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Toronto International Film Festival 2005: Take Two

When scurrying about film festivals, even non-juried ones like the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s best to keep your eyes on the prize.

Toronto International Film Festival 2005: Take Two
Photo: Strand Releasing

When scurrying about film festivals, even non-juried ones like the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s best to keep your eyes on the prize. For most, at least on the industry side, this means the much-buzzed dealmakers that will compose the bulk of the holiday prestige fare. For others, it’s a search for the small, unheralded work from the far corners of the globe. The Toronto festival, now in its 30th year, was pronounced midway through the week by one local paper as the most influential film festival on the planet. Truthfully, it’s massive enough to cover both camps, and then some.

If pressed, I’d likely have claimed allegiance to the latter camp, window-shopping for undiscovered gems inside the 1,200-seat display cases on Yonge Street. If there was anything, though, that bore the mark of a conflict diamond, it was to be found in events that transpired just a week prior to the beginning of this year’s festival. Even up to the day I was leaving for Canada, my thoughts were completely occupied on the catastrophe in New Orleans, so much so that I found it difficult to fall into the rhythm that first day. This is the way those at the 2001 festival must have fest when the collapse of the Twin Towers bisected that year’s gala into two disparate historical eras: pre-9/11 and post-9/11.

I wasn’t alone in thinking of these things. Taiwanese director Stanley Kwan introduced his new film Everlasting Regret with an invocation of the disaster in New Orleans. Opening with a title card that reads, “When your city is no longer your city, the right man can be the wrong choice,” Regret is the tale of a woman who stays behind in Shanghai while her family and loved ones flee to Taiwan in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. With a coltish star turn by Hong Kong pop sensation Sammi Cheng, a wistful tone and tastefully deployed slow motion, it’s a tender tale of a city lost to memory.

As it happens, the theme of being “left behind” made itself evident in many of the festival’s choices, both good and bad. Neil Jordan (The Good Thief) premiered his latest feature, Breakfast on Pluto, an aimless, unfunny would-be picaresque that follows the gender-bending Patricia “Kitten” Brady, played with the camp-meter turned up to 11 by a swishy Cillian Murphy. Murphy’s St. Kitty, afraid of being left alone by the sodden blokes s/he encounters, frets and pouts upon the stage of her/his own devising. Jordan never engages the material beyond the surface level, and at the expense of actual pacing, throws in offhanded references to the escalating Troubles in Northern Ireland now and again.

On the other hand, the very best film I saw during the festival drew upon its characters’ complex relationship to how history was forming itself around them. Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers depicted the events of the student uprising in Paris in May of 1968 as a moment out of time, after which the lives of its young ensemble cast would never be the same. Conceived as a sort of “after the revolution” response to Bertolucci’s The Dreamers—one scene features a character turning to the camera at precisely the moment she mentions his Before the Revolution—the film opens on the barricades, but only takes off as a story after the auto strikes have been negotiated and the students have gone back to school. Garrel examines the romantic ideals of youth and their eventual subsumption into the current of mainstream society, though, to his credit, he never vilifies the older generation. Hopefully, the film’s 16mm black-and-white aesthetic palette and three-hour runtime won’t prevent people from giving themselves over to its rewards.

Generational frisson was also on display in Noah Baumbach’s autobiographical The Squid and the Whale. Set in ritzy Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the mid-‘80s, it charts the dissolution of an intellectual marriage, and finds the two young sons each siding with a separate parent. Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming set the template for a certain type of hilarious, hyper-literate vitriol; this is his portrait of the artist as an even younger man. It’s worth mentioning that this project predates his recent collaboration with Wes Anderson, but it still registers as a tighter, edgier version of The Royal Tenenbaums, with a terrific turn by Jeff Bridges as the arrogant, eloquent paterfamilias.

An even more destructive nuclear family crumbles away in Terry Gilliam’s latest film. Fresh from his middling, Brothers Weinstein production of The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam was in town to drum up support for Tideland. Unfortunately, due to some negative word of mouth and a healthy number of screening walk-outs—the film is about a young girl who retreats into a fantasy world after the deaths of her junkie parents—it looks like he’ll have his work cut out for him. And while it’s a fascinating piece of work, moving skillfully between icky creep-out moments and darling childhood whimsy, there’s no denying it may be too dark to be a kids’ movie and too lovingly fantastic for the midnight madness crowd.

