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Fantasia Film Festival

Fantasia 2019: ‘The Divine Fury’ Waits Too Long to Unleash

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Wavering between playing its demon-expelling story for serious spiritual reflection and sensationalized thrills until a decisive end, The Divine Fury settles for a lukewarm version of both that never quite sings to the heavens, nor bellows from the darkness. That it seems to lack purity of vision doesn’t necessarily mean that lovers of supernatural thrillers should spew it from their cinema-gorging mouths, but uneven pacing and uninspired exorcisms weigh down an otherwise admirable attempt at earnestness in telling what essentially boils down to a priestly superhero origin story.

After a young boy in Seoul named Yong-hoo loses his father to a tragic accident, he turns his back on God, abandoning faith all together. Years later, he is a champion MMA fighter, beating his opponents with the ferocity of a devil. The thing is, Yong-hoo actually hears voices in his head urging him on to engage in more violence, and he suffers from nightly succubus-like episodes, where truly creepy shadow beasts plunge their spindly appendages into his sleeping body, filling him with their rotting malevolence. When an ethereal dream leads to symptoms typical of stigmata, a blind shaman tells Yong-hoo that he is covered with demons, so he eventually decides to seek help from an elderly priest knowledgeable in such things.

The two eventually team up, taking on an alarmingly increasing number of fiendish possessions that have been brought on by a Dark Bishop whose goal of everlasting life involves demon worship. These Ex(orcism)-Men alternate back and forth between casting evil spirits from their red-eyed victims to chatting about belief in general, all the while attempting to discover the identity of a cunning foe poised to exploit their weaknesses.

This all sounds more involved than it really is, as The Divine Fury never gets much past a bible school treatment of the material. Lost faith can be an interesting vein to mine, but that kind of deep-rooted damage needs to be explored with delicate focus if it’s to have any real impact (see Paul Shrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist for a better example of how to probe at bitterness and guilt); otherwise it’s just another shallow trope. Unfortunately, that’s what we end up getting here, along with all the other tropes we’ve come to expect from exorcism movies over the years; repetitive Latin recitations, hissing holy water burns, eerie levitation, vomiting black goo, walking on the ceiling, and cruel taunts all come into play, and not unlike they’ve been done many, many times before. So why not skip that and get to the good stuff?

The Divine Fury priest

Writer-director Joo-hwan Kim (Midnight Runners) handles his camera competently and does seem to know where he wants to go, but The Divine Fury might have been better off getting there sooner. The meditative opening is handsomely crafted, suggesting that this film will plumb the depths of soul-searching; while that would also have been welcome, nuance quickly begins to fade — and is never to be seen again — as trite soul-saving becomes the priority. Yong-hoo’s ensuing struggle with faith comes off more like lip service, as his priestly companion delivers little but empty platitudes. After the first possession victim’s head is engulfed in blue flame when touched by the stigmata wound and doused in holy water, the idea of this man being torn in his belief starts to ring false, weighing the proceedings down. Seriously — you just saw a guy’s head light on fire from water.

What’s left is the idea of an MMA fighter tackling demons — now that sounds like fun! — but after an early, visceral cage fight, Yong-hoo’s lethal skills strangely go on sabbatical. It’s clear that physical confrontation is inevitable, but while there’s plenty of opportunity to show off his stuff against back-flipping hell monsters, the sweet release of fists is consistently withheld; all it takes to complete each exorcism is Yong-hoo putting his hand on possessed heads, which never seems to be a big problem. In fact, the script has to invent reasons for him not to do this just so the encounters aren’t over before they begin. Only at the very end does this badass get to finally cut loose, becoming the comic book avenger he probably should have been all along. Resembling a saintly Ghost Rider, Yong-hoo deals out righteous blows to the Devil’s minions in a sequence that finally kicks the plodding film into gear. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too late.

