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    Gun-Shy (Schussangst) in Toronto Film Festival, Day 1
    Gun-Shy (Schussangst)

    Toronto, Day 1

    Our correspondent at the Toronto International Film Festival unearths promising new work from Germany and Korea.


    I used to love school and always associated September with new beginnings. The kickoff of the fall film season is what does it for me now as a grownup. Looking across the throngs of moviegoers at the 28th Toronto International Film Festival, another comparison struck me. Those movie junkies lucky enough to be here are annual migrants, driven northward by some deep-seated impulse for a shared experience that delights and challenges, and that is also a stressful survival test of the fittest: 336 films from 55 countries unspool here within a week and a half. You either really have to dig learning, or you're a marathoner.

    Toronto International Film Festival, Toronto, Ontario, Sept. 4-13, 2003.

    Related links: Official site | "Gun-Shy" | "Alexandra's Project"

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Day 2
    A pair of gorgeously clinical works from Peter Greenaway are balanced by a music groupie-mentary from L.A. and a knockout martial-arts picture from Thailand.

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Day 3
    Another beautiful film from Korea, Kim Ki-duk's "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter .. and Spring," shares a bill with Errol Morris's timely examination of the Vietnam War and the latest from actress of the moment Scarlett Johansson.

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Day 4
    Substantial female roles for adult actresses are among the highlights at the festival, including Cate Blanchett in "Veronica Guerin" and Anne Reid in "The Mother."

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Days 5&6
    A documentary that uses the movies to trace the architectural history of Los Angeles is a highlight among the out-of-the-way offerings at the Toronto Film Festival.

    So it starts, the ten days where I hope to see at least four entire movies daily, catch bits of others, pick up with folks I last saw a year ago, and grab most meals running — on ever-fewer hours of sleep. It's all about pacing, and until you find your rhythm, it's equal parts anxiety and fun. As much as you manage to shoehorn in, you feel like a slacker for what you've missed. Here's what I've seen so far.

    Thursday, Sept. 4:

    Serendipity. My first screening a good omen, a German drama surprising in its interplay of oddball humor, lyricism, and dark intimations of corruption and death. "Gun-Shy" ("Schussangst") is directed by Georgian filmmaker Dito Tsintsadze, and based on the novel of the same name by Dirk Kurbjuweit, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tsintsadze. It follows Lukas (Fabian Hinrichs), an amiable but borderline-depressed loner, a conscientious objector who's fulfilling his military service obligation by delivering meals on wheels in a town where the only person he knows is his estranged father — whom the young man hasn't even contacted since his arrival. Lukas' days are spent among the elderly, infirm and semi-deranged; his nights, alone in a tenement flat invaded by bugs and the relentless blare of his downstairs neighbor's dissonant ethnic music.

    Alexandra's Project in Toronto Film Festival, Day 1  
    Alexandra's Project
    When he's not being scammed by those who don't really need the free grub, Lukas is beset by other cons. One day an invitation from a beautiful girl on the bus drops literally right into his lap. He pursues Isabella (Lavinia Wilson), and a romance of sorts ensues. His attraction is clear, but she holds back — is she a tease, or wounded in some unspeakable way? He doesn't push her, either because he's a gentleman or else merely passive, and the relationship remains chaste. Lukas continues to work off his frustrations, now much greater, by rowing on a nearby river. His eventual meeting with the scene-stealing, music-loving neighbor below — a German Korea-phile, who acts out the meaning of Asian folk songs with ersatz Gilbert & Sullivan brio — will trouble those waters, and set the stage for further encounters with a virus-prone cop, an immigrant arms dealer, and a former Nazi sharpshooter. All does not end well, but not predictably. "Gun-Shy" is cleverly realized, with a few shots so graceful and poetic in their composition you almost gasp.

    Less handsome, but equally clever, is the psycho-thriller from Australia, "Alexandra's Project." It, too, explores the subterranean depths of human sexuality, but in this case it's about too much of a good thing — for the man, that is, which is why his wife thinks it's a bad thing. Written and directed by Rolf de Heer ("The Quiet Room," "Dance Me to My Song"), the film is taut and menacing from its opening title sequence, as the camera swiftly veers through the streets and gardens of an unnamed city, to rest finally in a townhouse bedroom. This agitated movement presages the havoc the aggressive and highly virile family breadwinner Steve (Gary Sweet) will suffer later that day at the hands of his seriously troubled wife Alexandra (Helen Buday). She plans a birthday for him that he will not soon forget, nor will audiences. "Alexandra's Project" is about rage on a scale rarely seen in contemporary domestic dramas, and about revenge so lethal it rings of Greek tragedy. And while the ending may not be cathartic, it's not lacking wit.

    Sadly, wit is nowhere to be found in the latest film from France's Jean-Paul Rappeneau. I feel churlish disliking "Bon Voyage," especially after reading the director's remarks about how personal this work is for him, how infused it is with his childhood memories of the chaotic years of France's occupation by the Nazis. Knowing he witnessed his country's surrender makes it all the more inexplicable that he chose romantic farce as his genre, using the style and generic elements of American screwball comedies to frame the story of a vain and ruthless film actress who has as many self-serving ruses as she has saps to fall for them. Isabelle Adjani plays the aging star; Gregori Derangere, Peter Coyote and a much trimmer Gerard Depardieu are her swains. Throughout the length of this tedious exercise, which is far too beautifully photographed for a film of such little consequence, only Virginie Ledoyen as a brainy young physicist and Yvan Attal as a patriotic ex-convict get it right. They alone seemed to have internalized an important lesson of comedy: if the laughs are to work, you have to play it straight. Otherwise, what should have been soufflÄ winds up being quiche.

      Memories of Murder in Toronto Film Festival, Day 1
      Memories of Murder
    Sony Pictures Classics has a March 2004 domestic release planned for "Bon Voyage," and I asked veteran film buyer Tom Brueggemann what he thought its prospects were. His take on this film is more generous; he feels SPC will know how to market it and exploit its arthouse potential, especially if France submits it as their nominee for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Me, I was just counting the listless sighs at the close.

    The best was saved for last, although that may just have been the luck of the draw on a light screening day. The true-crime thriller "Memories of Murder" once again demonstrates that lately Korean filmmakers are getting better at American genre movies than Hollywood. This movie has all the ingredients of a rousing entertainment, which might sound callous given that it's based on the crimes of South Korea's first serial killer, a brutal rapist and strangler who is still at large. But the script is ingenious, the cast, from leads to supporting players, first-rate, and the camera work, nimble and fluid. The mounting tension is so skillfully orchestrated by director Bong Joon-ho that his movie has the kind of rush "The French Connection" did when it first hit screens. Acquisitions folks from Film Movement and IFC were sitting nearby; here's hoping that this festival screening will not be my only recollection of "Memories of Murder."

    On the sked for Toronto, Day 2: a double dose of Peter Greenaway, George Hickenlooper's documentary, "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" — plus a Buddhist kicks butt in "Ong-Bak Muay: Thai Warrior."

    Festival articles



    Mayor of the Sunset Strip

    Diminutive Rodney Bingenheimer hangs out with a lot of big-time musical icons in "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," a documentary that overrelies on his pixie-ish proximity to fame and his quizzical personality.


    Memories of Murder

    A constantly deceptive detective story in which bad cops who think they're doing good work look for a serial killer in all the wrong places.

    SEPTEMBER 6, 2003

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