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  •  FESTIVAL: TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: ASIA IN FOCUS

    A scene from Johnnie To's Throwdown. in Toronto International Film Festival: Asia in Focus
    A scene from Johnnie To's "Throwdown."

    Toronto International Film Festival: Asia in Focus

    About one in six films at the Toronto International Film Festival came out of Asia, ranging from Hong Kong stalwarts to Korean upstarts.

    By ANDREA GRONVALL
    Offoffoff.com

    The 29th Toronto International Film Festival was distinguished by an especially high percentage of quality works — of the 45 movies I caught, fewer than a handful were sub-par. Contributing to the strong showing were wide-ranging films from Asia that made up almost one-sixth of the festival's 253 feature presentations. To name just a few, the vibrant entries drawn from the already established Hong Kong film industry, the evolving cinema of China, Japanese anime, and the relatively new kids on the block — the audaciously stylish South Koreans — give a taste of the creative wealth displayed on 21 festival screens across the city.

      
    TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: ASIA IN FOCUS

    Related links: Official site
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    While big-studio boutique films generated their own buzz, a number of lower-flying entries in the Toronto Film Festival pushed boundaries, possibilities and sometimes credibility.

    Hong Kong's Johnnie To may not be as famous as John Woo, but over the 25 years he's been working, To has earned a substantial artistic reputation alongside commercial success. At this year's festival he was represented by two genre films, the policier-with-a-twist "Breaking News," and the martial arts drama "Throwdown." It's been only a decade since he helmed exploitation fare like "The Heroic Trio," but both his Toronto entries are mature works exhibiting panache and wit as well as insight.

    "Breaking News"

    "Breaking News" begins in one 7-minute-long shot, with a pan down from Hong Kong's skyscrapers to a commercial side street to follow a gang of bank robbers under police surveillance. From the sidewalk where leather-jacketed mastermind Yuen (Richie Jen) holds vigil, the camera rises to reveal his cohorts in an upper story of the facing building. Nearby plain-clothes detective Cheung (Nick Cheung) and his colleagues are frustrated by the arrival of some street cops who demand to know what's inside the crook's duffel bag. Gunplay and a chase ensue in a fluid bravura single-take sequence that leads across town to an even more intense showdown before television cameras — and to the introduction of the film's heroine, a no-nonsense police inspector named Rebecca, portrayed by Kelly Chen ("Infernal Affairs III"). Rebecca comes up with the idea of beating the criminals at their own game by staging a massive investigation — involving some 30,000 police — and playing to the media at every step to enlist public support.

    Cheung the impulsive iconoclast rubs the humorless, methodical Rebecca the wrong way. As cops working the case from two different approaches they pose a duality which is mirrored by the outlaws they pursue, Yuen and a veteran assassin whose crew falls in with Yuen's when they hole up in a high-rise apartment complex and take a family hostage. At this point "Breaking News" dials down the action for a bit so that we can get to know the crooks. Via the family's PC, Yuen cyber-flirts with Rebecca and tells the hostage children he once wanted to be a cop. And then Yuen and the assassin discover that they are both gourmands, and cook a meal more delectable than the take-out the Hong Kong police force are chowing down for a press photo op.

    Johnnie To's Breaking News. in Toronto International Film Festival: Asia in Focus  
    Johnnie To's "Breaking News."
      
    "Throwdown"

    The end of "Breaking News," although predictable, is satisfying, a respectable close to a bang-up thriller. A more reflective picture is To's "Throwdown," his declared homage to Akira Kurosawa's 1943 judo pic "Sugata Sanshiro." While "Breaking News" takes place mostly in the glare of the sun and the media, "Throwdown" unfolds primarily at night within a shady underworld of nightclubs and game parlors populated by has-been martial arts practitioners, youthful dreamers and petty thugs. There's a lot more humor in this film, initially signaled by the entrance of the irrepressible Tony (Aaron Kwok), a wannabe judo star who throws down an oversized bouncer on a glistening neon-flooded street in the first of a number of exceptionally well photographed contests.

