In 1996 Martin Sauvageau, André Dubois and Pierre Corbeil decided to organize a film festival dedicated to Asian genre cinema. They received the invaluable collaboration of several people including Julien Fonfrede, E. Jean Guerin, Hiromi Aihara and John Jordan, and were influenced collectively by a combination of lifelong genre film love and the inspirational push provided by the short‐lived but much beloved Montreal Festival International de Cinema Fantastique (1992‐ 1993).
Lasting an unheard‐of straight month, the inaugural edition of the Fantasia Film Festival ran from July 12‐ August 11. It was kick‐started predominantly with a gigantic retrospective of 40 feature films from Hong Kong from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s. That golden age of HK cinema produced the strongest and most distinctive work from filmmakers and performers who were mostly unknown to western audiences – certainly none of Montreal’s film festivals seemed interested in showcasing this extraordinary wave of talent – who have since become household names around the world.
The festival screened spotlights on phenomenal performers like Chow Yun Fat – incontestably one of the very best actors of his generation – including A Better Tomorrow 2, City on Fire, Once A Thief, Full Contact, God of Gamblers, God of Gamblers’ Return, Peace Hotel, Prison on Fire 1+2. Also showcased was martial arts sensation (and true heir to Bruce Lee’s legacy) Jet Li, with the films Fist of Legend, Fong Sai Yuk, High Risk, The Tai Chi Master andMy Father is a Hero (which opened the festival and screened to a sold out room). From master comedian Stephen Chow we saw A Chinese Odyssey 1+2, From Beijing With Love, Love on Deliveryand Out of the Dark. The festival also premiered films from now‐legendary directors such as Tsui Hark, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Johnny To and Yuen Woo‐Ping. Other show‐stoppers included out‐of‐this‐ world midnight screenings of titles like the delirious Story of Ricky, the notorious Untold Storyand the bodacious Sex and Zen, each of which unspooled in front of rabid and bedazzled packed houses.
Along with the 40 Hong Kong films, 20 titles from Japancompleted the programming with major anime features likeThe Castle of Cagliostro from master director Hayao Miyazaki, Omnibus film Memories from several directors, among them Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame, Patlabor 2 from Mamoru Oshii (Director of Ghost in the Shell), Robot Carnival and Wings of Honnemaise. On the giant monster front, Fantasia unveiled Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe and rare prints of Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.
These films received an extremely enthusiastic response from the Fantasia audience, with many of them having several sold out screenings – and this in a 940‐seat movie theatre! This outlandishly strong success gave organizers the confidence to come back the following year with an even bigger show, and the rest, as they say, is Fantasia history!