Saturday, July 27, 2019

AAIFF ’19: Baliko (short)

You could see photos of the Abominable Snowman every week in the Weekly World News and there is still grainy video of him and Bigfoot on A&E and the History Channel all the time. Nevertheless, a reputable professional photographer is convinced a clear, unimpeachable shot of a mythical Himalayan monster will jump-start her stalling career. More than a thousand words, a picture is worth everything in Chris Chung’s short film Baliko, which screens during the 2019 Asian American International Film Festival.

When an editor tells Mara her photos are pretty but dull, it stings bitterly. Resolved to show him and every other obnoxious jerk differently, she becomes obsessed with the idea of photographing Baliko, a legendary beast that only shows itself at particular times during the lunar cycle. According to folklore, his coming demands a sacrifice from local villagers, to atone for their collective guilt. They do not like talking about him much, even in this day and age.

Whether he believes or not, Mara’s Bertie Wooster-ish British boyfriend James will accompany her on the trek. She knew from the start he wouldn’t be much help, but she is still surprised how much his chatter bothers her. In contrast, their weathered Sherpa guide hardly says a word. Perhaps that is why he inspires confidence.

Baliko is sort of a survival story, sort of a monster film, and definitely a close cousin to the vintage tales off irony once seen on shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Yet, the frosty setting is not so very different from Game of Thrones, which notably featured Baliko’s star and screenwriter, Jessica Henwick. She is also a Marvel alumnus, having played Coleen Wing in Iron Fist and The Defenders, so Baliko ought to have major fanboy appeal.

Henwick is also really terrific as Mara, showing considerable range while completely upending many of our assumptions. Jonathan Howard’s James might be too much of a twit for the film’s own good, but Tom Wu (Hundred Eyes from Marco Polo) is steely as ever as their silent guide.

Some viewers might guess the film’s twist, but it still has bite because of the shrewdly clever ways Chung frames the closing scenes. Frankly, this film ought to be a hot ticket, considering its three primary cast-members have all appeared in big, moderately large, or minor roles in some of the largest film franchises going (including Marvel, James Bond, and Godzilla). More importantly, it is smart and chilling (but maybe not in the way viewers will expect). Very highly recommended, Baliko screens tomorrow (7/28), as part of the Shorts: Otherly Worlds program at this year’s AAIFF.