Rants, Feelings & Opinions

Two New Women-Led Films Explore Desire and Gender

August 24, 2018
Girl in sailor uniform in a classroom

Two films – one about punks getting murdered in the woods, the other about a love triangle in Japan – stood out at Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. Here, Troy Michael Bordun talks to the people behind The Ranger and Amiko about their genre- and gender-bending filmmaking.

For three weeks this summer, Montreal’s Concordia University was a cinephile’s playground. The 22nd edition of Fantasia Film Festival included workshops and talks by filmmakers and actors, VR exhibitions, schmoozing with film people, and over one-hundred feature-length and short films. Three films stood out (that all happened to be written and/or directed by women): Cam (USA, 2018), Amiko (Japan, 2018), and The Ranger (USA, 2018). I chatted with the filmmakers and crew about their films, the filmmaking process, and of course, sex.

A few weeks ago I interviewed writer Isa Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber about Cam. It’s worth mentioning that the film was so damn good that it won the Cheval Noir Award for Best Screenplay (Mazzei) and the New Flesh Award for Best First Feature.

Amiko, directed by Yoko Yamanaka

still from Amiko

Yoko Yamanaka’s Amiko, a comedic drama about a small town teenage girl with a crush, also took home a New Flesh Award (Special Mention). First-time actor Aira Sunohara plays Amiko to perfection; she articulates irreverent interior monologue and performs melodramatic fainting, cries, laughter, and in a strange scene, sucks back lemon wedge after lemon wedge.

In an email to me, Yamanaka mentions that emphasizing Amiko’s imagination and idiosyncrasies was crucial. The character is “a type of girl who can get shocked by the fact that all adults in the small town have had sex already.” Whether it’s sexual attraction or something else, Amiko crushes on classmate Aomi and, after a single date, decides this is the boy for her. Unfortunately, months pass and a second date never happens. He seems to have forgotten Amiko entirely. On a whim, Aomi flees from the stifling small town (to the surprise of his peers and likely without the approval of his parents) and moves to Tokyo with his new girlfriend. A distraught Amiko pursues. It’s possible that Amiko loved Aomi, Yamanaka suggests, but her trek to Tokyo was more for curiosity’s sake: she wanted to find out what went wrong between them and perhaps vindicate herself (the new girlfriend will clearly not be good for him and she probably doesn’t even like Radiohead). She secretly follows Aomi and his girlfriend, eventually learning that they live in a rather pathetic-looking apartment in the neighbourhood of Shinjuku. In a final showdown between Amiko and her crush, the film ends with a literal punch and a somewhat cliché but no less powerful message: love hurts, a lot, so it’s best to rely on yourself.

Yamanaka says the film doesn’t draw on her own experiences, but she wanted to express the novelty of teenage life. “Everything is fresh and fun,” she observes, and as we grow older, “most experiences are less fresh since we’ve seen or done it already. Daily life becomes a routine and we try hard to find a way to make our lives full and satisfying.” Amiko reminds us of the intensity of youthful physical and emotional attraction, and moreover, suggests that impulsiveness is an underappreciated trait. Yamanaka stresses this latter point late in the film, when Amiko takes a break from stalking Aomi’s girlfriend to grab two Tokyo teens and spontaneously dance in the subway station in an odd choreographed number.

still from Amiko, girl reads a book

Yamanaka takes a fresh and fun approach to filmmaking, too. This is her first film, completing the entire project almost single-handedly at the age of 19. In addition to writing and directing Amiko, she was editor, production designer, and co-cinematographer. To me, Amiko looks and feels like a direct descendent of the 1960s Japanese New Wave. Filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima sought to depict real stories and everyday life, often shot on location and with limited budgets. Amiko blends humor and seriousness, but doesn’t engage in any significant genre interventions, which, again, keeps it formally closer to the New Wave than a rom-com or melodrama.

Yamanaka’s defiant attitude helped push her into filmmaking. She didn’t want to become a professional like her parents nor complete a film school degree because she believed it would stifle her creativity. So she struck out on her own – with resounding success.

