What Time Is It There?

Taking cinema as seriously as possible means, for me, acknowledging that films can be at the vanguard, the leading edge of our vision and sensibility. Films can picture for us things we’ve never thought to see before; they can envisage new worlds of possibility, or new possibilities inherent in what we take for granted. Films can make the familiar strange, and can bring the strange into focus, working the cultural and the political together in ways that reshape each one. It is at world cinema’s major celebrations, the great international film festivals of Cannes, Venice, and Toronto that one hopes to see this creative ferment in action.

Toronto in 2001, then, was a particularly representative place for cinema as it exists at the beginning of the century. The TIFF tries, quite self-consciously, to provide a hybrid space for film culture. It promotes itself as a market for film, on the edge of, but not quite inside, the hegemony of American Hollywood. And it also represents itself as a festival of international cinematic excellence, featuring, this year, 326 films from 54 countries, over half of them in languages other than English. A series of high-profile evening “galas”, dominated by Hollywood would-be prestige product, uses the TIFF as a launch pad for Oscar campaigns, gains the lion’s share of media coverage, and sometimes, of the Festival’s attention and priority. But that’s not the whole story. If you look at what the various TIFF programmers have lined up outside of the hyped-up world of media-saturation coverage, Hollywood star sightings, and frenzied industry buyers, you can construct almost any sort of personal film festival you want.

My very own TIFF consisted of new works from East Asia: China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. Despite some ominous signs that Toronto’s focus on East Asian cinema has been slackening in the last few years, there were plenty of challenging films to see. Though TIFF can’t match the breadth and depth of the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Asian film programming (which easily offers what must be the best selection of new Asian films outside of Asia every year), it offered 28 East Asian features and shorts: two from Hong Kong, four from mainland China, four from Taiwan, twelve from Japan, four from South Korea, and one each from Thailand and Singapore. I’ll discuss some highlights from this list below.

Although TIFF 2001 didn’t have the array of new Chinese masterpieces that marked TIFF 2000 (In the Mood for Love/Huayang nianhua [Wong Kar-wai, 2000], Platform/Zhantai [Jia Zhangke, 2000], Yi Yi [Edward Yang, 2000]), this year’s line-up was not at all disappointing. The standout among new filmmakers was Wang Chao, from Mainland China. His independent, underground first feature The Orphan of Anyang/Anyang de guer (2001) – made without the authorisation of the Film Bureau hence unexhibitable in China – is a major new work. Orphan shows the story of a poor unemployed urban worker (Dagang), a prostitute (Yanli), her baby, and her gangster client (Boss Side). When Yanli offers Dagang a monthly stipend to take care of the baby, she can’t predict that the three of them will start to construct a family of their own. This works until Boss Side, urgently in need of an heir, intervenes to reclaim “his” child. Not far from the stylistic world of Jia Zhangke’s Plaform and Xiao Wu (1998), the film is shot with a rigorously controlled camera that keeps its distance, in long takes, setting off its subjects against the street noise and urban flow of a mid-sized Chinese city. Wang Chao here creates a key text of Chinese metropolitan cinema that, with exquisite care and not without a certain compassionate humour, pictures its characters trapped in a new disorienting urbanism. But the film suggests a way out, just as it seems that social pressures and structures of authority converge to seal the characters’ fates. Yanli experiences an unforgettable vision: a transfiguring and virtually liberating act of self-imagination, a description which, as it happens, nicely describes Orphan of Anyang itself. [for the author’s full review of Orphan in Cinema Scope click here -Ed]

