film. The most hardened fans of The Exorcist have likely heard all of this before. For instance, did you know that the director was notorious for hiding guns around set so he could fire them during takes, startling his actors to get genuine reactions? So insightful! When a real-life priest he cast in a supporting role failed to cry on cue towards the end of his film, Friedkin punched him in the face and pushed him in front of the camera. Movie magic! Despite his questionable directing methods, which you could never employ today—or at least get away with it—it’s clear that only a director as laser-focused and uncompromising as Friedkin could execute one of the scariest films ever made.

X. WHERE IS ALL OF THIS GOING?

We don’t have much to say about Brandon Cronenberg’s highly anticipated horror-inflected techno-thriller Possessor because we’re still anticipating it, highly. There was conflict in our schedule at Sundance. Meanwhile, Neon withdrew the film from the BIFAN line-up at the last minute with the distributor choosing to delay the release of Possessor until the end of 2020. It just serves as another reminder of the time we’re living through, as seen through the deciphering lens of cinema, as it were. But stay tuned for in-depth coverage of the movie at Anthem. We’re certain it will knock all of our socks off, and get our rocks off, once it arrives. Pandemic be damned! Supposing that the adage is true, good things do come to those who wait. Hope springs eternal…

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