(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2006)
This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.
Dong (Jia Zhang-ke)
Jia is on course to become one of the preeminent living directors. The World was one of the revelations of two years ago, and he just won the top prize at Venice for a new film Still Life. This was slipped into the Toronto festival at the eleventh hour, after the programme book was printed, and I didn’t get to see it – but I did see Jia’s other new work, the hour-long documentary Dong. This follows Chinese artist Liu Xiao-dong on two trips, one to the rural Three Gorges area, where he paints local workers in their environment, and then to Bangkok, to paint a group of scantily dressed young women (in a composition called “Hot Bed”). He says that being an artist is “more trouble than most down to earth jobs,” but of course the privileged access that generally allows him to capture his subjects without assuming any responsibility for them, moral or otherwise, suggests otherwise. Both sequences challenge the artist’s detachment though: the first by pulling him into the orbit of a grieving family when one of the men is killed; the second merely by showing and following these women without specifying their stories. The intersection of creative talents and settings allows some eternal questions about art to be posed again quite bracingly, and the film is beautifully presented. Still, if one was going to see one Jia film at the festival, I expect this was the wrong one to choose.
I am the Other Woman (Margarethe von Trotta)
Von Trotta, as the programme book puts it, is a “pioneer of woman’s cinema,” and one of the first foreign films I ever saw in a theatre was her Friends And Husbands. Her last few pictures have been stodgy historical dramas, but here’s a welcome change of pace: I am the Other Woman is a periodically kinky psychological thriller. A businessman encounters a whore in a hotel bar and sleeps with her; the next day he meets a staid lawyer, and it’s the same woman, but she doesn’t remember. Or is she lying? He plunges headfirst into an obsession, sharing all the details with his girlfriend, and then he meets the woman’s monstrous, manipulative father and his subservient household, and the plot thickens. The movie is highly reminiscent of, but nowhere near as acute as, Claude Chabrol’s work from the Ten Days’ Wonder era (there’s a Chabrol film playing on TV in one scene I believe), although the core set-up – with a man drawn into the orbit of a damaged woman - also has distinct similarities with Hitchcock’s Marnie. The weaker status of the male protagonist, compared to Sean Connery’s character in Marnie, might constitute von Trotta’s “feminist” angle on the genre, but that doesn’t amount to very much. Overall the film provides adequate ambiguity and intrigue, but only limited substance.
Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)
This is only Herzog’s second fiction film in the last twenty years, although he’s been making documentaries at a fast and furious pace. Some of them are terrific, but how could the maker of Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo be done with spinning yarns? Rescue Dawn had a troubled (i.e. for Herzog, predictable) production history, with the crew reportedly questioning his methods, but it’s pleasing to report that the director was right. This is the concentrated true-life narrative of a pilot shot down over Laos in 1965, captured and tortured and held prisoner, always planning escape; Christian Bale, who is excellent, appears in every scene. Herzog has told this story before, in his documentary Little Dieter Needs toFly, and is clearly enthralled by the man’s refusal to yield. It finds expression here in a film of immense physicality – it’s at its most gripping when the screen crackles with the sensation of dense brush or mudslides or sheer fatigue and disgust, and you get the sense of a camera crew suffering almost as much as the protagonist. The framing sequences have an equally astute sense of period. It doesn’t have the spiraling grandeur of some of Herzog’s earlier fictions, but it’s completely enveloping on its own terms.
The Bubble (Eytan Fox)
Fox’s recent Walk on Water, built around a dissatisfied Mossad agent on a mission to kill an aging Nazi, was a real melting pot of ideas, inevitably fascinating – probably one of those movies where the flaws serve to make it more resonant and intriguing. The bubble bursts the other way with Fox’s new film though. The title is a commentary on fashionable young Israelis who imagine they can live a largely apolitical life, and the film’s pleasant, sexy first half is appropriately airy. Its centre evokes a gay Romeo and Juliet – he’s Israeli, he’s Palestinian – and this leads to some challenging twists as realism floods into the film’s latter half. But the film never acquires real gravity – for example, its treatment of what motivates suicide bombers is astonishingly sketchy (compare the recent Paradise Now for instance), and even at its most tragic, it frequently skirts back for some cheap quip or easy set-up. You get the feeling that Fox overvalues the revelatory nature of what he’s put together here, starting with the very obviousness of that title metaphor. Compared to the Festival’s more complex works, The Bubble is merely fluff.
Strike (Volker Schlondorff)
Schlondorff has had an amazing, varied career – starting in Germany with somewhat radical, low-budget films, then through a glossy art house phase after winning an Oscar for The Tin Drum, to the nutty nadir of the Woody Harrelson concoction Palmetto. Now he’s back in Germany and again immersed in history and politics. Strike is a concentrated piece of Polish “witness to history” storytelling, covering twenty years in a Gdansk factory worker’s evolution from unschooled, unquestioning “heroine of labour” to early leader of the Solidarity movement. Early on, she’s presented as borderline comic in her zeal, and the movie seems almost naïve in its potency (in the same way that Ken Loach’s work sometimes does), but as it goes on you see it as a heightened portrayal of the mess of human experience from which pivotal figures are formed. The film is brassily photographed, assaulting our senses with weathered faces, the grind of heavy machinery, personal gains and reversals, and hissable exposes of corruption and complacency. Ultimately it’s a work of commemoration, perhaps more interesting as history than as cinema, but there’s unquestionably a place for such filmmaking, and Schlondorff sure feels at home here. Maybe the restless veteran has it figured out at last.