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Arti: The Adventure Begins, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Puppet martial arts like you've never seen."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: To say one doesn't see many movies like "The Arti" may understate the case; there is one family in Taiwan not only carrying on a tradition of glove puppetry but using it to make fantastic adventure films like this. Enhanced with impressive visual effects, the end result is an incredible treat which only comes around once in a while, especially if you like this sort of steampunk martial-arts adventure anyway.

ARTI-C is a wooden robot built some sixteen years before the main action and powered by a mysterious core called "The Origin"; after frightened people killed its creator while chasing him from his home, his children have been wanderers. Older brother Mo tends to the automaton and searches for more information about The Origin, though his sister Tong spends much of her time fighting. Their next stop is the Kingdom of Lou-lan along the Silk Road, though there are perils: Sandworms are attacking villages along the river, and Prince Angelo has invited Mo and ARTI-C to participate in a martial-arts tournament as a way to earn his assistance in retrieving more of The Origin from the mysterious Lop people.

There's a fair amount of digital work used in creating The Arti, although the making-of bits shown over the final credits may surprise in terms of there not being as much as one might think; the guys at PiLi Puppetry have built some sets of impressive scale and appear to have built the puppets ingeniously enough that there's not even that much need for wire removal. The craftsmanship all around is detailed, especially in the costumes, although it seldom extends to articulated mouths. In many cases, that would give the characters a sort of dehumanizing formality - compare how much the Muppets are built around their mouths relative to Japanese puppetry with the same sort of complex, multi-layered costumes seen here - although that is far from the case with this movie.

A big part of this is because these guys are always moving; the filmmakers introduce the present-day versions of the characters to the audience by having them brawl in the street, so not only are they in constant motion, they're getting thrown around in true wuxia fashion. Director Huang Wen-Chang and company don't stint on the action, throwing ARTI-C and Tong into the thick of things whenever possible, presenting plenty of chances for t the robot and the masters he is squared off against to do something larger than life. It's not the clearly observed skill of a kung fu movie or even necessarily the graceful action of something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it's exciting, giving the viewer the anything-goes nature of a complete fantasy but also the solidity needed for some impact to be felt.

That can describe much of the film; Huang and the crew build a tremendous world with imaginative details throughout, lovingly created and augmented with CGI that's seldom undetectable but almost always enhancing. The underground world of the Lop is a constant eye-enlarger, for instance, but so are the smaller spaces which are just as impressive for their main feat being plenty of characters moving around. In addition, the film was presented in 3D at the festival, and it's a stunner in that format, both from the relatively close-up photography needed with the models and effects work done with the clear intent of putting things either in the audience's lap or far off in the distance.

The voice work for something like this may be a careful balancing act as well; other than a pair of entirely-animated characters (which, quite frankly, could be jettisoned with no noticeable harm to the film), lip sync isn't even a vague concern, but it means that the performances must be a tad elevated so that there's no mistaking which character is speaking, though not so much so that the vocal becomes disconnected with the visual. Even working through subtitles, I was impressed with the work the voice cast did, from the siblings to con artist Kameedia and the prince who feels charismatic but untrustworthy from the start. A great deal of it is in the character creation and puppetry, but the vocals could easily have wrecked it.

They still may for some people; this is an unconventional film in every dimension, from its fantastical subject matter, alternate history, and energetic use of unusual media. It's a heck of a treat for those who like an adventure story off the beaten path, though, and this is certainly a form of wuxia adventure you don't see every day.

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originally posted: 07/20/15 14:34:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Wen Chang Huang

Written by
  Liang Hsun Huang

  Wen Tze Huang
  Ricky Hsiao

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