Fantasia Festival Winds down without del Toro

The 15th Annual Fantasia International Film Festival draws to a close this weekend. After a month of special presentations, premiere openings and the gathering of hordes of genre film lovers, the Festival is closing its doors for another year.

Begun in 1996, the festival originally focused on Asian films, which is the genesis of the name Fantasia. However, it quickly became popular as a host of genre films, celebrating fantasy, horror, the strange and the macabre of worldwide cinema. According to the Fantasia website, the 2010 festival was attended by over 105, 000 festival goers. Given the packed theatres and the sold out shows of this year, 2011 should see similar numbers.

While the great draw for these fans is a lineup of films not easily found in cinemas, the presence of cult classics from decades ago suggests that the festival experience is more than just seeing a hard to find film, or at least seeing it first. Film festivals bring out fans with an enthusiasm for film that permeates whatever theatre they fill. Clutching their tickets and their programs, genre fans in particular seem to tremble with excitement as they wait for their films to begin. These fans respect and enjoy the films they have selected from Fantasia’s lineup, and the viewing experience is the better for it.

Unfortunately for these fans, one of 2011’s biggest draws has fallen through. Guillermo del Toro, the creator of such loved films as Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy, has cancelled his promised appearance at the screening of his most recent film, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Further information as to the cause of this cancellation is not available at the this time, other than a statement from Fantasia stating that it is “due to unforeseen commitments.” The director is currently in Toronto shooting his newest project, but is sending a video introduction in his place. Even so, what was the hottest ticket of the festival is simply a standard, although popular, premier.

Fans should not be too disappointed with their festival experience, however. 2011 hosted many North American, as well as some world, premieres, and offered the chance to speak with filmmakers and cast members of several projects. Moreover, it offered the opportunity to see films that are either difficult to find in theatres, particularly foreign language films, or have yet to be released in large runs.

My Festival Pick : The Last Ronin 

The Last Ronin, a 2010 Japanese film, played in Montreal for the first time on Wednesday, August 3. Set in Japan in the 1700s, the slow moving, elegant storytelling follows two survivors of a samurai vengeance killing. Kichiemon Terasaka (played by Koichi Sato), lived through the vengeance killing, but is sent out into the world to take care of the families of the fallen samurais and to spread their tale. After 16 years his task is done and he is left with only the shame of having outlived his mission.

Kichie’s longtime friend Magozaemon Senoo (played by Koji Yakusho), fled the night before the vengeance and lives a life of deep shame. Under an assumed name, he lives with a beautiful young girl, Kane, on the outskirts of Kyoto. At a puppet show one day, a wealthy young man sees Kane and falls in love with this mysterious young girl.

It is the relationship between Magoza and his ward Kane that becomes the true focus of the movie. Their relationship is one of father and daughter, servant and mistress and dear friends. Nanami Sakuraba as Kane is a delight. She is a petulant, slightly spoiled 16-year old, desperately loyal to the man who has raised her, while constantly testing his affections. It is a role that could easily be off-putting, but instead is amusing and sweet. Kane longs to remain a child, while at the same time it is clear that she is an adult and must be in the adult world. Magoza is desperate to do right by the girl, his sense of duty driving all of his actions.

Yakusho as Magoza brings to the former samurai the multi faceted personality of a conflicted man, slightly confused as to how he arrived at this point in his life, and even more confused by the affections of those closest to him. As the 17th anniversary of the vengeance draws near and Kane’s inevitable departure for the life of a bride looms, Magoza works secretly and constantly to honour his vows, blind to all else.

My last film of the festival, the Last Ronin honours the best in Asian period movies. The slow pacing suits the film and the 133 minutes runtime moves by unnoticed. Character driven and quiet, the film is sweet and funny. The characters are multi faceted, believable and sympathetic. Director Shigemichi Sugita has created a world full of light and beauty, in both its scenery and the characters that populate it. The continuous interweaving of the puppet show underlines the themes of love, sacrifice and honour, themes not usually found within a film that so often moved its audience to laughter. This film was my favorite of the festival, but I would be surprised if it found much distribution in North America. It may be one of those gems found at festivals that must be sought out diligently by discerning fans.