TIFF Report - The Ninth Day, The World, Kontroll Reviews, and some closing thoughts
This is my last report from the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay in Toronto for the entire film festival, which meant that I missed a lot of anticipated films that played only during the last few days ("Steamboy", "Vital", "Zebraman"). However, I did manage to catch three films before returning to America's heartland.
First up was Volker Schlondorff, "The Ninth Day". Schlondorff is perhaps most famous for 1979's controversial "The Tin Drum", which looked at the rise of fascism and the passivity of people in light of Nazism's rise through the eyes of a child who refuses to grow up. With "The Ninth Day", Schlondorff looks at a related topic; the passivity of the Catholic Church to condemn the activities of the Nazis.
The main character is Henri Kremer, a priest from Luxembourg who was sent to a concentration camp for being in the resistance movement. Convinced he's about to be killed, Kremer is suddenly released on a 9 day furlough, ostensibly for his mother's death. In reality, the SS hope to use him against his bishop, who has been protesting the Nazi presence and their activities. Haunted by the cruelty he's seen and tortured by the things he's done to survive, Kremer seems like the perfect tool for his SS handler, the intelligent and persuasive Gebhart.
Gebhart had studied to be a priest himself, before abandoning the clergy to join the Nazis, and he knows Catholic theology as well as Kremer, if not better. A broken man, Kremer seems no match for Gebhardt's seductive arguments, which often revolve around the character of Judas. Gebhart argues that Judas was a hero, who sacrificed himself for a greater cause, and urges Kremer to do likewise. Although Kremer finds such thinking abhorrent, he can scarcely come up with any better, as his faith has taken a serious toll because of his experiences.
It's a fairly sensitive topic, but Schlondorff handles it extremely well. Ulrich Matthes gives an amazing performance as Kremer, his gaunt visage and sunken eyes perfectly conveying the priest's turmoil. However, it's August Diehl who steals the show as Gebhart, the seductive and intelligent SS handler who is under considerable pressure himself from his superiors to crack Kremer.
I attended several Q&A sessions throughout the festival, but Schlondorff's following "The Ninth Day" was easily the best. Several great (and potentially troublesome) questions were asked, but Schlondorff answered them all thoughtfully and intelligently.
One thing I've noticed about several films I saw at this year's festival was the importance of setting. From the eerie countryside of "After The Day Before" to the desolate spaces of "Schizo" to the mythical South of "Undertow", the settings in many of the films I saw proved to be just as much a character as any member of the cast. That was doubly the case with "The World", Jia Zhang-ke's latest film (and the first that hasn't been banned in his native China).
On the surface, "The World" just shouldn't work (and for most people, it probably won't). There's little to no plot, characters drift in and out of the film, and the whole thing seems to have absolutely no direction whatsoever. As such, it could easily be written off as pointless and pretentious. However, I often found myself completely riveted throughout the film's 140 minutes, simply because of the world (npi) that it displayed. Set in a giant theme park called "World Park", which recreates many of the famous landmarks of the world (The Eiffel Tower, Leaning Tower Of Pisa, The Vatican) for Chinese tourists, "The World" is imbued with a very surreal sense of place which often proves more fascinating than any of the characters.
The one storyline that comes anywhere close to resembling a movie plot centers on the rocky love story between two park employees - a dancer named Tao and a security guard named Taisheng. However, the film is ultimately composed of lose vignettes, as these characters drift between the structures of "World Park". I can see how this could be very frustrating for many viewers, but "The World" was definitely one of the more intriguing films I saw.
I only saw 3 midnight screenings this year, and unlike last year's, which were some of the highlights of that festival for me, this year's felt rather lacking. In the case of "Kontroll", it's because the movie never delivers on the incredible amount of potential it had. Set in the subways that sprawl beneath Budapest, the film follows Bulcsu and his team of subway inspectors. The black sheep of the department, Bulcsu and Co. are scorned by their co-workers and hated by the subway patrons. Making things even worse is a serial killer that's wandering the subways, randomly pushing people into the paths of oncoming trains.
Despite having a cool premise, some great characters, a great setting (again, another film where the setting was almost more intriguing than the film itself), some cool visuals, and a ton of energy - in other words, everything you need for a great midnight film - "Kontroll" went nowhere. At first, I thought the director was just taking his time building up the characters, and that he was setting the stage for a whiz-bang third act. Unfortunately, the third act, and with it the film's climax, came and went with nearly so much as a whimper, despite the fact that it was constantly hinting at something much bigger and cooler. And nevermind all of the plot threads that remain unresolved at the film's end.
A few inspired set pieces take place - there's a chase sequence involving Bulcsu's team and a young troublemaker that was one of the funnest things I saw all festival-long, and the film's deadpan introduction drew laughs from the entire theatre - but I've rarely seen a film so squander it's considerable potential. Sigh...
Perhaps part of my somewhat underwhelmed reaction had to do with Colin Geddes announcement, right before the film started, that "Kung Fu Hustle" had been damaged and would not be showing the next morning. "Kung Fu Hustle" was going to be the last film I saw before I left, and I was very excited at the prospect of leaving Toronto with the sights and sounds of Stephen Chow's latest ringing in my head. Indeed, I was somewhat disappointed by the fact that, while I'd seen a lot of good films, I hadn't seen any that completely blew me away. Some, like "House Of Flying Daggers", came pretty close. But there was nothing that matched up to the experience of seeing, say, "Save The Green Planet" last year. I was hoping "Kung Fu Hustle" would be that special "knock your socks off" movie, but alas, it wasn't meant to be.
And so ends my TIFF 2004 coverage. Many thanks to Todd for letting me crash at his place (and raid his DVD collection), and to all of the people I met (Andrew, Nick, Robert, Darren) for the good times. I'm looking forward to everyone else's reviews of the great films I'm missing, and also to next year's fest. Thanks for reading and enjoy the rest of the 2004 coverage. I know I will...