Liza The Fox-Fairy (Liza, a rókatündér)
Hungary (2015) Dir. Károly Ujj Mészáros
Romantic cinema has always propagated the idea that people who are unlucky in love are subject to a curse that hampers their chances of meeting their soul mate, and true love will break it. This is a crock – it is because we are ugly and nobody wants to be seen with us, end of.
30 year-old Liza (Mónika Balsai) is a nurse living in Csudapest, the fictional capital of a 70s style Hungary, in a flat with her patient of 12 years Márta (Piroska Molnár), widow of a Japanese ambassador. The only friend Liza has is the imaginary ghost of 50s Japanese singer Tomy Tani (David Sakurai). On Liza’s birthday, Márta orders her to go out and find a man, but while Liza is out, Tomy murders Márta, for which her family accuses Liza of when they learn Márta left the flat to Liza.
Influenced by an old Japanese romance novel, Liza continues to look for a man, but every time she meets someone, they meet a grisly end by Tomy’s hand. Further Japanese literature has Liza convinced she is possessed by a fox-fairy, cursed with never finding true love as all men who fall for her are doomed to die. Meanwhile, accident-prone police Sergeant Zoltan (Szabolcs Bede-Fazekas) move into the flat with Liza, and gradually falls in love with her.
Japanese folklore is full of tales of curses and demons so it rather curious that a film on this very subject should come from Hungary. Interestingly, this had nothing to do with the stage play Liselotte és a május by Zsolt Pozsgai upon which this is based, it was a facet introduced by Japanophile director Károly Ujj Mészáros, flying the flag for his 60s/70s J-Pop fandom, and to illustrate subtle cultural similarities between Japan and his native Hungary.
The Japanese influence isn’t overdone or even used ironically, sparing Liza from being portrayed as some kind of niche nerd, instead framing her as one of many Europeans enamoured with Asian culture over the past two decades. The faux-70s setting avoids the trap of dating itself with zeitgeist pop culture references, extending to Tomy’s earworm pop songs which are very 60s but with the energy of today’s J-Pop.
One can only wonder what the stage play was like without these points of reference and how the curse was manifest, give how interwoven with the central plot Liza’s fear of the curse is. Conversely, Mészáros and co-writer Bálint Hegedűs maybe felt the original play lacked a cogent reason for Liza’s poor love life and found it in Japanese folklore, using it as a launching point for a decidedly dark comedy which also doubles as a conventional romantic tale.
Except Mészáros taking his presentation cues from the likes of esoteric French directors Quentin Dupieux and Jean-Pierre Jeunet means Liza The Fox-Fairy isn’t so conventional as a whole. It wears its absurdist influences on its sleeves but mostly knows when to rein them in to keep things just grounded enough for audiences to find their level of recognition in Liza’s story. Mostly.
Beginning with Liza at the police station, her back to us, wet, sobbing and hands covered in blood, being interrogated by a Police Colonel (Gábor Reviczky), who can never finish a proverb or aphorism, the scene is set for a litany of murders to be committed and Liza the prime suspect. We flashback to some months prior to meet Liza and explain her back story, introducing us to a meek, putdown plain Jane trapped in the fantasy of her own mind.
Liza is pushed further on the back foot when Márta’s greedy family strip the flat bare in protest of its being bequeathed to Liza, her expulsion saved by Márta’s dashing lothario nephew Henrik (Zoltán Schmied), whose charms Liza isn’t immune to even as he ignores her to seduce her neighbour. However, Liza tries another tact, by cooking a bespoke meal to attract her landlady’s son, which almost works, had he not choked on a fish bone and her emergency tracheotomy wasn’t deemed murder.
From here it is a sort of comedy of errors as Liza tries to meet men, and one by one they end up dying in an unusual but not entirely improbable fashion, adding further to police suspicions of her. Some of the men, like the weirdo who hides in cupboards, deserve it, other don’t, but what we do know is Tomy is behind them all but why? He is a figment of Liza’s imagination isn’t he?
Zoltan is the spanner in the works for Tomy and the solution to Liza’s problems, having moved in to the flat as he is fresh from the provinces, but his personal habits are best described as undesirable. When Liza researches the Fox Fairy curse a little more, she discovers a possible way to break it, and it is staring her in the face, but her own naivety means she believes it is found elsewhere.
Citing Dupieux and Jeunet as comparisons is justified rather quickly – Dupieux for the zany premise and the deadpan dark humour, Jeunet for the subtle use of visual FX throughout, eventually reaching an crescendo that quietly crept up on us. But we cannot accuse Mészáros of stealing from them; he deftly combines the two styles with his own vision to make something personably charming and offbeat, with a cheeky touch.
Mónika Balsai is one of those actresses you can tell directors love – they give themselves over to the role, inhabit the skin of the character, and leave it all on the screen. Balsai takes Liza on a journey from dowdy to dream girl but keeps her pure and relatable all the way. Szabolcs Bede-Fazekas portrays Zoltan as Mr. Bean’s Hungarian cousin but with less personality, making for a great comic foil.
Liza The Fox-Fairy is a fairy tale for those with a taste for the quirky and left field with its tongue in its cheek subversion of the norm.