Beijing Bicycle

Two Chinese films at Toronto suggest that the terms “independent” and “underground”, used in connection with Mainland Chinese cinema are beginning to blur in quite interesting and useful ways. Beijing Bicycle/Shiqisui de danche (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001), for example, marks long-time underground/indie stalwart Wang Xiaoshuai’s smooth entry into the mainstream (his previous feature, So Close To Paradise/Biandan guniang [1996/1999] tried to straddle the divide and disappeared into censorship limbo for years, as a result). Beijing Bicycle, a relatively tame tale about the struggles between two Beijing boys, one middle class, the other a poor economic migrant, shows a new polish, a new respectability, even a new caution. What is involved is a renegotiation of the balances previously operative in Wang’s (and other sixth generation directors’) “unapproved” work, so that personal idiosyncrasy, opacity, and a hard-edged critical realism accompanied by a certain stylistic grittiness have yielded to a greater emphasis on craft, audience comprehension, and understated engagement with social issues. What’s more, Wang has crafted a film commodity that Western investors also found to be ready-to-consume: Beijing Bicycle was rewarded with a Sony Pictures Classics distribution deal. Quitting/Zuotian (Zhang Yang, 2001) blurs the boundaries between underground and mainstream in more interesting ways. A true story of a popular actor’s struggle with drug addiction in ’90s Beijing, re-enacted by all of the principals involved, the film mirrors the technique and subject of Zhang Yuan’s Sons/Erzi (1996) from the 1996 underground. But Quitting functions as a vector, or if you will a conveyer belt transporting material into the daylight of official approval (or at least toleration) and domestic releasability, material that very recently would have had it banned. Zhang Yang takes certain carefully judged risks, and by getting away with the bulk of them, will probably open up space available for other Chinese filmmakers who want Chinese audiences to see their new films. Not surprisingly, Quitting was also picked up by Sony Pictures Classics.

Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwanese masters new and old, each had films at Toronto that play diametrically opposed roles in their respective careers. What Time Is It There?/Ni neibian jidian (Tsai Ming-liang, 2001) is a perfectly constructed summation of Tsai’s major themes. Hou’s Millennium Mambo/Tianxi manbo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001), like his last film, Flowers of Shanghai/Hai shang hua (1998), strikes out in yet another new direction. Tsai’s film turned out to be something of a crowd pleaser at Toronto, which seems rather improbable for this most rigorously minimal of Chinese directors. Tsai favours very long takes (sequence shots, for the most part) and an utterly immobile camera that stays far away from his actors. He uses no musical soundtrack, and in fact keeps large swaths of his films virtually silent, except for ambient noise. But his droll-to-absurd sense of humour, which lurked just under the surface of his earlier films, is here allowed to move to the foreground. Tsai manages to find humour in the visual expression of what should be painful alienated absences.

What Time Is It There?, set in Taipei and Paris, is about a dead father (Miao Tien), a dysfunctional, grieving mother (Lu Yi-ching) and her son, the director’s ever-present muse Lee Kang-sheng, who here displays an absolutely assured sense of physical presence allied to superb comic timing. He sells his watch to a woman whom he meets twice and can’t seem to forget (Chen Shiang-chyi). Her subsequent trip to Paris, from where she seems to try to call him, is seeped in almost unremitting loneliness, punctuated by a failed romantic encounter with a fellow woman traveller in a hotel room. But into these voids, bereft of human connection or meaningful action, Tsai infiltrates inspired comic variations on his themes of displaced time, pain, and hunger. Lee develops a mania for setting every timepiece in Taipei he can find, including extremely large public clocks, to Paris time; his giant white pet fish almost steals the film with a deadpan cameo. What Tsai seems to be after, here, is a dialectical contest (a life and death struggle, really) over the nature of time: is it fatalistic, unyielding, and linear, or circular, cyclical, life-giving? It’s a measure of Tsai’s changed worldview, no longer as unremittingly bleak as his previous films bore witness, that the latter, more Buddhist-influenced position wins the argument, in a visual pun cum coup de théâtre that closes the film on an unforgettably affirmative note. The Hole/Dong (Tsai Ming-liang, 1998) may be more formally inventive, and The River/He liu (Tsai Ming-liang, 1997) more gut-wrenchingly powerful, but in Time, Tsai has crafted a crystalline formal and symbolic structure that keeps the disparate elements of his world in perfect proportion: it’s his most beautifully realized film since Vive l’amour/Aiqing wansui (Tsai Ming-liang, 1994).

