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2019 Phoenix Film Festival – Day 9

Hola! Hal Astell here from Apocalypse Later. Here’s my coverage of day eight at the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival (PFF) and International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival (IHSFFF).

Day nine means that we’re almost there! Not counting the opening night film, to which admittance is limited, the Phoenix Film Festival runs for ten days and I find myself busiest on the second weekend, which is competition time for shorts and features screening in the IHSFFF.

Yesterday, I saw almost all the horror competition films, with only one feature left for tomorrow morning. Today, I saw everything in competition on the sci-fi side and I was pretty impressed! Science fiction author Mike Stackpole has run this track forever and he knows precisely what he’s doing, so it’s no surprise to see good films, but the features stood out for special notice this year and the “international” component of the festival title was adhered to as well.

Before I launch into today’s films, I’ll add that 51 screenings have been sold out thus far. Last year reached 66 so I’m guessing this year will be unable to match it, but it will get closer as films sell out tomorrow.

The Spiral

The first of four sci-fi competition features, The Spiral is a Malaysian film, which makes it unusual to begin with, but it’s unusual in other ways too. For one, some horrendous traffic this morning meant that we got to the theatre ten minutes late and I wondered if I was was watching an Asian action flick for a while. For two, it combines eastern metaphysics with western metaphysics for an interesting mix. And for three, it’s almost entirely in English but subtitled in English too just to be safe. Given that some of the Malaysian actors speak better English than the western actors, that got weird.

I came in to find Jon Caine locked up in a tough Malaysian prison, somewhere amidst all the brutalist architecture that really nails the tone needed. He’s apparently a respected lecturer and family man with a clean record, at least until he massacred a whole bunch of civilians and policemen, at which point it was clearly time to lock him up. Given that his actions are unfathomable, the authorities call in a psychologist called Dr. Melanie Surya to question him.

And here’s where things get interesting, because Caine delivers dialogue like ‘Everywhere I go, you’re there. Why do you exist?’ That’s hardly a usual line for a mass murderer, but it takes a while for us to figure out exactly what’s going on. Many possibilities spring to mind, though the ten minutes I missed may have focused them a little, but the story gets to where it needs to go in believable fashion. It’s a careful script and a good one.

There’s a lot to praise here, the script being merely the most obvious, though I’d like to see this again (with those first ten minutes) to do it justice. Peter Davis is capable as Caine, both in dramatic scenes and action ones, but Siti Saleha, prolific TV movie actress in Malaysia, impressed me most as Dr. Surya and… well, let’s just say her role gets more interesting towards the end.

The eighties style electronic score, perhaps equal parts John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream, is excellent, courtesy of Peter Wong, who also directed, co-wrote, edited and did so many other jobs that it wouldn’t surprise me if he took out the trash at the end of each night’s shoot. This is emphatically his film, whoever shines in it.

It was also his idea, which means that the metaphysical concepts in play are his doing too. I’m nowhere near well read enough to speawk to these, but I recognises a few philosophies in play, some scientific and some spiritual, all of them tied together with string theory. Anything that combines string theory with the Akashic Record should be on my want to see list, but I don’t expect it to run to many titles.

This was a great way to begin a sci-fi day and I’m happy to see a Malaysian film in competition at IHSFFF.

Sci-Fi Shorts A

Mike’s sci-fi shorts sets are about as close to gimmes as anything playing the IHSFFF and this first set is easily up to his usual standard.

An Australian short by the frequent name of Transmission, this one the third short of that name to be released in 2018 alone, is a great way to start. It fairly flaunts its quality digital effects from the outset, in overlays and technology, but settles down quickly enough to suggest that it has a story too, which many pretty sci-fi shorts overlook. A very promising new planet called Eden has been found but a mission to study it runs into unexpected dangers. I won’t spoil the source of those dangers but will mention that I reviewed a novel last year that shared that source, so I wonder if it’s an imminent trope.

To lighten the mood after Transmission is Bombora, a comedy short that has an alien surfer travel to Earth, home of the raddest waves. He adopts the physical form of a local surfer (nice talent that) but has no idea how to speak and finds himself the subject of a surprise party. Hilarity, as they ensues. Bombora proves to be a lot of fun as it explores the way in which non-verbal communication can get the job done.

