Here are three reviews from South Korea’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, for a highly artistic Spanish historical chiller, a moody Vietnamese horror based on Asian urban legends, and a fine Hong Kong psychological horror thriller.
The Barcelona Vampiress
★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
One of the finest cinematic achievements this reviewer has seen this year, regardless of genre, is The Barcelona Vampiress (La vampira de Barcelona; Spain, 2020), a highly stylized chiller based on the true story and legends surrounding Enriqueta Martí, a woman suspected of being a serial killer of children but who may have been someone suffering from a mental disorder who committed only one kidnapping and no murders. Director Lluís Danés uses an impressive array of cinematic techniques, including black-and-white punctuated by occasional shocking splashes of red; full, vibrant color in the brothel scenes; expressionist-style sets; and shadow-play backdrops, for starters — and it all blends together beautifully, without ever feeling forced, overly showy, or pretentious. The gripping screenplay by Lluís Arcarazo and María Jaén takes viewers down a dark, sometimes surreal path in which fact and fiction collide as heroin-addicted journalist Sebastià Comas (Roger Casamajor) investigates the case of Martí (Nora Navas) and finds himself beginning to doubt the sensational accusations against her, meanwhile uncovering an underground society where highly placed men and women participate in child trafficking and prostitution. The Barcelona Vampiress balances a dramatic search for the truth with grand guignol-influenced set pieces and breathtakingly artistic flourishes. The cast is superb, with Casamajor grounding the dizzying proceedings in a fine performance, Navas nailing her role as the deeply troubled Martí, and a fine supporting cast including Bruna Cusí as Comas’ prostitute and love interest Amèlia and Mario Gas as Comas’ uncle and newspaper editor Sr. Mèndez. This is bravura filmmaking at its finest, highly recommended for cinema lovers of every stripe. It has cemented a place in my list of top 5 films of this year.
★★★ out of ★★★★★
Based on a South Korean ritual game in which a player takes an elevator alone at midnight in a building with at least 10 floors in an attempt to gain access to another realm, as well as a Korean urban legend about an abandoned haunted hospital, writer/director Peter Mourougaya’s The Lift (Thang Máy; Vietnam, 2020) is a slick, great-looking horror film that feels convoluted at times. University student Trang (Yu Duong) has a fear of elevators because of a past incident involving a little girl, which becomes a bigger problem when she investigates the disappearance of her friend Jina (Tong Yen Nhi), who she has discovered was the lover of her stepfather Son (Xuan Hiep Ngyuen). Joining her in riding the titular elevator in a dilapidated hospital is Trang’s annoying cousin Ngoc (played to teeth-grating perfection by Mai Bich Tram). The young women find that the rumors of supernatural entities at the location are not mere fantasy. There’s no denying the terrific, brooding atmosphere that Mourougaya creates, and the fantastic look of The Lift, with superbly creepy set design in the abandoned hospital and lighting that lends an eerie atmosphere. Oft-repeated rules that offer no big payoff and a frustrating ending work against those high points, unfortunately.
★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Director Glenn Chan’s Shadows (Hong Kong, 2020) is a gorgeous-looking chiller that blends psychological thriller elements with horror overtones, including some gruesome set pieces. Female psychiatrist Ching (Stephy Tang), who can see into people’s subconscious minds, examines the case of decorated social worker Chu (Kwan-Ho Tse), who killed his family members and then attempted suicide by jumping out a window. Police officer Ho Shun Fatt (Philip Keung) doesn’t want Chu getting off with a temporary insanity plea, but as Fatt and Ching dive deeper into the case, a disturbing trend begins to emerge as other murders are committed. Tang and Keung are superb in their performances, and Ben Yuen is also solid as a psychiatrist whose viewpoints differ strongly from those of Ching. Shadows is an engaging take on the good vs. evil premise — often playing in the titular area between those two extremes — with a gripping story by screenwriters Mani Man and Kai Xiang Chang, splendid cinematography by Oliver Lau, stirring visuals, and suspenseful pacing and direction.
Reviews by Joseph Perry
The Barcelona Vampiress, The Lift, and Shadows screened at Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN), which took place July 8–18, 2021, in Bucheon, South Korea.