Wednesday, October 8, 2008

PIFF: Day Three

Routine Holiday, the second feature by mainland Chinese filmmaker Li Hongqi, wants to depict lives without interest or curiosity. That is its purpose. The story takes place on a national holiday, but the characters have nowhere to go and nothing to do. Occasionally, some one puts on a video. If the TV ever broke down, it would be a major catastrophe. Luckily for the characters, however, this is not a film of such dramatic heights. I will say this for the film: I'm not unhappy I saw it.

The film opens with a title informing us that, in 316 B.C., Aristotle discovered the world was round. Cut to a shot of flat, empty land as far as the eye can see. After some time, a boy and his father enter the frame. "This is a field," explains the father. "F-I-E-L-D, field." They pay a visit to Tuo Ga, a friend of the father, who lives in a drab apartment in a grey tenement building with bare walls and hideous furniture. Soon, another friend, Xiao He, joins the party. Since Tuo Ga only has one glass, he goes next door to borrow one from his neighbor, who's entertaining his brother. That's as much of the plot as I care to reveal.

The characters take no joy in each other's company. To pass the time, Tuo Ga poses riddles to the boy, who stares blankly into space. Talking about a fried chicken in a plastic bag, Xiao He says, "If the chicken knew he'd end up like this, his heart would've broken." Tuo Ga disagrees: "You don't know a chicken's thoughts." There are numerous shots of the characters sitting motionless, staring into space, with only the sound of a ticking clock on the soundtrack.

The film was not well received at the 10 AM screening Heather and I attended Sunday morning. There was a steady stream of walk-outs, and I'm sure there would've been more if half the audience weren't asleep. We didn't stay for the Q&A since it was in Korean and Chinese, but what was there to ask? Sometimes still waters are just still.

It's too soon to say whether or not Adoration is Atom Egoyan's best film (which by default would make it the greatest film ever made in Canada), but I can say with absolute certainty that it's far and away the most interesting and powerful film I saw at PIFF this year, in large part because it was practically the only film I saw that was ambitious enough to actually be about something. I'm looking at you, Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

The film is about a Toronto high school student, Simon (Devon Bostick), whose French teacher, Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian), has the class translate a newspaper article about a pregnant woman who was stopped at airport security trying to board a plane to Israel. When Simon interprets the article from the perspective of the woman's unborn child (in English), Sabine, who also teaches drama, encourages him to develop it and present it to his classmates. When Sabine asks him if what he's writing is true, Simon says he's just making it up. However, he presents it to his classmates as fact, and on the internet the project takes on a life of its own. This description doesn't begin to do the film justice, but I don't want to reveal too much for those who haven't seen it yet.

As you'd expect from Egoyan, the film is never less than fascinating as a piece of storytelling. Cutting between multiple storylines and time frames, the film challenges us to keep up with it. And again Egoyan shows himself to be a master of exposition, dolling out information gradually throughout the film. But what makes this a great film (as opposed to merely a good one) is Egoyan's ambition to grapple with big subjects. A bold, provocative, deeply moving film, it puts to shame the other films I saw at PIFF for their timidity.

I haven't seen Terence Davies early features, The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984), Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), all of them set in his hometown of Liverpool, but on the strength of The Neon Bible (1995)--a dreamlike adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's first novel (which I haven't read) about the American South in 'Scope--it's easy to see why some reviewers consider him the greatest living British filmmaker. His subsequent The House of Mirth (2000) was therefore doubly disappointing, both as an adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel and for Davies' inability to make the material his own stylistically.

His first film since then, Of Time and the City is a first-person documentary about Liverpool's recent history, and Davies' poetic narration is often scathing, taking aim at sacred cows like the Catholic church, the Queen and the Beatles. The image track, on the other hand, consists almost entirely of newsreel footage that illustrates the text in the most unimaginative fashion possible. A segment on Davies' love of Hollywood movies employs clips of Hollywood stars like Gregory Peck walking down the red carpet, scored to "Hooray for Hollywood." (Leos Carax made more original use of red carpet footage in his short Sans titre [1997], which you can watch on YouTube.) When Davies stops talking and lets the footage speak for itself (although it's always accompanied by music or, more rarely, archival audio that I found difficult to understand), I tended to tune out.

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