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Toronto Film Festival Report, Part II

Mon, Oct 2, 2006
toronto film festival

Assistant Film/Video Curator Chris Stults' take on the highs and lows from this year's Toronto Film Festival:

It's foolish to try to produce generalities about an event the size of the Toronto International Film Festival, which screened 261 Feature Films and 91 Short Films this year. There are so many films on display and attendees have such varying priorities that everyone experiences a different festivl. Instead, I'll just say that the primary lesson I learned at this year's festival is that timing is everything.

As Dave Filipi noted in a previous Wexner Center blog entry, the first half of the 2006 festival was somewhat lackluster. There were plenty of solid films, but nothing rapturous or sublime. However, I was fortunate enough to stay in Toronto a few days longer than Dave and a funny thing happened to me shortly after he returned to Columbus: I started finding great films around every corner.

But going back to the first half of the festival, I would second Dave's mention of the delightful Romanian comedy 12:08 East of Bucharest (on the heels of last year's astonishing The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, there seems to be a renaissance in Romanian cinema) as one of the standouts. I would also add mentions of Alain Resnais' Private Fears in Public Places (on the surface, a very conventional tale of middle-aged lonelyhearts that is transformed through Resnais' directing and regular Olivier Assayas collaborator Eric Gautier's camerawork) and Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako (an expertly realized meta-narrative about the titular city – the capital of Mali – and a fictional trial the citizens hold against the World Bank).

Also notable is Hong Sang-soo's latest film, Woman on the Beach. For much of its length, it's the comedy that Hong has been moving towards making, a precise character-based comedy of manners based around the most formable female performance seen in any of his films. It's a much more generous movie than any of his more intellectual older movies, and it's much easier to love as a result. (Woman on the Beach is also the name of a Jean Renoir film and, in this case, the allusion is not unearned – Renoir seems a more appropriate touchstone than the conceptual Marcel Duchamp or Louis Aragon references that Hong made with his earlier films.) One detail will be particularly amusing to Wexner Center audience members who recall that because of a leg injury, Hong was unable to travel to the retrospective we held for him last February: in the last third of the film, the male protagonist (a film director) pulls an unused muscle in his leg which leaves him helpless his hotel room while the other characters meet and scheme out of his reach. As these parallel incidents show, it's always hard to distinguish between art and life in Hong's films.

But things changed for me in Toronto when I saw following five films in a fairly short period of time. These films made me fall in love with cinema – where it has been and where it is going – all over again.

• Song and Solitude (Nathaniel Dorsky) Bertolt Brecht once wrote “What kind of times are these, when / To talk about trees is almost a crime / Because it implies silence about so many horrors?” and Nathaniel Dorsky's poetic short film is a similar victim of the times. While much of the attention at the Toronto festival was given to artistically negligible but politically provocative films like Death of a President – a fictional documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush and its after-effects, little notice was given to Song and Solitude, one of the most beautiful films ever made. Like all of Dorsky's films, it is projected at silent speed and the flicker of the film projector is pronounced to create a hypnotic transformation of the mundane world into something holy (not for nothing did Dorsky write a book titled Devotional Cinema).

toronto film festival
Syndromes and a Century

• Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) The third and final entry in a series of films that divide themselves into two halves: urban and rural. (The previous two films, Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady, were featured in a November 2004 Visiting Filmmaker series at the Wexner Center.) On the surface, this is Apichatpong's most straightforward film but as the two settings (a country hospital set in a vague time period and a modern Bangkok hospital) begin or fail to overlap, things get more mysterious. One thing's for sure, the final scene of Bangkok public aerobics activities set to perky music is the most joyful image I've seen all year.

• Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke) The festival's biggest surprise – in every sense of the word. After Still Life won the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival, a one-time late-night screening of the film was added to the schedule in Toronto. Several people I know changed their departure plans so that they could stay long enough to catch Jia Zhang-ke's follow-up film to The World (which was well received when it played at the Wexner Center last November). Scanning the line outside the theater, it seemed like everyone who was serious about film in North America was at this unannounced premiere screening – from programmers and curators to critics from The New York Times and Village Voice and what seemed like the entire staff of Film Comment and Cinema Scope. There was energy surrounding this particular screening like I've seldom encountered. And, against all odds, the film exceeded the expectations that preceded it. It's Jia's most accomplished film to date as he masterfully shows the effects and psychological costs of China's relentless conversion to capitalism and “progress.” Using the Three Gorges Dam project (which is flooding entire villages and historically important regions out of existence) as a backdrop, Jia combines landscape and narrative in ways that are only rivaled by Antonioni at his peak.

toronto film festival
Summer Palace

• Summer Palace (Lou Ye) There's an aphorism stating that the 21st century will belong to Asia. That may or may not be true, but the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival certainly belonged to Asia. Most everyone I spoke to would list a film from Thailand, China, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, or South Korea as their favorite of the festival. Usually I can count of seeing exceptional films from France, Denmark, Argentina, or other major film-producing countries at the festival, but this year almost all of the great films I encountered were from Asia. Summer Palace, however, deserves some sort of qualifier. Other than the work of Wong Kar-wai, Lou Ye's third film (following Suzhou River and Purple Butterfly) is perhaps the most French Chinese film I've ever seen. Lou has always been a stylist and Summer Palace is a great heir to the legacy of the French New Wave. More epic in scale and theme than the classic New Wave films, Lou tracks a group of characters across several decades as the shadow of their activities at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The film also features an unprecedented amount of sex and nudity for a Chinese film and it's for that reason more than for politics that Lou Ye has been banned from making another film for five years by the Chinese government.

• Exiled(Johnnie To) No surprise, another Asian film. After the most talented people in Hong Kong's film industry left for Hollywood in the late 90s, Johnnie To and his Milkyway production company has been responsible for many of the best films being produced on the island in the past decade. Exiled marks one of the highpoints of To's career and is one of the finest, most pared down Hong Kong action films ever made. Dave Kehr isn't far off the mark when he compares the film to Budd Boetticher and Sergio Leone. Filled with an iconic cast of manly men, it's as enjoyable and inventive as movies get – as long as you can tolerate a not insubstantial amount of macho posturing.

Looking beyond my personal favorites, the three films that seemed to garner unanimously enthusiastic responses (at least among those who attend the event as something other than an entertainment reporter) were: Syndromes and a Century(which most people thought was the best film at the festival), Borat (The most discussed man of the festival. And not just because of the already-legendary midnight screening which saw Borat entering the theater riding on a cart with a donkey and the projector breaking during the screening and former-projectionist Michael Moore assisting with the repairs in the booth – see for yourself here), and The Host (a smart South Korean crowd-pleaser that just might be the finest monster movie since the original Japanese Godzilla, political subtext and all).

Of the films mentioned, several already have distribution in the U.S. so chances are good that in the coming year you'll be able to see the following: 12:08 East of Bucharest, Bamako, Summer Palace, Exiled, Borat, and The Host. The Toronto Festival is famous for its ease of navigation and caters to the general public, so if you're interested in attending next year and submitting your vacation requests early the festival already has 2007 information available here.
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