Speculative ASMR

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Image from YouTube channel AsmrArtistsRead

Speculative settings are known to enchant and exhilarate. Whether you’re flying through space and time, or surrounded by magicians and dragons, speculative works create an overpowering sense of adrenaline and excitement. What proves fascinating is the way in which these worlds and characters are also capable of lulling the audience into a peaceful, sometimes trance-like state; and all with the help of a little science.

Many people mention feeling a tingling, goosebump-like sensation when they’re asked to describe a state of relaxation or calm. Frequently this feeling arises from seemingly insignificant things: whispering barely above a murmur, the sound of water droplets, or thunder. Over the past decade or so, science has come to classify this sensation as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. A person can enter a euphoric state upon hearing sounds or seeing things that stimulate a tingling sensation, which starts at the scalp and moves down throughout the body.

For insomniacs or anxious people like myself, there is a large and growing ASMR community on YouTube. Users called ASMRtists make videos where they do anything from playing with crinkly tissue paper and tapping on various surfaces to roleplays and personal attention/positive affirmation videos that engage the viewer. While most videos are rather mundane, using everyday objects or referring to regular scenarios such as a trip to the spa, some users have decided to get creative and refer to the speculative realm for help.

One of the first ASMR videos I’ve ever watched was a simple whispering video by a user called Whisper Crystal, in which she layered the reading of Tolkien’s elvish poetry, in Elvish and in English, with music from the movie. Though the video has since, sadly, had its settings changed to private, I still remember the way in which the breathy pronunciation and laments for the evening star made me feel safe and lulled me to sleep, once again sobbing at the unfortunate twist of fate of not having been born an elf.

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Image from YouTube channel Heather Feather ASMR

These videos have only gotten more popular over the years. There are those like Heather Feather’s “It’s Dangerous to Go Alone!” roleplay, in which the viewer feels like a character in the beginning of a video game. The viewer is presented with a variety of weapons from well-known games like the dagger of time from The Prince of Persia. These videos play with pop culture and incorporate existing details or languages, like one read in Valyrian, a language from Game of Thrones.

One channel in particular has become a personal favourite of mine, a channel by the user ASMR Rooms. Each of her YouTube videos is called a “room” because of the way in which it incorporates sounds that one would hear at a specific location. One can listen to the low humming and tinkering of the dwarves of Erebor, or the sounds of the waterfalls of Rivendell with the gentle singing of the elves. Many of her videos focus on the world of Harry Potter, capturing locations such as the Three Broomsticks. The best by far are the four videos dedicated to each of the four houses, among which Hufflepuff is the best. Situated near the Hogwarts kitchens, the Hufflepuff common room is sunny and breezy, with the sound of birds chirping and a pleasant spring breeze blowing through the windows, while the occasional chatter of students or the shadow of a stranger pass by.

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Image from YouTube channel ASMR rooms

Though the sounds used in these videos are simple, and similar to what one might hear on a regular basis, they are successful in stimulating the imagination by creating a sense of setting and atmosphere. It becomes easy to choose your appropriate House video and imagine oneself as a student in Hogwarts, sitting and studying for your O.W.L.s or simply taking a nap between classes. While other videos can include speculative characters or props, they focus much more on calming the viewer down—though some, like the few roleplays of Nurse Joy, are worthwhile to watch/listen to because of their cuteness.

One of the greatest pains for an avid reader is being unable to slip into the pages of the book and exist in whatever world one is reading about. While movies are capable of bringing these stories and characters to life, they do so in a way that makes one want to run headfirst into battle or do something reckless, like ride a dragon. ASMR videos offer a different side to these beloved characters and places, letting them become something each person visualizes and understands differently in a vivid, sensory fashion. It becomes much easier to make the experience personal and enjoyable, a “mundane day” in a fantastical world.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

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Kiss of the Rose Princess

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Image from aminoapps.com

Guilty pleasures come in all categories—food, books, and TV shows, to name a few. But none of these are as quirky as manga, which can be sweet, ridiculous, and moving all at the same time. The most unusual of these is probably the “harem” genre. Similar to otome games, the genre commonly follows a protagonist surrounded by a group of attractive characters who each fit a specific archetype. The plot of the story is usually secondary to the romance, with the main question being: who will they choose?

