We watch the return of a tokusatsu giant to the big screen, a feature-length expansion of a legendary Taiwanese series, and a South Korean adventure about a man and his dead father’s haunted car.
(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival.)
2016 shin godzilla felt like such a breath of fresh air for a creature and genre that had long been in circles. Fresh off of the American version of the MonsterVerse, which swapped allegory for a AAA-budget Hollywood spectacle, Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno reimagined the character in a huge, sprawling disaster movie that was just as much about the inefficiency of bureaucracy. Japanese to deal with existential threats as it was an eye-opening sight. Now the pair are back (directing Higuchi, writing Anno) to adapt another classic ’60s kaiju into modern times with ShinUltramanand boy, is it a winner.
Less haunting and heartbreaking than shin godzilla, ShinUltraman feels very much in the lively and campy spirit of the 60s TV series from which it is based. In the wake of Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, more and more Kaiju are popping up all over Japan, prompting the creation of an alien fighting force called the SSSP. (The country apparently learned its lesson after the first movie, thank goodness there’s a lot less bureaucratic traffic jam to speak of here.)
The SSSP — made up of a series of extraterrestrial experts, including Shinji Kaminaga (Takumo Saitoh) and their leader Tamura (drive my car‘s Hidetoshi Nishijima) – struggle to fight off the beasts but receive unexpected help in the form of a humanoid giant clad in silver. He fights the last kaiju (although Shinji dies in the battle). He is Ultraman, an alien from the Planet of Light, sent to explore and defend humanity. Taking Shinji’s body and impersonating him at the SSSP, Ultraman settles down with the rest of the team, defending the planet from both Kaiju of all persuasions and more nefarious aliens who want to use chaos to achieve their own ends.
That accent on the old school, episodic tokusatsu the action may be ShinUltramanis the greatest strength. After all, who doesn’t love watching dudes in rubber suits punch each other while buildings crumble around them? Granted, the film relies on CG to achieve these effects, but Higuchi’s direction (clearly influenced by his time on The attack of the Titans) is tight and interesting, keeping the chaos lightly controlled and the wrestling-inspired moves we watched on TV screens as kids. Anno’s script is equally committed to the bit, but puts a refreshing focus on the characters.
The five SSSP leaders are particularly endearing, doing their best to solve such massive threats from the confines of a sanitized office environment (sometimes dotted with various models and starships of the otaku team member). And throughout, whether it’s between the team or between Ultraman and one of the many aliens who want to influence human affairs, ShinUltramanfocuses on the question of whether humanity deserves to live, grow and explore its potential. When it takes a breather to discuss these ideas, ShinUltraman gives stellar context to his intergalactic punches.
While the effects don’t quite live up to the standards Western audiences are used to, they lend ShinUltramanThe heavy choreography battles a lot of charm. Creature designs are fantastic, gloppy Kaiju monsters to an alien menace that looks like the front of a suit of armor – the kind of thing you definitely couldn’t do with a man in a suit. The film was a mega-hit in Japan when it premiered last year, and a new success indicates that Anno and Higuchi are about to complete the trilogy with Rider Shin Kamen. It’s something I would definitely like to see. (But follow it with Shin Super Sentai too, please!)
Keeping things light, we transition into a wacky cross between a mob thriller and Herbie: the critter of love with director Kwon Soo-kyung Stellar: a magical ride. Loan shark Young-bae (Son Ho-jun) is out of luck: his best friend Dong-sik (Lee Kyoo-hyung) got away with a $300,000 Lamborghini full of illicit goods, and their boss (squid game(Heo Sung-tae) asks Young-bae to find him within 24 hours or else. If that’s not enough, Young-bae’s father has just died, leaving him with nothing but a barrel full of debt and a dilapidated, barely functioning Hyundai Stellar. But even if the air conditioning doesn’t work, the radio only plays one song, and the car can’t blow faster than 50 km/h, he will have to use it to find Dong-sik and get out of trouble.
This premise alone is enough for a fairly entertaining action-comedy (especially considering Son’s admirable ability for slapstick). But he too It turns out that, somehow, the Stellar just might be imbued with the spirit of his deceased father: all of his malfunctions seem helpful, and they get him out of trouble as much as they get him in. . It makes for some really cute sequences, especially when those interventions turn the tide every time Young-bae’s pursuers catch up to him; it even makes a difference in sound John Wick-esque chase through a quay at night.
It’s very adorable, even if it spits in a few places in the middle. The Odyssey, after all, is just as much a way to get Young-bae to reconcile her bitterness towards her late father, who we see in flashbacks was a decent but aloof man who threw himself into his job as a bus driver. taxi (the Stellar was his faithful means of transport). The pieces don’t all fall into place – we never see the root of Young-bae’s beef with her father in life – which makes the whole thing feel a bit uneven. (It really picks up once Young-bae and Dong-sik reunite in the final stretches of the film, which makes me wonder why we couldn’t have had a gangster comedy on the road with Son’s infectious chemistry. and Lee.) It may not be shaking the South Korean action-comedy firmament, but Stellar: a magical ride will take you from point A to point B.
Of course, Ultraman isn’t the only long-running Asian TV phenom to get a big-screen treatment at Fantasia; from Taiwan, Demigod: The Legend Begins serves as a theatrical spin-off/prequel/episode of the long-running Taiwanese fantasy series pili. What is most notable about the series and the film, however, is its use of Taiwanese glove puppets (budaixi) for its characters – elaborately costumed cloth puppets with expressionless porcelain heads. It’s a marvel to behold, especially considering how director Huang Wen-Chang (whose family has carried on the tradition for generations, most recently thanks to the popularity of Pili) captures the fluidity of puppetry through the spinning. wuxia thoughtfully applied camera and CGI.
The story, as it stands, can be overwhelming for Western audiences unfamiliar with wuxia (or, indeed, too familiar with its tropes) or Chinese mythology. The film acts as an old origin story for the popular pili the character Su Hua-Jen, who had become the divine warrior White Lotus; when seen here, however, he is a simple martial artist and doctor, swimming in debt from his thirst for learning. But he is tempted to settle his debts – and gain access to the Unlimited Heavenly Book, a book he has spent his life dreaming of reading – with a request from the lord of Globe Castle: kill his patient in a way that seems natural. This sets off a series of events that will lead to Su becoming the master warrior he was destined to be.
As someone unfamiliar with the show, or even the puppet style demigod uses, this can be a difficult watch. The story never strays from its wuxia roots, and the convoluted swings and roundabouts of its history are likely to make your head spin if you don’t have the cultural basis to follow its dips in Buddhist and other mythology. The palace plot is also breathtaking, as you struggle to keep track of who is allied with whom and what everyone wants.
But as a show, demigod is an impressive technical feat: the budaixi the puppets are uniquely expressive, aided by exuberant voice acting (all by the same actor, even for the female characters) that serve this sense of heightened fantasy. The fights are rendered well, especially within the confines of the format: Huang’s camera work and editing are sometimes too jerky to follow individual movements, but that seems born out of necessity given the puppets’ abilities. And when Huang expands to present a flourish here or a shocking geyser of crimson blood there, it’s downright exciting. demigod soaks up the reach of the blockbuster, which is impressive given the miniature scale of its presentation.
It’s much more The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance that Team America: World Police in its tone, and they even set up a sequel in the post-credits (presumably another character in the show), so they have their eyes on a whole universe. If you are a pili fan and can follow the story, you are sure to like this one. Otherwise, well, the puppets are fantastic.