Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are represented in Fantasia Fest 2023’s Feast of Amrita Short Film Program, a showcase of Asian horror animation headlined by the highly anticipated new film from Aragne: Sign of Vermillion director Saku Sakamoto. Let’s dive into this amazing world of blood, nightmares, gothic horror, and demons.
Very much like Detention, Fish Wang’s Ghost of the Dark Path uses horror as a platform to explore the trauma of Taiwan’s White Terror, the four-decade era of authoritarian rule in which 140,000 were imprisoned and at least 3,0000 were executed.
The film follows Agent Seven, a secret policeman that falls in love with the leader of a group of agitators he’s supposed to be tracking. After a mass arrest, the woman escapes a brutal assault, leaving a trail of blood behind. Seven follows her into a forest but soon gets lost in a mysterious village roamed by souls.
Brought to life by gorgeous animation, Ghost of the Dark Path is a blood-soaked work full of symbolism that takes us into a nightmarish world of floating houses and demon-like figures. Often brutal, it’s a journey that evokes fear, regret, and pain.
Ironically, its most memorable moment is also one of great beauty: early in the film, before bursting into song, the activist leader talks about the importance of culture as a pillar for reform. In this time of unrest, where China has its oppressive tentacles over Hong Kong and is turning its head toward Taiwan, it’s important to remember the importance of cultural works such as Ghost of the Dark Path that teaches Taiwan’s painful past so that it never happens again.
With an evil laugh that signifies things to come, Park Hye-Min’s Devil sends a chill down your spine from its first seconds. This South Korean short film doesn’t mess around.
On the night of the birth of his second child, Lord Choi suffers a fatal accident, but on the verge of death, he makes a deal with a goblin to save his life. But here’s the catch: the goblin will take Choi’s daughter on her sixteenth birthday.
Devil is a disturbing piece of cinema where you slowly discover a web of family secrets through horrific imagery and shocking twists. As Lord Choi desperately attempts to protect her daughter, the story acquires demonic whodunnit vibes: evil lurks somewhere in the house, but what shape will it take?
Although the animation can sometimes be stiff, Park Hye-Min’s direction is terrific. A sinister musical motif is intelligently used to give you the creeps, the voice acting is deeply unsettling, the gory scenes are highly effective, and the puzzle-like nature of the story is flawlessly built to create ever-increasing terror. This isn’t just my favorite film out of this program. This is one of my favorite offerings of Fantasia Fest 2023.
Weirdly, the main event of this program was very disappointing. Quickly overshadowed by every other short here, Feast of Amrita has some cool visuals but fails to deliver its bio-horror promise.
Imagined by director, writer, and animator Saku Sakamoto as a prequel to his beloved Aragne: Sign of Vermillion, Feast of Amrita is the story of Tamahi, Yu, and Aki, a group of teenage schoolgirls who, scared after watching someone fall from the rooftop, enter an old apartment complex only to find themselves trapped in a ghastly and brutal experience where devilish creatures hunt them to get control of their bodies and souls.
The creatures are impressive, and some disturbing ideas are at play here, but the film lacks a narrative focus. Sakamoto seems more interested in shocking and satisfying fans of gore than in creating interesting characters and building dread for the actual horror to work. His schoolgirl characters are nothing but shells the director uses to deliver a bunch of uncreative and reductive scenes.
The animation is another obstacle. Although the work Sakamoto put into this is praiseworthy, the execution creates many problems. In a film such as this, you need to feel the dread the characters are going through, which is absent here due to the weak human character design and facial expression animations: Tamahi and company look like lifeless dolls. If you combine this with a low frame rate and stiff animation style, then you’ve got a lot of pieces that never fit into a bigger picture.
We know that horror is a quintessential tool to explore trauma and tricky subjects, and we also know that animation is one of the most versatile art forms out there, a tool to create worlds and tell stories that fiction would never be able to pull off. And even though its main event didn’t stick the landing, this Feast of Amrita Short Film Program is a glowing example of what these two powerful art forms can achieve together. If you add talented filmmakers, the result can provoke deep emotional reactions and give you the most disturbing of nightmares.
Ghost of the Dark Path, Devil, and Feast of Amrita screened at Fantasia Fest 2023 as part of the Feast of Amrita short program.