What is it about Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millenium Mambo that has provoked many of the most devoted Hou-ites to greet it with scepticism, if not outright disappointment? Although it displays clear ruptures with Hou’s previous methods of filmmaking, there are also continuities that firmly anchor the film in his formidable body of work, perhaps the most impressive of any filmmaker now working today. Mambo is an urban youth film, set in the bars, clubs, and dingy apartments of contemporary Taipei. Vicky (played by the gifted young Shu Qi, in her finest performance to date), stuck in an empty relationship with a morose and drug-addicted boyfriend Hao-hao (the morose and wooden Tuan Chun-hao), does drugs, goes dancing, and drifts between clubs. She meets Jack (Jack Gao, as charismatic as usual, but calmer and warmer here), an older, gentle gangster who offers her a measure of protection, then draws her to Japan, towards an uncertain future. Hou’s last urban youth picture, Daughter of the Nile/Niluohe nüer (1987), also met with a lack of critical enthusiasm. Perhaps certain viewers need a certain kind of Hou, the master craftsman who invents a poetics of history for Taiwan and China, set in a finely detailed past that serves, for them, as a fertile ground for a nostalgia of lost place and time.

Contemporary Hou is disorienting, experimental, jarring. Unprecedented for him, most of Mambo is shot in shallow focus and medium close-up, with a roaming, exploratory camera always in motion. A Hou who directs the viewer’s eye, too, is something new: we’re used to slowly, patiently exploring the spaces he lays out for us, to exercising a certain autonomy as we read meaning into his films. Hou controls our eyes in Mambo and shows us what he himself seems to be in the process of discovering, in something like real time. But watch without preconceptions and let yourself fall into the rhythms of the film: the dance music of his Taipei slackers defines the beat of its shots, the drift of its camera, the endless loops within loops of its spiralling chronology. All sandwiched between two of Hou’s most lyrically beautiful sequences: Vicky’s slow motion neon-lit dance that opens the film, and the play of snow-capped images of old film posters that lyrically closes it.

The line-up of Korean films at Toronto was very strong, if slightly unadventurous, this year. It included two known quantities: Musa: the Warrior (Kim Sung-Soo, 2001), a big budget period epic that was heavily marketed and widely anticipated in its home market, and Address Unknown/Soochwieen boolmyung (Kim Ki-Duk, 2001), Kim Ki-Duk’s follow-up to last year’s succès de scandale The Isle/Seom (Kim Ki-Duk, 2000). The third film, Nabi – The Butterfly (Moon Seung-wook, 2001) arrived with a couple of minor awards from the competition at the 2001 Locarno Film Festival.

Address Unknown shows the interlocking stories of four teenagers who live in a small Korean city adjacent to a US military base in the ’70s. Chang-Guk is a marginalized half-Korean, half-African American who works for a dog butcher. Eunok, a woman blinded in one eye, is seduced by a lonely white American GI who offers to sponsor her corrective surgery. And Jihum is a painfully shy young artist’s assistant with a frustrated crush on Eunok. The press kit for Address Unknown proudly describes the film as a “blood-red romance”, replete with “poisonous love and violent innocence”. To which one could add madcap brutality and lyrical grotesquery. Address challenges us to rethink how much we want to value coherence and organic unity as markers of aesthetic success. The film strains and wobbles, seemingly barely in control of its own shape and momentum, rolling from one bravura set piece to another. Kim packs his furiously paced film with inherently destabilizing contradictions, manifestos of aesthetic stances that should be mutually exclusive.

Moment to moment, the viewer has ample rewards, even pleasures: Kim has an uncanny ability to create vivid, concrete, images stamped with astonishing beauty and suffused with a richly suggestive symbolic depth. There are, to be sure, images that provoke something like revulsion: it is almost impossible to watch Kim’s extended scenes of dog beatings, or repeated scenes of a son beating his mother out of a perversely protective/destructive love. Kim also risks alienating his audience with actors who seem compelled to pitch most of their scenes at the highest possible intensity, with much furious arm-waving and hysterical shouting. The film, though, unexpectedly gains in force as it approaches its absurdist/tragic conclusion. What just might hold it all together is Kim’s commitment to a clearly legible political allegory (grounded on but not restricted to Korea’s subjection to US power) whose implications he is courageous enough to push to the limit. Even more impressive is the film’s largely successful experiment in mapping the incoherencies built into this world; it exposes the ruptures and crevices that emerge under great pressure, in which beauty, compassion, and resistance can at least gain a precarious toehold.