Beautiful Bunkers is an interesting short that knows exactly when and how to end. It’s set entirely in a small bunker, within which Artemis has lived and worked for fifteen years, presumably after some sort of holocaust outside. She can’t leave, of course, so she communicates with the occupants of other bunkers by radio. Everything’s old school, suggesting that these are Cold War bunkers, from the typewriters to the pneumatic tubes. JoAnna Lloyd does exactly what she needs to do as Artemis and the voices she interacts with shape her part and thus the film.

Lavender is another Aussie short that inexplicably can’t be found on IMDB, given that it’s a) excellent and b) winning awards on the festival circuit. The script takes a look at our relationship with meat by conjuring up a future in which an incurable disease sends a growing amount of people into vegetative states. With rampant food shortages, the natural solution is to butcher the afflicted and sell them as cheap steaks called Brawn. Our story follows a great segue from “They’re not people; it’s just muscle memory” to “It’s your dad.” It’s quality stuff on every level.

My favourite film in this set was Hot Knife Cold Butter, a Qatari short that does the quintessential science fiction job of combining social commentary with technological advance. Debut director and co-writer Zaina Salameh tells of a future in which matchmaking is applied science, a matter of identifying which DNA matches which. Teddy Alshaer plays Victor, the inevitable anomaly who approaches dating the old fashioned way, connecting more to the waitress than his scientifically identified matches. There’s a lot more depth to this film than that too, even without factoring in arranged marriages as a Qatari norm, and it’s emphatically well worth exploring.

Tik Tok is a very different take on technological dating, introducing the app of the title to allow participants to rewind time and change what they just did, if it didn’t impress their partner. Just don’t overuse it, they’re advised, or they’ll break the space-time continuum. There’s less social commentary here and more comedy but it’s relentlessly bubbly and inventive and the two actors, Maggie Mae Fish and J. Norman Riley, are more than game. It’s a whole bundle of fun and I didn’t need to rewind to tell you that.

The set wrapped up with a fascinating short called Regulation that deserves much discussion. It takes a look at a future in which the government has a direct hand in the happiness of its citizens, requiring the application of microdosers (or happy patches) to children to regulate their mood swings, a particularly important thing because each child affects others.

While most would quickly agree with young Kaleigh Warren not wanting a patch because she can control her moods by just going outside and imagining things, it’s an intriguing slippery slope. Some would see this short as a commentary on ADHD kids and the overadministration of drugs to control it, but others are likely to see a parallel in the anti-vaxxer movement, which is a whole other enchilada. Science fiction should always prompt debate and this does that with style and emphasis.

This was a fantastic set, not just without bad films but without any average ones too.


I have to be particularly careful about spoilers with sci-fi features, so I will merely point out that Volition, the first film to ever compete in both the PFF and IHSFFF sides of this festival, is a film about clairvoyance. It can’t be a spoiler to say that that’s not all it’s about and the theory of what clairvoyance actually is was fascinating to me. I’ll also confuse folk by saying there are similarities here to both The Spiral and One Cut of the Dead, two other IHSFFF films this year that couldn’t be more different.

On the face of it, we’re watching James, a very odd underachiever. He’s on the troubled side of the economic spectrum, unable to pay his landlord, but he has a first class brain and a peculiar talent to elevate his chances at life. Put simply, he sees things that haven’t happened yet, albeit in jagged bursts of imagery at random times, presented to him without either warning or explanation. And, importantly, they always come true.

That talent both aids and hinders him as he falls into a complex tangle of intrigue while doing a job for his dad, a criminal called Ray. The MacGuffin is a bag of diamonds, which Ray needs to sell on, but he wants James to use his talent to be sure that he’ll do so safely. Needless to say, it doesn’t remotely stay that simple, especially as the visions start to show his own imminent death by firearm, and the other key story element I can’t mention adds to the complexity substantially.

