(Pictured: Markees Christmas in “Morris from America”)
One of the many benefits of a film festival as far-reaching and versatile as SIFF is that the conventional gets to coexist with the wildly experimental. On any given day, you might see a film that would be right at home on a mall multiplex screen followed by something indescribably weird. Consider the two movies I saw on my fourth day at SIFF, one of which feels tailor made for fawning festival crowds and another that’s…well, it’s something else entirely.
Thursday’s crowd pleaser was “Morris from America,” writer-director Chad Hartigan’s cute but slight coming-of-age/fish-out-of-water comedy. Markees Christmas plays a black 13-year-old from New York, who’s uprooted to Germany with his single father (Craig Robinson), a soccer coach. Morris, who’s socially withdrawn and obsessed with rap, is especially conspicuous in his lily-white Heidelberg high school, where the kids are more enamored with thumping EDM music than hip-hop.
Hartigan isn’t particularly concerned with the jarring racial divides between Morris and his classmates, whose impressions of African-American culture are rooted in painful stereotypes. Instead, he focuses on the ways Morris relates to other people – his slightly older, more defiant classmate (Lina Keller), his doting German teacher (Carla Juri from “Wetlands”) and his father, whose sense of alienation in a foreign country is further exacerbated by Morris’ teenage rebellion.
“Morris from America” is perfectly pleasant, and Robinson and newcomer Christmas develop some genuinely terrific chemistry in their scenes together. But it’s so loose and amiable that it never develops much emotional weight, and it likely won’t stick in your mind long after it’s over. The movie won acclaim at Sundance, and it’s the kind of low-key charmer that could possibly find its way to loving mainstream audiences.
The same cannot be said of “Tag,” one of the newest mind benders from prolific Japanese auteur Sion Sono (I say “one of” because he directed a whopping six films last year). I’d honestly like to know what goes on inside Sono’s brain: His films are nearly impossible to describe, so lurid and bloody and cartoonish that they often resemble manga comics made flesh. Sono’s magnum opus is “Love Exposure,” a four-hour epic of teenage perversity, martial arts and religious cults that’s one of the strangest, funniest, most crazily ambitious movies I’ve ever seen.
“Tag” isn’t in the same league as “Love Exposure” (it’s also a third of its length), but its refusal to be pinned down by the basic restrictions of genre, plot or even logic makes it perversely winning. It’s a shockingly violent live action cartoon set in a world in which seemingly no men exist, and it opens as two busloads of schoolgirls are brutally vivisected in a bizarre accident. Only one girl survives, and as she escapes the supernatural force that offed her classmates, she continues stumbling into what appear to be alternate realities.
Where does it go from there? There’s a murderous gust of wind that slices people clean in half, a carnivorous lake monster, a back flipping man-pig wearing a tuxedo, a woman whose body is filled with crisscrossing wires, an all girls school that becomes a war zone and a wedding that develops into a bloodbath.
But Sono hasn’t merely assembled a grotesque catalogue of surreal, disconnected images and scenarios. When he finally explains what’s going on, “Tag” takes a hard left turn and becomes a heady allegory about the inevitability of fate and the dangers of objectifying women. (That last reveal inspires some moral whiplash, since so much of “Tag” resembles the objectification it goes on to excoriate.)
It goes without saying that Sono’s work isn’t going to appeal to everyone, especially American audiences (his temperament and sense of humor are intensely Japanese). But if you’re able to get on its own loony wavelength, “Tag” is a weird, singular whirlwind of a movie.
Tomorrow: More unexplained goings-on from Japan, France and the UK.