Musa: the Warrior is a far less complicated film than Address Unknown, a grandly conceived spectacle of elaborate costumes, epic voyages, ferocious battle scenes, and sweeping vistas. What distinguishes this 154-minute film from other investments in the genre is its novelistic richness of detail and the care with which it fashions living, sympathetic characters out of heroic stereotypes. Based on a true 600 year-old story, Musa follows the trek of nine Korean warriors and their followers, remnants of a failed diplomatic mission, who try to head home across a China wracked by conflict between Yuan warriors and the newly victorious Ming dynasty. Korean general Choi Jung (Joo Jin-Mo) and his rival, the ex-slave Yeosol (Jung Woo-Sung) become rivals for the affection of Ming Princess Furong (Zhang Ziyi), whom they rescue and undertake to deliver back to Nanjing. These conflicting agendas set up the various plot vectors that propel Musa through a long and complicated story. Musa’s narrative is carefully shaped, with its overarching, interlocking patterns of tension and resolution. The three battle sequences themselves are fascinating to watch. Filmed with something like the step-printed, speed-altered process of Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time/Dongxie xidu (1994), these scenes have a visceral quality and legibility that lets us easily follow lines of action: the violence is tangible, powerful, and direct, rather than generalized into something trendily stylish. It is particularly gory and explicit, as well: director Kim calls Peckinpah (as well as Kurosawa) an important influence.

Though Jung Woo-Sung’s cardboard-thin Yeosol is the film’s weakest point, the other roles are strongly cast. Joo Jin-Mo’s Choi Jung develops over an astonishing novelistic range, from heroic leader through discredited megalomaniac and back. The scene-stealing wallop packed by Zhang Ziyi is briefly deployed in her dazzling introduction, then submerged until the final extended sequence by the sea, when the film lets her loose to full effect. Throw in philosophical reflections on the courage of pacifism, and consistently gorgeous cinematography that captures the sweep and grandeur of the narrative’s epic aspirations, and Musa manages to both surprise and satisfy: a superior model for the craft of epic-movie making.

Nabi - the Butterfly

Moon Seng-Wook’s second feature Nabi – the Butterfly is a very different kind of movie: a low budget art-house feature shot on digital video (transferred to 35mm) that offers something like a visionary poetic dream set some time in the not-too-distant future. Korea is plagued by floods, lethal acid rain, and a virus that causes people to lose their painful memories. The latter attracts tourists including Anna (Kim Ho-Jung), who travels on a virus-seeking junket to Seoul where she meets her “virus guide” Yuki (Kang Hea-Jung) and driver “K” (Jang Hyun-Sung). Kim Ho-Jung has the kind of face that seems unexceptional at first, then grows gradually more radiant as she fills in layer upon layer of her character. Her masterful performance as Anna – alternately lost, then resolutely determined to find meaning in her life on the verge of disappearing into oblivion – is one of Nabi‘s highlights.

Moon embraces digital filming as a set of liberating possibilities, and his long takes and constantly moving camera flow with the cyclic rhythms established by his actors’ performances. Art design, cinematography, acting style are all of a piece, taking their cue from water that permeates the entire film: deluges of rain, showers, a swimming pool, and finally the sea itself shape and colour Nabi‘s world. The film’s continuous play of aqua-tinted images – subtly shaded, eerily translucent, and suffocatingly dreamlike – create an underwater world in which the characters seem suspended, floating in voids of their own, unmoored by their own particular estrangements with their pasts. Layers of extra material sometimes crowd into the picture as if Moon occasionally loses confidence in simplicity. One scene, though, remains unforgettable. As Anna and K help Yuki struggle to give birth half immersed in the sea, pounded by the surf, their ferocious intensity combines with Moon’s agitated digital cameras to create a tour de force: this was the most shattering single scene I saw in Toronto.

In some ways the most frustrating Japanese film I saw at the TIFF was Shunji Iwai’s provocative new feature All About Lily Chou-Chou (Shunji Iwai, 2001). The film plunges into the world of adolescence: the inchoate dreams, frustrated yearnings, secret violence, and terrifying sadism of Japanese 14 year-olds. Almost 2 1/2 hours long, packed with a novelistic density of incident, Lily feels epic in scope. Developed from an “interactive internet novel” later published in magazine form, the film is built around two worlds: “Liliphilia”, an internet fan club of fictitious singer and cult idol Lily Chou-chou, and the high school that Liliphilia’s webmaster Yuichi attends. Yuichi and his classmates – model student Hoshino, young female pianist Kuno and dreamy Tsuda – fall prey to the darkest fantasies turned nightmares that can erupt from the confused awakenings of adult desire. Hoshino develops into a darkly charismatic gang leader who pimps Tsuda, sets up the rape of Kuno, and exploits and humiliates Yuichi.

