An “Amelie”-like tale of whimsical wonder tinged with a bit more black comedy, “Liza, the Fox-Fairy” will strike viewers variously as an impish delight or an offbeat contrivance that feels a tad too pleased with itself. The Hungarian public has already come down resoundingly on one side: Karoly Ujj Meszaros’ cleverly packaged fable, set in a microcosm of swinging Eurokitsch circa 1970, was a domestic smash in theatrical release early last year. (It’s also won several prizes, notably on the fantasy-fest circuit.) Offshore sales are likely to be less consistently stellar, though no doubt the pic will acquire some devotees in home formats wherever it doesn’t generate theatrical interest.
A pigtailed Cinderella just turning 30, orphan Liza (Monika Balsai) has spent her whole adult life in service, the last 12 years as live-in housekeeper/nurse/companion to zaftig invalid Marta (Piroska Molnar). Marta is an ambassador’s widow, and her fetish for all things Japanese has transferred to a (barely) paid ward who by now speaks some of the language, models naive notions of romance on one much-read Nipponese pulp novel, and has an “imaginary friend” in the fictive late J-pop crooner Tomy Tani (David Sakurai). His cheerful ghost provides the bouncy soundtrack (and occasional dance moves) for our still-virginal heroine’s daily chores.
But in a development whose eventual explanation only confuses the fantasy logic, once Liza starts trying to have a life outside the flat, Tomy is revealed as a malevolent, shape-shifting spirit willing to wreak havoc on anyone he imagines coming between them. The apartment’s mistress is the first such sacrifice; her greedy relatives cry foul when it turns out the old woman named Liza as heir to the living space, but cops find no evidence of homicide. Once there’s a second victim on the premises (the pic is roughly chaptered by numbered-onscreen deaths), they grow more suspicious.
As a result, police detective Sgt. Zoltan (Bede-Fazekas Szabolcs) is assigned to the case. Because he’s newly arrived from the provinces and needs a place to stay, he’s soon scrutinizing Liza from the dubiously ethical proximity of being a tenant in Marta’s former room. While Tomy can only be seen by Liza, Zoltan can hardly avoid grasping that something is amiss, as the not-so-benign spirit begins assaulting him with a series of near-fatal “accidents.” Similar mischief proves more lethal to a lineup of acquaintances and strangers who all commit the crime of coveting lonelyheart Liza, particularly once she gives herself a 1960s-Deneuve-like makeover. She begins considering herself a danger to humanity, swallowing Tomy’s suggestion that she’s become a murderously man-baiting “fox-fairy” of Japanese legend.
Owing as much to Wes Anderson and early Jeunet & Caro as Hungary’s own past cinematic whimsies, “Liza, the Fox-Fairy” (based loosely on a stage play that lacked the Japanese hook) dances right on the edge between cute and cutesy, serving up fey, campy self-consciousness with undeniable panache. The faux-1960s Nipponese pop songs that make this a near-musical (and one day it doubtless will be a legit stage one) are insidiously catchy, their charm considerably amplified by Danish-Japanese thesp Sakurai’s antic, nearly all-pantomime performance. Design-wise, the pic is likewise beguiling, with costumes, production design and lensing all creating a willfully tackier version of the candy-colored High ’60s milieu in fashion-conscious movies of the era like “Joanna” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort.” Digital fantasy f/x are nicely integrated to an increasing extent as story develops.
But despite all the bright wrapping and game performances, the premise’s ingenuity has begun to run out by the time the film comes full circle (from an opening flash-forward) around the 70-minute mark. Ultimately, it will be a matter of individual taste whether “Liza, the Fox-Fairy” is a sustained twee leap of the imagination, or one that overstays its welcome just long enough to become a bit cloying and tiresome. There’s no question, however, that everyone concerned (not least Balsai’s appealing lead) contributes their A-game, with first-time feature helmer Meszaros instantly assuming a place as one of the Hungarian film industry’s major hopes for increased international visibility.