Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have a knack for humanizing the most extreme situations and conditions on Earth. 2015’s Meru documented Chin’s attempt to climb the eponymous Himalayan peak, while the Oscar-winning Free Solo documented their friend Alex Honnold as he prepared to scale the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan summit without any ropes or safety mechanisms. The married couple’s latest film, The Rescue, centers on yet another harrowing environment: a 10km-long cave system in Northern Thailand known as Tham Luang Nang Non, which encompasses 3 passages and two underwater rivers in a porous limestone mountain that rapidly accumulates water. In June 2018, 12 teenage boys and their 25-year old coach from the local Wild Boar soccer team were exploring the cave when they became trapped by a freak monsoon that quickly left their only means of escape fully submerged.
The Thai Royal Navy immediately sprang into action, assembling a large team of international players and growing flanks of volunteers. But their lack of cave-diving experience proved a major liability, and it soon became clear that the entire rescue operation hinged on an unlikely group of heroes: a handful of unassuming, mostly middle-aged, mostly British amateur cave divers. The film focuses on two such men, retired firefighter Rick Stanton and IT consultant John Volanthen, whose combined expertise and skill distinguish them from the entire Thai Navy. This is no surprise given the relative obscurity of their hobby, which tends to attract socially awkward loners and other “peculiar” types. It turns out that even paratroopers and navy SEALS would rather not hang out in cramped, pitch-black underwater moonscapes.
Unlike in their previous films, Vasarhelyi and Chin weren’t actually present during this weeks-long ordeal. Instead, they stitched the film together by culling over 87 hours of footage taken by the Thai Navy SEALS at the time, much of it never previously released. The highlight is by far the video of the British divers first coming across the missing boys, who were discovered over two hours from the cave’s entrance. In a film stuffed with heartwarming footage, this video is unforgettable; the boys are skinny but in good spirits, and their coach had the presence of mind to teach them meditation and breathing exercises to help them stay calm. Vasarhelyi and Chin supplement such footage with interviews of various key players, including each of the divers who participated in the rescue. In order to accurately convey the cave’s unyielding rock, muddy waters, and near-negative visibility – a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare – the filmmakers rely on hyper-realistic recreations with the divers themselves, filmed in a water tank during the pandemic. The resulting footage gives a sense of how disorienting the conditions must have been, especially with the twin timebombs of dwindling oxygen and another impending monsoon adding to the pressure.
Despite their lack of access, Vasarhelyi and Chin do a fantastic job immersing the viewers in the heated, humid, and high-stakes environment — both in the cave and on the rain-lashed surface — as various branches of the rescue operation debate on how best to extract the boys. There’s not enough time to teach each of them how to dive through the extremely complex cave system on their own, but, on the other hand, waiting for the waters to recede could take months. In the end, an Australian doctor and diver named Richard Harris agreed to a “truth is stranger than fiction” solution that’s shockingly risky — and laughably simple. Amidst this nail-biting tension, the filmmakers also make a point to explore the local folklore surrounding the mountain, contextualizing the round-the-clock prayers that serve as a backdrop to the rescue operation’s military precision. Using beautiful animation inspired by a Buddhist thangka painting, they describe the legend of a mythical princess whose hair is said to form one of the cave’s underground rivers, and then connect this story to the boys in the cave who each receive a bracelet blessed by a revered monk believed to have descended from the princess. It’s a thoughtful touch for a story that’s often dominated by foreign perspectives (Vasarhelyi has said that she and Chin were unable to secure interview rights with any of the survivors.)
Much of the film’s third act is a montage of international news coverage that crescendos towards a peak of ecstatic joy and relief when the Wild Boars are safely extracted from the cave. It’s a hard-won victory that Vasarhelyi and Chin frame as a unified global effort, which makes the story all the more affecting; as a newscaster says, visibly holding back tears, “you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved.” It’s all too easy to contrast this story of unbelievable courage and determination with the tribalism and spiteful individualism that’s plaguing the world today, and wonder where we all went wrong. Vasarhelyi and Chin don’t belabor the point, but they don’t have to: viewers will undoubtedly come to the same conclusion. But this shouldn’t detract from the film’s emotional heft, which is handled with grace and care by the filmmakers and producers. No matter how things play out in 2021 and beyond, the image of the boys’ relieved and hopeful faces when they realize they’ve been found stands as a beacon for our boundless capacity for empathy, when we decide that it matters.
Writer: Selina Lee
The Story of My Wife
After the resounding triumph of On Body and Soul, a film whose stoic tenderness and tactile intimacy proved an outlier among recent Golden Bear winners, Ildikó Enyedi returns to the director’s mantle with her long-anticipated adaptation of Milán Füst’s wartime novel, which tells the tale of one Captain Jakob Störr, a Dutch commander of a cargo vessel who suspects his wife of infidelity. No less personal, enigmatic, or affecting than the director’s previous work, The Story of My Wife locates within its period setting a similar focus on human relationships and their frequently fickle, fragile uncertainties, pitting the clarity of reason against the mischief of emotion in a teasing, frustrating, and wholly relatable compendium of romantic deception and possession. Enyedi’s wry application of conceit suffuses her films with a delightful serendipity through which emerge the playful, pernicious dialectics of love entrapped by radical freedom; where On Body and Soul mediated between both of its faculties the promise of a shared, snowy dream, The Story of My Wife adopts as its first premise a principle likely to be considered distasteful today: the principle of foolhardy bravado that afflicts our unfortunate captain as he announces to his friend, in a café, the intention of marrying the first woman who walks in.
That this intention is duly succeeded by action, and an action of resounding success at that, underlines the witty absurdity which Enyedi nonetheless grounds in reality, as most euphoric flights of such fancy go. The “flounderings” of Jakob hence commence, digested and imparted through seven lessons tracing the marriage and dissolution of the hapless Dutchman (Gijs Naber) and Frenchwoman Lizzy (Léa Seydoux) upon her acceptance of his proposal. A solitary figure of authority his whole life, Jakob commands respect for the starboard’s rank and expertise, but remains excruciatingly yielding in matters of the heart. Idolizing and idealizing his young wife as another possession to be prized for her beauty and ostensible predictability, the earnestly fledgling lover retreats back to the clockwork of the ocean, certain, or hoping to be certain, that she will be waiting for him, pristine, upon his return. But when Lizzy is first reported in the company of a suave writer (Louis Garrel), and then openly seen in flirtatious exchange, Jakob’s burgeoning paranoia weighs on their delicate romance, instigating a sensual yet poisonous pas de deux destined to collapse under the steely threat of its love triangle.
In situating the narrative’s point-of-view squarely in Jakob’s relative inexperience and prudishness, The Story of My Wife will be, as it has no doubt been (based on its chilly reception at Cannes), faulted for an absence of cultural prescience, exacerbating its leisurely 169-minute runtime with a possibly regressive disapproval of the women who live independent lives outside the purview of their husbands. Such a criticism, however, presumes merit necessarily in reflexivity, placing the ideological obsession with self-abnegating critique over the more illustrious poetics of ever-shifting sexual politics and relegating the more traditionalist output of, say, Pedro Almodóvar and Arnaud Desplechin to blanket labels of misogyny. And where the psychological game of cat-and-mouse between Jakob and Lizzy reaches an impasse on occasion, Enyedi imbues the framing of her tentative, circumspect characters with a reserved magnificence assisted, rather than ailed, by the film’s adoption of English as its lingua franca. Sumptuously lensed as historical dramas go, The Story of My Wife dramatizes its historical backdrop for current and no less confusing times, exploring with equal bitterness and sentimentality the unresolved and perhaps irresolvable negotiations between control and chaos, pride and propriety in the violent but vital seas of impassioned love.
Writer: Morris Yang
It took Lucile Hadžihalilović over a decade to secure the necessary funding to produce Evolution, her long standing passion project that was released in 2015. Pursuing this film’s realization kept her from directing other features outside of 2004’s Innocence, though that film and her collaborations with spouse Gaspar Noé (plus an assortment of shorts) allowed her to retain something of a following all those years. Evolution rewarded Hadžihalilović devotees with a film that, while thematically rather congruous with Innocence, surpassed the latter in terms of narrative obliqueness and the controlled, textured quality of her cinematography (provided by Manuel Dacosse who shoots the Cattet/Forzani films).
Now, Hadžihalilović returns to TIFF to debut a new feature, Earwig, adapted from surrealist horror writer Brian Catling’s 2019 novel of the same name. A British production, Earwig appears to take place in England some time in the past, but as evidenced by her previous scripts, Hadžihalilović is rather adverse towards indulging exposition and instead introduces the film’s primary plot to the audience as it’s well underway. Disorienting as this can be, audiences familiar with her work are unlikely to find themselves knocked off balance, the director trodding pretty similar territory to that covered in her other two features. Another disturbed coming-of-age narrative with gothic fairytale undertones, Earwig primarily concerns itself with a toothless girl and the man in charge of her care whose most significant responsibility is crafting her teeth before each meal out of her own frozen saliva. The two occupy a rather large house together and maintain this routine until it’s disrupted by sinister forces that fracture the plot into parallel tangents, one following a woman severely maimed in a bar fight, the other following the girl and her caretaker as they prepare to leave their isolated home. The structural ingenuity of Earwig’s screenplay is perhaps its most exciting element (pretty nicely lit digital cinematography from Death of Louis XIV’s Jonathan Ricquebourg too), but otherwise its mysteries don’t necessarily intrigue or entice; Hadžihalilović’s usual interest in the unnerving transitional period between child and adult is once again her film’s focus, but this time without a clear or novel angle. Demonstrating her still-distinctive command of pacing and atmosphere (which counts for a lot in the current filmmaking landscape), Earwig is certainly a welcome return, but not a terribly memorable one, its more striking, unconventional images and narrative subversions disempowered in their servitude to vague and clichéd thematic material.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain opens with Benedict Cumberbatch, heavily pancaked in old-age make-up, manically dancing in a way that immediately recalls Grandpa Joe’s miraculous recovery sequence in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. There’s a familiarity to the theatricality at play here that instantly invites feelings of both intrigue and dread: What is Cumberbatch up to now? As the soothing voice of Olivia Colman fills the speakers, her voiceover narration a mixture of matter-of-fact backstory and sassy asides, one prepares for what is sure to be a hearty slice of whimsy, and to that point, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain does not disappoint.
In chronicling the life of the eponymous artist, Sharpe opts for stylistic excess above all else, a direction which is unsurprising considering the film’s subject. Best known for his drawings of large-eyed cats, Louis Wain became something of a sensation in early 20th-century London, his playful works inspiring wonder and admiration, and ushering in a wave of feline domestication that made cat ownership not only socially acceptable, but indeed normal. But Electrical Life begins several years before all this cat chicanery, focusing on Louis’s life as a thirty-something struggling artist trying to make ends meet for his widowed mother and five spinster sisters, all of whom live under the same roof. But Wain was not only an artist; he also fancied himself a boxer, an opera composer, and an inventor specializing in areas of electricity, although he found little to no success in those pursuits. And while the multi-hyphenate lived and worked before the terminology even existed, it’s made quite obvious here that Wain falls somewhere on the Autism Spectrum, which Sharpe and co-writer Simon Stephenson use as an excuse to engage in a number of comedic set pieces where Wain’s general awkwardness when it comes to social norms is continuously used as a punchline, especially in his pursuit of a romance with newly-hired governess Emily Richardson (Claire Foy).
If that sounds more than a little gross, it is, and the first half-hour of Electrical Life is by far its worst, with each character existing as nothing more than a series of obnoxious tics, broadly played by a cast that is trying far too hard, including Andrea Riseborough as one the Wain sisters, who is nothing more than a pinched, ghostly face and a scornful demeanor. Yet once Louis and Emily get married and move into their own house, something surprising occurs: for the next 30 minutes, the film takes a breather from its exhausting freneticism and enters into its own form of contented domestication, affording both Cumberbatch and Foy the opportunity to find the humanity within their zany characters. It’s a truly lovely stretch, one that comes to a screeching halt with the death of one character and the reappearance of the Wain clan.
It’s also at this point that the film changes its focus to Louis’s deteriorating mental health, affording Sharpe the opportunity to engage in visual overkill, with cat visages replacing human heads, and the screen morphing into a kaleidoscope of multi-colored feline faces for two trippy minutes. Researchers have long contended that Wain suffered from schizophrenia, his condition worsening as he got older; however, this theory has become controversial, as modern-day psychologists believe such a diagnosis is not only impossible to determine, but also suggest that his later work virtually refutes such claims. Electrical Life never outright states Louis’s diagnosis as such, but Sharpe leans heavily into this implication on a stylistic level, which feels both irresponsible and reductive (if not outright offensive). That’s not to say that Sharpe is a terrible director; his penchant for and facility with candlelight and natural lighting is not only aesthetically pleasing here, but it has the effect of rendering his compositions to resemble oil paintings come to life, a suggestion which becomes literal in a breathtaking mid-film shot with Louis, Emily, and their cat that plays like an homage, oddly enough, to Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come. One just wishes Sharpe would have dialed down the busyness a tad more consistently, as Electrical Life ultimately wears out its welcomes long before the end credits. It’s an exhausting film, one that trafficks in death, mental illness, poverty — but also cute cats. The film’s irony won’t be lost on many, but it too is so obnoxiously rendered as to only grate. Save your time and watch some cat videos on YouTube instead; they are far more electrifying than anything in this Life.
Writer: Steven Warner
Chung Mong-hong is the kind of director who seems tailor-made for the international arthouse circuit but for some reason has yet to break through with American audiences. A regular on the festival scene, and a frequent recipient of awards at home in Taiwan (having clinched the Golden Horse for Best Director for both 2010’s The Fourth Portrait 2019’s A Sun which also won Best Picture, among numerous other nominations), he’s an accomplished, precise, and professional filmmaker, analogous to a Taiwanese Koreeda Hirokazu. The Falls is his pandemic movie, the latest in a series of Chinese-language films about fraught parent-child relationships that include Yang Lina’s Spring Tide, Yang Mingming’s Girls Always Happy, and Wang Chun’s Mad World. Like the latter, The Falls complicates its central relationship with mental illness, in the case of the mother, played by Alyssa Chia. She’s an office worker at a multinational who has to leave work suddenly when her 17-year-old (Gingle Wang) is sent home from school because one of her classmates tested positive for COVID-19 (the virus is never mentioned by name, but you know). Mother and daughter are forced to quarantine together, and the strain leads the former towards a psychotic break: paranoia, hallucinations, and eventually even a small fire.
But that’s just the first half of the movie. While Chung carefully documents the woman’s breakdown and the gradual introduction of chaos into her meticulously appointed apartment (captured in all its crystalline clarity by Chung, working, as usual, as his own cinematographer, though this time not under his pseudonym “Nagao Nakashima”), he’s just as interested in the processes through which her daughter attempts to cope with the situation (chief among them is the loss of income from her mother’s lost job). It’s not just a film about how the pandemic broke our society, but also about our struggle to make things normal again after the flood. Bit by bit the women rebuild their lives and their relationships with each other, eventually confronting the outside world once more. But in the final minutes Chung, always just a little bit more perverse than he should be (perhaps this explains his lack of success in the US market), can’t help but undermine the feel-good ending his film seemed to be building towards. There’s a humanist realization underpinning this: that even when the pandemic has passed, being a parent, or being a child, or for that matter being alive at all in the world with other people, is absolutely terrifying.
Writer: Sean Gilman
The Mad Women’s Ball
Mélanie Laurent’s The Mad Women’s Ball sometimes feels like two movies. It is, at once, a moving if obvious period piece about the abuses perpetrated upon women by men in the name of mental health during the 19th century, while also working as a more transcendental film about faith and ghosts. While the two subjects sometimes coexist awkwardly, they ultimately manage to enhance each other’s themes.The film co-stars Lou de Laâge (reteaming with Laurent after 2014’s Respire) as a young woman named Eugénie who is committed to an insane asylum when her family discovers she can communicate with ghosts, and Laurent, directing herself for the first time since her debut feature, as head nurse Genviéve. Upon Eugénie’s admittance to the asylum, it is immediately obvious that, even if she does require some sort of healing, this facility’s chaos is the exact wrong place in which to receive it. Lead doctor Charcot’s (Grégoire Bonnet) practices are notably barbaric, and he clearly has no regard for the wellbeing of the patients. And elsewhere, Louise (Lomane de Dietrich), a patient who quickly befriends Eugénie, is not only submitted to physically destructive treatments, but is sexually preyed upon by one of the other doctors. Obviously, then, Eugénie is desperate to get out, and after she is able to help Geneviéve contact her deceased sister, she finds someone willing to help.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the film is its portrayal of Eugénie’s gift. Laurent rarely depicts these supernatural sequences from Eugénie’s perspective, and so it’s easy to see why they are perceived as some sort of panic attack. However, doubt is quickly erased as to the veracity of her claims — early on in the film, her grandfather’s spirit tells her where to find a necklace her grandmother had lost forty years ago. Geneviéve finally comes to trust Eugénie when her sister’s spirit informs her that her father has suffered some sort of attack, but when he subsequently asks her how she knew to run home to him, he is angered at the answer. Laurent makes clear — without the use of any formal suggestion — that whether viewers are inclined to otherwise believe in such supernatural elements, in the context of the film, spirits exist, and it’s only those who believe Eugénie who are able to achieve any sort of peace.
It’s easy in the modern world to associate skepticism with positive mental health, and while the film is not necessarily a rebuke of that idea, it does show how such skepticism can be taken too far. In the end, some characters, like Eugénie and Geneviéve’s fathers or Dr. Charcot, are allowed to continue to indulge their foolish disbelief because of their power, though it comes at the expense of forging and refining real relationships. Others, like Eugénie’s brother, are able to right previous wrongs. And, while Geneviéve is not necessarily rewarded for her trust in and aid of Eugénie, her arc across the film is one that leads to closure — something that continues to elude her father. The film’s thematic demands, as well as its graphic depictions of abuse, can make for an admittedly tough sit, and while the latter can at times begin to skew toward the tedious, it leads to an understanding that these men in power are able to perpetuate and justify their abuses through their unwillingness to submit to any kind of faith. And so, that Geneviéve’s ability to sacrifice is ultimately based on her faith in Eugénie makes for a moving and fitting conclusion.
Writer: Jesse Catherine Webber