Sunday, May 29, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Ten

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

Low-Life (Im Kwon-taek)
According to the Internet Movie Database, South Korean director Im has made 99 films, of which I’d seen exactly one – Chunhyang, made in 2000. It’s a great movie – a tale of mythic power, presented with great emotional specificity, carrying a strong political undercurrent. Low-Life could hardly be more different. It’s about the life and time of South Korea from the 50’s to the 70’s, through the eyes of a hoodlum who claws his way up the chain of corruption to superficial respectability – including along the way a bizarre and unsuccessful detour into the potboiler end of the movie business (these sequences, if one knew Im’s career better, are probably full of in-jokes). The film hurtles from one thing to the next, periodically flashing dates up on the screen, cramming in a lot of vestigial history (such as the corrupting influence of the contract-bidding process overseen by the CIA) and engineering some forced juxtapositions (his wife gives birth to their son right as the army takes over in 1961, that kind of thing) but seldom conveying a very substantial sense of anything (for an epic of sorts, it feels oddly claustrophobic). It looks deliberately garish, as though trying to convey the tabloid punchiness of a Samuel Fuller. And it doesn’t end as much as just run out of steam.

The film conveys a grimly judgmental attitude to South Korea’s history, but its analytical prowess pretty much begins and ends with the parallel between government and organized crime. Rather disappointingly, it ends up as one of those festival movies which is anthropologically interesting just by its nature, but which doesn’t make a very compelling aesthetic case for itself. One also suspects this movie gives a better sense of the quality of Im’s other 98 movies than Chunhyang did – still, it’d be good to extend the sample a little further.

Eros (Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh, Michelangelo Antonioni)
Depending when you ask me, Antonioni may be my favourite director. I’ve seen The Passenger more than almost any other film (currently unreleased on DVD, it’s number one on my wish list). When I discovered him I was eighteen or so and no doubt susceptible to stylish alienation, so perhaps the impact of something like L’Avventura diminishes slightly with time. But Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point explore the possibilities of their milieu with immense, cultivated intelligence, and The Passenger is an astonishing fusion of form and theme – a film that seems to transcend normal limitations. Antonioni is now over 90, and suffered a stroke over ten years ago that seriously hampered his ability to communicate – even so, his 1995 film Beyond The Clouds contained moments of great eloquence. And now he’s contributed a segment to the three-part film Eros.

His segment, The Dangerous Thread Of Things, is a real throwback. Three beautiful characters lounge around in beautiful landscapes, frequently naked, voicing carefully elliptical dialogue. There’s no pretense of naturalism here – this is plainly one of Antonioni’s classic enigmas, with a mysterious criss-crossing reminiscent at times of Blow-Up (although much more stately, and without anything of that film’s temporal and geographical specificity). The film would probably strike the uninitiated as being vaguely absurd, but to an Antonioni fan it’s a welcome postscript – by far the most beautiful episode of Eros, showing an undiminished belief both in eroticism itself and in its inadequacy as a response to our deep-rooted insecurities.

One of the great omissions of this year’s festival was Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, which received much praise (and quite a bit of bewilderment) at Cannes this year. After In The Mood For Love, Wong is becoming a masterful melodramatist of enormous scope, and 2046 reportedly continues this evolution. His episode of Eros, called The Hand, is just a minor mood piece though, about a young tailor’s love for an older prostitute (played by Gong Li); it’s atmospheric, but almost could have been constructed out of outtakes from In The Mood For Love.

The third director, Soderbergh, is in danger of executing a woeful career symmetry – the highs of Erin Brockovich and Traffic recently followed by Solaris and Fast Forward, both somewhat interesting but ultimately as forgettable as the product of Soderbergh’s ten fallow years after Sex, Lies & Videotape. The forthcoming Ocean’s Twelve may help him out commercially, although I’ve yet to meet anyone who liked Ocean’s Eleven very much. He’s a director of honest ambition and considerable intelligence, but his big ideas are all purely cinematic – cool cinematography colour schemes (Traffic), shots with ample ‘How did they do that’ quality (the car accident near the start of Erin), imaginative casting (The Limey), or just entire movies that no one else would think to do (Fast Forward). But I can't think of a moment in his films that resonated for long after the lights went up. His frequent homages to Hollywood (Erin seems designed as the ultimate star vehicle; Ocean’s Eleven is the ultimate galaxy of celebs; Ocean’s Twelve presumably will be the ultimate unnecessary sequel) just make his commentaries on any other subject seem even less compelling.

His episode of Eros, Equilibrium, is a curio set in the 50’s, about an advertising man (Robert Downey Jr.) who sees a shrink (Alan Arkin) for help with his creative dry spell and a recurring erotic dream. It’s well staged, and provides the only comedy of the three segments, but it adds up to very little, and the ‘eros’ content is peripheral. Overall, Eros has no coherence, and is just another entry in a long history of failed compilation films, but Antonioni’s amazing and presumably last testament gives it a place in movie history. The final image of his segment, and of the film as a whole, justifies the entire project.

Sideways (Alexander Payne)
I liked Payne’s film, now in commercial release, although I doubt I liked it as much as the critical consensus, which has been quite blissful. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play two buddies spending a week in California wine country before the latter’s wedding. Giamatti is a middle-school teacher, recently failed both at writing and marriage, who displaces his self-loathing into wine connoisseurship – his detection of “passion fruit” and “Edam cheese” in the bouquet seems like an expression of the mastery he lacks over more prosaic life matters. Church just wants to get laid; he’s in perpetual, bargain basement but accomplished pick-up mode. They hook up with two local women played by Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen, and the movie’s pleasant late-summer feel admits an increasingly clear look at the men’s lurking sediment.

The movie is always thoughtful, but I found it rather too easy to take, bearing aromas not so much of the maturing oak barrel as of the sitcom-office water cooler. OK, I know that was lame, but the film so over-ferments its wine analogies that The Grapes Of Wrath plays on TV in one scene. Anyway, for all its articulacy and introspection, I didn't come away from the film with many new ideas into this complex fermentation we call life. Payne’s best film still seems to me, by a mile, to be the scintillating Election, a construction of such graceful metaphorical and allusive complexity I can’t imagine anyone taking cheap shots at it.

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