TIFF ’06 Diary #4

This should wrap up my quick takes on the films I watched at the Toronto International Film Festival. I fully intend to revisit several of these films at length in the future.

One of the highlights of the Los Angeles Film Festival this summer was the revival screening of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness (2002), a beautifully elliptical film about a teenager drifting through a coastal Mauritanian town and encountering various local inhabitants. What I most appreciated about the film was its silence and ambiguity; what I most appreciate about Bamako, Sissako’s newest film, is its passionate voice. Through a sophisticated premise involving an open air trial (consisting of real life lawyers and judges) of the World Bank and IMF, Sissako invests the film with a rising sense of indignation and consequence. Although the rhetoric of some of the witnesses and lawyers borders on rote sloganeering, the importance of the oral tradition to African society can’t be overemphasized, and the speeches culminate in a fiery protest song delivered by an elderly man that is left untranslated, but firmly resonates through sheer conviction alone. Another highlight is Sissako’s satire of transnational entertainments that use third world countries as exotic backdrops: the imagined Death in Timbutktu clip (starring Danny Glover and Elia Suleiman) is a hilarious rebuke of Hollywood hegemony.

Times and Winds

In addition to Hamaca Paraguaya, my favorite discovery of the festival was this film, directed by Turkish filmmaker Reha Erdem (who studied in Paris); friends tell me his previous Oh Moon (1989), Run for Money (1999), and Korkuyorum Anne (2004) are also well worth seeing, and if the visual elegance and emotional potency of this film are any indication, I’m sure they’re right.

Times and Winds is set in a small Turkish mountain village on the sea, and the lives of the villagers are visually captured in stunning images that oscillate between tranquil stillness and dramatic movement (steadicams and helicopter shots are unexpectedly and creatively employed). The plot (elegantly structured around the five daily Muslim prayers) centers around three adolescents who face emotional difficulties: misunderstanding and severe parents, the mysteries of love and sexuality, and increasing responsibilities in the adult world. But the film develops poetically; it isn’t a point-by-point narrative so much as a continuing evolution of character and perspective. Erdem understands this milieu, and his empathy for the struggles of the youth in light of generations-old familial dysfunction is honest and deeply felt. (I was partially reminded of Terence Davies’ formally aggressive ruminations on youthful pain and memory.) Bolstered by a lush, dramatic score by Arvo P‰rt, the film is an engrossing look at the emotional terrain of youth, and its vivid setting and sublime compositions give it a timeless, magisterial resonance. Definitely a filmmaker to watch.

Woman on the Beach

Having seen all of Hong Sang-soo’s work except for his debut (The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well), I was prepared for this film’s clever, self-referential structure, layers of Rohmerian coincidence and intrigue, and numerous scenes of lovemaking and inebriation. What I didn’t expect was its whimsical spin on these elements and its almost demure restraint; I’m tempted to describe the film as Hong’s most charming and warm work to date, but I hasten to emphasize the psychological depth and tragic notes beneath its surface.

By sheer coincidence, it’s also the only film of the festival I saw twice, due to an unexpected opening in my schedule. But I was completely won over by the film’s infectious spirit and teasing conundrums, and leaped at the opportunity to revisit it.

An art film director vacations on Shinduri beach, accompanied by an assistant collaborator and his girlfriend, and a romantic triangle soon forms. Rather than a tug-of-war between personalities, however, Hong is interested in exploring a theme he initiated with A Tale of Cinema–the ideals and expectations we place upon people and our genuine inability to cope when they are trespassed.

As in his previous film, Hong utilizes a zoom lens, which–like established personalities–sometimes makes unexpected movements in an otherwise static routine. (Each of his stationary shots are carefully framed with an auteur’s eye.) In many of Hong’s films, relationships come across as fatalistic compromises, but this film celebrates the potential wisdom and joy to be found in even short-lived connections, and it’s an observant delight from beginning to end.

Khadak (The Colour of Water)

About halfway through the festival, it occurred to me that I only had tickets for established auteur works or films that had strong word-of-mouth, so I decided to take a couple chances on unknowns; this film was a shot in the dark, and it proved to be a very good choice. Apparently, it just won the Lion of the Future award (best first feature) at Venice, and it’s such a bold and original work invoking Mongolian myth, culture, and politics, I hope it continues to garner accolades.

Made by Belgian documentary filmmakers, it’s a visually stunning and expressionistic work that tells the story of a young shepherd who has to vacate plague-ridden steppes with his mother and grandfather and emigrate to a mining town; the radical change in lifestyle prompts a rebellious spirit in the youth intensified by his epileptic and/or shamanistic experiences that ultimately provokes a revolution. The film was shot on location, beautifully capturing the vast, frigid, landscape and monumental, communist architecture, following its enigmatic characters and situations with equal commitment to reality and fantasy.

Earlier this year, I saw another film set in Mongolia, Season of the Horse, that dramatized the plight of nomads forced to relocate to urban areas due to increasing commercialization of the land, and while it, too, captured the beauty of the landscape, its structure and aesthetic conceptions were decidedly less ambitious than this. Khadak tells an unabashedly Mongolian story and makes little concessions to Western narrative conventions; ultimately it’s much more effective because of it.

Colossal Youth

Pedro Costa’s film was one of the most absorbing and memorable films of the festival, but it’s also the finale to a trilogy (beautifully detailed by James Quandt in the latest issue of Artforum) about a Lisbon shantytown whose previous installments I’ve yet to see, Ossos (1997) and In Vanda’s Room (2000). As a result of this (and the fact that the final reel was mistakenly subtitled in French), I felt perpetually one step behind the film, but its soulful beauty, vividly naturalistic performances, and complex juxtapositions make it the TIFF film I’m most eager to see again. (I hope to receive the DVD of Ossos next week, so save this space.)

I’ll close my TIFF coverage by noting two genuine disappointments, Day Night Day Night and Red Road. Both films demonstrated adept handheld camerawork (almost certainly inspired by the Dardennes) that balanced seemingly random details with tantalizing hints and encroaching documentary realism (a brief shot in Red Road of the reflection of a lava lamp in a window overlooking a city is startling in its beauty), but both films use their suspense in manipulative ways I’m not convinced have anything to offer beyond their own immediate pleasures. Day Night Day Night has much in common with Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist (1998), including its existential rumination on the obsessional preparations of a would-be suicide bomber. Frustratingly, the film is strictly focused on its plot–there are no psychological complexities or political nuance, for example–and ultimately, it’s difficult not to feel subjected to an empty exercise in style. Red Road is being touted as the best film from the UK in years, but it seems equally schematic despite the naturalistic energy it channels into its story of another obsessed and enigmatic protagonist. I’m hesitant to divulge much about the plot since the vast bulk of the film largely seeks to obscure its central drama. Unfortunately, when the crisis is finally revealed, the plot seems both prosaic and distracting from the film’s ultimate thematic concerns; it then tries to realign the film in the last twenty minutes, causing a bizarre shift in tone and a resolution that seems far too hastened. This, despite several strong performances and admittedly engrossing camerawork.

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