J Robert’s TIFF Diary: Day Five

J. Robert continues to send in his informative Toronto fest reviews, and here’s his latest batch. Be sure to visit his entire thread for the complete series. -Doug

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Tuesday, September 9, 2003
Day 5 — Hump Day

by J. Robert Parks

By day five, I feel like an old hand. I know exactly where to go, how much time to allow myself, and how to navigate the various lines. People ask me for directions, and I know where to point. Not that I need it much, but I can even navigate the subway system. Mike Hertenstein will be happy to know I wore my Flickerings shirt today and received positive comments from
several total strangers. I haven’t mentioned the weather before, but it has been spectacular every single day. Sunny, mid-70s, no humidity. Absolutely perfect. I’m not sure what it says about me that I’m spending this perfect weather by going inside dark rooms for long periods of time. More on cinephilia later.

The day begins at 9 a.m. (ugh!) with a film from Georgia (that’s the former USSR) called Since Otar Left (2003). At the movie’s conclusion, the woman behind me turned to her neighbor and said, “That was lovely.” And I have to agree. But it’s not just a crowd-pleaser; I think there’s something more there.

It’s the story of three generations of women in a small Georgian town. The grandmother is 90, the mother is a middle-aged widow, and the youngest is a skinny but pretty woman who speaks fluent French but has no real prospects for either a job or marriage. The unseen character is Otar, the grandmother’s son and the mother’s brother, who has left for Paris seeking
work.

The film does a beautiful job of portraying these women and their family ties: how they do and don’t get along, how they adapt to and yet irritate each other. I’ve been impressed by a number of the family films here at the festival. That sort of real, inter-generational family bond doesn’t always appear in American cinema. The acting is absolutely top notch, too. Esther
Gorintin as the grandmother will get most of the kudos given her age, but it’s Dinara Droukarova as the youngest woman who really stands out. Well worth your time if comes around to your neck of the woods.

Every day seems to have one movie that stinks, almost as a contrast to the rest of the films I’m seeing (would I know what a good film was if there weren’t bad ones?). Free Radicals (2003) is today’s stinker. An Austrian movie that tries to tell a whole series of inter-locking tales (ala Kieslowski), it instead ends up being a frightful mess. I suspect if the director Barbara Albert had focused on just three or four characters, the movie might’ve held up. But not the ten to twelve different stories we get. The soundtrack is fun, with a particularly nice use of contemporary music, and some of the acting is solid. But the script has no sense of pace, as major characters disappear for far too long. A little blonde girl is supposed to
signify something, but that never takes shape. And the by now cliched airplane and car crashes (both of them!) are trotted out to offer some metaphor for destiny and chance. Unfortunately, the film itself exhibits too much evidence of blind chance and not enough destiny.

Les Triplettes de Belleville (2002) is a genuinely delightful animated film from France that acts as a beautiful homage to Jacques Tati, silent cinema, and children’s picture books. With a
style that evokes a gorgeous watercolor wash, the film is a joy to behold. And the sight gags are full of both wonder and laughs. I was nervous that the movie might descend into a crude anti-Americanism, but it refrains from all but a few jokes (the Statue of Liberty becomes a waitress with a hamburger) and balances those out with some hilarious jibes at the French
(their fondness for frogs, especially). The film has a dark streak that should make parents cautious, but that adds a nice contrast for us adults. It balances the whimsy and gives some heft. I heard someone compare this to Delicatessen; and though it’s certainly not that dark, that gives you a little bit of an idea. Another one that’s well worth your time if it plays
near you.

Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall…and Spring (2003) has simply the most amazing cinematography I have seen (or will see) at the
festival. Kim Ki-duk makes striking use of his set–a Buddhist temple floating on a pond in the bottom of a valley. I can’t remember when I’ve seen more spectacularly beautiful images. Kim’s use of the water’s reflection is masterful, his low-shots skimming across the water’s surface are stunning, and his long shots from the hills around are magisterial. Add
in the changing seasons–red leaves in fall, ice and snow in winter–and you have a cornucopia of splendid colors and compositions.

The story is a rather simple tale, taking place over a series of decades as an old monk trains up a young boy into a man. I loved the first (spring) and third (fall) sections, as they seemed to present something deeply universal about the Buddhist faith: the power of devotion, the difficulty of passing on a tradition. But the fourth sequence becomes almost evangelistic, and the Buddhist worldview isn’t one that resonates with me. A growing sense of fatigue might also explain my lack of interest. Nonetheless, this is worthwhile just for the exquisite craft on display. You won’t see this many beautiful images in another film this year.

Good Bye, Dragon Inn (2003) is a masterpiece, no matter what anyone else says. Since the film seems to have few defenders among people I know and respect, I thought I would write
a more formal review. Unfortunately, any sort of in-depth discussion requires spoilers. These aren’t necessarily detrimental to your own enjoyment; in fact, I hope that my insights will provide for a fuller experience if you ever get a chance to see it. But be forewarned, I do give certain things away.

Tsai Ming-liang‘s latest work is a profound meditation on the reasons why we watch movies as well as a stirring defense of his own approach to cinema. It is certainly a slow, difficult work but one that richly rewards those who can appreciate Tsai’s approach.

