As summer fades and fall descends upon BC, local cinephiles once again seek the cozy blanket of escapism that is the Vancouver International Film Festival. While its presence is as inevitable as the changing seasons, the 2021 slate is as unpredictable as ever, taking us from stark reality to mind-bending paranoia, with the odd charming tale in between…
The Beta Test
Few filmmakers have their finger on the agitated pulse of the current male psyche quite like Jim Cummings (Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hollow). Anxiety-ridden and lost for purpose to the point of open toxicity, the characters he writes and performs frequently blur the line between laugh-out-loud satire and frank, destructive reality.
The Beta Test continues the trend, manhandling us directly into the rapidly unravelling world of Cummings’ sleazy, adulterous Hollywood agent, whose attempts to get to the bottom of an anonymous sexual encounter succeed only to further melt his mind.
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Though sinisterly humorous at times, the somewhat forced combined exploration of post-Weinstein Hollywood with an erotic, conspiracy-laden thriller leaves The Beta Test committed to neither as it struggles to convey a clear tone. What keeps it together is Cummings’ talent for transcending micro, crowdfunded budgets (the scenes are slick and the cinematography pops) and his whirlwind dirtbag turn, the dark screwball nature of which only enhances his reputation as a versatile onscreen performer.
In light of the appalling recent discovery of mass graves beneath several sites across Canada’s now defunct residential school system, Sean Stiller’s moving documentary is a timely portrait of the grounded nature and strength of character demonstrated by its survivors. The purpose of the schools was to isolate and forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society, while stripping them of their native heritage. It was a traumatic, degrading, and dangerous experience that saw many Indigenous children perish at the hands of the Catholic Church, which ran the schools.
Shot before the first mass grave was discovered, Returning Home weaves the story of survivor and Orange Shirt Day founder Phyllis Jack-Webstad with another colonial remnant still challenging her native Secwépemc territory: the steep decline of the wild Pacific salmon, a species long embedded into the lives and history of the local Indigenous population.
Set against the stunning backdrop of rural British Columbia, Stiller’s cinematography combines effectively with his stark presentation of the horrors Phyllis and others faced during their youth, reminding us of the ominous past that dwells within such beauty, and the fact that the fight for these communities is far from over.
An ode to the classic period of 1960s Hong Kong cinema, Time is the not-so-subtle but altogether pleasing directorial debut from longtime assistant director Ricky Ko, in which three former, now ageing assassins reunite to help guide their fellow senior citizens towards the light they so desperately seek.
Built on the core theme of loneliness amongst the elderly in Hong Kong, a city where senior welfare is lacking, Time begins as a rather morbid comedy before evolving into more of a charming family dramedy as the work of our newfound guardian angels is interrupted by curious teenager Tsz-ying (Chung Suet Ying), who attaches herself to cynical lead assassin Chau (Hong Kong screen legend Patrick Tse).
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With so many tone and genre switches packed into 99-minutes, including several instances of both straight and comedic action, it is fair to say that Ko overextends at times. Time is still an easy ride, however, driven by the wonderfully weary performances of the 84-year-old Tse and his fellow prolific Hong Kong stars Petrina Fung (who along with Tse shows she can still bust a move) and Lam Suet.
See For Me
Drawing on the likes of David Fincher’s Panic Room and Mike Flanagan’s Hush, Canadian director Randall Okita’s thriller follows Sophie (Skyler Davenport), a former ski prodigy struggling to come to terms with the recent loss of her sight. Now housesitting for the wealthy, she soon finds herself in the midst of a home invasion, forcing her to utilise a new app connecting her to Kelly (Jessica Parker-Kennedy), a military veteran who acts as her eyes.
A cool, high-level concept with some well-crafted execution, See For Me ultimately ends up missing the mark as a finished product. While Davenport (who herself has been legally blind since 2012) turns in an engaging performance teeming with relatable frustration at her newfound disability, her character lacks any real depth or journey beyond subverting expectations by demonstrating questionable morals.
The other performances, like the story, are a tad flat by comparison, all of which leads to little in the way of a satisfying payoff. Okita is clearly a creative director, however, and should be noted as one to keep an eye on.