Saturday, December 12, 2015

AFI’s EU Showcase ’15: Liza the Fox Fairy

Japan is the land of the kaidan and the grudge. Nobody does ghosts better. Even in a whimsical retro-1970s capitalist Hungary, you will find Japanese ghosts tormenting the living. The spirit of 1960s crooner Tomi Tani might look benign, but he will cause all sorts of problems for a naïve private nurse in Károly Ujj Mészáros’s Liza, the Fox-Fairy (trailer here), which screens as part of the AFI’s 2015 EU Film Showcase.

For years, Liza has dutifully cared for Marta, the Hungarian widow of the former Japanese ambassador. Through her employer, Liza has absorbed a love of Japanese history and culture, including Tani’s sugary grooves. For years, the singer has inexplicably haunted Marta’s flat, but only Liza is able to see him, assuming he is a benevolent spirit. Tani has fallen in love with her, but that is a bad thing, especially when the lonely-hearted Liza finally starts to get proactive about romance.

When everyone who gets close to her starts to die, including Marta, Liza figures out she has been cursed to become a mythological Fox-Fairy. All men who love her are doomed to such a fate. Naturally, the police start to suspect her of multiple murders, especially since she inherited her employer’s flat, over the objections of Marta’s greedy relatives. The only exception is the pure-hearted but dangerously clumsy Sgt. Zoltan, an ardent fan of Finnish country music, who becomes Liza’s other unlikely flat-mate.

Fox-Fairy looks like a Wes Anderson film on twee steroids, but it has a surprising edge to it. Arguably, it is more kaidan than quirk-fest, which is cool. However, Liza and Zoltan are also refreshingly gentle souls, whom even the most jaded viewers will root for. Evidently, Mészáros and Bálint Hegedűs adapted a stage play by Zsolt Pozsgai for the big screen, but it is hard to imagine how all their visual mischief-making could be rendered for live theater. Still, it would be worth watching Broadway take a shot at it, even if the production fell on its face. Frankly, the film has way more special effects than you would imagine, but it would be either spoilery or utterly baffling to try to explain their context. Yet, Mészáros always maintains a very personal vibe throughout the film.

Mónika Balsai and Szabolcs Bede-Fazekas are terrific as Liza and Zoltan, respectively. They are both endearing in a puppy dog kind of way and achingly earnest, without ever getting cloying. Likewise, the Danish-Japanese David Sakurai is gleefully evil and impressively suave as Tani. As if he were not entertainingly villainous enough, Zoltán Schmied truly personifies oily sleaze as Henrik, Marta’s playboy nephew, whom Liza mistakenly falls for.

Somehow, Liza manages to be both cute and dark, which is quite a feat of filmmaking on Mészáros’s part. It is a wildly inventive film, but the style never overwhelms the characters or narrative. Very highly recommended, Liza, the Fox-Fairy screens this coming Thursday (12/17) as part of the AFI’s EU Film Showcase.