Though the genre is quite popular in Japan, it can seem unusual to North American readers, even coming across as creepy to some. But that didn’t stop the official English translation and publication of one of my favourite manga—Shouto Aya’s Kiss of the Rose Princess.

Yes, the title already leaves quite the impression, and the covers might make it a challenge to read in public. Underneath the glittery exterior, however, lies a story that isn’t as simple as it seems.

The series follows high school student Anise Yamamoto, who is hounded for breaking the school’s uniform policy through the minute yet rebellious act of wearing a rose choker. The rest of the students seem to think she does this in order to break rules, but the reality lies in the fact that Anise cannot take the choker off. She has worn it from a young age, when her father tied it around her neck with the ominous instruction to never take it off, or else a terrible punishment would befall her. When the choker ends up being ripped off by the strange bat/cat-like creature Ninufa, Anise finds the “punishment” to be a little different than she had feared.

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Image from aminoapps.com

Anise learns that she is, in fact, a Rose Princess. She possesses four magical cards which, when kissed, each summon a different Rose Knight: the Red Rose, Kaeda, a classmate of hers whom Anise had dismissed and teased; the White Rose, Mitsuru, a third-year and popular student council president with a pervy side; the Black Rose, Mutsuki, an ancient creature known as a Dark Stalker; and the Blue Rose, Seiran, an artificial rose who is nonetheless trying hard to prove his worth as a knight.

Together, they learn that the seal on the Demon Lord has been weakened, and the five must embark upon a series of adventures in order keep the seal from breaking. In the process, Anise must make a “true bond” with a knight, ultimately resulting in a romantic relationship.

All of the above are merely the bones to the actual story. It is only upon going further into the series that the smaller nuances begin to show up. These details bring Kiss of the Rose Princess from a simple romance-heavy series to one that touches upon topics of acceptance and authenticity. The Fake Rose Princess, Ella, has four Fake Rose Knights: Purple, Gray, Gold, and Silver. Along with the Orange and Lime roses, Idel and Yako, these characters embody the strong desire for the fulfillment of a personal wish; a desire so strong that people often go to great lengths—and sacrifice much—in order to achieve it. Anise’s father Schwarz exemplifies the endless internal debate between scientific curiosity and morality.

The series has so much to cover that its only real shortcoming is the fact that it was only nine volumes long, leaving quite a few threads dangling and making the story feel rushed. The plot-line about collecting the Arcana cards and restoring the demon seal is abandoned without a fully satisfactory replacement or explanation. Some of the characters also felt like they could’ve had some more development and a couple more scenes added to focus on them, in particular the relationship between the Orange and Lime roses. I felt that there was more to it than simply a friendship and a complex past of growing up together in a foster home, and it would have been nice to see that explored.

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Image from polyvore.com

The knight Anise “ends up with” isn’t entirely a surprise, the same way that it is frequently apparent which character the protagonist is leaning more towards in love triangles/squares in TV shows and books, and the incomplete feeling of the final volume does make it the weakest in the series. But the art is absolutely gorgeous. This is one of the reasons why I (somehow) came across this manga years ago and read it when it had only been scanned and translated by online volunteer groups, with no sign that it would one day be officially licensed in English.

The series has its fair share of adorable, hilarious, awkward, and sweet moments, all well-dispersed through each book. It shouldn’t be discredited or overlooked simply due to its sugary title or covers. It’s easy to root for Anise, and her strength and obliviousness give her character an authenticity that makes her the most balanced representation of an adolescent girl I have seen so far.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion

wordsonpagespress2Poetry has comfortably slipped into its current position as the most honest medium of writing. It allows the poet to play with images, scenarios, and characters that may not necessarily be personal, but, at the same time, inject their words with a truth serum of sorts. There is a certain naked honesty to the medium regardless of how fancy a dress it chooses to don, with however many layers of taffeta and crinoline.