    Tony is intent on fighting the infamous Sze-to (Louis Koo), a once-dazzling judo star who, in the years following his no-show at a big match with older champion Kong (Tony Leung), has sunk into alcoholism. In his brief periods of sobriety Sze-to runs a nightclub, where he eventually auditions effervescent Mona (Cherrie Yong), a gamine with pop-star ambitions (never mind that she's already bombed in several countries). Before Sze-to returns to the dojo, he and Tony and Mona unite to hoodwink a loopy gangster (the slyly amusing Cheung Siu-fai), who divides his time between bullying small fry and obsessively playing pinball and air hockey at local arcades.

    A clever nightclub sequence in "Throwdown" has the camera crossing nimbly from table to table, encompassing three separate conversations. There are moments where the hero's drinking problem threatens to torpedo the story, as does a subplot involving an elderly sensei and his mentally retarded son. But the judo sequences choreographed by Yuen Bun and Alamdin Karum kick the action back into high gear, and the movie's conclusion is upbeat — even if at the end-credits an ad for Gillette marks a new phase in product placement.

    "House of Flying Daggers"

    While tighter and brighter than "Hero," "House of Flying Daggers," Zhang Yimou's second foray into period action epics, still has its dull spots. These occur chiefly during stops for narrative exposition, where the characters fill in background that really isn't all that necessary, as this goofy, high-spirited romance relies more on its spectacular choreography and lush visuals than story to weave its enchantment. It's packed with eye candy in every frame, especially those featuring the exquisite Ziyi Zhang, which thankfully are many: as the blind dancer Mei, the star attraction of a brothel that shelters spies for the titular rebel gang, she is an assured and commanding female lead, holding her own opposite co-stars Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau, who play Jin and Leo, provincial deputies of the fading Chinese emperor of the mid-9th century.

      Jia Zhangke's The World. in Toronto International Film Festival: Asia in Focus
      Jia Zhangke's "The World."
    Jin goes undercover to the Peony Pavilion to trap the rebel informant, and is drawn to Mei in the first of the movie's two showstoppers, a dance called the Echo Game. In ambitious scale, technical mastery and colorful pageantry, it's a scene that could belong to the great Hollywood musicals of the Fifties. The other knockout sequence takes place much later, when Jin and Mei are under attack in a bamboo forest. In between these striking set pieces, love, betrayal and swordplay alternate at a fair pace; what a shame that it all leads up to a ludicrously sudsy ending meant to inspire deeper emotions — not the giggles which filled the press screening.

    "The World"

    Speaking of musicals is an apt enough seguÄ to "The World," the latest film from China's Jia Zhang-ke. In his first work made with state approval, the director has crafted a love story that's intimate but feels much larger, due to its setting in an immense theme park outside Beijing. World Park replicates in miniature famous landmarks from across the globe, in front of which lines of showgirls perform daily in exotic folk costumes. The prettiest dancer is Tao (Zhao Tao, who starred in the director's previous features "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures"). Sounding a familiar theme in backstage stories, Tao's roles as a performer are a far cry from her lonely, restricted life behind the scenes.

    Tao's boyfriend, a security guard named Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), is eager to take their relationship to a more passionate level, but Tao resists. He starts a casual affair with an attractive married woman who runs a tailor shop specializing in designer knock-offs, and whose husband moved to France some ten years ago. Their liaison sounds a dark note in a screenplay that becomes increasingly downbeat as more players are introduced: a visiting Russian mother who is pressed into work as a "hostess" in order to feed her children back home; a rural cousin of Taisheng who dies of a heart attack from working double shifts in Beijing; Tao's rival who sleeps her way out of the chorus into management. Although the characters enjoy more mobility and personal freedoms than did earlier generations, the movie suggests that the cultural strains caused by China's burgeoning market economy and urbanization offset the gain in modest material comforts. Animated sequences involving instant messaging make the point that new technologies might connect people, but don't necessarily draw them closer. In the end, everyone is trapped, just like the tourists who will never travel beyond the theme park. "The World" is a melancholy film about quiet, desperate lives.

