Thursday, September 11, 2008

Toronto Report 1: Japan

Before I even saw a movie, Toronto felt different this year. The city is in the midst of a spectacular construction boom. You can barely walk a block downtown without passing a construction site where a condo complex of a couple dozen stories is going up. A local told me that people were buying units that weren't even built yet, then flipping them for a profit the next day. Canada, have you learned nothing from our little mortgage crisis down here in the States? Or, is this a sign that global big money no longer sees the US as a good bet, and is moving on to our more stable neighbor to the north?

While Toronto the city rises to heights that threaten to blot out the sun, Toronto the festival remains what it has always been: many things to many people. It is big enough to accommodate celebrity-watchers, critics checking out the big fall releases, distributors looking for titles to acquire, and people like me, specialists in some particular aspect of world cinema.

Fate decreed that my schedule was somewhat Japan-heavy this time around, which turned out to be a bit of good fortune because the Japanese films were stronger than I remember them being in years. I and just about everyone else who saw it were smitten with Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest film, Still Walking, in which tensions, buried resentments, and secrets emerge during a family gathering. Kore-eda's strength is in his subtlety. The action unfolds over roughly 24 hours, and at a pace that allows for the most dramatic revelations to emerge as they would in life - naturally, through the rhythms of family interaction. Though many drew comparisons to Ozu, Kore-eda, in the q&a after the public screening, remarked that Naruse was more on his mind when he was making it, which makes sense considering the bitter edge that the film retains beneath its considerable good humor.

Kore-eda wasn't the only famous Japanese auteur with a film in the festival. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known for his nightmarish horror movies, and Tokyo Sonata has some of the same qualities. But in this case, the nightmare is the everyday: losing your job and hiding it from your family; having a talent that no one acknowledges; being so dissatisfied that you wish you could start over again. Kurosawa is a consumate dramatist. There is a moment, late in the film, when you feel things are dragging down, at which point he throws in an ingenious plot twist that surges the thing through the final stretch.

In Japanese cinema, there may be no bigger name than Takeshi Kitano, try as he might to ruin his own reputation. Titled after one of Zeno's paradoxes, Achilles and the Tortoise is the third in his trilogy of films celebrating his own artistic self-destruction. In the first, Takeshis', he focussed on his failure as an actor by playing a dual role, one of which is a younger, better version of himself. In Glory to the Filmmaker he exposes his inability to come up with ideas by putting a compendium of failed ideas onscreen. Although he does paint in real life, the character he plays in Achilles feels more overtly fictional than those in the previous films. My informal poll revealled a divide between those who like the first half, which depicts the hero's rough childhood, or the second, which chronicles his adult career as a failed artist desperately chasing every modern art trend that comes along. How does it end? Let's just say that Kitano is above all a great sentimentalist, and when we find out the reason for the film's title, it becomes one his more satisfyingly hokey endings.

I have often lamented that films like these rarely make it beyond the festival circuit and onto American movie screens. Lacking overt thrills, shocks or a readymade genre peg, even films by acknowledged masters such as Kore-eda, Kurosawa and Kitano may not be picked up for distribution. Which doesn't bode well for Ryosuke Hashiguchi, who is relatively unknown in our region, but who brought to Toronto yet another brilliant Japanese film, All Around Us. Covering about a decade in the life of a married couple, its a film in which what happens during the ellipses is as important as what we see onscreen, and its depiction of love, grief, sadness and ultimately acceptance is every bit as powerful as Kore-eda's.

Next up: Korea.

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