In her 2012 collection Love, an Index, poet Rebecca Lindenberg wrote: “Poetry/ how thought feels”, while James Dickey defines a poet as “someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning.” Some subgenres of poetry can be considered more “naked” than others: one would understand, for example, why Emily Dickinson or William Blake are not necessarily the go-to for young audiences (unless they are trying to woo someone with romantic poetry). There is, however, one genre that I’d argue captures this wild spirit best: the surrealist genre.

When presented with the term, most people will proceed to recount the fantastical paintings of Salvador Dalí or René Magritte. Few will think of literature. Even fewer will be able to identify French writer André Breton as the “father” of the movement.

Perhaps it is no great surprise that the genre is not popular with the masses, though that is not to say that there are few writers who choose to work in the genre. This is why, if one is searching for contemporary surrealist poetry, it is best to turn to the smaller indie presses and poetry chapbooks. Pearl Pirie’s An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion is a fine example. Released in April 2016 from words(on)pages press, a Toronto-based publisher, this poetry chapbook not only demonstrates that the genre is alive and kicking, but that it is conscious of and adapting to current events.

The poems of An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion never stray too far from the reality of everyday life. Rather, they are gently planted amid a sea of turbulent self-reflection. Take the poem “Under the Tongues of Thunder”, which instantly won me over with its wise flying hippos, stating: “you can only fly/ for as long, as well, as I can, if you train for years/ by carrying hearses of friends.” That is not to say that one needs a red flying hippo in order to understand the beautifully dark reality of these words (although if you’re like me, the fantastical imagery does stimulate an otherwise drowsy mind). The balance and subtlety of the real and slightly ridiculous is so fine in these poems that moving in and out of them not only becomes natural, but one also begins to realize that our routine lives are not much different.

The true tour de force, however, is the poem “The Procedures for Filing Claims for Refugee Status.” If the exploration of the self is a topic that has existed—and will likely continue to exist—until the end of mankind, then the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis is more immediate. The poem approaches the subject with the same level of ridiculousness as the accusations government officials have been making; which is why the lines: “you can’t be too careful about who/ may carry disease or dis-ease” read so pointedly. Yet there is something about the images of tiny insect visas and the frisking of butterflies that makes it impossible to focus solely on the magical nature of the images. If anything, surrealism is the very thing that brings one’s focus to reality.

It’s a rather sad fact that one must often resort to shock value in order to get mass attention on an important issue. Luckily for literature, the genre of surrealism is still alive and kicking. An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion covers the realms of self-exploration and social justice, finally leaving the reader with “Poet’s Guide to Buildings on Fire”, which is impossible to do justice via explanation—one simply has to read it for oneself to appreciate the wit and honesty. It is like a modern-day companion to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Surrealism is more than melted clocks and heads instead of flowers, despite what much of modern day culture tries to convince us. True surrealism is conscious not only of the subconscious realm, but more importantly, it strives to address the ailments that plague it, presenting them in an unfiltered and moving manner—and Pearl Pirie’s chapbook does exactly that.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Enter the Raccoon

I would never have known about the existence of Enter the Raccoon if it wasn’t for Beatriz Hausner herself, who came in as a plenary speaker for the Vic One program. Surrealism is clearly not the most popular genre, and the science-oriented students could be seen smirking quietly. But it was undeniable that, once she began to read, a trance-like quality in Hausner’s voice took hold of the entire auditorium. In that moment, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was the way in which she read or the words themselves. I only knew that I wanted to read more of her work and see if I could experience such a feeling on my own.

