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Toronto International Film Festival - 2005 - September 11
"Asian Pleasures"
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      Poster Your correspondent’s self-esteem got taken down a peg today (Sunday), which was when it became clear that Fox Searchlight was picking up Thank You for Smoking for U.S. distribution.  You’ll remember I predicted yesterday (Saturday) that it was unlikely the movie would find a U.S. distributor.


     Today’s outstanding feature was Three Times (Zhuihaode Shiguang), the latest from the great Taiwanese filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-hsien.  As always, the director searches out the subtlest expressions of passion in a society where tradition and contemporary circumstances militate against it.

     The movie is divided into three, separate 45-minute episodes, each starring the gorgeous Shu Qi and the stalwart Chang Chen as either lovers or would-be lovers.  In the first episode, set in 1966 and entitled “A Time for Love,” Shu Qi plays May, an employee of a small, one-table pool parlor in a working-class district.  Chang is a young habitué of the place, whose attention is first drawn to another young woman but who, by the time he’s called up for military service, has quietly fallen for the already interested May.

     The tale abounds in images of separation and yearning.  The tugboats and other small craft that take May and the nascent soldier (though we never see him in uniform) back and forth across a harbor, take on a symbolic role of romantic conveyance that far surpasses their utilitarian aspects.

     The most fulsome episode is the second, ironically entitled “A Time for Freedom,” and is set in 1911, when Taiwan was attempting to throw off Japanese rule.  Chang plays a well-to-do political activist who keeps a lover (Shu) at what appears to be a high-class, nearly sumptuous bordello.

     The concept of a rich man who works for political freedom while both keeping and emotionally neglecting a lover sounds well-worn – and is, to be sure.  But Hou reinvigorates the set-up with exquisitely subtle depictions of Shu’s character’s suppressed, but just barely surfacing, disappointments and hopes.  A subplot about another prostitute who is sold to a rich, married man as a concubine (a step up in class) with Chang’s character’s help, becomes a miniature epic of crossed-up principles and passion.

     Because it is set in 1911, Hou shoots this sequence without sound; in silent film style, the dialogue is presented on inter-titles.  He allows one exception, though: Any music played by a character is heard “live.”  The strategy of allowing a musical voice to penetrate the soundtrack is, yet again, right on the money.  At the same time, Hou doesn’t shoot in an antiquated silent style, but makes full use of long lenses and pans, which both unite and signify the distance between the two fractured lovers.

     The last sequence, set in 2005 and called “A Time for Youth,” doesn’t measure up to the first two episodes.  As an epileptic rock singer who is breaking up with her female lover in order to further an affair with a motorcyclist (Chang), Shu doesn’t get much beyond spaced-out histrionics.  Hou, who began is career with heartbreaking tales of modern love in Taiwan, seems a bit uncertain over tone and style, and settles for some routine responses.  Still, seen as a freestanding short, who knows how it would play, freed of the burden of its preceding mini-masterpieces?

     Asia stayed on the viewing schedule with Duelist, a raucous Korean period swordplay-detective story-romance-comedy directed by Lee Myung-se.  Heavily influenced by anime, but also displaying a wild ingenuity all of its own, the movie is a regretful example of a feature that runs out of gas.  If its last 80 minutes had been anything like its first 30, it would have been a pop sensation.  Unfortunately...

     Feisty, adorable Ahn Sung-ki – a sneer on her cute face, her sleeves rolled up, and ever on the lookout for a fight – stars as Namsoon, a government detective on the trail of counterfeiters.  The criminals are clearly out for more than personal gain; the flood of fake money is so overwhelming, it’s clear people in high places are trying to undermine the throne.

     Namsoon’s immediate concern is a black-clad, nameless swordsman (Gang Dong-won) who, with his bangs and rooster-cut looks like he just stepped out of an anime.  While the swordsman is clearly associated with the villains, and he and Namsoon have some near-deadly clashes, the two – wait for it – somehow fall in love over the pointed side of their blades.

     The opening scene takes place in a crowded marketplace where a circus has just opened and so is even more crowded than usual.  Namsoon is playing a freckled liquor-dispenser as she seeks out the counterfeit coins.  But the swordsman turns up, chaos erupts, and the whole marketplace goes into an uproar, with Namsoon and her colleagues on the heels of whatever wrongdoers they can find.  Ahn’s cutting is terrific, reminiscent of Tsui Hark’s.  And, as he goes on, the director introduces all sorts of visual devices (dissolving stills in the middle of action, fast-motion, etc.) that manage to be both exciting and funny.  But, all too soon, the tricks overmatch the material; Ahn even goes on to overwork slow-motion, which can be deadly dull.  But, that opening, ah that opening... One of the outright disappointments of the festival was Vers le Sud (Heading South), the new feature from French director Laurent Cantet.  The film is especially disappointing because his previous successes (Les Sanguinaires, L’Emploi du temps) had depended on the meticulous observation of social impacts on individual temperaments.  This film, about three American women who, sometime in the late 1970s, spend their summers dallying with gigolos  at a Haitian resort, relies on broad stereotypes and bald (one might say shameless) dramatic contrivances.  It’s as fake as fake can be.

     Even the line-up sounds unreal.  Charlotte Rampling is the imperious, frankly mercenary cold fish from Boston; Karen Young is the Southerner with romantic illusions; and Louise Portal is a French-Canadian who, despite being overweight (a fault Cantet filters through Rampling’s character, but which he seems to share), turns out to be wise.

     Rampling and Young vie for a particular beach boy, played by Ménothy Cesar.  They go through expected bitcheries and revelations of deep hurts (make that “deep hurts”) while unknown to them, their love object becomes unwillingly involved in a life-threatening situation away from the women’s cozy resort.

     It’s certainly possible to overcome hackneyed set-ups and devise a truly honest drama (see Hou Hsiao-hsien above).  But Cantet seems committed to his conceits as if they were actual insights.  Well, he’ll come back with his next one, let’s hope.

     Finally, in the evening came the new film from Takeshi Kitano, Takeshis’.  A surreal, self-aware celebration/dissection of the filmmaker and media personality’s own narcissism, the movie is both flabbergasting and obscure.

     It pays to know – and hardly Americans, including Kitano fans, know it – that aside from being a filmmaker, Kitano, in his comedian persona as “Beat” Takeshi, has been the star of innumerable Japanese TV shows.  In the process, he’s picked up a bizarre entourage of supporting players (a pair of 300-kilo comics, an unrelentingly hostile woman, inter alia) some or all of whom play multiple characters in this movie.  Moreover, in recognition of his standing as a director-star of gangster movies, Takeshi loads the film with incredible bloodshed, but despite being “killed,” a performer may turn up in the next scene, bloodied but somehow alive (perhaps to be killed again).

     Amid the display of dancing (an incredible tap-dancing trio, an equally amazing boy who performs traditional dance as a woman), gunplay, and broad slapstick, there is something of a plot.  Aside from appearing as himself as the egotistical, self-indulgent “Beat,” Kitano also plays his own lookalike, a convenience store clerk who stoically tries out for movie and TV parts he almost never gets.

     This isn’t necessarily engaging.  On my left, one of my companions kept squirming in his seat and checking his watch.  On my right, another colleague was engrossed in the increasingly bizarre goings on.  I have to admit I was sometimes more puzzled than engaged by the film, but, given Kitano’s sheer filmmaking talent, I’d have to lean to the right on this one.

Henry Sheehan
September, 2005
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