'Liza, the Fox-Fairy' ('Liza, a rokatunder'): Palm Springs Review

Liza The Fox Fairy Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Film Team

Liza The Fox Fairy Still - H 2015

Sumptuous, genre-bending and effects-heavy.

Hungarian director's Karoly Ujj Meszaros fanciful debut, about a woman whose first dates always end up dead, is an impressive, special effects-laden genre mashup.

True love might be worth dying for, but it is slightly premature to die on the first date, as all the men do who are interested in the titular hero of Liza, the Fox-Fairy (Liza, a rokatunder). A fanciful fantasy-horror-romance hybrid, this good-looking debut feature from Hungarian commercials director Karoly Ujj Meszaros combines the whimsy and colorful, retro-inspired visuals of Amelie’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet with Japanese mythology and a generous helping of the mordant wit and macabre leanings more familiar from Eastern European fare, such as the work of compatriot Gyorgy Palfi (Hukkle, Taxidermia).

A respectable, crowd-pleasing hit at home, where over 100,000 people went to see it in cinemas (in a country of just under 10 million people), Liza has been a festival hit as well, winning top honors in Seattle and Fantasporto and second place at the Austin Fantastic Fest. After bowing in California at the recent Palm Springs International Film Festival, it should continue its festival tour and also start popping up in the catalogs of small-screen genre specialists.

Monika Balsai, who looks like a Magyar cousin of Emily Blunt, is Liza, the daytime nurse of a Japanese ambassador’s portly widow (veteran actress Piroska Molnar). The protagonist has devoted every minute of her life to her job, and when the old lady finally croaks on Liza’s 30th birthday, sometime in the 1970s, the nurse finally has time to start looking for a mate.

Inspired by a Japanese novel she reads, Liza dreams of finding true love, much to the dismay of her imaginary friend, Tomy Tami (Danish-Japanese actor David Sakurai). Supposedly the ghost of a 1950s Japanese pop star — he has the habit of floating into the rooms of the widow’s apartment while lip-synching his ditties in a shiny turquoise suit — Tami is also jealous as all hell when Liza starts taking an interest in other, actually living men. The fact one after the other mysteriously dies after showing an interest in Liza makes her think she might be the mythological Japanese creature of the title, though the reality turns out to be a bit more complicated — not to mention fantastical — than that.

The screenplay, loosely inspired by a play, was written by the director and Balint Hegedus, and the duo expertly sets up the film’s off-the-wall world over the course of the leisurely paced first half-hour. Indeed, one of the pic’s main accomplishments is how completely thought through and convincing Meszaros’ unusual universe really feels. Instead of a jumbled mix of influences from the Far East, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, the final result feels balanced and convincing. It also is stuffed with elements that are surprising or invite reflection, such as the retro decor with more than a touch of Americana, including an outlet of a fast-food chain called Mekk Burger (a name no-doubt inspired by a certain U.S. burger giant). Rather than just a pretty backdrop, these elements form a sort of natty visual anachronism with a touch of wish-fulfillment (since Hungary was a Soviet state in the 1970s, instead of a Western-style capitalist society). so what’s onscreen here is a historical impossibility, underlining the story's escapist and absurdist undertones.

When the men start dying — each one has, somewhat unnecessarily, a chapter named after him — and the idea of fox-fairies, the curse and Tami’s involvement have been explained or at least hinted at, the cycle of deaths becomes a little repetitive, even if every death is creative and different. But the outcome is certain, which drains the film of some of the suspense that gave the narrative its momentum in the early going, and Meszaros struggles to replace it with something else — more surprising plot twists, sharper cutting — that would have kept audiences completely hooked. That said, the effects-heavy finale’s a real doozy.

What is perhaps most noteworthy is that the heavily art-directed and visual effects-filled film was reportedly produced for the equivalent of a mere $1.5 million, with Meszaros clearly putting his experience as a commercials director to good use. If he wants a career in Hollywood, Liza, the Fox-Fairy will serve as an impressive calling card.

Production company: Filmteam
Cast: Monika Balsai, Szabolcs Bede-Fazekas, David Sakurai, Piroska Molnar, Zoltan Schmied
Director: Karoly Ujj Meszaros
Screenwriters: Balint Hegedus, Karoly Ujj Meszaros
Producer: Istvan Major
Co-producers: Norbert Korom, Gabor Ferenczy
Director of photography: Peter Szatmari
Production designer: Balazs Hujber
Costume designer: Ibolja Bardosi
Editor: Judit Czako
Music: Daniel Csengery, Ambrus Tovishazi
Casting: Linda Kondakor

Sales: Hungarian National Film Fund World Sales

Not rated, 98 minutes