The results were indeed replicable, although I did learn one significant thing: Enter the Raccoon isn’t the type of book you’d want to read on a subway ride, for the wandering eyes of nearby passengers might occasionally be shocked by what they come across. The collection traces the love affair of the narrator and a human-like raccoon, with a particular emphasis on the sexual side of the relationship.

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The prose poems interchange: a piece that furthers the reader’s understanding of the love affair may be immediately followed by a poem that has a very journal-like quality to it, discussing things such as artwork in a museum, a popular Chilean TV show, or the way in which raccoons act as carriers for diseases. It’s strange to describe and feels equally strange while reading, yet there is an allure to the poems that makes it impossible to put the book down.

Despite the raccoon’s description as not only human-like in stature but also possessing several mechanical limbs, the relationship he shares with the narrator is not far from the kinds one might encounter on a daily basis. It is possible that one might have experienced something similar in the past.

The wordplay and riddles that the two lovers exchange are perhaps tamer than the act of leaving and staying that categorizes modern relationships. There is always a sense of sitting on the very edge, wondering whether the relationship will continue or end, and on what note the latter would happen. Most significantly, there is an element of nostalgia present even when Raccoon and the speaker are together, as if there is a much greater emotional and psychological rift between them.

While this half of the collection may be less accessible to some readers, the other half makes up for it quite easily. Hausner mentions Amy Winehouse several times, and the event of her death is recent enough for the impact to still be palpable. These moments also act as an invitation for the reader to take a glimpse at the poet’s internal thought process.

The technique of automatic writing in these rather personal and at times rather informative pieces is what brings out the other side of surrealism; the much less outlandish one that counteracts the sheer bizarreness of reading about the relationship of a human woman and a human-like raccoon. These other poems still manage to transport the reader into a deeper exploration of the self-conscious by remaining rooted in present day scenarios and factual events.

Either way, Enter the Raccoon never stops exerting its weird charm. It also isn’t the type of collection that one can easily pick up and dive into. Rather, it requires a proper mood or mindset (or a ridiculous sugar high, take your pick). It successfully demonstrates that the fantastically bizarre isn’t as bizarre as one may think, successfully pairing it with real-life examples that create a transient state that is no less odd but enticing.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A Charming New Chapter of the Wizarding World

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Some people may understand I say that the first time I saw the commercial for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it felt very much like deciding whether to go and order another cup of coffee. On the one hand, you know you’ve already had several and so drinking another will probably ruin the pleasant effect, but on the other hand the thought is so appealing, and it looks so damn good that you can’t help but wonder if this one might be even better than all the rest.

At first, the movie seemed like just another cash-grab. And when J.K. Rowling announced that she plans to turn it into a series, with five films rather than the initially planned three, I have to admit it felt like another example of an author milking their success.

But seeing the movie turned out to be much different, and the feeling of relaxation, enjoyment, and overall lightness after exiting the theatre made the verdict quite clear: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is very good. The adulthood missing from Harry Potter is present in Fantastic Beasts.

Fantastic Beasts transports the viewer to New York in 1926, and it is the wizard and magizoolistic Newt Scamander who serves as our protagonist. He is just as British as Harry, and as tussled and quirky, but that is where their similarities end. Unlike Harry, who we first met at 10-years-old, Newt begins the series as an adult and has the knowledge to prove it. He never sets out to flagrantly display his intellect, but instead spends the movie content with inwardly curating it out of the joy that it brings him.

The main conflict of the film is a little formulaic, part Pandora’s box and part comical-accident-turned-catastrophic. The magical suitcase Newt brings into NYC ends up switched with a suitcase full of pastries carried by the No-Maj (the American term for Muggles) Jacob Kowalski, who accidentally releases several of the magical creatures within it. One of these animals is the adorable Niffler, which has the appearance of an echidna and the personality of a magpie, amassing all the gold and jewels it finds into its bottomless pouch.

And thus begins a hunt for the missing creatures throughout the city, with the help of Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein, her Legilimens (telepathic) sister “Queenie,” and Jacob.

