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Toronto International Film Festival 2014 Pasolini, Tales, & Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2

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Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Pasolini, Tales, & Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2
Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Pasolini, Tales, & Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2

Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini may not be the finest film playing at Toronto this year, but this wholly unconventional biopic manages to stick in the brain like few I’ve seen so far. Taking for its subject only the last day of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life, the film should, by normal generic conventions, be nothing more than foreshadowing for Pasolini’s grisly murder. Instead, it’s almost defiantly banal, focused on the simple tasks of making art, such as reviewing rushes, typing and revising copy, and workshopping ideas with peers and loved ones. In terms of commitment and research and all the other method trappings that turn real lives into showboating for actors, Willem Dafoe brings little more than his slight resemblance to Pasolini, an extraordinarily freeing decision that, in classic Ferrara style, deliberately foregrounds the actor’s own identity along with the character’s, making plain the work of acting just as the film itself looks at the other elements of artistic production.

Los Angeles Film Festival 2013: Drug War, Purgatorio, House with a Turret, & When I Saw You

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Los Angeles Film Festival 2013: <em>Drug War</em>, <em>Purgatorio</em>, <em>House with a Turret</em>, & <em>When I Saw You</em>
Los Angeles Film Festival 2013: <em>Drug War</em>, <em>Purgatorio</em>, <em>House with a Turret</em>, & <em>When I Saw You</em>

Prolific Hong Kong action auteur Johnnie To performs a border crossing with Drug War, his first cops-and-criminals film shot and set in mainland China, and in some ways the filmmaker is stretching his legs with all that extra space at his disposal. We follow police captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) as he teams up with repentant drug manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) to dismantle Choi’s former syndicate and take down his associates, and the film feels perpetually in transit as they’re on the chase, moving from city to city, on the road and via train. Overall, the shift doesn’t mark a radical departure for To. There’s definitely a different relationship to space and the urban environment, a changing-up of textures and details, but it all feels like a familiar overarching trajectory.

For example, the fact that the film ends in a slaughterhouse of a shootout is hardly the stuff of spoilers, though much of the first half is rather bloodless, almost sedate, as Zhang and his team track down leads and put together pieces of the puzzle, procedural-style. It’s more about surveillance and analysis and interrogation than gun battles, and instead To sharply mines the tension of potential flashpoints of violence that never quite get there. In those situations Zhang feels like an archetypal supercop, with an unremittingly loyal and deferential team and the ability to cow anyone he speaks to through sheer force of will. He’s chasing adversaries that may be 10 steps ahead, but he’s got a long stride and a sixth sense.

San Diego Asian Film Festival 2011: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Ninja Kids!!!, Aftershock, & A City of Sadness

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San Diego Asian Film Festival 2011: <em>Don’t Go Breaking My Heart</em>, <em>Ninja Kids!!!</em>, <em>Aftershock</em>, & <em>A City of Sadness</em>
San Diego Asian Film Festival 2011: <em>Don’t Go Breaking My Heart</em>, <em>Ninja Kids!!!</em>, <em>Aftershock</em>, & <em>A City of Sadness</em>

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. Not simply a house of mirrors reflecting the soullessness of our Internet age, each sprawling urban surface in Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s effortless romantic comedy Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is a potential window to heartfelt emotional connection. This great Hong Kong directing duo, known primarily for directing balletic actioneers, tweaks the standard conventions of the genre to make the love triangle between a downtrodden architect (Daniel Wu), a mid-level worker bee (Yuanyuan Gao), and a womanizing C.E.O. (Louis Koo) feel altogether fresh. The most notable subversion comes during the traditional meet-cute sequences where two characters see each other for the first time from their office windows, flirting via vaudeville-like performances and mosaics painted with colorful Post-it Notes. It’s a lovely visual motif that favors space and distance as opposed to the classic verbal diarrhea most American romantic comedies use as a crutch. Throughout Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, relationships are created with physical movement yet emotions are transferred through modern-day technology. In this sense, To and Wai establish a seamless relationship between camera, perspective, and space, allowing the charms of each character to flourish from afar, in poetic buffoonery. Considering the film’s glassy mise-en-scène, layers of physical space often misdirect point of view, primarily because of angle, complicating emotional entanglements in a wonderfully postmodern way. I can’t think of a cinematic concrete jungle that is this moonstruck.

Film Comment Selects 2010: Accident

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Film Comment Selects 2010: <em>Accident</em>
Film Comment Selects 2010: <em>Accident</em>

I’m all for movies that provoke, unsettle, and generally make you work for your price of admission. But I must admit that one of the great cinematic pleasures has to be that moment when you sense a director inviting you to give yourself over to their vision, to nestle comfortably into the position of spectator and be guided by their assured hands. So confidently do they lead us through whatever trajectory they’ve set up, it’s as if there’s no behind-the-scenes tinkering at all, but merely the seamless progression of one event clicking naturally into another. It’s not that these filmmakers turn us into passive slugs, drooling at the screen with glassy eyes. Rather, they engage us actively, inviting conjecture and hypotheses as to what will happen next, even as we remain certain that all will eventually, deliciously be revealed.

This intoxicating sensation bubbled up in me throughout the opening sequence of Accident, Pou-Soi Cheang’s tight-as-a-drum thriller about a coterie of assassins who stage their precision-made hits to appear as everyday urban mishaps. After a perfunctorily “ambiguous” opening shot of a mysterious woman dying in a nighttime car crash, the film throws us into a hectic metropolis, packed with midday traffic and bustling pedestrians. We’re initially placed alongside the group’s target as he yells at a woman (Michelle Ye) with a flat tire to move her car out of the road. The irate man maneuvers down a side street, only to have a large banner fall on his windshield, obscuring his view. He storms out of the vehicle and attempts to pull the rest of the sign down, yanking at the wires that connect to a large plate-glass window above the car. A few tugs are all it takes for it to shatter and rain down on the man, leaving him gasping for air amid glass shards and a growing pool of blood.