It’s the last day of the Toronto Film Festival, and a bit of regret darkens my morning. I’ve skipped a few films the last few days, both because of poor reviews as well as a lack of energy. But as I walk to lunch, I can’t help but think of movies not seen, opportunities not taken. Who knows? Maybe one of those would’ve been my favorite of the fest? Ah well. Sometimes 40 films don’t feel like enough. Fortunately, there are three more before I head back home, and two are exceptionally enjoyable.
Some friends have described Treeless Mountain as a “children-in-peril” movie, which I find a bit strange. Yes, it’s a movie about two young girls, aged six and four. And, yes, they’re in a somewhat uncomfortable situation, as their mother has left them with an aunt to go find their father. But the girls are never in any danger. The aunt may be harsh at times, but she’s not a wicked stepmother figure, and most of the other adults in their lives are kind and comforting.
Instead, the movie’s focus is on how siblings interact, particularly in the way older ones, even as young as six, look after the younger ones and how the younger ones both depend on the older ones and live in their shadow. In this, director and writer So Yong Kim has captured incredibly naturalistic performances from her young charges. Much of the film is shot in tight close ups on their faces, and the tremendous emotion they convey is reminiscent of Victoire Thivisol’s amazing debut in Ponette. The movie is also funny in numerous places, as the girls try to take care of themselves, believing that if they can save enough money their mom will return.
Treeless Mountain’s script is also subtle, as it becomes a commentary on the differences between the cities, towns, and farms of Korea--how relationships change depending on the environment. The striking establishing shots take on greater power as our protagonists return to the land, so to speak, though construction equipment and the forces of modernization it represents are never far away.
Jeremy Heilman has remarked that “Kim is undoubtedly a skilled director, but she’s someone who seems more content to observe than state.” But what he sees as a flaw strikes me as a spectacular asset. Rather than telling us what to notice, Kim lets us make the connections ourselves. By intently watching these sisters, we’re reminded of our own sibling relationships. At multiple points in Treeless Mountain, I was taken back to childhood memories I hadn’t explored in years. And the film ends with an appropriately gorgeous long shot.
As with Treeless Mountain, Blind Loves may receive the pejorative ‘sentimental’ tag from some hard-nosed critics. It’s a documentary that follows four blind people and observes them in their relationships. Peter is happily married to his quiet wife, while Miro is doggedly pursuing a woman who’s partially blind but whose parents are bothered more by his Gypsy roots than his disability. Elena is a married woman who’s pregnant and worries whether she’ll be allowed to keep her baby, and Zuzana is a teenager involved in an online relationship.
Like all great documentaries, the movie lets us in on a unfamiliar world. So we watch how blind people get through the day: Peter ‘watching’ tv and giving music lessons, Elena and her husband putting up Christmas lights and wrapping presents with transparent cellophane, Miro replaying voice mail messages as if he were looking at old photographs. Interestingly, water plays a recurring role, emphasizing the tactile nature of their lives.
If Blind Loves just offered a window into their world, it would be captivating, but Slovakian director Juraj Lehotsky also infuses his film with real style. Many of the images utilize unusual camera placements and play with natural light. He varies between close-ups (a shot of the television reflected at night in a woman’s sunglasses is especially great) and longer shots in fascinating ways. The sound design--a mixture of music, effects, and silence--becomes almost hypnotic. And one scene of stop-motion animation (evoking the great Jan Svankmajer) embodies Peter’s dreams in spectacular fashion.
Though it’s easy to sentimentalize the blind, Lehotsky largely avoids that trap, though there is an incredibly moving scene in a movie theater near the film’s end that brought me to tears. You’re a cold, cold soul if you fold your arms and grunt. Who said emotion was bad? Certainly not when it’s handled as well as it is in these two movies.
On the other hand, the emotional tone in Slumdog Millionaire rings false, though don’t tell that to the hundreds of festivalgoers who gave it the People’s Choice award (the most prominent honor at Toronto). It’s about a young man who somehow finds himself about to win 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But first he has to be tortured in the back of a police station, because how could a “slumdog” know all the answers to those questions? Yes, tortured.
The movie is structured around his interview with a police detective (played by the always great Irfan Khan), where the young man shows that he learned the answer to each question at various points in his life. So what we have is a fictional bio-pic. Ugh. This schematic approach pairs with the game show itself so that the movie becomes preordained. Anyone who doesn’t know exactly (and I mean exactly) how this movie will end just isn’t paying attention. The only thing that surprised me in the last 45 minutes was the irrelevant fate of a minor character.
To make matters worse, director Danny Boyle can’t leave well enough alone. His hyper-kinetic editing style mixes with his embrace of bright Indian colors to create the equivalent of a two-hour music video. True, the music in the film is peppy and fun, but it’ll feel awfully familiar to anyone who’s seen a Bollywood flick.
In fact, Slumdog feels like a Westerner’s superficial version of India, as the ludicrous script trots out cliche after cliche. The Taj Mahal? Check. Gritty slum teeming with street children on huge trash heaps? Check. The awesome sprawl of Mumbai? Check. Young adults working at call centers? Younger girls trapped in a red light district? Everyone dancing to a Bollywood dance number? Check, check, cliche.
I’ll admit I found myself tapping my foot to several of the numbers, and the sheer rush of movie adrenaline is hard to resist. But the further away I get from the movie, the more toxic I find its smell.
And so the festival comes to an end. But one last thing before we put TIFF ’08 to bed--a list of the movies I saw in some order of preference (because all the cool kids are doing it). Note that each movie is linked to the post where I reviewed it in more detail.