They can’t all be four and five movie days. In fact, I really enjoyed being able to pace myself this year so that I could enjoy a handful of Fantastic Fest events outside of the movies and still get to spend time with my dogs at home.

The Chinese hitman named Vertebrae from Smuggler

Smuggler – This adaptation of a crime manga was preceded by a Warner Bros. logo so maybe that means that it will actually make it back to stateside theaters some day. I sure hope so because it was incredibly entertaining, even if the torture scene went a little further than I was expecting. Still, it takes some balls to go from a shot of the hero taking a hot poker between the toes to a shot of the villain vamping it up in a diaper and gas mask. Even when the film got tough to watch, it kept its sense of humor.

I can see Smuggler as a comic book series. There are a lot of interesting characters and the film gives each of them just enough time to shine, but a comic might have enough space to really round all of them out. I am not familiar with director Katsuhito Ishii’s feature work, but based on the inventive action scenes and deft maneuvering between tones, I am excited to check some of it out.

Bunohan – This family drama from Malaysia wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Don’t let the Muay Thai pose on a poster or trailer fool you–there’s very little fighting in Bunohan. Had I known that going in, I might have had an easier time with the first half of the film where I wasn’t able to focus enough to suss out all of the relationships that set the plot in motion.

By the end though, I was quite taken with this small film about a fractured family and the forces that manipulate them to get back together. As modernity creeps into a small fishing village, the old values and ways of life that held people together are literally killed off. The film focuses on three brothers who are all estranged in some way, and it gives them each a path back home, but those paths are never exactly what I would have expected.

Dreadnaught – The first “Holy Shit” moment of Fantastic Fest 2011 came for me during a repertory screening of the 1981 Hong Kong film, Dreadnaught. I don’t know whether to be happy or sad that the best action sequences and the most purely entertaining movie of the festival by Day 4 turned out to be a movie that was 30 years old.

As I watched the incredibly inventive fight sequences, I was stuck by how much more interesting and exciting they were than all of the quick-cut, shaky-camera stuff in films like The Yellow Sea. Not that bloody, disorienting violence doesn’t have its place–but watching fight sequences designed by the master Woo-ping Yuen was eye-opening.

The Dreadnaught Lion Dance

The highlight of the film and indeed of the festival to this point was the lion dance/fight in Dreadnaught. Two pairs of men wearing traditional lion costumes compete across an obstacle course and then wind up fighting WHILE STILL DANCING to incessant, pounding music. The acrobatic work was absolutely incredible but beyond that, the scene told a story beautifully. This was exactly the kind of movie I was hoping to see when they announced the Hong Kong screening series. I’m so glad that I got to share a beautiful print of this with a room full of people who broke into applause after that spectacular sequence–that’s what Fantastic Fest is all about!