TIFF 2014 continued the string of strong, female-centric films with Céline Sciamma's Girlhood, which tracks the empowerment of its sixteen-year-old protagonist through her indoctrination into a tough girl gang. Quiet, circumspect Marieme (Karidja Touré), confined with her family in cramped public housing on the outskirts of Paris, is despondent upon learning that she has failed high school. After a shaky encounter with three aggressively confident girls, she is welcomed as a new member of their defiant clique and rechristened "Vic," as in "victor." The girls' sisterly bonding helps them navigate a world where privilege lies in strength. Together they extort lunch money, shoplift clothes, rent hotel rooms for parties, and fight other girls for domination. When not roaming Parisian shopping malls or holding court in barren concrete plazas with her gal pals, Marieme surreptitiously courts Ismael (Idrissa Diabate), a soft-spoken friend of her abusive older brother, and attempts to shield her younger sister from the hardships and humiliations she endures on a daily basis. Sciamma gets the most from her amateur cast, most notably in a career-making performance from Touré. Cinematographer Crystel Fournier's compositions are as dynamic as the film's volatile subjects, never more so than in one inspired scene in which the girls, swathed in stolen evening gowns still adorned with security tags, lip-synch and dance to a Beyoncé pop hit. Though the film's final quarter unconvincingly shifts into The Wire territory, Girlhood is a beautifully acted, visually assured portrayal of an ambitious young woman's attempt to rise above the pervasive, soul-crushing indifference of her hard-bitten environs.
The festival's "City to City" spotlight, this year focusing on Seoul, presented another tale of a troubled teen. A Girl At My Door is the promising but flawed debut feature of Lee Chang-Dong protégé Judy Jung. Bae Doona (The Host) stars as Young-nam, a scandalized law officer transferred from her swank station in Seoul to serve as police chief for an impoverished coastal town. There she meets Yong-ha (Song Sae Byuk), a brutish, alcoholic fishing boat magnate who happens to be the town's primary supplier of jobs. Upon witnessing the drunken lout beating his thirteen-year-old step-daughter Dohee (Sae-ron Kim), Young-nam tumbles headfirst into a dysfunctional family drama she finds increasingly difficult to escape. Though suffused with artful compositions by cinematographer Hyun Seok Kim from Chang-Dong's films, A Girl At My Door strains from the overabundance of topical issues that writer/director Jung has stuffed into its two-hour running time. Along with alcoholism, intolerance, child abuse, and police corruption, we're also served up the plight of undocumented workers. At times the message overwhelms the dramatic context. For instance, most viewers will find it difficult to consider Young-nam's "scandal" a career deterrent in modern-day Seoul; instead, it appears to exist merely to provide an element of conflict for Jung's tale to pivot around during its final stretch. Although the script meanders, Jung's visual acuity and assured direction of her cast - most notably Kim, the same age as the character she portrays - bodes well for future projects.
According his critically acclaimed filmography, prolific festival favorite Hong Sang-soo's latest was shown not as part of "City to City" but in the "Masters" program, despite its Seoul setting. Hill Of Freedom continues Hong's droll dissection of the manners and mores of South Korea's adult middle class, particularly the capricious behavior of men (often, stand-ins for the director himself), a thematic constancy that has led some critics to claim that he's continually remaking the same film. This view overlooks the subtle shifts of emphasis that make each of his works a discrete experience. Hill Of Freedom, though unquestionably a Hong film, deviates from the pattern by foregrounding the humor. The agreeable result is his all-out funniest feature yet. Mori (Kase Ryo), an unemployed language instructor from Japan, arrives in Seoul with hopes of rekindling his bygone romance with former co-worker Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), to whom he has sent a packet of letters that has gone unanswered. Mori speaks little Korean, so his conversations in Seoul are awkwardly conducted in English. Moreover, his episodic adventures are related out of sequence, and, in one segment, with alternative outcomes. Hong indulges his usual fondness for depicting characters in drunken bouts of soju-soaked conversation, which further amplifies the role of miscommunication established by Mori's language impediment. In one squirm-inducing scene, Mori trades barbed Japanese vs. Korean stereotypes with his middle-aged landlady (Yeo-jeong Yoon from 2010's The Housemaid), neither seemingly aware of how offensive the other construes their remarks. The character of Mori is an inspired comic invention, inert yet always the center of attention; the film swirls about him like water circles a drain. Though it lacks the bite of the director's best work, The Power Of Kangwon Province (1998) and Woman On The Beach (2006), Hill Of Freedom would well serve the curious neophyte as a tasty introduction to Hong's slyly sardonic ouevre.