Iwai’s treatment of this material is maddeningly uneven. He is a prodigiously gifted image maker: no other working director knows better how to craft images so saturated with beauty, sequences that almost explode a concentration of feeling made visible and tangible. But Lily shows a topography of isolated, self-contained rhapsodies, set within a sprawling, digressive structure that attenuates their power. Too often, for example, large blocks of largely vapid text from Liliphilia’s internet chat sessions interrupt the story. Though they are said to be “authentic” enough, taken from actual transcripts of fans’ comments that formed part of Iwai’s interactive novel, their great quantity makes their banality difficult to overlook. Mere transcription doesn’t produce art, and Iwai’s transfiguring touch fails, here. Similarly, at the core of the film, the essential “etherealness” (the film’s term) of Lily’s music (composed by Takeshi Kobayashi for the film) is a sign without a signifier: a vacant marker for something the film names but forces us to take on faith. Iwai is a magician, but Lily‘s magic is merely intermittent. Which, in itself, is something most other filmmakers can only dream of.

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge/Akai hashi noshitano nurui mizu (Shohei Imamura, 2001) is, in a certain way, the quite the opposite of All About Lily Chou-Chou: it is the smoothly crafted product of a master working at slightly less than full power. Shohei Imamura has concocted a wildly improbable tale, a fable, really, of romance, misfits, and an oddly concrete sort of passion. Koji Yakusho plays an unemployed man in his forties searching for a treasure hidden in an old house. The treasure he ends up discovering is the house’s resident, played by Misa Shimizu. Her spectacular orgasms (he soon finds out) are accompanied by jets of water that spurt out of her, through her house, into the canal next door where they attract the neighbourhood carp, much to the delight of the neighbourhood fisherman. A microcosm in which female passion, nature, ecology, and human society coexist in perfect harmony. Perhaps this is what Imamura is getting at when he claims, in an accompanying director’s note, that “the 21st century will also be the era of women”? Imamura’s world is populated with the usual humorously eccentric misfits, oddballs, and strangely colourful characters (though the African runners-in-training who whiz by from time to time evoke a certain discomfortingly archaic form of ethnic stereotype). The film remains engrossing despite its length, thanks to the engagingly subtle comic performances of the two leads, and the clear, warm, richly coloured cinematography of Shigeru Komatsubara. Warm Water may not have the breadth, the anger, or the daring political revisionism of Imamura’s recent Dr. Akagi/Kanzo sensei (1998). It is nevertheless as beguiling as a master jazz player’s elegantly extended riff, as satisfying as the burnished glow of a genial mid-period Brahms symphony.

Like many other events in September, this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which took place from September 6 to 15, 2001, could not escape the shadow of the September 11 attacks on the US. Here was real life, not filmed representation, presenting us with the unimaginable, with a newly reconfigured world that urgently demanded new ways of thinking. The immanence of the political in the cultural was made starkly visible. For the first time I can remember, the Festival was shut down, if only temporarily. The organisers cancelled all public and press screenings on the 11th after about 1pm. Cancelled screenings were rescheduled whenever possible, which led the TIFF to add an extra day of screenings, September 16th. But many associated events were cancelled, and many guests and some film prints failed to reach Toronto. These arrangements did not escape a measure of muted controversy. Although the majority of press and industry visitors at the Festival were American, and although the Canadian hosts, audiences, and guests did not hesitate to sympathize, and even identify, with their American guests and neighbours, the cancellations raised for some the perennially unanswerable question of the TIFF’s essential nature. When faced with a crisis and forced urgently to define itself, did the TIFF essentially take its lead from the irresistibly powerful American film industry, or did it respond as a broadly based, separately Canadian and internationally oriented institution? The Festival staff’s exceptional efforts to reschedule every cancelled screening possible, at great expense and unimaginable cost in logistical frustration, helped to answer this question. The TIFF, displaying a particularly Canadian facility for straddling unresolvable contradictions without ever having to come down on one side or the other, never seems to have to choose between its two identities. It manages, awkwardly on occasion, and this time with exceptional grace, to be both, at the same time.