Scouring the Margins in Toronto

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

TORONTO, ONTARIO — A primer for the New York Film Festival, an opportunity to savor leftovers from Cannes, and a catch-all of cinema from around the world, the Toronto International Film Festival is the fall’s most comprehensive cinephilic event, accessible to the public and famously humane to both critics and industry.

This year, the buzz focused on a previously unknown movie called “Death of a President” — a credible (and extremely well edited) faux-documentary that stages the fictitious assassination of George W. Bush. The thrust of the argument, cleverly presented, is that the President death would be co-opted — mistakenly, in the context of the film—for iconic status in the war on terror.

You’ll be seeing “Death of a President” soon enough. (Newmarket Films snapped up the rights in one of the festival’s fastest purchases.) The heart of the festival is, and always has been, the more marginal films, many of which will be hard to see in North America from here on out.

Most notable among these are “Dong” and “Still Life,” an interrelated pair of films by the Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke (“Platform,””The World”), both shot in the Yangtze River city of Fengjie, which is currently being demolished as part of a dam-building project. Originally, only “Dong” was on the festival’s schedule, but “Still Life” was quickly added to the program after it won the Golden Lion at Venice.

The arguments are still raging as to whether either film finds Mr. Jia in peak form, but “Still Life” seems to traffic in simpler dichotomies than Mr. Jia’s earlier films, positing simple parallels between building and demolition, marriage and divorce. More than a mere footnote, “Dong,” a documentary, profiles the artist Liu Xiaodong, who transmutes scenes of utmost squalor — first in Fengjie, then in Bangkok — into pretentiously mounted, vividly colorful, and thus entirely inappropriate paintings. In some ways even more stunning to look at than “Still Life” (both films were shot on digital video), “Dong” is notable for finding a real-life character as passive and self-serious as Mr. Jia’s fictional protagonists.

Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang received a similarly divided reception for “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone,” his most demanding film since “The River”(1997), and either a masterpiece or a step backward depending on your perspective. Filmed in Malaysia, the film stars Mr. Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-sheng as characters known simply as “homeless guy” and “paralyzed guy,” according to the end credits.

Employing his trademark static long takes, Mr. Tsai seems even more reluctant than usual to direct the viewer’s eye, and as a consequence the narrative is difficult to follow.The raunchy comedy of his last film, “The Wayward Cloud” (2005), surfaces only toward the end in one of the festival’s most indelible moments, a smog-covered sex scene in which the parties take turns breathing though a surgical mask.

One festival darling who was in peak form was Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo, whose “Woman on the Beach” represents his most emotionally complicated film to date. Tracing a series of overlapping love triangles, this elliptical movie demonstrates — in a riotously literal illustration — that all romances have ramifications extendiong beyond the perspectives of their two (or three or four or five) participants.

Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso’s “Fantasma” also focused on the theme of infinite regress. An hour-long trifle in which the star of Mr. Alonso’s “Los Muertos” attends a screening of his own film (indeed, the movie is intended as an homage to Mr. Tsai’s similar “Goodbye Dragon Inn”),”Fantasma” ultimately stumbles over the fine line between minimalism and laziness.

Always a haven for esoterica, the festival opened with the Inuktitut-language film “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen” — which, along with “Woman on the Beach,” will surface at the New York Film Festival in two weeks.Visually similar to “The Fast Runner” (2001) — the previous collaboration between director Zacharias Kunuk and cinematographer Norman Cohn — “Journals” places a stronger emphasis on documentary realism. Set in 1919 instead of the ancient past, it’s less exciting than the earlier film but equally hypnotic in its use of snow-covered landscapes.

An especially strong festival selection was “Taxidermia,” a Hungarian film by Gyorgi Palfi (“Hukkle”). Comprising three stories — involving a sexually deviant soldier, the marital woes of a competitive eater, and the overbearing parenting style of a morbidly obese competitive-eating coach — “Taxidermia” ends on an amusingly revolting set piece that suggests that any object, in the right hands, can be transformed into art.

The New York Sun

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