The "Masters" program was also home to Jean-Luc Godard's latest, Goodbye To Language 3-D, which might have been screened in the "Wavelengths" category were it not made by the 83-year-old iconoclast who walked away with the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes festival. As with other post-eighties Godard films, there is only the faintest trace of a linear story. What exists seems to be some sort of love triangle plus an award-winning dog, but this minuscule framework counts for little. Instead, Godard replaces narrative with visual and verbal cues that reference art, philosophy, poetry, and nature. Character dialog, narration, and Godard's beloved intertitles (now, floating in your face) either paraphrase or directly quote his many literary influences, with the potentiality of interpreting (or re-interpreting) the barrage of visual quotations. For a film titled to suggest the demise of language, there's no shortage of communication during its brief 70 minutes. An ambitious list by Ted Fendt tracks most of the literary and cinematic references cited in Goodbye To Language 3-D. The decision for Godard to film in 3-D may seem strange (and this follows a 3-D short he contributed to an omnibus film), but he brings to what is typically a gimmick of disposable entertainment the suggestion of new potential. The depth perception is phenomenal, including but not limited to the often-cited sequence in which the right and left eyes witness a different scene. As you might imagine from Fendt's imposing list of references, Goodbye To Language 3-D demands multiple viewings to savor its complexities. I was only able to catch a single showing at TIFF, which alone constitutes sensorial overload, so let me refer you to David Bordwell's excellent analysis so we can both begin digging. Goodbye To Language 3-D will be in theaters later this fall, and on Blu-ray 3-D in early 2015.
Also shown in the "Masters" category was Timbuktu, the latest from Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako. The director's previous work, Bamako (2006), took western culture, specifically the IMF and the World Bank, to task for the exploitation of Africa. Timbuktu traces the fate of one small community in Northern Mali when another group of exploiters, an armed band of Islamic fundamentalists, arrive and impose draconian sharia law on the populace. Among their victims is the family of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a cattle herder who runs afoul of the extremists. A filmmaker acutely attuned to beauty (as those who have seen 1992's Waiting For Happiness can attest), Sissako summarizes his theme in an early scene in which the fanatics callously splinter apart Malian sculpture with their automatic weapons. All that a culture creates to celebrate and exalt human experience - art, music, dance - are forbidden, with brutal punishment meted out to those who disobey. When not oppressing the villagers, the zealots lust after the local women, whether single or not, and clandestinely argue about teams whose sports their laws have banned. Sissako's message is clear: under the tyranny of those who do not cherish it, beauty will cease to exist. Timbuktu itself would be a likely target for reasons aside from its graceful compositions from cinematographer Sofian El Fani (2013's Blue Is The Warmest Color) and sensual score by Amin Bouhafa. With poetry, compassion, and nary a hyper-ventilating Hollywood actor in sight, Timbuktu observes both the scourge of fundamentalist intolerance and the courage of people who refuse to be subjugated.