What remains just seems to be going through the motions — a practicing churchgoer who neither revels in scripture nor exalts in the rites, but simply attends out of habit. Adding to this feeling is a stiff performance from Seo-Joon Park, who casually strolls from scene to scene with a confused look etched on his face. At worst he comes across as bored; at best, with merely detached interest. Sung-Ki Ahn fares better as the battle-tested Father Ahn, a grizzled priest who has grown weary from his fight against evil. Though it’s a familiar character, the older man finds the shades, and expertly conveys passion through weariness. Do-Hwan Woo also keeps things lively with a slick turn as the Dark Bishop, an insidious schemer with a forked tongue who makes the most out of his bloody sacrificial offerings.

A movie cannot serve two masters, however, and The Divine Fury is unlikely to transfix audiences, whether they’re looking for the soul-searching or soul-sucking. As an origin story it does little to establish characters or thrills, but that knock-down, drag-out ending does imply the potential of more compelling things in the future. Genre fans can only pray.

The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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Fantasia Film Festival

‘The Divine Fury’ is a Cool Horror-Action Hybrid that Offers Something for Fans of Both Genres

Fantasia 2019

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Divine Fury Movie Review

The Divine Fury has a premise you could only find in a film that would premiere at a genre film festival like Fantasia. Yong-hoo Park, champion MMA fighter, develops a bleeding wound on the palm of his hand, and medical science cannot help him. Further assailed by voices and terrifying visions, Yong-hoo turns to a medium, who directs him to Father Ahn. Ahn is a sanctioned exorcist, and one of many Vatican agents on the trail of the sinister Black Bishop, an occult practitioner who has amassed demonic powers. Father Ahn informs Yong-hoo that his wound is a stigmata, a powerful tool in the battle against evil. This comes as something of a surprise to Yong-hoo, a devout atheist since the death of his father. With his new mentor, Yong-hoo becomes a force for good — a demon-punching holy avenger who uses his physical and spiritual gifts to battle the Black Bishop.

From that description, you couldn’t be blamed for imagining something like that one scene from Peter Jackson’s Braindead, or maybe Ninja 3: The Domination, if you’re a fan of 80s Cannon Group cheese. Even worse, you might be imagining some kind of hokey, low-rent religious superhero movie, like a South Korean Bibleman. But you’re in for a surprise; while it could easily have set its sights on camp and gunned the engine, The Divine Fury instead goes a different route, playing its bonkers premise almost entirely straight. From the outset, Joo-hwan Kim’s film remains utterly sincere about itself, mixing horror and action with some deft direction and a stellar cast to create a dark, engaging, and fun hybrid.

Painting a dark and stylish portrait of modern Seoul, Kim’s direction comes off almost from the first frame as slick and confident. Smooth, elegant camera movements glide through the dimly-lit streets, where shadows lurk and fear reigns. The film often surprises with some wonderful imagery, and walks a fine line between stylish and efficient. When things start hitting the fan and demons emerge to menace our heroes, the film also busts out some serious effects wizardry, with top-notch makeup and creature effects bolstered by clever and dynamic camera work. There are flashes of terrific art direction, with brief tantalizing glimpses of a beautifully realized world of demonic forces, and even real-world locations like the Black Bishop’s luridly-lit nightclub make for interesting and unique backdrops.

As Yong-hoo and Father Anh grow closer, it becomes apparent that their chemistry and onscreen charm is one of the cornerstones the film rests on. Even when they’re just sharing a meal, the two leads are terrific to watch together, with an easy and natural chemistry that makes them eminently believable as friends, despite their vast differences in outlook. Of course, Father Ahn’s platitudes and homilies often come across as stock and predictable, and the film’s attempts at a theological discourse are pretty shallow. But when it can’t muster a convincing theological argument, the film defaults to much more universal fare in its message: defend the defenseless, oppose evil. Who can argue with that?

The Divine Fury will make you wait before it delivers the goods, but when the time is right, it delivers them in spades. 