Like The Spiral, the script is easily the most obvious component to focus on and it’s a cleverly structured attempt to complicate and then uncomplicate a storyline. The pace is excellent and the way in which certain key characters are delineated is handled very well too. That and the choreography had to be good for this to work and both are spot on, especially late in the film. The acting is excellent too, with some mildly familiar faces.

What this does best is to take a complex idea and simplify it into a story that can be easily understood by most without diluting the idea. Some folk may need to see it twice and many may need to think about the last couple of minutes, but it’s clear enough for the masses to follow along. That’s a neat trick to master and Tony Dean Smith who directed and co-wrote, nails it.

Volition makes two for two with sci-fi competition features, with a couple more to go. Bookending a fantastic set of shorts meant a happy day indeed.

Last Sunrise

And, if The Spiral and Volition were excellent flims, Last Sunrise ratchets the quality up another notch. This Chinese feature is full of sadness but a degree of hope, but it’s put together with magnificent style and it may well be the best film that I’ve seen all festival. It may be the best film I’ve seen all year.

The concept is simple: the sun goes out. One question posed here that finds a number of answers is, “If today is the end of the world, what would you do?” The amateur astronomer who first figures out that this calamity will befall us wants to survive, though he runs through a lot of emotions as the event unfolds.

I should call out the visuals here, because they’re glorious, not only the actual demise of our sun but the brilliant stars that populate the sky for much of the film, now that the sun isn’t polluting our vicinity with light. There’s the usual tech too, which deserves another callout. The China that we see here is presumably near future, because people are clearly living in an always-on world, a little more than they do today. This is handled very well indeed, often without fanfare.

For instance, our astronomer, Sun Yang, relies on an omnipresent AI, called Ilsa, with which he interacts through multiple interfaces including a watch. He checks out groceries by walking past a sensor and waving a card at it. In the immediate aftermath, when the systems are all down, he has cash but he’s the only one and he’s mugged immediately afterwards for it. He escapes from the city in his neighbour’s car, though she can’t drive or read a physical map. When smart tools do the job, we get out of the habit.

What happens when an always-on world isn’t on? Pure chaos is the answer and there’s some palpable danger in the city as people gradually come to realise just how bad their situation is. I should add here that they don’t fully get it, but we’re given enough science to realise it. Never mind the removal of all light, most power (given that much has become solar powered) and prompt chilling effect, the planets are going to start moving out of their orbits and all our oxygen will vanish. It’s pretty frickin’ serious!

Yang and his bubbly neighbour and travelling companion, Chen Mu, have wildly different goals but end up coming together in one of many little and large human stories and often subtle story arcs. This is speculative fiction drama at its best and it’s done on a surprisingly low budget, restrictive shooting schedule and ridiculously difficult production for the timeframe. Less than $250k, only 14 days and a moving shoot that unfolded over 1600km in sub-zero temperatures. That’s nuts and it’s nigh on impossible to believe that after seeing the film.

It’s worth mentioning that Last Sunrise feels loose and improvisational, but I’m sure it was constructed with incredible care. Just how much there is in this film to find is amazing to me. I’m sure I missed a lot because some of it is very subtle, but what I caught was enough for me to recommend this as highly as anything I have in a long time.

The Spiral and Volition are excellent films that would have won Best Sci-Fi Feature in other years, but I’ll be stunned if Last Sunrise doesn’t take it in 2019.

Sci-Fi Shorts B

After the fantastic A set, Sci-Fi Shorts B had a high bar to follow but, in a commonplace occurence for IHSFFF, it featured had five longer shorts that allowed for much more exploration of depth. These sets rarely disappoint and this one didn’t either, though I found I had difficulty with a few of them.

Secret Chord was one. It’s a Swedish short framing a future in which those who fail to contribute (translation: don’t earn enough in a year) are made to disappear and contribution is difficult because the AI revolution meant that machines do everything better except create art. Our focal point is Max, a musician who is about to face his annual evaluation. He has to come up with something special or he’ll be vanished. This joins with a separate subplot to provide a good ending, but one whose intentions I’m unsure about. Is this optimistic or pessimistic? I can read it both ways, with a notably pessimistic one front and centre.

