Sunday, October 22, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the sixth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

Sex and Lucia (Julio Medem)

Yet another movie that traffics in vaguely mystical coincidences and connections and overlapping fates, designed for audiences who believe both in crossword puzzles and in angels. This time round there’s more sex than usual in the air, but to me this only made the movie seem even more calculated. The protagonist is a young woman who falls madly in love with a novelist; the film cuts between the story of their relationship (first the sex, then the mooning around) and a few years later, when she flees to a remote island after she believes he’s been killed. Events are complicated further by the writer’s discovery of a 4-year-old daughter, fathered during a fling on that same remote island; while he gets to know the kid, he also writes a novel about it (you can probably see how this could get tangled). The movie is certainly accomplished, but it lacks the wide-eyed charm of Medem’s earlier Lovers of the Arctic Circle, and seems too much like a reworking of the earlier film rather than a project with its own distinct hear. The actors generally seem rather distant (maybe that’s meant to be wistful and seductive) and even though the film constantly generates possible subtexts, themes and so forth, you generally feel it’s too smart-alecky a project to deserve them.

The Sun behind the Moon (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

With its scene of young boys being taught Kalashnikovs along with the Koran, this film was an especially unsettling viewing experience for the Saturday following September 11. It’s built around an expatriate Afghani journalist trying to travel to the town of her birthplace to her maimed sister (who’s written a letter describing her intention of killing herself during the next eclipse). With only days to go, the journalist tries everything to complete the journey. The film contains many startling scenes and images: a Red Cross outpost where two young female doctors deal with dozens of local men, all on crutches after land-mine accidents and squabbling over scarce pairs of artificial limbs; the bright colors of a veiled wedding party trekking through the desert, seeming as much a threat as a celebration; an African-American doctor who to observe local custom can view his female patients only through a tiny peephole. Otherwise the landscape  (captured here in what often seems like geographically precise detail) is largely bleak except for bandits, soldiers and land mines. The film’s voice over emphasizes particularly the plight of women in such an environment, but there’s no one in the film who’s not a prisoner of poverty, landscape and custom. The film’s ending is startlingly grim and abrupt; a quality that in the circumstances provides further cause for troubled contemplation.

Lan Yu (Stanley Kwan)

Kwan’s film is mainly interesting just for the fact that it exists – an unabashed gay love story, Chinese style, encompassing full-frontal nudity (although I could say that much about every second movie I saw at this year’s festival) and relatively little angst. True, the story has one of the lovers putting the affair on hold while he enters into a brief marriage, and the film chronicles numerous encounters in hotel rooms and out-of-the-way locations. But the tone is deliberately calm and straightforward – it’s plainly a melodrama, but doesn’t aim to pull at handkerchiefs, and the characters develop just through common-sense aging rather than through great events or traumas. The film’s elliptical style, often skipping over big blocks of time, also keeps easy emotions and identifications at arm’s length. It may seem odd, after all this, to say the film seems a bit minor – yet it carries off its chosen project so successfully that you feel it could have accommodated greater ambition. Indeed, the long closing shot, taking an urban setting and rendering it into a flickering abstract shadow, an embodiment of memory, goes on for so long that you sense a reluctance to leave it at that.

Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuaron)

After a couple of Hollywood movies, Cuaron goes home to Mexico in style with this raunchy, good-time account of two sex-obsessed male teenagers on the road with an attractive (and older) female cousin. Cuaron doesn’t so much give in as dive into the fantasy aspects of this scenario for most of the way (I assume the reader needs no further hint of what those aspects might be). But he also uses a voice-over (the equivalent of the photo inserts in Run Lola Run) that alerts us to alternative possibilities, to secrets kept by the friends from each other, and to disappointment lurking around the corner. When this extends to telling us the fortune of a herd of pigs that the heroes run into on the beach, you suspect it may be going a little far. The movie’s final stretch is surprisingly explicit both in making plain the homoerotic subtext to much of their adventures, and in putting the brakes of real life on the good times. The film is also a knowing hymn to Mexico in all its sprawling inequity, corruption and lurking dangers. Although the elements I’ve described are the heart of the film’s artistic case for itself, it’s much more a romp than anything else – if you’re not a 17-year-old boy with a perpetual boner, you may find it a little wearying..

Training Day (Antoine Fuqua)

A rookie cop spends his first day on the narcotics division with a scarily charismatic veteran who challenges (to say the least) his sense of the compromise between effectively enforcing the law and adhering to it. The movie is always too dependent on Denzel Washington as the veteran – the first hour is entertaining and well done, but never seems like more than a one-man show with some half-hearted Serpico-type moralizing thrown in. In the second half, the problems with Washington’s approach become so extreme that any serious purpose flies out the window – and even by the standards of the genre, the film falls subject to absurd coincidence, compression and general tackiness. This is yet another movie, along with Hearts in Atlantis, that makes you wonder whether the film festival shouldn’t abandon any pretense that the gala section embodies quality cinema (albeit of a more populist variety). The sloppy plotting, cynical manipulation and general lightweight approach to serious issues is the exact antithesis of what you’d hope the festival might seek to promote.

No comments:

Post a Comment