The Fantasia Film Festival Brings Standouts of Asian Cinema to the Big Screen

Today marks the kickoff of the Fantasia Film Festival, which through its closing night on August 1st will bring to the city of Montreal a whole lot of Fantasia’s particular brand of cinematic madness. Spanning three weeks and boasting a feature roster in the triple digits, Fantasia is sometimes referred to as the largest genre film festival in North America. That’s not entirely accurate. You’ll find a lot of sci-fi, anime, and horror here—this year’s opening and closing night films, The Ring sequel Sadako and Hiroyuki Imaishi’s anime Promare certainly fall under the larger “genre” label. But where Fantasia excels is in its expert curation of Asian titles, genre or not, that have a hard time finding wider theatrical distribution in North America.

Since its inception in 1996, Fantasia has introduced the latest works from auteurs like Tsui Hark, John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Takashi Miike to North American audiences. Notably, Fantasia gave Ringu its North American premiere back in 1999. Recalls programmer Ariel Esteban Cayer, at its inception Fantasia “was dedicated entirely to genre cinema from the East,” specifically Japanese kaiju and anime titles, Hong Kong action, and wu xia cinema. “By 1997, the program had expanded to include an international range of films, but Asian cinema has always been Fantasia’s foundational DNA. From there on out, it has simply been a matter of honoring those roots and keeping Asian cinema at the forefront of our curatorial process.”

Fantasia’s two-plus decade history has given the fest cachet among international distributors, who—explains head of Asian programming Nicolas Archambault—“just want what’s best for their films and their creators. Fantasia has an excellent reputation internationally, and these companies know that their films will met their audience here. And they do.”

The Fantasia audiences are—after the films, of course—one of the festival’s biggest selling points; it almost feels redundant to call the movies Fantasia programs “audience movies,” because it seems like every movie Fantasia programs (and there are a lot) meets with an excited audience ready for whatever they’re about to be served up. (This is a fest that has a tradition of audiences meowing at the beginning of screenings, though no one quite knows why.) 

Engaged audiences and a track record of knowing their stuff when it comes to Asian cinema has put Fantasia in the position of being able to program films that have in achieved significant box office success in their home countries. Among this year’s lineup, Cayer highlights Shinsuke Sato’s historical epic Kingdom, which has grossed just over $50 million in Japan since its April release, and Hideki Takeuchi’s Fly Me to the Saitama, currently Japan’s seventh-highest grossing film of 2019. Extreme Job; Money; The Gangster, the Cop, and the Devil; The Dude in Me; Hit-and-Run Squad; and Miss and Mrs. Cop, screening this year, all sit among South Korea’s top 20 earners of the year. Extreme Jobs is perched atop that list, having out-earned runner-up Avengers: Endgame.

Both Archambault and Cayer clarify that these films don’t earn a spot on the Fantasia lineup because they made a lot of money in their home countries. For one thing, explains Cayer, those box office numbers “are impossible to predict.” Elaborates Archambault: “The success of a film in its own country is of course a good indicator of its quality, but for us, it has never been the only reason why we would select it. If we think a big box office success is not that great in terms of storytelling and we we fear that Fantasia’s crowd will be disappointed by it, we won’t select it. It takes time to build trust with an audience, and we will never do anything to hurt this trust.”

Last year’s festival introduced Canadian audiences to Satan’s Slaves and One Cut of the Dead. The former, a horror remake by Jojo Anwar, was Indonesia’s highest-grossing domestic release of 2017. One Cut of the Dead, made with a low budget and unknown actors, went on to become Japan’s highest-grossing domestic release of 2018, racking up a gross of over 1,000 times its initial budget in the process; Cayer calls it a “Blair Witch-esque miracle” of the sort that “only happen[s] once every blue moon.” But it, like Satan’s Slaves, has yet to put in an appearance in North American theaters outside the festival circuit.

That’s true of many Fantasia standouts. Amiko, I Am a Hero, and Microhabitat from last year. Bad Genius from the year before. The majority of the Asian films screened at the fest either go straight to streaming platforms like Netflix, Shudder, and MUBI or disappear altogether, accessible to North American moviegoers only if they have a region-free DVD player and a bit of luck. 

There are exceptions. Among them are The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil, which received a limited theatrical release earlier this summer from Well Go USA. Kingdom, likewise, is set to bow in a limited number of North American theaters through specialty distributor Funimation. This year’s closing night film, Promare, comes to theaters in September via Fathom Events and Gkids. This event cinema format perhaps gives a glimpse into how these critically acclaimed, audience-friendly films can be given a shake in North American theaters without committing to a larger theatrical run.

“The distribution landscape is ever-changing and can be a frustrating place, indeed—and ‘smaller’ (but by no means lesser) films tend to fall by the wayside,” argues Cayer. It’s his belief that exhibitors should look for programming “outside of local distribution circuits and to organize events that will allow for these films to be showcased. (Québec, for example, has a ‘festival license’ that allows arthouse theaters to program outside of local distribution.) Why not gamble on something like Yoko Yamanaka’s Amiko for a short run? Or for a showcase of Japanese cinema?”

From the exhibitor’s standpoint, “patience would be my advice,” says Archambault. The audience may be there, but you’re not going to bring them out overnight. “Fantasia is a pure genre film festival at its core. However, the Korean youth drama Han Gong-ju by Lee Su-jin sold out three times and won an audience award in 2014. This doesn’t happen from one day to the next: for years we introduced these more ‘delicate’ films, trial-and-error so to speak, to the line-up, and it showed increasingly encouraging results. I have to specify that this was an exceptional film, but audience interest doesn’t come out of thin air.”

Among this year’s program, Cayer and Archambault have a number of personal recommendations. Among them are Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Mystery of the Night and Dwein Ruedas Baltazar’s Ode to Nothing, both from the Philippines, “where the tradition of innovative independent cinema is very much alive and strong,” notes Cayer. Also on deck is a retrospective of the work of dancer/choreographer Nao Yoshigai, per Cayer “by far one of the most exciting new voices to emerge out of Japanese cinema. Her short-to-mid-length works (the latest of which, Grand Bouquet, was just unveiled in Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight) are truly fantastical microcosms blending the weirdness of the human body with the unpredictable rhythms of nature.” Cayer also recommends Lee Cheuk Pan’s thriller G Affairs, “a film that harkens back to the good old days of the Hong Kong Category III cinema and that isn’t afraid to bite.”

Dwein Ruedas Baltazar’sOde to Nothing

Archambault recommends “two feminist coming-of-age dramas from South Korea”: writer/director Kim Bora’s House of Hummingbird and Another Child, the directorial debut of actor Kim Yoon-seok. “In a completely different register, there’s the fantastical comedy Fly Me to the Saitama, which pushes regional rivalry to its Monthy Python-esque extreme. I also love The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, a great thriller starring Don Lee; Dance With Me, a realistic spin on the musical comedy; and the youth-in-perdition thriller Chiwawa, whose audiovisual excesses will recall Spring Breakers.

For bookers willing to take a risk, these films are there—and they have an audience that, if small compared to that of your latest MCU release, is loyal. “Some of the Asian films we select will not be distributed in Canada and some which are acquired will never be screened in theaters again,” says Archambault. “The audience remembers these experiences vividly and will never miss the opportunity to watch these films on the silver screen with people who share their passion for Asian cinema.”