Philly Fest Report: Dias De Santiago, UNO, Karaoke Terror

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor

Well, here I am in Philadelphia. I rolled up to my friend Scott's place last night around eleven then hit the city proper early this morning to track down my press badge and catch a couple flicks before heading to the train station to pick up Canfield who's here covering the festival for another site. A bit of dinner, a bit of time exploring the city then another film before heading to bed. Three very different films today and all of them were excellent ... if these three are an indicator of the quality of stuff I'll be seeing here then I'm in for a very good trip ... read on for details.

And, incidentally, if you're in the market for a bit of new music Scott - the guy I'm staying with here - runs an excellent little record label and mail order shop here. The shop stocks a LOT more than just his own releases, too ... check it out ...

Right. On to the films. Up first was Dia De Santiago, an excellent character study out of Peru. South America is undoubtedly a major hotspot in the film world right now and it is also a major blind spot for me. I've liked everything I've seen out of the region, but I just haven't seen very much, something that factored in when I opted to see this one. A very, very good choice.

Santiago is a young Peruvian man just returned to Lima following six years of military service. The film follows his struggle to re-integrate with society and his responses as his pride takes blow after blow from a society that used up the best years of his life and now seems intent on casting him aside. His marriage is falling apart, his family offers no support, he can't get a decent paying job, his military pension is too small to pay his way through school and he can't seem to shake his jungle warfare mindset. What is he to do? A group of former comrades opts to rob a bank but Santiago wants to stick to the higher road, driving cab to pay his way through school, but eventually the tension just becomes too much ...

Split between color and grainy black and white that looks to have been blown up from 16mm stock the film is shot largely handheld and exclusively from Santiago's point of view to help you experience his world through his eyes. The direction and editing is sure and all of the performances - particularly the lead - are strong. Excellent stuff.

Up next was UNO, an intensely powerful film from Norway from a first time director - whose name isn't in the flyer I've got handy - and first time star Aksel Hennie. Both the director and star deliver in spades and I am absolutely certain that both are going to be around producing quality work for a good many years to come.

Hennie stars as David, a young man whose home life is so tense - his father is dying of cancer and his younger brother has Down's Syndrome - that he has opted to live in the storage locker his family has in their building's basement rather than sleeping in the main apartment. He spends his days working at a local gym, where the owner and regular customers have formed a tight surrogate family around him. But there is tension at the gym as well in the form of Lars the owner's son who is dealing illegal steroids and has started carrying a gun.

The synopsis for the film says that it's about David having to choose loyalty to his family or to his friends, but that's not exactly true. David chooses and chooses early. When his father takes a turn for the worse and is taken to hospital to wait out his last moments early in the first act David runs to the gym to tell them he can't come to work that day and is caught up in a police raid - one that nets the cops all of Lars' drugs as well as his gun and lands the entire staff - including David - in holding cells. Desperate to be with his dying father David signs a statement implicating Lars so that he can return to the hospital and that is what the film is really about: loyalty, the cost of betrayal, family dynamics and what it costs to truly grow up.

Hennie is flat out incredible in this film. A lot is asked of his character - strength, despair, violence - and Hennie delivers large with a briliant, subtly layered performance. If you follow Scandanavian film at all you absolutely will be seeing Hennie again as he has got to be counted one of the regions brightest young stars. The direction is similarly strong and diverse. Bursts of bloody violence are balanced off against quiet family moments as the film moves easily between raw, exuberent energy and subtle restraint before finally coming to a fantastically enigmatic end that trusts the viewer to make up their own mind about the import of what they've just seen. Based on the trailer - you can find the link by doing a search up above - this was easily one of my most anticipated films of this trip and it easily lived up to expectations. Seek this out when it comes to DVD.

And finally, Karaoke Terror AKA The Complete Japanese Showa Songbook, a vicious black satire from the same pen that spawned Audition and starring Ryuhei Matsuda alongside a host of other familiar faces. It stops just a tiny bit shy of being an instant classic but it aint for lack of trying or a host of brilliant moments ...

The films pits a gang of idle teens joined only by their shared love of karaoke against a group of middle aged women, likewise joined by a love for karaoke, in an escalating cycle of vengeance when one of the teens tries to pick up one of the women on a whim and reacts with bloody violence when he thinks she is mocking him in her rejection. The game of 'one of yours for one of mine' escalates with each killing being bigger and more extreme than the one before until, finally, nobody is left standing.

The film has a surprising amount to say about society - the parallels between the two gangs are far too blatant to ignore or write off as anything other than deliberate - and the thrill of violence but, really, people are going to see this because they want to participate in that thrill rather than think about it, so how does it stack up on that level? It's a bit of a mixed bag ... the film is shot in a very naturalistic fashion which makes the sudden bursts of high style and geysers of blood that much more effective when they come but, surprsingly, the blood letting is a bit too blood less. The first two sequences are fantastically excessive but as the cycle continues and hand helf weapons are abandoned for more technological options things become a little too quick and clinical and the end is rather similar to a certain Miike film which provoked a fair bit of controversy but which shall not be mentioned by name here so as not to entirely spoil things.

So the excess is not actually that excessive by cult standards. But the film has a lot else going for it. The full out karaoke sequences are fantastically bizarre. The film has a thoroughly absurd sense of humor, is fequently hysterically, fall out of the seat laughing, funny and - surprisingly considering it is being viewed in translation - is HUGELY quoteable. Seriously. You'll never look at a hot shower quite the same way again. It begins better than it ends which leaves you with just the slightest sense of let down but this is one that will generate a healthy cult following and for good reason ... I'm sure someone will pick it up before too long ...

And now it's time to head to bed before doing it all again tomorrow ...

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