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The Screen Scene: Fantasia Festival 2020 Roundup – Part 2

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

This is the second installment of my series examining films showcased at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.  I’m devoting three weeks of coverage to their slate of films, and it’s still no easy task to reduce all of the quality films they screened to my favorite nine or ten titles.  So, I won’t waste any more space or time on introductions, let’s get down to business.

The Columnist is a satire from the Netherlands set in the world of political commentators and internet trolls.  “Why can’t we just have different opinions and be nice about it?” is Femke Boot’s frequent refrain. 

Femke writes for a political website.  Her columns are being collected for a new book, and she’s on the television interview circuit to promote her work.  So, naturally, the racists, misogynists and other members of the lunatic fringe are out in full force, making their displeasure over Femke’s opinions known on social media platforms.

Femke understands that anonymity creates internet bravery.  You can have a big, loud confrontational personality out in the safety of cyberspace.  Femke begins to wonder just how tough her trolls would be if she confronted them face-to-face.  So, the journalist begins to hack back, on the computer … and in person.

The Columnist is a black comedy that almost tips into horror territory with its outbursts of over-the-top violence.  The screenplay by Dann Windhorst brilliantly maintains a consistent tone throughout the film.  Just when it seems like the narrative may completely fly off the rails, he nudges everything in the right direction. 

The key to satire is playing it straight.  The spell is broken if you tip a wink to the camera.  Katja Herbers from HBO’s Westworld gives a fabulous performance as Femke Boot.  The entire film rests on her acting shoulders, and she’s easily up to the task.  The Columnist is one of my favorite films of the year.

My Punch-Drunk Boxer is a film from South Korea about a young man who was a boxing phenomenon when he was only 19-years-old.  Unfortunately, Byung-gu was banned from the sport for unwittingly using an illegal substance to treat a knee injury.  After ten years away from the sport, he dreams of returning to the ring to reclaim his former glory.

However, as the title of the film states, Byung-gu has brain damage from his brief time in the ring.  His doctor refers to it as “punch-drunk syndrome” and expects Byung-gu to develop full blown dementia in the near future.  When a young woman comes to Byung-gu’s gym to get in shape and learn about boxing, his coaching of her helps to focus his mind on his own training and the pursuit of his dream.

My Punch-Drunk Boxer is an amazing combination of genres.  It’s a seamless blend of comedy, drama, sports film and romance.  The ease with which the story unfolds belies the difficulty of convincingly combining these genres into a coherent whole. 

I was enthralled by its touching love story because a believable romance can be so difficult to construct.  Love, by definition, takes time to develop, and most films shorthand the process too much.  That’s why we get the quirky “meet cutes” in typical rom-coms or the “love at first sight” explanation in other romance movies.  Why do they love each other?  They just do!  Now let’s get on with the rest of the film.

My Punch-Drunk Boxer, on the other hand, takes its time, allowing the bond between Byung-gu and his female student to unfold naturally.  Nothing in the film feels contrived.  The relationship between the two is rich and nuanced.  If you stranded me on a desert island with only one film from Fantasia 2020 to occupy my time, I hope it’s My Punch-Drunk Boxer.

Savage State, my third and final film of the week, is a Civil War adventure that takes place behind the lines of the War Between the States.  At the outbreak of hostilities, Napoleon III decreed that all French citizens living in the U.S. should remain neutral in the war.  However, during the years preceding the war, French businessmen located in Louisiana had naturally entered into business arrangements with southern merchants and entrepreneurs.  This informal “alliance” caused the invading troops from the north to treat these French citizens as enemies. 

In Savage State, the family of a French merchant finds themselves in danger as the Union Army enters the State of Louisiana.  The patriarch of the family hires a small group of mercenaries to help them flee across the countryside and obtain safe passage to Paris.

Although the film is set in the Deep South, it plays like a western.  It reminds me of the 2015 festival favorite The Keeping Room (which is currently playing on Amazon Prime).  However, I find Savage State to be the superior film in every respect.  It’s one of those rare indie films that fires on all cylinders when it comes to writing, acting, directing and cinematography.         

Despite the size of its cast, each character is a fully realized human being with dreams of a life far away from the American Civil War.  Much like The Keeping Room, Savage State acknowledges the role that women played in the 1860’s.  The merchant’s daughters are no shrinking violets.  They prove capable of defending themselves and become an integral part of the narrative.

Although we’ve seen many of these plot beats before, Savage State is never predictable.  It has the kind of originality you only find in independent productions.  It feels as if writer-director David Perrault wasn’t beholden to corporate interference and focus group screenings, and we’re seeing his true cinematic vision on screen.  Make it a priority to track down Savage State when it receives a wider release.

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