In Her Image is another one, because I couldn’t figure out motivations. Yes, Maia, a talented developer, is searching for her son, an AI construct kept within the framework of a ten year old boy in virtual reality world, but I failed to grasp why she left, why she came back (at least when she did) and why the company she was working for wants to keep her away. She finds a way in to see him, and her chase of her partner, Zura, who’s attempting to keep the unwilling Luka away from her, is great fun to watch, but I didn’t grasp the value decisions here. That said, it’s still a decent short from Georgia.

My favourite short in this set was easily The Way the Future Was, which, as you might expect, focuses on time travel. We follow Matt to work at Qubit AI, a generic hi-tech company, where we gradually discover that he’s really not the lead. That’s Charlie, a young nerd who Hannah Rose May brings to exquisite life. Matt’s late for a presentation but he’s kind of happy about it, given that he drove in because his Alexa told him that his usual train was offline. That train crashed, killing almost everyone aboard, on the one day in five years he didn’t take it. Clearly there’s something going on and it’s a heck of a lot of fun to figure out what. I should add that no hi-tech company is going to run their frickin’ photonic neural network using Alexa, but the core of the story is not rooted in stupid IT but in human beings.

I wanted to like Eternity more than I did, and I may well do on a second run through, but it felt a little off to me. It’s an exploration of immortality through the digitisation of souls, something I’m particularly keen on, but it’s framed in an odd way that I don’t think I fully grasped. We follow a couple, Ian and Marie, who are looking into the possibility of being made immortal and spending eternity in virtual worlds. Marie’s all for it, while Ian finds himself vehemently against. A subsequent car crash may well change that. Part of my problem may tie to not figuring out just what Charon, the company providing this service, are up to. I have a feeling they’re rather twisted and I’d love a second go at this Ukrainian short to figure that out.

The final short in the set, an animated steampunk film called Widdershins, is one I know well because I screened it last month in a roadshow set. It’s made in stylish black and white and it features the voice talents of the one and only Brian Cox as a gentleman fed up with the Victorian clockwork equivalent of the internet of things. This is maybe the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen it now and it still stands up. Bravo! Bravo!


Last up for us tonight, given that we skipped out on the last showcase film to get some long overdue sleep, is Excursion, the fourth of four features in competition on the sci-fi side. Nothing was likely to outdo Last Sunrise and this one doesn’t, but it’s interesting on its own merits.

I’d read the synopsis for this feature ahead of time and wondered at what it suggested. See what you might conjure up from: “A mystery thriller about a 1980’s devoted Czechoslovakian communist party member visiting his future self, to make sure Socialism still prospers.”

The future self is Tom Mraz, who lives in London in 2018 and gets upset just like Jeremy Clarkson. The loyal communist is Tomas Mraz, who left 1987 to visit Tom for reasons of which he’s not entirely sure. Certainly he spouts off Soviet propaganda and decries his future self as a traitor to the cause, but he doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose and he quite likes the ideas of pizza delivery and the internet.

This is phrased very much like a play, focusing entirely on two people until a third shows up for a while. I don’t believe we ever see more than five and there are only two locations: Tom’s flat and a secret underground research facility into time travel that even Moscow doesn’t know about. Beyond that, there’s little movement, the plot is almost entirely told through dialogue and the props are all MacGuffins, except perhaps Alexandra’s truly horrible wig. It could have been performed on stage and, for all I know, was.

While the budget probably didn’t exceed my tax bill and the acting isn’t all that great, the story holds our attention. Whenever it feels like it’s going on a little too long, it throws out another idea or twist to keep us engaged and I truly appreciated the final one, which I’m ashamed to say I didn’t see coming until very shortly before a particular glorious revelation.

Oddly, I’d call Excursion easily the weakest of the four sci-fi competition features this year, but also a film that’s likely to stay with me and come up in conversation in future years. I liked it but it wouldn’t surprise me if I remember it as a story rather than a film. Given that, the key praise should go to Magdalena Drahovska and the film’s director, Martin Grof, who co-wrote the script.

One more day to go and I’ll share the Arizona and IHSFFF award winners tomorrow!

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