When I visited Austin in 2007 for Fantastic Fest, I saw a glimpse of my future. Though I couldn’t have imagined the path that brought me here, in 2011 I am living in Austin and attending this year’s Fantastic Fest as a local.

A poster with dozens of crazy kaiju? Yes!

The festival has grown in a number of ways in the four years since I was here last. The Fantastic Arcade adds a video gaming component, Mondo is doing a ton of special prints and even events this year, the ticketing and badge process is much better than the ‘wait in line and cross your fingers’ approach that the festival used before, and there are just plain more people here. ┬áThese are all good things, though I truly hope that the event doesn’t ever scale up to the point where celebrity-sighting and mascots hocking cell phones and bottled water crowd the streets.

I kicked the festival off with three foreign films. Here’s what I saw:

Blind – This Korean thriller might not please fans of the exceptionally gritty and bleak Korean crime and revenge films that have been coming out in waves in the last half decade, but I liked it nonetheless. In fact, what I liked most about Blind was the fact that it had some heart and humor and a liberal dose of sentimentality that seems so sorely lacking in the some of the grim Korean movies that I’ve seen.

Everything about Blind is telegraphed from a mile away, almost as if the writer had put together a very by-the-book serial killer story and wanted to make sure that every story beat was foreshadowed somehow. It never ventured into eye-roll territory for me, but I think that mostly had to do with how likable the characters were. The blind protagonist, her lovable guide dog, the offbeat police detective, and the wayward kid who gets dragged into things are all great and I didn’w want anything bad to happen to any of them. But this is a Korean serial killer movie, so, come on.

I don’t expect Blind to make the kind of waves that Old Boy or I Saw the Devil or Chaser made, but it’s maybe a little more accessible than some of those films while still maintaining a dark and brutal edge. It’s bloody without being shocking and tense without ever feeling like someone is truly going to kick you in the stomach.

My favorite film from day 1: Haunters (Korea)

My favorite film from day 1: Haunters (Korea)

Haunters – Again from Korea, this odd take on a superhero story was a real treat and a crowd-pleaser. In fact, this is the superhero movie that the popularization of comic book adaptations has been promising but hasn’t quite delivered. We’ve seen plenty of super-human or costumed-avenger movies in the wake of Marvel and DC’s success at the box office, but none quite like Haunters.

Like many Fantastic Fest films, the less said about Haunters, the better. It doesn’t necessarily work on some kind of secret that can be spoiled, but if I start comparing it to other films, it’ll immediately make the way that the story unfolds feel perfunctory. I don’t know why we haven’t seen more R-Rated, adult takes on life with super powers like this, but I’m glad that Haunters is here to show audiences that you don’t need 30 years of comic book continuity and 200 million dollars worth of CGI to make a compelling and thoroughly entertaining super-powers movie.

The film is set up around two characters who are somehow meta-human. One can control people with his eyes, the other heals quickly and seems to be impervious to the other’s power. That’s it, but that’s all you really need. There’s no universe being established here, no explanation or origin detritus to wade through; it’s just a good cat and mouse film where the central characters happen to have some powers. I loved this one, and if superhero stories are going to be a real film genre, I hope we see more films like this and fewer sequels to X-Men.

The Squad – While Colombia’s best known exports are Cocaine, El Pibe, and Shakira, I hope that The Squad marks the beginning of a wave of tight genre films that we can add to that list. Shot on location on a mountain in Colombia, the story centers around a military unit on a mission to investigate and possibly reclaim an outpost believed to be overrun by guerrillas. Suffice it to say that guerrillas are not the real problem once the unit arrives at the top of the hill.

The Squad is thick with dread created by long handheld shots of soldiers who get progressively more freaked-out as time wears on. The music is menacing and most of the film is shot in close ups that make it impossible to clearly see what is going on in the periphery of the frame. It’s fair to say that this wasn’t the movie I was necessarily expecting going in, and that it tends to play with your expectations as the story gets murkier. A terrific scene that finds the soldiers venturing out into near-zero visibility fog sums up the movie pretty well. High strung men with deadly weapons are creeping around without any real idea of what they are doing or where the enemy is and then shit starts to go badly. The final shot in the film is something I’ll be thinking about for a while, and it may be polarizing, but then good art usually is.