A critic once cited the long opening scene in Bruno Dumont's dour second feature Humanité (1999) as an unintended parody of art film formalism. With his four-part French television mini-series P'tit Quinquin, now a 200-minute feature entitled Li'l Quinquin, Dumont has reimagined the earlier film as a dark comedy. It's not unlike what you'd get if Inspector Clouseau, not Special Agent Dale Cooper, had been assigned the Twin Peaks investigation. When a dead cow stuffed with human remains is discovered in a rustic seaside village in northern France, rumpled, eccentric Commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and his earnest partner, Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore) set out to find the culprit. As the murders mount, the detectives gradually discover unsavory connections among the victims. They also uncover the dark heart of the racist, xenophobic locals who react to their investigation with disdain. The latter are exemplified by the title character, a ten-year-old terror with an omnipresent sneer and little regard for authority. When not harassing immigrant kids or throwing firecrackers at tourists, Quinquin (Alane Delhaye) and his pals pursue the police procedural with ghoulish glee. With Li'l Quinquin, Dumont reintroduces themes from his first two features, La vie de Jésus (1997) and Humanité, with broad humor, particularly in the physical comedy of Pruvost's tic-laden performance as a police inspector of many unusual postures. As in his dramas, the director wrings fine performances from a livelier than usual amateur cast of locals. Few would have expected this comedy from Dumont, and even fewer would have imagined that it would be among his best.
Though not as unexpected as the Dumont comedy, the sublime Journey To The West (NOT the Stephen Chow film), Tsai Ming-liang's latest installation in his "Walker" series, is more amazing cinema from the filmmaker whose previous feature, Stray Dogs, was one of the highlights of last year's TIFF but was rumored to be his last. As in the previous "Walker" films, Tsai's lead actor Lee Kang-sheng portrays a crimson-robed monk who walks so slowly that his movements are nearly imperceptible. For this western journey, the monk traverses through the cityscape of Marseilles and is joined in several scenes by an acolyte (Dennis Lavant from Leos Carax films) who attempts to duplicate the master's snail-like loco motion. One of many highlights is a scene filmed in a staircase leading to the underground train station: as Lee descends the stairs, haloed by sunlight flooding the entryway, residents of Marseilles react to his ghostly visage on their way to or from the station below. Tsai teases the viewer in several scenes which begin without the monk in sight, encouraging viewers to search for him in the crowds, a la "Where's Waldo." In other scenes, we glimpse Lee through windows as he ever so slowly glides across the background. The effect is the antithesis of most contemporary films, which hold inaction in suspicion and offer as audience payoff only more frenetic hustle and bustle. With a brief run time of 56 minutes, the serene grace of Journey To The West was a welcome balm to frazzled festival goers.
Tsai's film exists in a separate world from Jalmari Helander's splashy action film Big Game, which was screened in the "Midnight Madness" category. The premise: a thirteen-year-old boy (Onni Tommilla) is fatefully tasked with protecting the President of the United States (Samuel L. Jackson) against a heavily armed terrorist group tracking him across the mountains of Finland. As an admirer of Helander's inventive horror fantasy Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), I had big hopes for Big Game. Sadly, it's a better match for meager expectations. With a budget nearly five times the earlier film's, Big Game has lots of CGI, explosions, and marquee movie stars (Jackson, Felicity Huffman, Jim Broadbent), but none of the quirky charm of its predecessor. In his initial appearance, Jackson has fun in a role meant to suggest the current commander in chief (declining poll numbers, a health-obsessed wife), but the satire is abandoned once Big Game kicks into action movie overdrive and the multiple attacks and narrow escapes lunge towards tedium. The film closes with a revelation of treachery that may delight those who obsess over conspiracies about an earlier, ill-fated American president, but by then Big Game has already fizzled as an action spectacle, a coming-of-age tale, and a movie.
Yet another "Midnight Madness" disappointment, Jonas Govaerts' Cub sure sounded good on paper: Belgian cub scout troop camping in a remote wooded area is preyed upon by a feral child called Kai who sets brutal traps for his unsuspecting victims. Lord Of The Flies meets Deliverance in Bruno Bettelheim's cabin at Camp Crystal Lake. Ah, if only! Instead, Cub squanders an intriguing premise along with its tantalizing initial half-hour to morph into yet another Euro neo-slasher film, signaled by the appearance of an immense adult boogeyman who orchestrates the carnage from a secret underground lair. The killer's "traps" are fanciful, fairly ridiculous creations that recall the inventions of Rube Goldberg, particularly one risible contraption involving an arrow and a hornet's nest that had the audience cackling hysterically. (Following the screening, a bemused Govaerts pondered the laughter inspired by scenes he intended to be terrifying.) The assured performance of young actor Maurice Luijten as the black sheep of the scouting group constitutes most of what little impresses about Cub. There's also Kai's mask, a totemic creation of tree bark that cannily evokes primal terror. Less successful are the one-note characterizations of the doomed troop and several especially hard-to-swallow plot twists near the conclusion. In introducing his film, former scout Govaerts offered Cub as a corrective to Sleepaway Camp (1983), but it's neither as daring or entertaining as that nasty little number.
