Sunday, October 18, 2009

CIFF 2009 Diary, Day 9 & 10

Day 9: Saturday, Oct 3

Oct 3 was all about achieving a personal record of seeing 7 films in a single day. Originally, I had planned on seeing atleast 5-6 films but when an additional screening was added at 10:45 am, the path was clear for me to hit the elusive seven.

Cyborg, She (2008, Japan, Jae-young Kwak)
Time: 10:45 am at The Plaza

The originally scheduled screening for Wednesday night was sold out but the print never arrived on time. So a special screening was added on Saturday morning. But as it turned out, the film-makers still screwed up and sent a print without English subtitles.

Watching this film without subtitles is not that bad as there are quite a few stretches without dialogue (one such sequence was atleast 10 minutes long). But I was quite disappointed by this film because it looks like a recycled version of Jae-young Kwak's earlier film My Sassy Girl with a sci-fi angle tacked on. While My Sassy Girl was fresh and funny, the humour in Cyborg, She is stale and predictable.

I Killed My Mother (2009, Canada, Xavier Dolan)
Time: 12:45 pm at the Globe, downstairs screen.

This film blew me away and was easily the single best film of the festival I had seen. Normally, only a few films inspire such strong reactions in me and I was certainly not expecting to be jolted this early in the day.

Dolan's film is raw, funny, emotional and brutally honest. It properly depicts the teenage vs adult struggle that exists in a majority of households in probably every country in the world. Normally, there is a mutual loving bond between parents and children early on in the child's life. But when the hormones start gushing through the children’s blood stream in the early teens, those same loving parents become the children’s enemy and the relationship between the two sides starts to degenerate. In some cases, the relationship starts to mend once the teen has grown up into an adult. For some people, this happens around the mid 20's, for others much later. But Dolan seems to have acquired this understanding a lot early on as he directed the film when he was 19 (and wrote it when he was 17).

The dialogues are sharp and pointed. In one case, the mother remembers the time when her son used to tell her everything and they were friends. To which the son replies "I was 4 and I had no choice". Ouch. Words can hurt, especially if they are always spoken with venom and sarcasm. The mother is unable to cope and the son wants away. Their arguments and fights may be about personality traits and specific issues but they echo the universal teenage angst and sense of rebellion. There have been many films in the past which covered similar topics but most works usually turn into one-sided rants from a teenager's perspective. On the other hand, I Killed My Mother perfectly depicts the struggle that exists on both sides -- it is not easy for parents to raise their kids while it is equally difficult for kids trying to assert their self, despite depending on their parents. We are also introduced to another parental example in the film which shows how a parent tries to be their child's friend. Yet, even that parent gets disrespect no matter how hard she tries. Damned if you let the kids have their way and damned if you stand in their way.

Plenty to take away from this film. Quite simply, a sensational debut.

Gigantic (2008, USA, Matt Aselton)
Time: 3 pm at Eau Claire, Screen #2

Sometimes the indie American films follow a prescribed formula especially by ensuring their stories contain quirky off beat characters who are supposed to generate humour for their unique behavior. Sure there are some tender moments of genuine humour here but for the most part, I didn't react with much enthusiasm. Still, it was a nice relaxing film to watch after I Killed My Mother.

Cooking History (2008, co-production, Peter Kerekes)
Time: 4:30 pm at Eau Claire, Screen #5

This insightful documentary highlights the rarely depicted topic of military cooks who fed the soldiers. Peter Kerekes does an excellent job of ensuring the documentary is vibrant and always interesting by getting the surviving characters to either cook or re-enact the tension of their war time drama. And as an added bonus, Peter Kerekes also provides humour in the form of recipes, in case someone wants to serve their nation by poisoning an entire enemy army. And each recipe appropriately ends with the common ingredient of "a pinch of salt". The final segment which features a cook standing in the ocean is precious, especially his preparation of imaginary dishes for an imaginary sea crew.

note: I missed the first 8 minutes of this film as Gigantic was a 98 minute long feature.

Breathless (2009, South Korea, Yang Ik-June)
Time: 6:30 pm at the Globe, downstairs

For the second time in the day, I was absolutely shook up by a film. But it took a while to appreciate what the director had in mind because the first 20 minutes appear to be routine stuff straight out of most Korean/Japanese gangster films -- punching, swearing and some slapping. The person dishing out all these is Sang-Hoon (played by the director himself), one of the nastiest on screen personas seen in recent years. The violence is put in context via a flashback when we observe a tragic episode in Sang-Hoon’s childhood where his mother and sister were accidentally killed in an episode of domestic violence. Sang-Hoon never forgave his father and after his father is released from prison, Sang-Hoon visits and beats him up frequently. Sang-Hoon’s kicks at his father usually occur at the end of night when a drunk Sang-Hoon ponders over his past. The father quietly accepts the beatings.

