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Fantasia 2017 Dispatch #3: ‘Mohawk,’ ‘Town In A Lake,’ and ‘Broken Sword Hero’

Possibly no film festival suits our Sordid Cinema section better than Fantasia. Held every year in Montreal, this four-week showcase for imaginative indie genre films is like a wonderland for those who love their cinema of the late-night variety. What can we say? This festival just gets us, and this year we’re happy to be once again in attendance, seeing some of the craziest, most unique films from around the world.

****

Best described as a home invasion flick – with North America being the home and American soldiers the invaders – Mohawk, the sophomore effort from Ted Geoghegan, is a change of pace from the writer/director’s supernatural horror debut, We Are Still Here. On the surface, this film looks, sounds, and feels completely different than his haunted house thriller, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see the two share strands of similar DNA. Much like We Are Still Here, Mohawk explores how sins from the past continue to haunt us in the modern day, and much like We Are Still Here, Mohawk is indeed a horror film – only one that explores real life tragedies and the struggle to survive against ruthless persecution.

The bloody, low-budget survival revenge thriller about members of a Native American tribe facing off against savage American soldiers during the war of 1812 is a movie I deeply admire, but also a passion project burdened by a lack of resources. As a horror film, Mohawk succeeds, finding power in its themes and performances, while also delivering a handful of crowd-pleasing genre moments right up to the bloody finale. As a historical drama though, Mohawk falls prey to its low budget limitations, suffering from its location, costumes, dialogue, and set pieces. The production (which lasted a mere 20 days in the blistering heat) was filmed entirely in the deep woods in upstate New York – meaning just about all of the action takes place in these woods, and there’s little to distinguish one scene from the next, thus depleting most of the suspense Geoghegan tries hard to build. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t look good because it does, but there’s little for cinematographer Karim Hussain (Hobo With A Shotgun, Hannibal) to work with in order to present the stunning visuals and cinematography he has become famous for. In addition, the sound (at least during our presentation) was either distorted or muffled, not to mention Wojciech Golczewski’s pulsating score overpowers the film (and not in a good way).

That said, if there is one reason to see this film, it is for Kaniehtiio Horn’s powerful presence as Oak, a woman who fights to survive alongside her lovers, Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain) and Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren). They’re a trio unlike any we’ve seen in a horror film prior, a representation of a bisexual couple that truly cares for one another — and that goes a long way in making Mohawk such an unusual and admirable film. The depiction of Native Americans in the movies is notorious for its reductive stereotypes, and so credit must be given to Geoghegan and his script writing partner, Grady Hendrix, for not portraying a Native American woman as either a princess or a squaw. Horn’s Oak is smart, resourceful, strong, sexy and most certainly deadly. She literally carries the entire film – she’s so good that I could easily see her become a rising star in the near future. While it remains to be seen what kind of distribution Mohawk will get, if you get the chance, I recommend giving it a shot. There’s a lot to like here, enough to overlook the film’s budgetary constraints. (Ricky D)

Town in a Lake

Somewhere in Jet Leyco’s Town in a Lake there is a sharp satire on the politics of tragedy, but unfortunately any message or entertainment derived from that is submerged beneath the still, murky depths of a boilerplate murder mystery – until finishing with a twist that would make some of the more outrageous episode of The Twilight Zone blush. It’s an uneven experience to say the least, especially in those closing moments, but if you haven’t been successfully lulled to sleep by the languid pacing and lack of bite to either plot or characters, the film delivers a very strange talking point.

When the kidnapping and murder of a teenage girl strikes a small Philippine seaside village that is supposedly unused to crime of any kind, residents question the idyllic image of their community while the local police force struggles to investigate, and outsiders ranging from journalists to high-ranking politicians descend upon the jungle looking to further their own agendas. Selfish opportunism erodes the image of caring neighbors, and a potential eyewitness that must decide whether to reveal the truth. The actual crime involves a fairly typical setup that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of CSI, but the unfamiliar setting and glimpses into Philippine rural life do offer some intriguing cultural tidbits, especially in the way two mothers deal with their slightly different circumstances, and the nature of morality.

When Town in a Lake focuses on these aspects it definitely engages, but unfortunately the film meanders too far off course into the dense foliage. Sustained shots (something I’m normally a fan of) go on with no purpose or visual appeal in sight, and subplots that barely qualify as such get far too much attention before trailing off into nothingness. In the meantime, the dead weight has buried the perspective so well that by the time the ending arrives with its complete tonal shift – one that with the right preparation may have worked – Town in a Lake hasn’t earned any resolution at all, let alone such wacky one.

Broken Sword Hero

Paradoxically, it takes more than martial arts skill to make a martial arts star. Sure, Bruce Lee’s mastery of the martial arts was legendary, but there was more to his status as a star then that. Stardom requires a certain charisma, an on-screen presence and magnetism that captivates audiences even when you aren’t kung-fu prowess. Unfortunately, Muay Thai champion Buakaw Banchamek doesn’t have that X-factor, despite his obvious physical skill. It’s something that brings Broken Sword Hero – intended to be his debut as a martial arts leading man – crashing down.

Buakaw plays Thongdee, a legendary Muay Thai fighter who eventually rises to prominence as a national hero dubbed “Phraya Pichai of the Broken Sword.” The film has a lot of the earmarks of a work based in myth or fable, particularly in how it wanders from encounter to encounter, rarely exhibiting much forward momentum. The characters feel largely flat and underdeveloped, lacking anything approaching a character arc.

The martial arts scenes certainly are impressive, and nobody is contesting Buakaw’s mastery of Muay Thai, but Broken Sword Hero feels more like a high-end demo reel than a film, and one that ultimately fails to sell him as a leading man. There’s a flatness to his performance, a stiffness that makes the film far too dull when the knees and elbows aren’t colliding with stuntmen’s faces. Combine that with a wandering story and fairly flat direction, and Broken Sword Hero fails to get off the ground.

****

Our coverage will be continuing all throughout July, so be sure to get your genre kicks with even more Fantasia 2017 features and reviews right here!

FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL • JULY 13 – AUGUST 2, 2017
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