The film takes place entirely in a run-down movie theater, where a screening of Dragon Inn, the 1967 King Hu martial-arts classic, is taking place. The opening shot places us in various locations in the theater, as the movie runs. Almost as if Tsai is asking us, where do we like to sit when we watch a film? We also notice that where you sit makes a difference in how you see. Do we watch from the balcony? Up front close? By ourselves or in the middle of a bunch of people? Each one affects the viewing experience. Other scenes continue this theme, and cinephiles will take great delight in Tsai’s humor. One hilarious sequence involves a young man intently watching the movie only to be distracted by a couple eating loudly nearby. The man moves to get away, only to be beset by patrons who choose to sit right next to him, despite the presence of numerous empty seats.

Good Bye, Dragon Inn is a genuinely funny movie in places, with Tsai using static, long takes to humorous effect. One shot in a men’s bathroom is wry just because it goes on so long, but then it tops it off with a fantastic visual joke.

The central character in the film is a female ticket-taker/manager. She has a club foot, which hinders her as she makes her rounds around the theater–checking in on the bathrooms, the projection booth, the back hallways. Tsai’s camera follows her around, making us wonder about her and why she does this job. In an early sequence, she torturously walks up flights of stairs to deliver a rice bowl to the unseen projectionist. Near the movie’s end, she cleans up the theater before turning off the lights. There’s a deep sense of melancholy about her and not just because of her injury.

Other characters include various patrons, though there aren’t many of those. An older man and his grandson, a mysterious middle-aged man who gets teary-eyed near the end, a hooker who seems to have come just to get out of the rain, a few younger men more interested in hooking up with each other
than watching the film. Only a few people actually pay attention.

So, what’s all this about? Why is this such a masterpiece? Especially when the movie requires you to sit through minutes-long scenes where absolutely nothing happens.

A pivotal moment occurs around the 30-minute mark. The ticket taker, on her rounds, opens the door behind the screen. She’s framed inside the doorway, while the screen looms to the right of her. It’s an amazing composition, as the visceral swordplay on the screen acts as a counterpoint to the lack of size movement in the other “frame.” And then happens one of the most startling series of edits you’ll ever see. Tsai cuts to the ticket taker’s face in profile. Her face is lit up with the reflection of the movie as she
stares in wonder. Less than a second goes by, and Tsai cuts to the movie itself, where a heroine is wielding a sword with gusto and skill. Quick cut back to the ticket taker. Quick cut back to the movie heroine. Quick cut back to the ticket taker. In a movie filled with takes that literally go on for several minutes, this series of multiple cuts in a span of a few seconds is mind-blowing. And with it, Tsai focuses our attention on these two women: one from 1967, one from today.

This series of cuts certainly contrasts one woman with the other, but Tsai is also equating the two, arguing that the ticket taker is just as much a heroine as the martial artist, just as interesting and compelling a character. She too has hopes and dreams, as we see in some movingly poignant scenes in the middle and end of the film.

And this brings us to Tsai’s central point: that one type of character is just as worthy as another type and, therefore, one type of story is just as worthy as another. In that, Good Bye, Dragon Inn becomes a powerful defense for the kind of movies Tsai makes, films in which marginalized characters
struggle with apparently banal difficulties. They’re not superheroes, they’re not martial artists, they’re not saving the world. And yet they are worthy of our attention. In East Asian cinema, which has become dominated by the martial arts and horror genres, this is an incredibly bold assertion.

It’s not that Tsai is arguing his style is better than all the others. For Good Bye, Dragon Inn is also a beautiful tribute to King Hu and the martial arts movies; two of the actors from the original Dragon Inn turn up as themselves to watch it again. Rather, Tsai is arguing for a multiplicity of styles, a whole range of stories and techniques. Yes, let’s have exhilarating King Hu-like films, but let’s also create a space for the kind of movies Tsai makes, ones in which perfect camera placements force the
audience to look, not just watch. Ones in which the use of sound (echoes, subtle clicks) is fundamental. Ones in which apparently not a lot is happening and yet the whole world is taking place.

Near the end of Good Bye, Dragon Inn, after the ticket taker has cleaned the theater, Tsai holds a shot of an empty theater for what seems like several minutes. The audience in Toronto started to giggle nervously after a while, it was so long. It is an incredible metaphor, this image of an empty, dilapidated theater; and the longer it went on, the more I liked it. And when it turned out not to be the end of the film, I was disappointed.
That is, until the actual ending of the film occurred a few minutes later.

The final shot of Good Bye, Dragon Inn is simply perfect. The ticket taker has closed the theater for good; we just saw its last screening. Her dream has apparently ridden away. She opens her umbrella (there is, of course, a driving rainstorm in this Tsai film). She walks slowly towards the camera. And as she approaches the camera, the music begins to swell, as it always does for our heroes. Good Bye, Dragon Inn is heroic cinema, confronting issues and themes that are fundamental to why we watch movies.

(Ed. note: for more about Tsai, check out Darren Hughes’ excellent article about the filmmaker for Senses of Cinema. –Doug)