The Ranger, directed by Jenn Wexler

still from the Ranger film

One of the most entertaining genre films that I saw at Fantasia was Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger, a punked-out cabin-in-the-woods slasher set in the 1980s.

While completing his degree in scriptwriting, Giaco Furina wrote a story about punks battling a park ranger. Years later, his classmate Wexler turned that idea into her feature film debut. Producer Heather Buckley was excited to work on this project because the characters reminded her of her “friends who are completely obnoxious, ball-busting, punk rock people.” So Buckley ensured that the characters’ costumes were close to a real punk aesthetic. For Wexler, creating a sense of punk iconicity – a punk sensibility that transcends time markers – was important since the film wasn’t set in any particular moment in the 1980s. “It’s 80s dreamland,” she tells me. “A heightened comic book fairy tale-esque version of the 80s… I wanted to create a world just left of reality. I wanted it to be Return of the Living Dead meets Smokey the Bear PSAs with the color palette of Lisa Frank.”

The Ranger opens with Chelsea (played by Chloë Levine) and some other punk kids on the run from the law. They flee to Chelsea’s childhood cabin and encounter the Ranger (Jeremy Holm), a man who takes his job – protecting a National Park somewhere in upstate New York – with psychopathic seriousness. “Gotta keep the park clean,” he says, as he dispatches the punkers one-by-one. There is a sense of the supernatural to the Ranger’s murders, but Wexler was careful not to write off his deranged behaviour as an element of the supernatural. Perhaps his murderous spree had more to do with a violent subconscious. “I think we all walk around with masks,” Holm reflects on his character’s mindset. “The mask the Ranger wears, in my opinion, was maybe his real skin, his real teeth, his real fur, whatever was covering his soul.” Holm’s reference to “real fur” is apt: as Chelsea is held hostage in a cage towards the end of the film, a half-nude Ranger howls while clad in wolf skins.

still from The Ranger, boy holding axe

Levine’s Chelsea is our sympathetic companion, the only member of the punk group who knows anything about the great outdoors, and the only one who seems to have a head on their shoulders. Chelsea struggles to control the punk group, her obnoxious boyfriend, the Ranger, and finally, her own rage as she takes up the Final Girl mantle in the last act. The highlight of the film is certainly the moment Chelsea turns the tables on the Ranger, transforming from victim to attacker, and Levine performs both attitudes with aplomb. Buckley sees Chelsea and the Ranger’s respective violence as coming from similar places of vulnerability.

The film seems, at first glance, like a conventional horror flick, but Wexler toys with the genre’s conventions when it comes to depicting sexuality. For example, we see what might be the first gay couple in a cabin-in-the-woods horror feature. Wexler mentions that they didn’t want to make the couple’s sexuality the focus; rather, she simply wanted to show people living their lives. She notes that the two lovers also don’t die because of their sexuality – the Ranger kills them because they’re punks trashing his park. The women in the film aren’t sexualized either. Wexler describes subverting horror codes: we expect to see sex and nudity, but get none. However, there’s an eroticism to every beat of the movie. There’s a fatherly, protective vibe as well as an erotic charge in the Ranger and Chelsea’s relationship (hi, Freud!), and it becomes clear that the Ranger cares more about Chelsea’s well-being than does her boyfriend.

still from The Ranger

Speaking of beats, Buckley, Wexler and music supervisor Middagh Goodwin created “the ultimate mixtape soundtrack,” with tracks from notable West Coast punk bands. Additionally, Wexler worked with Wade MacNeil (Alexisonfire and Black Lungs) and Andrew Gordon Macpherson on the score, and Black Lungs wrote a tune for the film. Wexley states that MacNeil wrote the song prior to production, then during “production, all the cast members just kept singing this song over and over, and it became the anthem of the shoot.” Like punk rock, filming The Ranger was all about comradery and good times.

With two award winners and The Ranger’s sold out premiere, these new filmmakers have already made an impression on contemporary cinema. Hopefully we’ll see more of their work at future Fantasia Festivals.

The full interview with The Ranger cast and crew is available here.

Troy Michael Bordun is a part-time contract instructor in Sociology at Concordia University and Trent University.

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