The confident direction and charming leads do help make up for one crucial shortcoming, though: the film may have a lot of the divine, but it’s a tad short on fury. After a tantalizing fight scene early in the film teases some great action, no punches fly until the film’s showstopper of an ending. For those expecting a rock ‘em-sock ‘em actionfest, much of The Divine Fury’s middle section — the vast majority of the film — may leave them cold. But be patient. Enjoy the atmosphere and the more horror-oriented segments, because that patience will be rewarded. When the film reaches its final sequence and Yong-hoo finally unleashes his holy fisticuffs, the result is, well, divine. The climactic action sequence in The Divine Fury is one worth waiting for, a slick and deftly delivered pair of fight scenes that will have action fans cheering in the aisles. The camera maintains a perfect distance, allowing the physical performances of the actors to take center stage, and never obscures the action with jittery movement or rapid-fire editing. The presentation is dynamic, but never overwhelms or distracts from the solid physical performances by star Park Seo-joon and the stunt team. The Divine Fury will make you wait before it delivers the goods, but when the time is right, it delivers them in spades. 


The Divine Fury is a fun, surprising and just plain cool horror-action hybrid that offers something for fans of both genres. Kept aloft by two engaging and charismatic leads and some top-notch direction, it pulls you into its ridiculous world of exorcisms and action with gusto. While it does make you wait before it fully unleashes its premise, which can and has strained the patience of some viewers and critics, its final action sequences are worth waiting for.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 2, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.

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Anime

‘Promare’ Feels Like the Younger Brother of ‘Gurren Lagann’

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Gurren Lagann is a cult classic directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, and written by Kazuki Nakashima. It has over-the-top action, constant bravado, quotable lines, and non-stop escalation into madness. Subtly is not a common word used in Imaishi and Nakashima’s vocabulary, and luckily, fans of their work will not be disappointed with their newest animated movie, Promare. Hot-headedness (literal and metaphorical) and grandiose speeches are rampant when Promare kicks logic to the curb and goes beyond the impossible in its own unique way. What it lacks in a cohesive story, it makes up for in elaborate visuals, eye-popping action, and charismatic characters.


No matter how many times Spider-Man or Superman saves someone from a burning building, the real heroes are the firefighters; they are the ones on the ground, first on the scene. In the world of Promare, firefighters are not just stopping regular old fires; they are tasked with extinguishing supernatural infernos caused by the Burnish — humans mutated to become pyrokinetics. Called the Burning Rescue, they heroically save any and every civilian threatened by these eternal flames, doing so with advanced gear, amped-up water cannons, and hand to hand combat. In addition, they have high-tech equipment that includes drones, an armory of ice and water-powered firearms, and numerous models of mech suits.

These heroes are tasked to stop the flaming terrorists and the havoc they wreak, and in the first act of Promare, a Burning Rescue team led by a young man named Galo take on one of the most feared Burnish terrorists. They use their pyrokinesis to give themselves black, spiky armour and motorcycles that would make Ghost Rider jealous, and after a rousing success with eleventh-hour powers, Galo floats in his victory. Soon, the more militaristic, anti-Burnish organization called Freeze Force barges in and detains the Burnish, taking some of the credit and diminishing Burning Rescue’s efforts. This testosterone-driven act kindles a small spark in the back of Galo’s head, later pushing him to discover a conspiracy that suggests not all is as it appears to be.

Galo is essentially a carbon copy of Kamina from Gurren Lagann. He’s a shirtless, blue-haired, brash young man who jumps in head first to save everyone, and makes sure he looks cool doing it every time. His peers and rivals mock his intelligence and audacity, but in a rare twist, Galo immediately proves that his not simply all bark; he is also a talented rescuer, and is able to stop multiple Burnish solo. Eventually, he develops a rival with Lio, a blonde-haired, light-eyed, somewhat effeminate villain with his own code of honour. He also runs across Kray Foresight, the governor, who is appreciative of Burning Rescue and all their work. However, though Burning Rescue is comprised of many equally talented members, they are mostly pushed to the background outside of being given a few moments to shine.  

