by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 – Dispatch 3

September 13, 2018

Our third dispatch from the Toronto International Film Festival (here’s the first and here’s the second) includes our takes on a few hold-overs from this year’s Cannes slate (Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II, Gaspar Noe’s Climax, Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun), a couple of mammoth documentaries (Wang Bing’s Dead Souls, Frederick Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana), high-concept films by two of international cinema’s most accomplished formalists (Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, Christian Petzold’s Transit), and a movie by that guy who got blasted with a shotgun by Naomi Watts (Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux).

AsakoRyusuke Hamaguchi’s intimate epic of friendship between women, Happy Hour, was my favorite film of 2016, so needless to say Asako I & II, which premiered in competition at Cannes last May, was eagerly anticipated. Adapting an acclaimed novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, Hamaguchi initially seems to scale back the formal ambitions and narrative breadth of Happy Hour, retreating to a more recognizable mode of wistful romantic drama. But even in the context of a more conventional two-hour runtime, his temporal interests remain unique. Ellipses and surreal elements intertwine in a charmingly low-key, deeply felt evocation of a young woman’s first love — a man who manifests as if by fate before suddenly disappearing, only to reappear years later, in a different form. Hamaguchi’s intuitive direction of actors (owing to his theater background) flourishes in Asako, particularly in the case of Masahiro Higashide, who’s given the difficult task of playing both the shaggy, itinerant Baku and the clean-cut salaryman Ryohei. That Higashide is not inescapably recognizable as Baku when he reappears as Ryohei (except to Asako, of course) is a credit to the actor’s physical work, his stiff-backed posture a striking contrast to Baku’s slouchy, shuffling gait. Erika Karata’s Asako is restrained almost to a fault, but the actress’ steady, assured performance is its own kind of feat; her transformation occurs beneath the surface, drawing out the character’s quiet determination. Hamaguchi also continues to demonstrate a wonderful feel for the mundane, with this love story developing in the spaces of modest apartments, small cafes, and unremarkable business places. But there is also room for dreamy flights of feeling, as when Asako and Baku’s first moment of eye-contact plays-out in slow motion, firecrackers going off between them. It’s seemingly meant as nothing more than happenstance that the two meet right where some kids are messing around with explosives, but Hamaguchi lets the experience of the moment carry him away from his naturalism. Throughout Asako I & II, Hamaguchi alters his form in subtle ways, lending credibility to his shifts into subjectivity, and in so doing proves himself a true romantic of the cinema. Alex Engquist

ShadowOstensibly a return to the populist wuxia films of Chinese director Zhang Yimou‘s mid-2000s hayday, Shadow instead feels more like an exercise in extended foreplay. In his most broadly Shakespearean film (hidden identities, eccentrics in caves, elaborate orchestrations of revenge), Zhang spends nearly two-thirds reveling in courtly pretense and strategic machinations, punctuated only briefly by scenes of lightly-stylized sparring. So when the spectacle of the climax arrives, it’s tenor so distinctly Zhang, it feels a bit short shrift to move so immediately into the denouement, where the general theme of human corruptibility, and a barely-there love story, aren’t really enough to hold interest. Clearly, Shadow was conceived as a visual exercise; shot in gorgeous black-and-white (by his own admission, a response to his typically bold coloring, though this is equally as ostentatious), it’s best appreciated aesthetically, with any metaphorical readings generally too simplistic to take that seriously. Shadow may not be nearly as accomplished as its clear precedents — and it falls somewhere between Hero and House of Flying Daggers in terms of its plot-to-pomp ratio — but Zhang proves that, operating in this vibrant, superficial mode, he’s still capable of generating the requisite thrills. Luke Gorham

