Friday, September 12, 2008

TIFF '08: Kuroawa, Assayas, Kore-eda and others keep it all in the family

John Cale lives in a hippy commune in Patagonia. That’s really all I needed to know. A friend suggested I see Salamandra and, knowing full well of my special fondness for Cale and the Velvet Underground, he started his hard sell with the above item and I told him just to stop there. Cale’s brief, rather crazed appearances—chomping into glass, toying with a knife, singing in Spanish with a junkyard band, replete with a ragged chicken bone for percussion—comprise several of the highlights in Pablo Agüero’s feature debut, which follows a young single mother, freshly released from some sort of institution, as she uproots her six-year-old son from his established life with his grandmother and whisks him down to El Bolsón to live amongst the unwashed, the heavily bearded and the incense-drunk.

Agüero errs on the side of unimposing, his observational hand-held camera seeming to will precious little into action, counting on our connection to the protagonists, the boy in particular, and the rising absurdity of their deeply dubious attempts at roughing it in this cold, wet and largely unfriendly place to engage the viewer. The images frequently yield layers of metaphor, and the technique overall works well enough, though it’s difficult not to wonder if things couldn’t be pushed a lot farther, if the real hard work still to be done by Agüero wouldn’t involve driving his nervy, New-Agey, curly-haired mom past the point of mere constant nail-biting and deluded nattering. Still, an interesting, and certainly very sensitive picture that offers a glimpse at a most marginal life.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” so goes the famous opening sentence of Anna Karenina. Salamandra is just one of many films showing at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival that deal in some compelling manner with the grand old theme of family life, a theme that when applied to drama hardly requires the word ‘dysfunctional’ to be placed before it. Happy or unhappy, TIFF ’08 sees a number of families struggle to realize some fresh level of self-knowledge both for its parts and as a whole. And I think the finest—and funniest—example of this that I’ve managed to see came from one of the festival’s most pleasant surprises, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata.

Kurosawa is most famous for his distinctively brooding and image-centered horror films, such as Cure (1997), Charisma (00), Pulse (01), and my personal favourite, the über-creepy Séance (01). As far as I’m aware, Tokyo Sonata marks Kurosawa’s first stab at comedy, and I have to wonder if it isn’t in fact his real calling. His horror films are smart, infectious and remarkably chilling, but they can also be overly ponderous and, in the case of Pulse in particular, simply over-long and limpid. It’s difficult to describe just what a refreshing about-face this new film signals without simply seeing it for yourself. Yet it occurs to me that the film does actually have something in common with Cure: where the characters in the older film are afflicted with a disease that drives them to kill, the protagonists in this new film seem to be afflicted with one that makes them crazy to start their lives over—even the little kid.

The downsizing of Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), the result of his company’s outsourcing to cheaper China, is the catalyst. He goes home that night and begins the familiar charade, not telling his wife and children what’s happened and instead putting on the suit and pretending to go to work everyday. He mostly hangs out at the library and eats his lunch with the homeless. He meets another unemployed businessman who goes so far as to set his phone to ring every hour so can feign business calls in public—even though there’s usually no one around he could possible need to impress. It sounds pathetic, yet it actually impresses Ryuhei deeply. Ryuhei spends most of the movie looking like his head’s about to blow up, and I guess he can’t help but admire the other man’s mood-management.

We soon see that all three male members of the Sasaki clan are deceiving the family for their individual reasons, the quiet 12-year-old Kenji (Kai Inowaki) being the most sympathetic. When he’s suddenly struck one day by the lulling sounds emanating from a suburban piano class, Kenji asks his parents if he can take lessons and is brutishly denied by his newly emasculated dad, so he goes in secret, using his lunch money to pay. Meanwhile his remote older brother is secretly joining the US military just as they decide to send more troops to Iraq, and his over-burdened and under-loved mother is slowly descending into quiet desperation, nearing bottom and its accompanying implosion.

There are characteristically elegant, beautifully composed sequences here, such as the opening, in which papers blow through the empty house during a storm, or the moving finale, which manifests the title as something more than just an homage to Ozu’s classic. But much of Tokyo Sonata is sharply focused on clear, concise storytelling, terrifically goofy comic interplay, and steady character development, each strand of the narrative building to the point where there is a synchronicity of panic boiling over. It goes on for a while, but is never less than diverting and propulsive. There are moments of utter cruelty and hopelessness, yet Kurosawa somehow pulls things together in such a way that the film finally finds itself lighting upon a coda of redemption and new awakening.

If Ozu can be traced in the title and broad themes of Tokyo Sonata, from the intermediary landscape shots on down, he’s positively haunting virtually every aspect of Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, a heartfelt, often solemn, but still vivid, sensual, lovingly detailed and warm depiction of familial differences amongst adult children and their elderly parents, most of them irreconcilable. Centered quite simply around a family reunion, this is the sort of movie where no viewer can fail to recognize some fragment of their personal experiences. Kore-eda’s film was inspired by stories he was told by his own mother in the months before she died, and his story is very much informed by the absence of a key family member.

This same sort of near-palpable absence is equally essential to Oliver Assayas’ Summer Hours, which finds three adult and nearly estranged siblings—played by the impressive trio of Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jérémie Renier—negotiating their way through what seems an inevitable complete break with the past after the death of their mother, wonderfully played by Edith Scob, the striking actress who many years ago starred as the titular victim of Eyes Without a Face (60). Marred only by a few unneeded scenes of bathetic weeping, Assayas’ survey of the increasingly rapid erosion of artifacts that bind us to our families and our collective history is at times positively biting and all-too resonant. But the film is also brimming with humour and, with its special, loving attention to its younger supporting characters, is equally invested in nurturing a sense of regeneration.

Okay, one last film before I sign off here, and one which brings us back full circle to Latin America. Dioses is Josué Méndez’s second feature, and reveals a genuinely propositive sense of camera placement and movement. Concerning an upper-class Peruvian family that includes a father, a teenage daughter and son, and the father’s new girlfriend—a dead ringer for Halle Berry, should that grad your attention—Méndez takes a series of more or less conventional dilemmas—a party girl with an unwanted pregnancy; an angry young man sick with his sinking into bourgeois rot and in love with his sister; a gold-digger painfully ashamed of her indigenous background—and frames them in such a way that we’re often able to re-examine our assumptions. Ménez has a knack with these slow zooms out and back in he uses, his juxtaposing of music and image in seemingly contradictory ways, and his fun game of having characters move in and out of frame from unexpected places.

The way Méndez conveys Diego’s inner anguish in particular is frequently tender, perverse and hilarious all at once, cutting to Diego’s amusing permanent scowl at inspired moments. The treatment of Eliza on the other hand can feel trite, especially in the very cutty scene that finds her rehearsing inane comments to make when around her new coven of snobby middle-ages wives, but the performance of Maricielo Effio, which shifts in subtle ways, goes a long way to gaining our sympathies. She’s the bridge between the worlds of wealth and poverty in Peru that Méndez seems very keen on imparting upon us, though the handful of scenes with the servants are some of the most telling of all. These women, always present and rarely visible, are in their way members of the family themselves, interlopers into a realm of elitism that, as its portrayed here, seems on the brisk of collapse under its own dead weight.

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