Sang-Hoon is a loner with no friends but one day he comes across a fiery teenage girl, Yeon-Hue, who refuses to take his abuse and fires back. The two form an unusual friendship and take comfort in each other’s presence, even though the two swear and put each other down. It turns out that another example of domestic abuse is taking shape in Yeon-Hue’s house, where her teenage brother is just starting to assert his “manliness” by taking his anger out on his sister. The abuse that Yeon-Hue suffers is two fold because her father is mentally disturbed (triggered most likely after his wife and Yeon-Hue’s mother’s death) and hurls profanity at his daughter frequently.

A few years ago, I had seen an Israeli documentary where someone asks an Israeli woman how her fellow countrymen could treat the Palestinians so badly considering the suffering Jews underwent. The Israeli woman replied that if a young boy saw his father slapping his mother, would the young boy be a peaceful person when he grew up? Her reply was negative and she said most likely the young boy would grow up into a man who would in turn slap his own wife. Her words came to my mind while watching Breathless because the film shows that kids who witness violence in their youth will grow up and re-enact those same episodes onto others. While the film may not be the most pleasant to watch, it takes a brave stand in drawing a direct line from domestic abuse to gangster violence. There are some examples of youth joining the gang due to unemployment but the film emphasizes the cycle of violence aspect quite clearly.

There are many movies out there which have graphic scenes of violence and horror and the directors of such graphic films defend their works by emphasizing their movies are anti-violence and the violent scenes are meant to prove a point. But in most cases, these movies end up glorifying violence because the consequences of violence is never fully explored. On the other hand, Breathless clearly depicts the danger of a violent life, whether that life is in a household or in a gang. There is a consequence to every violent action and Yang Ik-June’s film is the only one I can think of that has a purpose for every scene of violence and abuse. This film should be shown to every teenage and adult male. And if after seeing this film, those males would still opt for a violent life, then there is no hope not only for those people but humanity in general.

And to think that Ddongpari (Breathless) is just a debut feature by Yang Ik-June! Wow. Easily one of the year’s best and relevant films!

Seven Minutes in Heaven (2008, Israel, Omri Givon)
Time: 9:30 pm at the Globe, downstairs

There is a good story idea in this Israeli film but while the idea may have worked perfectly for a 20 minute short film, it is painfully worn out in a full length feature. The needless repetition and spoon-feeding do nothing for the story but merely pad the time, and when the interesting twist on the story is revealed near the end, it is too late.

Daybreakers (2009, Australia, the Spierig brothers)
Time: 11:30 pm at the Plaza

For the seventh film, I was back at the location where I started my day, almost 12.5 hours earlier at 10:45 am. I got to the Plaza at 11:15 pm and the long line up had me worried. There were two lines, one for the advanced ticket and pass holders, and the other for rush tickets. Only a certain amount of pass holders are let in and when that quota is reached, the pass holders have to join the back of the rush ticket line. Since I was a pass holder who was at the end of the advanced ticket line (only 5 people were behind me and they all had tickets), I was certain I would not make it. But amazingly, I just made it.

As for the film itself, after an impressive start and good setup, it was a huge letdown to see the film settle into a comfortable Hollywood template, complete with loud music, some explosions and even a car chase. The film does redeem itself with a good ending. There are lots of neat elements in the film not covered by other vampire movies, especially the “Daytime Driving” aspect, which could also serve as the film’s alternate title. I thought the film had a great idea in combining a vampire tale with a sci-fi & political angle and there are many aspects which add something new to the vampire genre. So it was especially frustrating to see the film contain a very dull and average middle segment.

After 7 films in a day, sleep. Precious sleep. zzzzzzzzzzz

Day 10: Sunday, Oct 4

The Prophet (2009, France, Jacques Audiard)

I had first heard of Jacques Audiard about 4 years ago when I was in London. His film The Beat that My Heart Skipped earned rare reviews, especially from Peter Bradshaw. So I decided to check the film out during its opening weekend in London and was left in awe of both the film and Roman Duris’ performance. Duris was already a favourite of mine, especially from his performance in the pulsating Exils, but he was mesmerizing in Audiard’s well crafted film. I made a point to see the next film that Audiard would direct.

Fast forward to 2009 and when Audiard’s Un Prophet hit Cannes, I lay in eager anticipation. My excitement only grew over the coming months and hit a high point when I was in Paris where almost every cinema seemed to be showing the film. I waited for its CIFF debut and quickly snapped up my ticket. And it was a good thing I had an advanced ticket because the film was sold out on its 7 pm show on the festival’s final day.

The Prophet dives into the heart of the gangster world, right from the prison cells to the controlling ports and cities. The prison’s hierarchy and daily routines are outlined with a fine observant eye, which at times recalls the work of Jacques Becker in his brilliant film Le Trou. We observe a criminal (Malik El Djebena played by Tahar Rahim) elevate himself through the ranks by his quick intelligence, observant and diplomatic skills. There are plenty of neat references (religious are the common ones) tucked away in this film which will ensure a second viewing will also provide a pleasurable experience. Overall, quite an amazing film.

note: In the second half of the film, I found Tahar Rahim to resemble a bit like Robert Pires. Since at one point in my life I considered Pires to be a footballing God, I found the presence of his look like in a film called The Prophet to be appropriate.

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