Promare takes advantage of new animation styles, and combines both hand-drawn and computer-animated designs. The vapourwave art style is bombastic and chaotic, while the angular designs of the Burnish’s powers add a little edge to the action scenes, guaranteeing that there is no wasted space on screen. The movie runs from inferno-hot to sub-zero cold with no in-between; one would expect nothing less from Imaishi and Nakashima.

Walking into this film and expecting some kind of subtly, even when it comes to the most mundane of actions, is expecting far too much. In classic fashion, the filmmakers keep making every scene more grandiose and epic. Fight scenes aren’t simply adding an extra bad guy or giving the hero a handicap; everything grows to an exponential scale. The moment you expect that Promare has reached its limit, suddenly everything goes to the extreme. But this does has its disadvantages, as subtly and clear explanations of events go by the wayside. The plot moves fast and glosses over the details of the world, history, and lore. Instead of questioning “why is this weird thing happening,” it’s better to accept that it’s happening simply “just because” — far better to just watch the bonker visuals and series of events. This pacing also makes it difficult for character growth, where relationships are created and destroyed on a whim, yet could have benefited more with extra content. It’s like the difference between the Gurren Lagann series and the movies. Sure, the movies cover a lot of ground, but they are very much more loud, operatic spectacles rather than the growing confidence of a young shy boy into a full-fledged legend.

Promare is certainly a movie that stimulates the lizard-brain neurons. It’s flashy, over the top, and outright ridiculous. The heroes and villains are operatic, and there is no nuance stored anywhere in the character’s development. But that’s why the movie is wonderful; the creators are able to depict these extreme levels of silliness, then lampoon and expand on it. There are even moments where the characters themselves have to acknowledge that this level of weirdness is actually happening. But that’s why this movie is spectacular — it’s loud, it’s big, but it’s 100% unfiltered fun.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2019 as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. 

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Fantasia Film Festival

‘Freaks’ is a Superb Sci-Fi Thriller That Keeps You Guessing

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Directing duo Zach Lipovsky and Adam B Stein have clearly taken inspiration from such films as Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane to craft a stunning, genre-bending, psychological sci-fi thriller about a young girl who discovers a new world beyond her front door. The film unravels inside of a ramshackle house where a bright seven-year-old named Chloë (Lexy Kolker) is held ‘prisoner’ by her overly protective and paranoid father Henry (Emile Hirsch). The house is boarded shut with several padded locks on the front door, and the windows are covered with thick blankets and newspaper clippings — enough to keep the sunshine out. Every exchange between the father and daughter is meant to pique our curiosity about the mystery of the world outside that bolted door; having trained Chloë to assume a new identity, Henry runs her through routine security drills, and repeatedly warns his daughter of the dangers of the outside world, as well as the people threatening to kill them. Everything we see, we see from Chloë’s perspective — which isn’t much, since the young girl has never left the premises.

Henry’s increasingly paranoid and arguably insane attempts to keep Chloë inside are the stuff of nightmares. The initial setup feels particularly alarming, because it focuses solely on the unhealthy relationship between the father and daughter, leaving us fearful for her safety. Tired of being locked up, Chloë decides she wants to go in search of the ice cream truck that often parks outside her home. When she eventually builds up the courage to defy her father and escape, she crosses paths with Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern), an ice cream vendor with a keen interest in the girl. He claims to know the truth about Chloë’s dad, and tries to convince her to run away with him. Regardless if the man is telling the truth or not, it doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that things aren’t quite what they seem. By now, it is clear that Freaks is a thriller designed to keep your stomach in knots, your fingers clenched, and your heart racing. The question, however, is whether Chloë can trust her dad, or is the mysterious ice cream vendor the real threat?

