Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Phoenix, Tokyo Tribe, & Hill of Freedom

Phoenix perpetuates one of the best contemporary director-actor collaborations.

Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Phoenix, Tokyo Tribe, & Hill of Freedom
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss collaborate on yet another fine quasi-thriller with Phoenix, about a concentration camp survivor, Nelly (Hoss), who undergoes facial reconstruction surgery for a wound and emerges unrecognized by Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband who gave her up to the Gestapo. Well, not entirely unrecognized: He thinks she looks just enough like his presumably dead wife that she could pose as Nelly in order to receive her hefty inheritance. The performative scenes that result from Johnny’s coaching elicit yet another spellbinding performance from Hoss, who always makes Nelly look as if she wants desperately for Johnny to see that it’s her while also dreading what will happen if he figures the truth out. Further, the film uses this setup to make a keen, occasionally funny comment on the male gaze, as Johnny knows every small detail of his wife’s body and movements, yet cannot put together the whole image of Nelly now that it no longer exactly matches up to his idealized memories.

The film stumbles slightly in connecting this back to a post-Holocaust mentality, if only because the narrative sets up moral questions it doesn’t seek to answer. Whether Johnny gladly gave up his wife to save his own skin, or whether so much of his skin had already been taken that he couldn’t stop himself, is left hanging, and Nelly’s own refusal to divulge her true identity to him has shades of arty affect. Nonetheless, Petzold appears far less concerned with the usual, futile attempts to explain the behavior of Germans during the war than in studying the manner in which people attempted to rebuild post-Nazi identity, and Hoss’s elliptical performance suggests multitudes of contradictions and insolubility. Petzold also produces some of his most spellbinding images, from noirish scenes of Nelly sneaking around darkened, red-lit alleys searching of Johnny to the Chekhov-defying finale. If it doesn’t quite reach the level of Barbara, Phoenix still perpetuates one of the best contemporary director-actor collaborations, one that carries on the existential quandaries of the German New Wave in more accessible form.

Sion Sono scores his second straight takeover of TIFF’s Midnight Madness program with Tokyo Tribe, his most ambitious film since 2008’s Love Exposure. Based on a hit manga series, the film regurgitates elements of The Warriors, West Side Story, Escape from New York (a chandeliered van makes an appearance), and more, all set to lurching hip-hop beats and expository raps. It’s Jacques Demy on cough syrup and cheap molly, with light bleeding in and out of the visible spectrum and heart-stopping basslines forever thumping away. Sono has branched out into more placid, issue-oriented filmmaking in the wake of Fukushima, but taken with last year’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, this is a return to the freewheeling, uninhibited stylist, wherein one heinous mafioso’s lair cribs from Thulsa Doom for its exterior, Tony Montana for its interior, and the orgy rooms of Eyes Wide Shut for its hidden, carnal chambers.

And this is just scratching the surface. You’ve also got the ass-kicking young girl who refuses to be her father’s virgin sacrifice to Satan, a servant who beatboxes the act of pouring tea for her master, a tribe boss decked out in blinged shogun armor, and a peace-loving crew whose hilariously corny rhymes earn the hatred of all the violent gangs, but also, just maybe, their respect. Of the films I’ve seen so far at TIFF, only Godard’s Goodbye to Language can be said to be more aesthetically overwhelming. Camera movements and edits shift focus between characters like guests stepping up one at a time for their verses, extremes of Eastern and Western pop culture are thrown together, and the insecurity of violent men is foregrounded in such a way that the image of Slim Pickens straddling a nuclear bomb now seems so quaint and subtle. Sono is as unpredictable and willfully irresolute as ever, and if Tokyo Tribe can be said to have a thematic point, it comes in the late exchange, “It’s not dick size, it’s the size of a man’s heart that makes him great.”

Hong Sang-soo has built a career out of incrementally modulating the same core story over and over, and it’s surprising how often this approach yields films that feel markedly different to his previous ones. Hill of Freedom, like most Hong films, is about the frustrated past and potential lovers saying more than they mean to and less than they want while drunk. But its fragmented narrative structure, played out via flashback through the reading of jumbled correspondence, produces a dissonant effect at odds with the gentle nature of the director’s fixed-mount static shots, pans, and zooms. As Japanese tourist Mori (Ryô Kase) seeks to reconcile with lover Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), he also meets a cute, frustrated café owner, Young-sun (Moon So-ri), and the possibility of new love mingles in the achronological depiction of Mori’s longing for an old one.

Compounding this distance is the language barrier between Mori and Koreans, forcing both parties to speak a second language, English, to communicate, therefore limiting the full range of their articulation. It’s a handy means of making plainer the communication failures between parties that drives Hong’s movies, and reliance on more basic words also produces blunter conversations that result in the director’s funniest film. It may also be his warmest: Hong’s Rohmerian protagonists are often deluded, arrogant, sensitive men oblivious to how unbearable they are, but if Mori can perhaps be too forward in saying exactly what he feels, he’s nonetheless an endearingly sweet person who charms nearly everyone he meets despite his oddity. The mismatched narrative suggests two possible endings for the film, and where Hong’s characters usually lose out in playing the field, for once both conclusions seem equally affirming.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4—14.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in MTV News and Little White Lies. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.

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