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Right from the start one finds the distinction Rowling draws between the North American and European wizardly worlds. From the use of terminology for regular humans (muggles vs. no-maj), to the American wizards governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America, which is headed by a president. There is even a squabble at one point between Newt and Queenie over which wizarding school is the best in the world. Of course, Newt represents Hogwarts while Queenie argues for the recently introduced and still unfamiliar Ilvermorny.

Some aspects of the world-building cross the geographical borders, such as the Deathly Hallows sigil and the name dropping of Albus Dumbledore. Others transcend time and begin to create a sense of interconnectedness with the future, occurring in the form of a photograph Newt carries with him of Leta Lestrange, as he later admits, a past love from his Hogwarts years that ended poorly.

These differences and connections within the plot cannot compare to the most important difference of all: that of the quality of the story. Rowling presents a much more measured and sophisticated approach to magic, making it feel magical and all-encompassing in a way that doesn’t bombard one with a dazzling show of gimmicks and terminology as the Harry Potter series did. Instead time is taken to show the inside of Newt’s suitcase, to explore the nooks and crannies of it and develop a personal attachment to the creatures living inside it, giving a detailed example of the Undetectable Extension charm which was previously only vaguely shown in Hermione’s bag.

There is also a greater sense of order—or lack thereof—and consequence in the movie. The character of Mary Lou Barebone, head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an order that that fights to draw New York’s attention to the existence of witches, adds a touch of urgency to the story. She was a reminder that the threat of exposure and negative influence of no-majs on the wizards was just as significant as the threat wizards posed to each other.

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I can find few qualms in the movie, and even those are more technical than they are glaring plot errors. The obsession with darkness and dark scenes grew to be a bit much at certain points, making some scenes difficult to make out visually. The casting of Johnny Depp was another reason for confusion. His appearance in the film and just in general were unpleasant, by the bleached hair, eyebrows, and moustache, while his last words “Will we die just a little?” were delivered in a muffled manner that was also contextually disappointing.

These had little impact on the movie, which was a well-crafted story of adult wizards and witches from beginning to end. It did have the quality of a prologue to it, and some may find it to lack action while stressing the informative tone, but that is to be expected of a movie that is not only part of a series but is also introducing a new side of the wizarding world.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them balances the familiar with the new, the former used more as a strategy to make the viewer more comfortable with the latter. It isn’t a crutch but rather a reminder that there is always room to create new worlds, characters, and plots, which is exactly what Rowling was able to achieve. The fact that she wrote the screenplay gave the movie a quality of confidence and authenticity, strengthening the sense of magic and wonder it already possessed.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

A Step in the Right Direction: A Review of Disney’s “Moana”

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We are slowly entering the age of the reinvention of Disney.

Disney has boasted about including diversity in their films for a few years now, but still, Moana came as something unexpected to me. I suppose I didn’t actually expect anything from the big talk of how Disney was trying to push boundaries, and finally strive for more accurate cultural representation of non-white/Western European cultures.The trailers for Moana were ambiguous at best, and the scandal with the Maui Halloween costume at the Disney store was not reassuring.

But having promised my brother we’d go see it in theatres, I nonetheless told myself to remain optimistic. Moana could be different—it could be excellent.

Now I cannot speak to how other audiences received Moana, or how truly accurate or representational it was of Polynesian culture, but the first thing that struck me about the movie was how much it displayed a genuine effort to research and present its findings.

Some Disney movies, like Beauty and the Beast and Tangled, take a fairytale approach in which the story begins with a narrator, either ominous or involved. Moana does this as well, but chooses instead to present an origin story rooted in mythology, telling the story of the island goddess Te Fiti and how her heart was stolen by the mischievous Maui. The viewers soon sees that it is a grandmother telling the story to a group of children, of which only tiny Moana is enthralled by the terrifying details.

