In a recent Twitter exchange, critic and author Mark Harris described the Toronto International Film Festival as a “supermall.” The numerical facts for this year’s 40th edition suggest as much: 399 total offerings (289 features and 110 shorts) culled from 6,118 submissions from 71 countries. And in the previous two years I attended (2007 and 2008), there frequently was a consumptive feeling in the air that one would associate more with the marketplace than the movie house: Ingest now, digest much later.
That’s admittedly the rush of the festival circuit, an intoxicating feeling only intensified by Toronto’s sheer volume of choice, which allows you to catch a Ridley Scott here, an Apichatpong Weerasethakul there. Or delve deep into the avant-garde via the highly regarded Wavelengths program. Or catch some of the buzzed-about titles that played that year’s Cannes and will soon play this year’s New York Film Festival. Or just take a chance as scheduling affords, since there are always movies screening from early in the morning until late, late at night. (When else would Takashi Miike debut Yakuza Apocalypse, his latest exercise in extremity?)
There’s perhaps no filmmaker I’m happier to be confounded by than Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I suspect many Western viewers will find his ninth-century-set martial-arts drama, The Assassin, based on a short story written by Tang Dynasty author Pei Xing, bewildering on a narrative level even as they marvel at its opulent pictorial qualities. Certainly this is a cinematographic master class by Mark Lee Ping-bin, who shoots primarily in a square 4:3 ratio and luxuriant color aside from a black-and-white prologue and one musical interlude where the frame expands to 1.85 to accommodate the full length of a guzheng (Chinese zither).
But Hou isn’t one for gorgeously empty pageantry. Each image is also meant to illuminate the internal struggle of the eponymous killer Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who was kidnapped as a young girl, trained to murder corrupt officials, and now wrestles with her latest assignment: cutting down an Imperial Court lord (Chang Chen) who also happens to be her cousin. Her private strife is key to understanding the film, which unfolds with a peculiar pensiveness, like a dream at once half-remembered and half-forgotten. Each scene feels informed by dueling perspectives and shifting points of view, and even when the camera is focused on characters other than Nie, she appears to be present. Several lengthy dialogue scenes end with Hou revealing his protagonist emerging from the shadows—a voyeur not just to others’ discord, but to her own.
One of Hou’s constant themes (one that recurs in the work of many of the notable Taiwanese directors) is alienation, not just of a personal, but of a national sort. Nie is a person without a homeland, and is interestingly freer the more she focuses her loyalties inward. Though The Assassin is a wuxia through and through, the fight scenes—typically quick, glimpsed in long shot, and unnervingly accompanied by the sounds of nature—are secondary to the film’s overall sense of longing. It privileges neither bloody vengeance nor bodies in gravity-defying motion as much as it does a troubled, yearning soul slowly laid bare.
There’s a similar sense of agitation in Iranian writer-director Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. Like the two other works (2011’s This Is Not a Film and 2013’s Closed Curtain) this cinematic great made under the noses of his home country’s censorious government (the powers-that-be imposed a 20-year filmmaking ban on Panahi in 2010), the incitements are embedded within a stirringly playful surface. The conceit of the movie is that Panahi, once again playing a close-to-home version of himself, is now driving a cab to make ends meet. But proving you can’t ever stop a determined artist from practicing his art, he’s fitted the car with cameras that record the various passengers who hail him down.
It’s a movie studio on wheels (all 82 minutes of Taxi, save for the provocative closing moments, take place within the vehicle), with the entire populace of Tehran as potential stars. The fares might be figures of fun (a Sancho Panza-like bootleg DVD merchant) or prone to escalating tragedy (a woman who tries to get her dying husband to amend his will on an iPhone video as Panahi drives them to the hospital). Yet there’s also a degree to which they exemplify aspects of Panahi’s own tormented subconscious—as well they should since most of the film’s action, despite the seeming verisimilitude, is staged.
Both This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain also dealt, via a meta mix of reality and fantasy, with the trials of creating art within a suppressive system. There’s something even more potent about Taxi’s approach, in large part due to the mobility provided by the cab itself. Liberating on the one hand, the vehicle is still, on the other, as much of a prison as the apartment and the beach house Panahi attempted to inject with imaginative life in the previous two films. An artist can be continually on the move and still be trapped. That Panahi still feels the muse’s call under such duress is an example to celebrate and to follow.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10—20.