The violence briefly glimpsed in Pedro Costa's Horse Money is not of Cub's escapist variety. The supposedly final feature in Costa's Fontainhas series about the demolition of a blue-collar neighborhood in Portugal once populated by immigrants from Cape Verde, Horse Money tracks the real or imagined terrors of palsied construction worker Ventura, the series' suffering patriarch, as he recalls an attack by soldiers and his time spent in what must be the world's scariest-looking hospital. There he encounters Vitalina (Vitalina Varela), who has arrived in Portugal too late for her husband's funeral (although Ventura claims the man's still alive). As the two speak of displacement from within empty hospital corridors or dilapidated factories, we seem to be watching ghosts revisiting the realms of their darkest trials. Horse Money approaches the surreal in an oddly disturbing scene inside an elevator as Ventura is tormented by disembodied voices of self-doubt while under the watch of a living toy soldier. In a standout interlude, Ventura's former Fontainhas neighbors are framed in tableaux vivants as a yearning folk melody caresses the lustrous imagery. The rich cinematography of Leonardo Simões, who previously shot Colossal Youth for Costa, suggests that he spends time in museums with the Old Masters. The film's distinctive look heightens its disquieting aura; in the nightmarish realm of Horse Money, there's no clear distinction between its characters' physical and psychological worlds. One can never be certain if the darkness from which a figure emerges is the memory of an actual place or the depths of the subconscious, as both cast the same cruel shadow on the present. Horse Money, the darkest but most visually striking of the Fontainhas films, is haunted by the impact of Portugal's 1974 "Carnation Revolution" on its immigrant communities, but also casts an eye at the struggles of the dispossessed everywhere.
For anyone who seriously loves moviegoing, it's always a joy to discover a fresh approach or a new experience. There's no shortage of buzz when a legend from yesteryear turns out a game changer such as Goodbye To Language 3D, but innovative work from lesser-known filmmakers is often overlooked. A half-capacity audience turned up at the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall for Eric Baudelaire's Letters To Max, which proved to be a loss for those who didn't take a chance on this formally inventive, impossible to classify, sort-of-documentary. The project was initiated when Baudelaire, who was photographing locations in the unrecognized country of Abkhazia, befriended its affable Foreign Minister, Maxim Guinjua. Years later, Baudelaire conceived of an art project in which he'd send letters to Guinjua (nicknamed "Max"), which would be returned to him because there is no international mail exchange with Abkhazia. He'd then display the returned letters as "a sculpture." His plans changed when Max actually received the letters and the idea for the film took root. Its framework is simple but clever: the text of Baudelaire's letters to Max appears superimposed over footage shot in Abkhazia while Max reads his responses in English on the soundtrack. Over the course of the film, Baudelaire moves from friendly queries to difficult questions about Abkhazia's secession from Georgia, which Max either sidesteps or spins with diplomatic aplomb. He offers sympathy for banished Georgians and defends his country's embrace of Russia, which officially recognized Abkhazia as a country in 2008. During the Q&A, Baudelaire observed that his film is by conception one-sided: it's all from the perspective of Max. No Georgians are interviewed to present an alternative view of the bloody civil war and the following ethnic purge. Instead, we are treated to (almost) unflappable Abkhazian diplomacy courtesy of the mercurial Max. Though its subject matter apparently lacks the whiff of dramatic potential that tends to attract overflow festival audiences, Letters To Max is an unexpectedly appealing account of an unusual correspondence that incisively questions the role of communication on both a personal and global scale. Along with Godard's film and Jauja, it was one of TIFF's freshest offerings.