Dead SoulsThere’s a moment at the end of the first part of Dead Souls (roughly three hours into the film’s eight-hour runtime) when its director, Chinese documentarian Wang Bing, visits the site of a former rehabilitation camp located in the Gobi Desert, in China’s Gansu province. These camps were used in Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, which lasted from 1957 to 1959, and anyone deemed against the communist state were sent there to perform manual labor and “reform” themselves. Wang’s camera captures the remains of those who were unable to survive the harsh conditions — the half-unearthed bones jutting-out from the desert’s surface. He also shows us a small town nearby, whose residents all seem unphased by the fact that they live so close to a site of such tragedy; for them, it’s all in the past, and a nation that’s prone to such rapid change hasn’t the time for retrospection. This is what makes Dead Souls an invaluable record: the survivors of the camps are given the space to tell their forgotten stories, in great detail. One doctor remembers a family debating which child would be sacrificed for food, while a former chef speaks to how his position in the camp saved him from dying of malnutrition. When these victims talk, Wang listens — and invites us to be just as attentive. Each interview can last up to an hour, with minimal cutting, capturing each nuance of these worn-out storytellers. Small details become big ones, like how the subjects’ faces contort and cringe, or the way their fragile bodies seem ready to give-out at any moment — and it should be said that many of the participants, who were recorded as early as 2005, having already long since died. The grainy quality of the early digital camera Wang uses in certain segments itself already feels like an artifact of another time compared to the crisp, more recently shot sections. Which is to say that Dead Souls document of atrocity, in both its form and its function, already has positioned itself as a part of history. Paul Attard

MonroviaOver half a century into Frederick Wiseman’s storied career, the legendary documentarian’s interest in systems — that is, how they function in relation to the persons and spaces that constitute them — is an accepted truism. Following Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, possibly the director’s most utopian film to date, Wiseman turns his eye to the eponymous locale of Monrovia, Indiana, population 1,440. Postcard-ready images of fields, farmlands, and traditional American homes alternate with shots surveying local institutions both expected (church services, restaurants) and not (a tattoo parlor, a mattress sale in a high school gymnasium). Given that Monrovia, Indiana arrives alongside state of the nation reports (of a kind) from Roberto Minervini, Errol Morris, and Michael Moore, it’s difficult not to view the film as a topical missive that attempts to “understand” the primary demographic (predominantly rural, white, and Christian) that brought Trump into power. And such a reading — a critique-by-omission that highlights the seclusion of Monrovian community by exploring its workings — is certainly not without merit. (A lengthy dog tail docking scene in a veterinary clinic — a somewhat backward practice — seems to tip Wiseman’s hand.) Yet the film is ultimately more compelling as an existentialist time capsule of rural, small-town Americana. Through a deceptively off-hand approach and pointedly underpopulated frames, Wiseman surveys a way of life whose sense of normalcy has long since waned into moribund ritual. And the closing funeral service augurs the years to come. Lawrence Garcia

TransitChristian Petzold is one of our great contemporary dramatists, taking the building blocks of melodrama and draining them of artificiality; he’s a kind of quotidian, brutalist Sirk. What could be simple narrative convenience or lazy coincidence instead becomes, in his hands, a kind of tragic, cosmic inevitability. Beginning in media res, Petzold’s new film Transit opens on two men discussing their plans for escape, what to do about comrades in hiding, and the passing of illicit letters. It’s just another day – at least until police cars go screaming by and soldiers come marching up the street. Then the voiceover begins, an omniscient third-person narration that is (at first) strikingly incongruous with what we see on-screen. In a bold formal gambit, Petzold marries certain WW2-era elements from Anna Seghers’s 1944 source novel into his film adaptation’s narration, but sets his film in a (mostly fictional) modern era. Narration and images exist in a sometimes confounding, contrapuntal relationship in Transit, and other times begin to dovetail and mirror each other. It’s a profoundly disorienting effect, even after one discerns what, exactly, is going on. As critic Neil Bahadur pointed out, this conceit not only suggests the liminal space occupied by the characters — trapped between countries, desperate for escape — but also a new liminal space between past and present. Ultimately, the narrative becomes a distaff, crypto-remake of Casablanca (much like Petzold’s previous feature, Phoenix, nodded to and took elements from Vertigo), as Georg (Franz Rogowski) takes on an assumed identity and becomes entangled with the wife of the man he is impersonating. Georg also strikes up a friendship of sorts with the wife and son of a fallen comrade, his connection with the boy ultimately complicating Georg’s desire to flee France for Mexico. This is certainly one of the year’s best films: Petzold chronicles the Kafka-esque travails of displaced peoples, and how their struggles remain the same in the past and the present. Daniel Gorman