Freaks Review

Freaks opens with a simple scenario, but the hook here (and what keeps us watching) is that we never really know anything more than Chloë does. As mentioned above, Freaks is presented in her point of view, and thus Chloë acts as our eyes and ears — which doesn’t help matters, since she herself is too young to make sense of what is going on. Lipovsky and Stein have great fun teasing audiences, patiently revealing scraps of information such as the fleeting glimpses of TV news broadcasts playing in the background about drone strikes in Seattle, or the destruction of Dallas, Texas. Why does her dad sometimes bleed from his eyes? Who is Mr. Snowcone, and what does he want with her? There are so many questions to be asked, including who is the ghostly woman who sometimes appears in the attic (Amanda Crew), and what is her connection to Chloë?

What makes Freaks such a great mystery is that the writer-directors aren’t out to play coy with the audience. Instead, they patiently let us in on its secrets as the mysteries are slowly unraveled, in a series of increasingly intense and thrilling sequences. It really is impressive how much mileage they get out of simply not revealing too much too early. Needless to say, the less you know about Freaks going in, the better. The fun here has everything to do with how it continues to unfold into a series of surprises designed to keep viewers guessing right up to the final reel.

The less you know about Freaks going in, the better.

Freaks is also a movie that is shockingly well-made given its modest budget. It is directed by first-time feature helmers, and at times it feels like a calling card, as though the filmmakers are out to prove they can rival many big-budget blockbusters. Judging by their results, I certainly think they are more than capable of directing something on a large-scale, and I can’t wait to see what they do next. Using less than a handful of locations, a small cast, and some duly applied special effects, the filmmakers manage to create some explosive action scenes despite the film’s obvious technical limitations. In particular, the filmmakers use sound design to maximum effect when heightening the suspense, and with Timothy Wynn’s score helping them, they manage to pull off some very effective jump scares. Meanwhile, cinematographer Stirling Bancroft shoots the film completely from Chloe’s perspective, which in the first act feels incredibly claustrophobic and dreamlike — and in the third act, makes the world of Freaks seem too big for our young protagonist.

Freaks

What is it really about?

*** Note: The following paragraph can be considered a spoiler. ***

Freaks is more than just a paranoia thriller. There’s a dash of X-Men and a large dose of Tim Kring’s Heroes. The challenge here involves transitioning an overly cryptic first act into an action-packed plot involving super-powered outcasts who are hunted by the military and forced to hide from the rest of humanity. Yes, Freaks is another superhero origin story, but judging by the plot synopsis, the trailer, the poster, or any of the other form of marketing, you would be forgiven for not knowing these details. By the time those superheroic moments come, we are invested in the characters, and no matter how familiar its tropes are, Freaks never ceases to be thoroughly engaging. It helps that Zach Lipovsky and Adam B Stein show a good understanding of how children think and behave, keeping our young heroine believable while gradually filling in the blanks as to what’s happening in the world around her.

Freaks is a superhero movie that is grounded in reality. Yes, characters can control minds, freeze time, teleport, turn invisible, and fly, but their abilities are mainly kept in the background, allowing the family drama to take center stage. The story unfolds in ways that make its characters seem much more ‘human’ despite their special abilities. And like X-Men or Heroes, Freaks is upfront about its thematic focus on diversity, discrimination, and persecution. It taps into current paranoia about immigrants, people of color, and various minorities (under the guise of the mutant ‘abnormals’ or ‘freaks’) who have become victims and targets across the United States. It certainly isn’t overtly political, but the metaphor is there nonetheless.

Freaks Movie Review

Beyond the sci-fi and horror, Freaks is really a movie about coming of age. Lexy Kolker (best known as young Robin in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) is a natural performer, easily holding her own against the older actors. Her performance couldn’t be any more authentic, and despite being surrounded by an experienced cast, she pretty much carries the weight of the film on her tiny shoulders.

Freaks is a superb thriller that breathes new life into the genre and makes the most of its confined setting, modest budget, and an outstanding cast. The first half is rewardingly claustrophobic, keeping its focus tight on the characters and keeping secrets locked down, all while teasing at whatever disasters may loom outside. The second half is touching, action-packed, and spectacular. Sometimes messy but mostly effective, Freaks gives most Marvel movies a run for their money.

– Ricky D

Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on July 29, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.

 

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