    "3-Iron" / "Spider Forest"

    Social commentary takes a back seat to the enigmatic romance at the heart of "3-Iron," by South Korea's Kim Ki-duk. While not as breathtaking as his last Toronto hit, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring Again," the new film was one of this year's standouts. Its story — offbeat and whimsical, before it takes a spiritual turn — begins as a Westernized middle-aged businessman practices his golf swing in his garden. Nearby, a handsome young motorcyclist named Tae-suk (Jae Hee) is going door-to-door taping advertising flyers over keyholes. When he returns days later, he'll know by the flyers still affixed which residents are away from home — then he'll break in, but not to steal. In exchange for temporary shelter, he acts as an unsolicited house guardian, cleaning and doing small repairs, then splitting just as the owners return.

    In this way Tae-suk winds up back at the wealthy executive's home, which he assumes is empty. He soon discovers that the man's battered wife has been left behind, a virtual prisoner while her husband's away. Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon) finds herself drawn to the gentle soul who's the polar opposite of her spouse, and she escapes with Tae-suk to share his adventures in house-sitting. They encamp in the homes of a photographer, a boxer, and a traditional couple, before chancing upon the apartment of an old man who has died alone. Here the story turns more somber, leading to the lovers' separation, more evil machinations by Sun-hwa's vengeful husband, and a supernatural element that is surprisingly effective.

    Kim Ki-duk's 3-Iron. in Toronto International Film Festival: Asia in Focus  
    Kim Ki-duk's "3-Iron."
      
    Part psychological thriller, part ghost story, another South Korean entry, Song Il-gon's "Spider Forest," is violent and creepy, with its gore carefully apportioned so that the shocks have some impact. Kang Min (Kam Woo-Sung) is a television producer fallen on hard times. After the loss of his wife Suh Eun-ah (Suh Jung of "Peppermint Candy"), he takes to drink and his work suffers. His fortunes look as though they will improve when he meets and woos a lovely colleague at the station, but on an assignment soon after, he comes across a grisly murder scene in the spooky woods surrounding a provincial town, and falls under police suspicion. In the course of his investigative reporting, he encounters a local photo-shop operator, Min Soo-in, who's a double for his dead wife. Although the story's denouement is telegraphed some forty minutes earlier, the movie has a moody texture that holds one's attention.

    "Ghost in the Shell 2" / "Steamboy"

    Two Japanese animÄ films by acknowledged masters of the genre are also of note; one is superb, the other, a disappointment. The noir "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence," Mamoru Oshii's sequel to his 1995 classic, surpasses the original. The metaphysical themes introduced in the first movie are further explored to richer effect in the second. This time around, Section 9 cyborg detective Batou and his partner Togusa investigate a rash of murders committed by "gynoids," designer female robot sex toys. The visuals — a blend of well-executed 2-D animation and lush computer-generated "3-D" imagery — are hypnotic, particularly in a lavish parade of mechanical dolls in a no-man's-land outpost on the fringes of the civilized world. The script is tightly written and emotionally resonant, and there are enough provocative literary bon mots to overcome the disdain of those who mistakenly believe animation is just for kids or geeks.

    Toronto also hosted the North American debut of "Steamboy," the latest animÄ by Katsuhiro Otomo ("Akira," "Rojin Z"). An ambitious quasi-historical epic set in Victorian England, the story follows the perils of young Ray Steam, whose father and grandfather are rival scientists working on harnessing the awesome power of the "steam ball," an atom-like sphere that contains the potential for world domination. The nineteenth century is fertile ground for exploring the collision of East and West; London's Great Exhibition of 1851, which forms the backdrop for "Steamboy," preceded by only two years Admiral Perry's U.S. Naval mission to end Japan's isolation from the rest of the world. But Otomo's theme — where the development of steam power (which led to Britain's early dominance in the Industrial Revolution) stands in metaphorically for the rise of nuclear power — is not developed coherently enough. Alongside real inventions like the steam locomotive, the film is padded with other, fanciful gizmos that belong more in the science fiction of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, and feel just as quaint. As overstuffed as the furniture so prized by the Victorians, "STEAMBOY" runs out of steam long before it's over. Thankfully, Sony has decided to trim the film before its March 2005 commercial release.

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    Toronto International Film Festival: Indie Features

    While big-studio boutique films generated their own buzz, a number of lower-flying entries in the Toronto Film Festival pushed boundaries, possibilities and sometimes credibility.

    DECEMBER 15, 2004
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK



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