Vox LuxVox Lux, the second film from actor-turned-director Brady Corbet (after 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader), scans as a fruitless and embittered attack on pop celebrity, complete with familiar assertions that our collective degradation of cultural mores is bound to lead to the insidious destruction of the individual. Told in several parts and featuring omniscient baritone narration that would feel at home in a Wes Anderson film, Vox Lux plays-out almost like a fairytale of American fame-chasing in the early going, save for the school shooting (not-so-subtly set in 1999) that acts as the narrative’s entry point. Celeste (Raffey Cassidy as a teen, Natalie Portman as an adult) is shot in the neck during this attack; she survives, and pens a mournful anthem of her resiliency that captures the mood of the nation. And as her grief is appropriated by mass culture and her career blossoms, this riff on a TMZ version of the American Dream remains compelling. We then jump to the present, where Corbet abandons the nuanced development of Celeste for a Lady Gaga-Katy Perry mashup, by way of Jersey Shore. From here, it’s all downhill for Vox Lux, culminating in a 15-minute arena performance by Celeste which un-inspiringly argues that the vapidity of celebrity leads to a depersonalization of the self so total that only the adoration of fans can bring happiness. LG

ClimaxTransgressive filmmaker Gaspar Noe is no stranger to a hostile reception for his work, his films proffering a vulgar style over explicit interest in substance. Noe’s bad reputation is alluded to in the marketing for Climax, which challenges viewers who “hated Irreversible, loathed Enter the Void, and cursed Love,” to try his new film. And to be fair, Climax is different: It revolves around dance, before and after the dancers unwittingly imbibe a concoction of LSD-spiked sangria. The filmmaker’s abrasive use of on-screen text here certainly isn’t new, and his intentions of provoking deeper questions of mortality are mostly unsuccessful, but even still Climax marks something of a new high for Noe’s experimentation with form. The raw energy of this film’s dancers, coupled with a relentless and eclectic soundtrack (Daft Punk, Aphex Twin, even The Rolling Stones), keeps Climax barrelling forward — and the great cinematographer Benoit Debie, who has worked with Noe before, fuels that momentum with audacious camerawork, flitting between bodies and engendering simultaneous terror and sensuality. Noe charts his ensemble’s collective dance/descent-into-madness with appropriately intoxicating aestheticization, sprinting from one provocative sequence to the next, with imagery that lingers in the mind and resonates in the body. Jason Ooi

Girls of the SunEva Husson’s Girls of the Sun has the noblest of intents, making it almost impossible not to admire it in the abstract. It’s also hard to call a good film: If some festival fare can be frustratingly vague and opaque, this is the opposite, failing as simple, straightforward dramatic storytelling. Which is a shame, as the story of an all-female group of Kurdish resistance fighters taking on ISIS insurgents had the potential to be a fascinating story, not least because of the female perspective — which to be fair, Husson does give a bit of: women trading stories of children being taken from them or engaging in a pre-battle sing-along, their faces briefly lit up with smiles in scenes of poignant solidarity. There’s also thankfully none of the macho bullshit chest-thumping or gun-fetishizing of most American war films. But these graces just aren’t enough to outweigh the lunkiness of this film. As the quiet, stoic, tough-as-nails leader of the Kurish resistance fighters Bahar, the fine actress Golshifteh Farahani tries her best to make an impression playing against the quiet, stoic, and tough-as-nails imbedded war photographer Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot), who travels with Bahar and her group on a combat mission. Bahar, Mathilde, and all the other characters here are seen frequently staring pensively, or glimpsed in silhouette — so much that they don’t feel like people, just loose ideas, figurines, sometimes literally faceless, and usually unnamed. The story that propels these women is awkwardly laden with expository flashbacks that detail misery after misery — and there are, of course, clichéd, postcard-perfect shots of the setting sun. DG