There is something very down to earth and homely about this beginning sequence. The movie presents, for the first time, a glimpse of childhood story time that is familiar to many of the audience members, capturing the uniqueness of the heroine without driving it home with a giant flashing neon sign.

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Concept art for Moana by Ryan Lang between Moana and Te Fiti

Moana is, in many ways, a movie of firsts. Moana’s adventurous spirit isn’t presented as an anomaly but rather as a return to ancestry and a past way of life which has been forgotten. The movie aims for a message of remembering one’s roots rather than going down the stereotypical path of having a heroine that’s different just because that is what is expected.

It’s a movie where, for the first time, the animal companion is arguably there not only for comic relief. Instead, we appreciate that other, subtler, line of thought presented through Heihei the chicken, that patience and love towards someone who’s different is a powerful thing. The story is also very much a “hero’s journey” archetype that leaves no room for a romantic side plot, another first in the long line of Disney’s princess ancestry, with only Mulan and Merida coming close.

One of the things I appreciated though was how “meta” Disney decided to be, in two moments both facilitated by Maui. The first occurs on a canoe, when Maui calls Moana a princess after she says that she’s the daughter of the chief. Moana corrects him, and  he replies: “it’s practically the same thing…if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” It’s a cheeky and fun jab at the Disney line, especially since we all know Moana is ineviatebly going to be part of their “Disney Princess” line.

The second meta moment is about halfway through the movie, when Moana and Maui fine the entrance to the realm of monsters. An exasperated Maui asks Moana to not break into song and dance (even though he did this earlier himself). An added bonus is the scene where Maui signs Moana’s oar with Heihei’s beak, declaring that “when you do it with a bird, it’s called tweeting.” Perhaps Disney has become bolder in poking fun at itself and modernity. It is another sign of progress, one that added optimism.

As far as musical Disney goes, one will certainly find memorable songs, but thankfully nothing as out-of-context and catchy as “Let It Go”. The soundtrack is worth its own separate exploration, particularly with the original and cover versions of “How Far I’ll Go” and, even more memorable for me, the Rock’s tap-worthy “You’re Welcome”.

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Still from the movie, depicting baby Moana

Sitting here now and thinking over the whole movie again, it’s easy to come up with all the movie’s strengths—it had many of them. Even small aspects of the story that existed for driving the plot were adorable and memorable, such as the Kakamoras and their elaborate pirate ship.

Right after finishing the movie though, I didn’t quite know what I felt or thought about it, apart from the general agreement that I liked it. I didn’t cry the way many people swore I would, perhaps because I’m not emotional at the same things. Yet this hesitation and uncertainty shouldn’t be taken as a negative sign, in fact, quite the opposite. It is an indication that for once, we have been presented with a princess-like character that doesn’t fall into one of the polarized regions of the spectrum as either a “I like her and relate to her” or “no, she doesn’t speak to me/I disliked her for ‘x’ reason”.

Moana lines up a carefully conceived and perfectly paced storyline, characters that are so well-balanced that one almost hopes they’re perfect even in their shortcomings, and a visual culture that is rich and vibrant without being exoticized. Moana is a step in the right direction, a movie that is hopefully an indicator of the way Disney plans to head.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

3 Movies To Change Up Your Holiday Viewing List

It’s that time of year again when people are pulling out boxes with Christmas ornaments and fairy lights, and getting into the spirit of the holidays with nostalgic, classical holiday movies. But while some might say they grew up watching movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Elf, or even The Nightmare Before Christmas, I’ll admit I never did.

It’s hard to say whether it’s the result of being a first-generation child who, despite moving to Canada, still grew up on European stories and movies, or whether I simply didn’t like them. The holidays for me have always been marked by a rather different set of movies. Now, these non-traditional films are what I associate with winter and the magic and spirit of the holidays.

