Friday, September 07, 2007

Toronto International Film Festival Journal - Part One

Some observations about this year’s fest:

  • It feels like there are fewer films this year but I doubt that’s really true.
  • I’m hanging all of my movie choices around the Midnite Madness screenings and filling in the blanks with a few Triad, sci-fi, thrillers, documentaries, and assorted other film flotsam.
  • A number of movies I want to see are in the smaller VIP rooms, making me wonder if I’ll have to elbow my way in to these or if the demand simply isn’t there (and are my mainstream tastes out of whack)? Despite the addition of “Press Preference” screenings and the word “Press” on my pass, I’m marked with an “I” for “Industry,” leaving me on the second tier for seating and feeling a bit like Hester Prynne, two vowels removed.

Pre-Festival Screening:

SUNSHINE (Danny Boyle, 2007)

Oddly, the last time I was in a theater this small (Carleton) that wasn’t a screening room, it was a cinema at the Eaton Centre seeing another Danny Boyle film, SHALLOW GRAVE.

The thing I liked the most about SUNSHINE was the lack of a new crew member aboard the Icarus II spacecraft. There was no newbie acting as a stand-in for the audience and for other characters to painstakingly explain the mission of the crew: to reignite the sun. Life on board the ship bound for the dying sun didn’t require explanation. Between this acceptance of the audience’s intelligence and the grimier aspects of life aboard ship, SUNSHINE felt reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s ALIEN. Add to that a change in course (to rendezvous with the ill-fated Icarus I) that greatly increases crew mortality, and the similarities to the 1979 film become even more apparent—especially when the Icarus I provides some extra cargo.

Written by Boyle’s partner in crime, Alex Garland, SUNSHINE manages to feel a little fresh while being derivative of ALIEN, EVENT HORIZON, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE CORE, and a few other sci-fi flicks. This is courtesy of the overall look of the film (claustrophobic close-ups, shaking frames, images that threaten to disappear before they can be comprehended) and the hip electronica soundtrack of John Murphy & Underworld.

While the film deteriorates towards the end to a slasher film mixed with spiritual claptrap, the rest of the ride is just about enough to redeem this sour note for some. Too smart for the multiplex, this art house sci-fi film is worth a gander on a Saturday night of channel surfing.

The Festival Proper:

THE ORPHANAGE / EL ORFONATO (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007, Mexico)

Produced b Guillermo Del Toro, THE ORPHANAGE is a moody supernatural thriller that finds its roots in Carlos Enrique Taboada’s THE BOOK OF STONE / EL LIBRO DE PIEDRA, Tobe Hooper’s POLTERGEIST, and Del Toro’s own THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE / EL ESPINAZO DEL DIABLO. A tale of malevolent imaginary friends and past misdeeds, Bayona’s film finds Laura (the lovely Belen Rueda) returning to the orphanage where she grew up to now raise her adopted son, Simon (Roger Princep) along with her husband, Carlos (Fernado Cayo). Strange things are afoot at the gothic seaside locale and it doesn’t take long before Simon runs afoul of his newfound invisible pals.

It does take long, however, for Laura to realize what it will take to get her son back. The bulk of the film becomes the frantic couple’s search for answers as they desperately seek their missing son. They attempt means legal and astral to find Simon, all the while growing apart from one another due to Laura’s insistence that forces greater than those in the physical realm are at work.

Bayona builds tension via a prudent use of sound and keeps the audience in suspense more through what isn’t shown than what is. A taught, enjoyable ghost story, I look forward to what else Bayona has to offer in the future.

HOLLYWOOD CHINESE (Arthur Dong, 2007)

I have long been fascinated by the portrayal of Asians in the U.S. media. As a college student, I had a professor who presented a fascinating dissection of Asians as the mysterious “other” onto which Caucasian filmgoers could cast their projections and fears of femininity and strangeness. My professor, Susan M. White (The Cinema of Max Ophuls) took her class through a history of overt and obscure portrayals of Asians on screen from D.W. Griffith’s BROKEN BLOSSOMS to Howard Hawks’s THE BIG SLEEP to Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN with stops along the way.

Since then, I’ve kept careful watch when it comes to Asians in the media. Rather than the punchline/observation, “Why’s it gotta be a Black guy?” I often ask, “Why is this character Asian? Is it coincidental or is it saying something?” Like the cigar that’s often just a cigar, sometimes and Asian character is just an Asian character but, more often than not, there’s something else going on. Asians are too often marginalized and demonized in the U.S. media. They’re still the butt of too many jokes. It would be unacceptable, if not criminal, to treat other ethnicities with the same derision and callousness that Asians are shown. Stepin Fetchit may be gone but Long Duk Dong lives on.

However, Arthur Dong’s HOLLYWOOD CHINESE isn’t the story of Asian stereotypes in cinema and television… exactly. And it isn’t quite the history of Asians in the U.S. media either. It’s something of a scattershot documentary that tries to be too many things while not being enough of any one thing. At the heart of the film is THE CURSE OF QUON GWON by Marion Wong, a “lost” film directed by a Chinese American woman in 1917. This groundbreaking work was unearthed by director Wong. It feels as though HOLLYWOOD CHINESE came about as an afterthought around which to hang items around THE CURST OF QUON GWON like so much tinsel in a Christmas tree – it’s pretty to look at but there’s not a lot of substance.

What could have been a solid half hour short about Asian “race films” in Hollywood or an exhaustive ninety minute examination at “Asiansploitation” is, instead, a muddled amalgam of these subjects and more. There are interesting aspects of HOLLYWOOD CHINESE to be sure, such as the portrayal of Asians by whites in “yellowface” and the casting of Chinese Americans as Japanese combatants during WWII internment. Yet, the film never goes far enough. It seems that Dong has shackled himself with his subject matter as he always stops short when he strays too far from just Chinese to Chinese and Japanese.

There are observations about the insult of a Chinese American person playing a Japanese character in war time dramas but there’s no mention of the controversial casting of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA or anti-Japanese sentiments in FISTS OF FURY, GUNG HO, et cetera. And, while there’s an insightful bit about the question of masculinity of Asian characters—comparing Bruce Lee to M. Butterfly—this section is far too brief.

Subjects for further study that weren’t covered in this milquetoast documentary include the use of Asians as villains in the RUSH HOUR films, the blanched Asian of DIE ANOTHER DAY, the anti-Asian tone of LETHAL WEAPON 4 (“Flied lice, you plick”), the differences between Peter Lorre’s “Japanese” in the Mr. Moto films and Sydney Tolar’s “Chinese” in Charlie Chan and the “Chinaman” Kane in “Kung Fu.” Oh, and the “comedy” of Dat Phan would be good to examine too; I think everyone’s looking for an answer on that one (including Dat Phan).

Alas, HOLLYWOOD CHINESE aims high but falls far too short to be the film that it should have been.

No comments:

Post a Comment