TIFF 2023: Sleep, Boy Kills World, Riddle of Fire

The Midnight Madness program is one of the most popular at TIFF. Just last year, everything from “Weird: The Weird Al Yankovic Story” to “The Blackening” premiered in that program. This year launched with the ridiculous “Dicks: The Musical” and features films from around the world. After a few years of what felt like trying to chase blockbuster horror with world premieres of films like David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” remake and Shane Black’s “Predators,” the programmers of Midnight Madness seem more intent on discovery now. They’ve got at least two in this year’s program that are going to rock your world.

One of the best horror films of the year is Jason Yu’s “Sleep,” which starts out like a comedy, shifts to marital drama, and then becomes something else altogether, all while barely leaving a single apartment. Yu has worked with Lee Chang-dong (“Burning,” for which Yu generated the English subtitles) and Bong Joon-ho (“Parasite”), and he has clearly learned a thing about building tension and playing with tone. “Sleep” is a phenomenal debut, a movie that rises to an incredible climax that should have people talking when Magnolia eventually releases it. It doesn’t premiere at TIFF until the end of the festival, launching at midnight on Friday night. Stay up for it.

Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) and Hyun-su (Lee Sun-kyun of “Parasite” fame) are a happily married couple, expecting their first child. The film opens with Soo-jin hearing something in the other room and Hyun-su muttering something about someone being inside. Is he just talking in his sleep? It’s just a door and their Pomeranian making the nocturnal noises, but Hyun-su begins to exhibit increasingly erratic nighttime behavior. He scratches himself bloody, eats raw meat out of the fridge, and, well, then, it gets a lot worse. Doctors begin treatment regimens, but Soo-jin becomes concerned that he could do something deadly to himself or their new baby. And then things get really weird.

Is ”Sleep” a tale of post-partum paranoia or possession? Yu playfully calibrates his tones, using the claustrophobic space of the apartment to great advantage. By the time the film reaches its fevered finale, we feel just as trapped and uncertain as Soo-jin, struggling with what we even want to happen next. The finale has one of the most spectacular reveals in the genre a long time, but “Sleep” isn’t just an exercise in unpredictable writing; it’s a tightly-paced and calibrated piece of genre filmmaking. If this is just Jason Yu’s warm-up act, we could be talking about him in the same breath as Bong a decade from now.

A different kind of gleeful lunacy pervades Moritz Mohr’s instant cult hit “Boy Kills World,” an action orgy that goes for some of the same blow-’em-up adrenalin as other TIFF Midnight Madness hits “Sisu,” “Big Game,” and “Hardcore Henry.” This movie starts slow—the training montage feels almost (I think purposefully) endless—but when it tires of the set-up and unleashes its protagonist, it becomes a joyously conceived series of action sequences designed to top the one that came before. One of the main credits at the end credits is for “Action & Fight Design” (courtesy of David Szatarski). It’s almost the most important one for why this movie works.

“Boy Kills World” was inspired by B-movies and action video games like “Mortal Kombat.” It stars a silent Bill Skarsgård as the mute title character Boy, a young man who has been raised since he was a child with one purpose in mind: kill Hilda Van Der Koy (Famke Janssen), the evil matriarch of this “Hunger Games”-ish dystopia. He trains with a shaman played by the great Yayan Ruhian of “The Raid” fame and then is unleashed on the Van Der Koy family and their about-to-be-decapitated henchmen. The supporting cast consists of people who very much get the assignment, including Sharlto Copley, Brett Gellman, Andrew Koji of “Warrior” fame, and the great Jessica Rothe (“Happy Death Day”). Did I mention it’s produced by Sam Raimi?

The artistic order of the day here is mayhem, but that’s harder to pull off in an entertaining fashion than it may look. Mohr displays with his debut a strong sense of pacing (after that slack opening) and knows how to get the most out of his cast, playing Copley’s wide-eyed insanity off Gellman’s dry sense of humor and Rothe’s genuine likability. What first seems like a mistake in making Skarsgård mute becomes a gift because there’s so much chaos around him. He becomes the center on which everything else spins, spraying blood everywhere.

Finally, there’s the frustrating “Riddle of Fire,” which played at Cannes earlier this year and divided audiences there. It will likely do the same in Toronto and everywhere else it plays, which I imagine is perfectly fine with writer/director Weston Razooli. He knows this is the kind of personal, whimsical tale that isn’t going to appeal to everyone. I admired it more than enjoyed it, and found its 16mm photography engaging and its young cast extremely likable, but the slack pace is deadly here as a film with about an hour of ideas is stretched to twice that length.

Hazel (Charlie Stover), Alice (Phoebe Ferro), and Jodie (Skyler Peters)—aka The Three Immortal Reptiles—desperately want to play a new video game from a company called Otomo. In the film’s great opening scene, they steal a game system to play it, only to discover that Mom has locked the television with a password. She offers them a deal—get her some blueberry pie she loves so much to get the password. This begins a fantasy journey for the trio that centers on them retrieving an egg to make the pie and brings them into the world of the Enchanted Blade Gang, led by a witch figure played by actress/producer Lio Tipton. 

With echoes of Wes Anderson’s child-centered films, “Riddle of Fire” can be very unexpectedly funny, finding unique punchlines and natural performances in the woods. It just needed a tighter edit at any point in the process—its loose filmmaking, both in production and editing, gets tiresome long before it’s over. “Riddle of Fire” is a hard movie to hate, but it’s a frustrating experiment that comes apart while you’re watching it. 

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