So whether you’re looking for something different to spice up a yearly tradition, or are just generally curious, here are three alternative speculative films to watch these holidays:

1. Tři oříšky pro Popelku (translated: Three Wishes for Cinderella; 1973)

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Still from the movie Three Wishes for Cinderella

Though it is considered a holiday classic in some European countries, Three Wishes for Cinderella has nothing to do with the holidays. The only Christmas aura you’ll get from this film is the the stunning snowy Czech landscape, and the evergreen trees.

Three Wishes for Cinderella tells the story of a male servant, who is sent to a marketplace to pick up fabric for the stepmother and stepsister of the classic Cinderella tale. After asking Cinderella what she’d like for him to bring back, the servant is told to bring the first thing that falls on his nose. This happens to be a trio of hazelnuts which, when cracked open throughout the movie, reveals a new outfit that Cinderella needs.

The movie features a rather sassy and badass Cinderella (for her time period, at least), who is nostalgic for the days she used to go hunting with her father, and even mocks the prince when she meets him in the woods. Viewers also get to see a bit of the prince’s character, as opposed to the very bland and cookie-cutter Disney version.

Three Wishes for Cinderella brings with it a quality that’s very much in the style of European fairy and folktales. It takes its time to create an atmosphere rather than simply powering through the story. And the best part is the main theme in the soundtrack, which has a light, twinkling quality to it, guaranteed to make you imagine galloping on a horse through large piles of snow, feeling the pleasant crispness of winter all around.

2. A Little Snow Fairy Sugar (anime series; 2001-2002)

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Still from the anime A Little Snow Fairy Sugar

While the most well-known anime series focus on creating elaborate fantasy worlds and introducing viewers to a cast of emotionally complex characters, A Little Snow Fairy Sugar quietly tiptoes the line between the child and adult realms.

Luckily for you, A Little Snow Fairy Sugar is a short series, so it’s perfect to blaze through this winter season. The show is twelve episodes long, and tells the story of a highly organized and studious girl named Saga, who lives in a small German town with her grandmother and works in a coffee shop. But one day everything changes when Saga discovers a tiny starving fairy and feeds her a waffle, and meets a snow fairy apprentice named Sugar.

Beyond being simply adorable, what with Sugar’s addiction to Belgian waffles and the constant mishaps she gets into with fellow friends Salt and Pepper, the series also addresses themes of growing up and dealing with the loss of a loved one. At times, it is hard not to get emotional while watching. The show has a natural and heartfelt tone to it that make the series stand out in the anime genre.

Sugar’s constant practicing with conjuring snowflakes makes winter feel like it can be found at any time of the year, but also gives a different—and cuter—association to the season. If anime is for you, be sure to give this series a shot!

3. Vechera na Hutare Bliz Dikanki (translation: Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka; musical, 2001)

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Still from the movie Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka

For a rather long time, there was a different kind of holiday tradition that developed in Russia and Ukraine: that of the musical.

While this trend lasted for over a decade, only the first four or so were genuinely any good. However, I’d argue that the best is the one based on the work of Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, called Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.

Set on New Year’s Eve in the small village of Dikanka, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka is the story of a blacksmith named Vakula, who is rejected and mocked by the beautiful Oksana. She gives him a challenge: he can marry her only if he brings back the red shoes worn by the tsarina in St. Petersburg. While the task initially seems impossible, a lucky run-in with the Devil himself proves to be helpful and Vakula, after some blackmailing, is flown across the night sky to St. Petersburg to bring back the shoes and marry Oksana.

The story will most likely sound bizarre to people outside of the culture, but the film does a pretty good job in both presenting and stressing the importance of New Year’s Eve, as opposed to Christmas Day, in Ukrainian culture. It is considered to be the most magical night of the year when all the magical forces come out to play. This version features a talented cast and hilarious lyrics (for those who don’t mind quickly learning Russian/Ukrainian, or can find a version with subtitles), adding a touch of comedy and music to a beloved cultural classic.

So, if you’re still in search of some new and different films to change up your holiday movie list, be sure to give some of the wildcards above a try. And happy holidays to you all!

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko