High art vied with high trash at the Toronto Film Festival, but the region's new movies exhibited unabashedly commercial vigor and craft
By RICHARD CORLISS Toronto
Time was when film festivals showed only two types of movies: serious, and Western. But Asia has produced so many piquant films and master directors that it can no longer be ignored. And festivals have begun showing movies that aim to please, rather than edify, their audiences. There is now a place for unabashedly commercial films made with craft and vigor.
Especially at the Toronto International Film Festival, which this month celebrated its 25th annual edition with 264 features, of which about three dozen represented Asian countries from India to the Pacific. Among them were a couple of top Toronto prize-winners: Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took the People's Choice Award, voted by the festival's vast ticket-paying audience; and Bangkok Dangerous, by the Hong Kong twins Danny and Oxide Pang, won the Discovery Prize for best debut feature. But with so manytoo manyfilms to see in 10 days, viewers create their own festival. The old hierarchy is dead; Toronto encourages a divine frenzy of film democracy.
The festival reflected the flourishing variety of Asian films. High art vied with high trash, and trash often won. One could choose an ironic document of the struggling classes (Jia Zhangke's Platform, tracing the lives of five mainland Chinese musicians as they segue from drudgy Maoist anthems in the late '70s to pre-fab Canto-pop in the late '80s) or a comix-style killer-thriller (Wild Zero, Tetsuro Takeuchi's facetious turbo-ride through the fantasy lands of science fiction and rock 'n' roll). South Korea and Hong Kong, the recent Eastern faves among Western cultists, had to share screen space with a new generation of mainland masters and the rambunctious kids from Thailand.
Thailand's government wouldn't allow the Hollywood epic Anna and the King to be shot there (or shown there). Somehow, though, the Pang brothers managed to make their much rowdier melodrama in Bangkok. Bare-bones, it's the old story of the nice girl (Premsinee Ratanasopha) falling for the broody killer (Pawalit Mongkolpisit) who is cuteand a deaf-mute! Our advice: don't think, just watch. The Pangs are so beholden to the gorgeous images and somnambulist assassins of Wong Kar-wai movies that the style here could be called Wong Kar-thai. But the brothers put their own gritty gloss on the format and make Bangkok Dangerous a handsome, high-octane tour of the lower depths.
For Brother, Kitano's first film in English (though he hardly speaks it), he has imported the formula intact to Los Angeles, where a yakuza gunman has come to avenge his sibling's murder. To keep from going totally comatose before the final showdown, he offers small incentives to his new henchmen. "If you kill him with one shot," he tells a young black thug, "I'll give you 10 bucks." Bloody but somehow chipper, Brother is a Kitano vacationhe does the same fatal things here, but in a sunnier climate and with less at stake. And can anything kill a man who's already dead? When he gets shot in the gut, a doctor examines him and says, simply, "He needs rest."
The viewer's eye never gets a rest in Takashi Miike's The City of Lost Souls. This polyglot, polymorphous pastiche tosses Brazilian gunslingers, Japanese drug lords and Chinese triads into a simmering pot and waits for things to boil, then explode. Waits about a minute, that is, before our hunky hero descends from a helicopter to rescue his girlfriend, in the process slaughtering a dozen or so extras. The lovers (played by the Japanese-Brazilian actor Teah and the Chinese-Portuguese Michelle Reis) are no less scurvy than anyone else in this house of marked cards; they're just more beautiful, and in movies, beauty wins.
Weirdness, though, finishes a close second. The picture has heads set on fire, toilet bowls spuming blood, a table-tennis showdown and, best of all, a cockfight, cleverly animated with computer imagery, that had the Toronto mob cheering. (Ever wonder what happens to the loser in a cockfight? In this picture, it gets peddled to a fried-chicken restaurant.) Miike, who also directed the more coherent Fudoh: The New Generation, includes pensive romantic spots between the gaudy ones. Take your pick.
South Korea makes art films and pop movies; Toronto had some of both. Chunhyang, by the country's most noted director, Im Kwontaek, is a sweet love story set to folk song and framed in rapturous vistas. Chang Younhyun's Tell Me Something, one of Korea's biggest recent hits, weaves psychological intrigue around a dense crime plot (several men, whose severed bodies are found in and around Seoul, all knew the same woman). It's a gory, seductive work, right up to a conclusion more baffling than the mystery it was meant to solve.
Between solemnity and sensationactually, embracing both extremesis Kim Kiduk's The Isle, a bleak erotic parable about a Korean woman who mutely provides bait and sexual services to fishermen in floating shacks on a lake. The sexual scenes are harsh and perfunctory; the real news is in what the woman, and a man she falls in love with, do with fishhooks. Both try to commit suicide by ingesting themhe in his mouth, she in a more delicate area. The hook-removal scenes caused many a squirm and giggle, but the real brutality is emotional in this fable of man's inhumanity to woman. They are the anglers; she's the bait and the disposable meal.
The heroine of The Isle has it easy compared with women at the other end of Asia, in a theocratic society like Iran's. Jafar Panahi's The Circle (which won the top prizes at this year's Venice and Montreal fests) is a bold, sensitive view of female ex-convicts in the Islamic republic. Over one long evening we follow a half-dozen women, each of whom has been imprisoned, or may soon be, for such "crimes" as riding in a car with a man not her husband. Panahi's previous films, The White Balloon and The Mirror, were seemingly cheerier tales of little girls bereft on the streets of Tehran. Now he reveals, with unflinching sympathy, how a female of any age can be lost in a man's world. That the censors allowed Panahi to make this film may testify to the nation's budding progressivism, but The Circle has yet to be shown in Iran.
Next stop on the grand tour of female subjugation: Hong Kong, and not for a Category III catalog of picturesque sadism. Durian Durian is Fruit Chan's follow-up to Little Cheung, a fine portrait of a poor, resilient Hong Kong kid just before the hand-over. Chan's new film tells of two mainland girls in the territoryone a child washing dishes to support her one-legged dad, the other a teenage prostitute whose jobs include soaping down the tattooed body of a triad dude. Hong Kong is a cruel place, Chan suggests, because it pushes images of plenty in the faces of the poor, offering hope where it may not be justified. The mainland, the site of the film's second half, is cruel because it offers the poor no hope at all.
And just to show that a woman needn't be Asian to be miserable, Hong Kong auteur Clara Law dreamed up The Goddess of 1967, an English-language film shot in Australia. The title refers to a '67 Citroen DS, a vintage car coveted by a Japanese wanderer (Rikiya Kurokawa); its owner is known as Blind Girl (Rose Byrne, named best actress at Venice), an abused child in a woman's body.
Lucidly lurid, with brilliantly Kodachromy visuals of the Outback by Dion Beebe, Law's dirt-road movie doesn't so much reconcile opposites as show why they're apart. It shifts from glamorous images of entwined lovers to the cunning rantings of an incestuous father. It hurls beauty and ugliness in your face simultaneously. It expresses a lot of what is infuriating and enthralling in modern cinema. It was, in other words, the exemplary film of the Toronto Film Festival.
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