Tideland wasn’t the only film to feature skillfully employed tonal shifts. Larry Clark’s latest feature, the oddly titled Wassup Rockers, opens in familiar territory, with leering footage of a pack of young Hispanic skaters who clash with blacks in South Central L.A. The film would be a documentary if its segments weren’t so obviously (and poorly) staged. I am constitutionally wary of Clark’s tactics, and was on walk-out alert for the first half-hour or so, but before long the film switches gears and follows the boys to Beverly Hills, where they skate and get harassed by cops and rich people. It’s ultimately a warm portrait of a sadly under-represented group, and well worth taking a chance on.

Another directorial gearshift was undertaken by Tsai Ming-liang, the Taiwanese filmmaker whose long-running Lee Kang-Sheng cycle continues unabated with The Wayward Cloud. The film finds Tsai taking some big chances. For starters, his reliably slack main character has found work in porn, and the film opens with him fingering a watermelon that his co-star clutches between her thighs. As if that weren’t enough, Tsai indulges in some actual human connection, in the return of Lu Hsiao-Ling, last seen leaving for Paris in What Time is it There?. Her reunion with Lee spawns a delightful scene, inspired by Annie Hall, in which they must capture a gang of crabs that have unleashed themselves in the kitchen. But the real change here is the introduction of musical numbers. Few directors possess as recognizable a style as Tsai: Those who are aware of it may find the inclusion of colorfully choreographed pop songs—one is even played out in fast-motion—a fascinating, if distracting, diversion.

South Korean director Im Sang-Soo’s controversial film The President’s Last Bang oscillates between dramatic procedural and pitch-black comedy, telling the story of the 1979 assassination of corrupt sex-fiend dictator Park Chung-hee. It’s a thrilling tale and Im (A Good Lawyer’s Wife) gives it the full range of his talents, but it was overshadowed in my memory by the very next film I watched, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, by Im’s countryman Park Chan-wook. The final chapter in a revenge trilogy that began with 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and found crossover success in last year’s Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a tour de force, centered around Lee Geum-Ja, who’s released from a Korean women’s correctional facility after 13 years of wrongful imprisonment. We learn that she was framed for the kidnapping of a young boy, and now she is out for revenge. She sets off in pursuit of Mr. Baek (Oldboy’s Choi Min-Sik) and “gets bloody satisfied,” to use the parlance of Kill Bill, to which Lady Vengeance is being compared. But in the final two reels, in which Lee assembles the grieving parents of a series of murdered children, the film pulls back to mount an astonishing re-framing of the concept of vengeance, of the deeper meaning of an eye for an eye. This retroactively alters the perspective of the movie up to that point, and the effect is all the more powerful for it. In this respect, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance can be read as a sort of sequel to Dogville.

Which brings me, ahem, to the official sequel to Dogville: Manderlay. With Nicole Kidman’s departure, a shockingly self-assured Bryce Dallas Howard ably steps into the role of Grace, who has come upon the eponymous, run-down estate in Alabama en route from the Rocky Mountains. There she finds a fully operational slave plantation, some 70 years after the institution’s supposed eradication. The death of Lauren Bacall’s matriarch inspires Grace to intervene on behalf of the denizen’s of the dilapidated slave quarters just beyond the white cotton-fields. (As in Dogville, Manderlay plays out on a massive, empty soundstage, but the floors are painted white to reflect one of the South’s most devastating legacies.) Howard’s Grace is not the same victimized innocent that Kidman played; instead she summons up a suffragette’s righteous anger, though her attempts to deliver a rudimentary democratic system to Manderlay have predictably mixed results.

If Manderlay is less devastating than its predecessor, it is because of a broader comic tone, which in Dogville was mainly relegated to John Hurt’s wry narration. But like the citizens of The President’s Last Bang after the death of their leader, and the young romantics in Regular Lovers who must reckon with the gradual deflation of their revolutionary ideals, Manderlay is about the human need to restructure allegiance amid the shifting tide of authority, and how people often choose to recapitulate the bonds of their own captivity. (Richard Fariña’s famous line “Been down so long it looks like up to me” would make an apt subtitle for this movie.) Von Trier ends the second installment of his America trilogy in precisely the way he ended the first: With a procession of heart-breaking images depicting America’s impoverished, criminal treatment of blacks throughout its history, set to David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” Like Dogville, the shift from minimal exercise in allegory to sociological testament is overwhelming, and it’s made more so by the sad parade of negligence that one could see along the Gulf Coast anytime the television was on over the past two weeks. One of the knocks that I’ve heard against Manderlay is that it works less effectively as a parable, since it collides too easily with the region’s history. Tell that to those who’ve been left behind.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8—17.

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