PERSEPOLIS came with a pedigree (it's based on a well-regarded graphic novel and won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes) but I'm sure that wasn't enough to mask the disappointment some must have felt when the title was first announced. It may have been animated, but it's in French and it's about Iran, so how good can it be? Turned out PERSEPOLIS was one of the finest films of the entire fest lineup and is one of the best films of the year thus far. Interesting thing about it to me was that it could have been made as a live-action feature (though filming in Tehran might have been a little tough) and may have been an equally good film, but to make it into an animated feature does make the film much more special (in a good way). Like Satrapi's graphic novel that the film is based on, it's an autobiographical first-person witnessing of Iran's Islamic Revolution of the 70s and 80s and a coming-of-age story of someone who feels like they don't belong in either their own home country or abroad. It's a very sweet, charming, often funny and heartwarming film (genuinely heartwarming at that; you really feel for these characters) and certainly an eye-opener to most of us westerners who don't really know Iranian culture. It's fascinating to learn about the attitudes of Iranians both pre-and-post-revolution and how things like secret parties where women don't have to cover their heads and buying western music on the black market were part of the norms of living, along with fear of the Revolutionary Guard. It's very refreshing to see a story about real Iranians (even if they are animated) and the attitudes of Iranians towards their own country and government, but it also gives you the impression that Iran was (and still is) the hippest place in the Middle East. It's also got a great look (faithfully re-creating the look of the graphic novels) by being mostly in black & white (with some color) and the animation, is impressively simple and not flashy, proof that you don't need to do Pixar-esqe CGI to make a quality animated film. Hell, if it wasn't for RATATOUILLE I'd call PERSEPOLIS the best animated film this year, but it certainly deserves to be nominated in that category at this year's Oscars, no doubt about it, and I found it to be one of those rare, impossible-to-hate kind of movies. I must give props to Harry Knowles and the Fantastic Fest team for picking it as a secret screening, since I'm not too sure it would play to a packed house otherwise and especially since the audience certainly liked what they saw. It really is the best kind of movie surprise.
A surprise of another kind was DAI-NIPPONJIN, the Secret Screening that played later the same night as PERSEPOLIS, since the film was a last-minute addition to the program just a few days before the fest started, but mainly because almost no one in the audience had heard of the film before. It did play in the Midnight Madness program at Toronto just a week or two before, but it didn't get a lot of attention there, so it seemed to still be under people's radar. I knew about this one because Fantastic Fest big daddy Tim League told me about it a few months earlier when he'd seen it at the marketplace at Cannes (it also screened in the Director's Fortnight) and wouldn't stop raving about it. The premise sounded delicious: A mockumentary about one of the lower-level giant heroes of modern-day Japan (think Ultraman) and how, despite saving Japan from various giant monsters, he's seen as a nuisance and is despised by the public. I've long said that you can never underestimate the appeal of giant monsters, but I suppose you can underestimate the appeal of giant hero satires, because this one wasn't really doing it for everyone for the bulk of its running time. In his introduction, Tim mentioned being a big fan of the film's writer/director/star Hitochi Matsumoto's work, but I have to confess that I'd never heard of him prior to seeing the film (apparently, he's huge on Japanese television) and I have to say, the guy really does have something. I think it helps to know going in that the film's sense of humor is a) bizarre and b) dry. We're talking my sister-in-law's attempt at cooking Thanksgiving turkey dry, which, lemme tell ya, is pretty fucking dry. And I have to admit, it made the film a little difficult to get into at first. I was certainly amused by it, had some good chuckles and understood that he was mocking much of Japanese culture, a point driven home by the fact that I was sitting next to my friend Marc Walkow of Outcast Cinema, a major Japanophile who was busting a gut. It's not a film that finds its own groove, you have to fit into it, and even if you know and love this stuff (and I most certainly do) you've got to work with the film in order to really start getting it. But find it you do and then, once you think you've caught up with it, the film does a complete 180 degree turn in its last 15 minutes and what you see before your eyes is something truly off-the-wall and very, very god damn funny. I'm not going to even begin to describe it, but it's delightfully weird and it won over a big bulk of the audience based just on that alone. DAI-NIPPONJIN is a movie that you can't really recommend to everyone, but it's a film that does its own thing and that makes it not only unique, but original, too, and you certainly can't fault that. Magnolia has picked it up for the U.S., so it probably won't get released here until late 2008 going by their standards, but if you have a taste for the truly offbeat, you'd be hard pressed to find anything quite like it.