Fantastic Fest Day 1: Blind, Sleepless Night, And Polvora Negra
Once a year, a whirlwind of cinephilia known as Fantastic Fest rolls into Austin, Texas. Now in its seventh year, Fantastic Fest has grown from a weekend of esoteric film appreciation to one of the premier film festivals in the country. As we make our way through the tumbleweeds, the booze, and the menagerie of genre films, we will be bringing you updates on what we saw, what we liked, and what we could remember after waking up from the innumerable parties.
A female police officer gets into a terrible car accident while driving with her brother. While her brother unfortunately perishes, she survives, but permanently loses her sight. One year later, she is fighting to keep her job as her superiors feel her disability is making her a liability. One night, after a rather frightening cab ride, she narrowly escapes the clutches of a sadistic serial killer. Now that the killer has seen her face, he is determined to finish their deadly game.
Blind is an intense and solidly affecting thriller. It utilizes the heroine’s disability to explore classic, Hitchcock-style suspense, which came from the audience knowing more about the circumstances and dangers facing the characters than did the characters themselves. By eliminating the protagonist’s sight, we become terrified for her by threats in the room that she cannot see. It’s an interesting twist on the old convention of blindness causing a heightening of the other senses; in this case the audience’s situational awareness is heightened by the character’s blindness.
The one drawback to the film is that it is a bit procedural. Leading up to the final showdown, Blind marches to the beats of the most conventional of serial killer thrillers. We are bombarded with repetitive scenes of the killer torturing women to remind us ad nauseum that he is in fact evil. We also get the inept police force sending one hapless, quickly dispatched officer to protect the besieged heroine. And the showdown is of course in an enormous building that just happens to be deserted via a series of convenient plot devices. But the lengths to which the film goes to develop these characters instills in us a sincere desire to see them survive, which sets Blind apart from many Hollywood thrillers, but is perfectly in line with the Korean thriller tradition.
Vincent is a police officer with a unique idea of moonlighting. Along with his less-than-upstanding partner, Vincent steals cash and narcotics from the local criminal elements to pad his income, a dangerous pastime that lands him in hot water when he is recognized by one of his targets. As retribution, the city’s biggest and most ruthless crime bosses kidnaps Vincent’s son and demands the return of his cocaine in exchange for the boy’s life.
There is a reason Warner Brothers was so interested in remaking this film. Sleepless Night is a marvel of small-scale, large ambition action filmmaking. Inviting—and already receiving—comparisons to Die Hard, almost the entirety of Sleepless Night’s action takes place within one location, one building. But the creative avenues utilized to craft multiple unique fight sequences, shootouts, and chases is remarkable. If nothing else, Sleepless Night boasts the most incredible kitchen-based fight scene in existence.
But as you watch Sleepless Night, you may find yourself growing restless near the end. The principle problem with the film is that it spends the last half hour defiantly ripping open loose ends as they are being tied down. Villainous characters finally in custody mastermind absurd escapes, moments of catharsis are interrupted by the return forgotten characters, and plot twists that should have appeared at the beginning of the third act arrive just before the credits. It is an experiment in unmanageable chaos that leaves the audience antsy for an appropriate conclusion.
When the results of a paternity test reveal a prominent local crime figure has sired an illegitimate child with a young girl, he seeks her out to violently correct his nefarious mistake. As she is fleeing his wrath, she is accompanied by her brother who gets caught in the line of fire. By the time all is said and done, the girl is dead and her brother has been shot through the eye and left for dead… They should have shot him a second time. Polvora Negra is a tale of revenge as the still-breathing, one-eyed brother tracks those responsible for his sister's death to a small town and spends the rest of the film systematically making them pay for their crime.
Polvora Negra has so much heart that it almost feels vindictive to point out its myriad of faults. Writer/Director Kapel Furman is earnest is his attempt to capture the gritty, frenzied charm of 70s exploitation and revenge cinema, but his inexperience as a filmmaker is hopelessly apparent and tarnishes all the goodwill engendered by his sincere passion. The plot of the film is almost impossible to follow, involving perpetual familial revelations that paint a picture of a desperately forked family tree. There are scenes that exist to expound upon and explain innocuous actions that in no way inform the story; one particular hand-washing scene actually needless delays the film’s final shot.
Upon seeing the film, it came as no surprise to learn that Polvora Negra was Furman’s first feature film. It is saddled by all the customary missteps and pitfalls of a student film, but the underlying potential is still there. The action sequences, for the most part, are inspired and work well within the budgetary constraints, and the score is phenomenal. It also features a colorful, hyperactive montage of grindhouse imagery that promised more from the movie than it could ultimately deliver. When Furman has another film at this festival, a few years from now with more work under his belt, he is going to knock us on our asses.
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