Sunday, September 20, 2015

Movie: TIFF 2015 - Part 2

Every year at TIFF, we like to watch a few Canadian movies to support our local filmmakers.  This year, our favourite was a satire about Canadian politics called My Internship in Canada, which reminds me quite a bit of Terry Fallis' award winning book The Best Laid Plans.  Directed by French-Canadian Philippe Falardeau (who also directed the Oscar nominated film Monsieur Lazhar), this movie deals with a quick-thinking, philosophy-quoting Haitian named Souverain who travels to rural Quebec to work as an intern for MP Steve Guibord, a former hockey star.  Steve and Souverain deal with a slew of problems including settling a dispute between the Aboriginal Indians vs. the logging industry, which results in multiple protests and road blockages.  Steve also needs to decide whether or not to send Canadian troops to war, when somehow he ends up being the swing vote and is pressured from both sides as to how to vote.

The actor who plays Souverain simply lights up the screen with his incredulous but delighted smile as he learns the ropes of Canadian politics.  His Skype chats with his family and villagers back home are hilarious as he describes the dicey situations and they question why Steve doesn't just lead a coup, as would be the case in Haiti.  Actor Patrick Huard (who we previously watched in the comedy Starbuck) spoke briefly before the movie and said that a frequent question he gets is whether his role as Steve was based on a real politician.  He replied that since the character was written as an upstanding, moral, intelligent man that was full of integrity, then no, this could not possibly be based on any real politician.  My Internship in Canada was light-hearted, entertaining fun, which came as a nice change after attending a slew of tense or depressing movies back to back.

As much as it might be easy to poke fun at or criticize our own political or judicial systems, watching movies dealing with the state of affairs in India provides a jolting reminder of just how lucky we are and how good we have it here in Canada.  The movie Guilty deals with an actual case where a 14-year-old girl named Shruti is found murdered in her bed and a servant is found with his throat slit on the floor below.  The initial investigation is so incompetently botched by the local police that all forensic evidence becomes contaminated.  Based on conjecture, innuendo and circumstantial evidence, the police arrest Shruti's father on the theory that where was a liaison between the child and the servant, and that this is an honour killing.

The case is reassigned to a much more competent external investigation unit led by the head detective played by famous Indian actor Irrfan Khan (from The Lunchbox).  Although Khan's character easily pokes holes into the original case against the father, he has difficulty finding hard evidence against his suspects due to the ineptitude of the original investigation.  He resorts to questionable means including coercion, police brutality and the dodgy use of truth serum which produces confessions from the perpetrators.  Just when it seems like Khan will get a conviction, politics, favoritism and corruption come into play and his evidence is questioned due to his dubious tactics.  A third task force is assigned to the case and reverts to the initial theory that the parents were responsible for the deaths.  Even though there is still no plausible evidence, the parents are convicted and sent to jail where they still are today.

The scenarios proposed by each of the investigative units is shown in Rashomon fashion.  While it is not known which one (if any) is correct, it is clear that the movie favours the second theory.  During the Q&A, the director and Khan talked about the amount of research that was done on this case in preparation of the movie, how shocked they were at the miscarriage of justice, and how they hoped that publicity from the movie might lead to reexamination of the case.  The movie is meant to be an indictment on India's judicial system.

Angry Indian Goddesses is another movie that shines light on social issues within India, particularly regarding the treatment of women.  It starts out profiling six feisty, independent Indian women and their battles against male chauvinism and misogyny.  Jo is a Bollywood actress who wants to kick butt as opposed to being the damsel in distress.  Madhurita (Mad) is a singer being heckled during her set.  Pam, the housewife, is oogled while she jogs on the treadmill.  Suranjana is the workaholic head of a company who ignores her daughter as she tries to make it in a male-dominated industry.  Frieda is a photographer who wants to make art as opposed to taking commercial photos objectifying women.  Frieda's maid Lakshmi holds her own when she is harassed walking to the market.

The women gather and bond at what turns out to be Frieda's bachelorette party, although she is coy about who she is about to marry.  She will only reveal that it is someone her father does not approve of and therefore refuses to attend the wedding.  Eventually we learn that Frieda is gay and about to marry Nargis, an environmental activist who has had run-ins with Suranjana's company.  Gay marriage is not legal in India and so they hope for a private symbolic ceremony with their closest friends.  The first two thirds of the movie is filled with fun, laughter and beautiful shots on the beach as we get to know each of the seven women.  There are poignant moments as each woman is profiled with a scene describing the issues she faces.  Mad has been suicidally depressed about her failing music career.  Pam wants to leave her unhappy marriage and start her own business.  Frieda and Nargis acknowledge that they will be facing a future of prejudice and homophobia.  Suranjana is made to realize how neglected and lonely her daughter has been.  But the most gripping story belongs to the maid Lakshmi, who cannot get justice for her murdered brother, even though she witnessed the crime because her lone testimony as a woman is not taken seriously.

The mood of the movie takes a sharp U-Turn in the final act when a heinous crime is committed against one of the group.  Given their past experiences, the remaining women feel that they need to take matters into their own hands as the only way to punish the perpetrators.  Despite its initially light tone, the purpose of Angry Indian Goddesses is ultimately to shed light on the massive issue of violence against women.  Three of the stars from the movie came rushing in just in time for the Q&A.  They had just come from learning that their film was the runner up for the festival's coveted Grolsch People's Choice Award.  They informed us that much of the dialogue was improvised and that it was impossible for them to watch the movie without crying.  When asked the reason for the sudden turn in the tone of the movie, they said that it reflected real life–sometimes bad things just happen, and in India, they happen more often than not.

The German film The People vs Fritz Bauer was interesting to watch since it deals with the same character and period in history (late 1950s) as the film Labyrinth of Lies from last year's TIFF, but from a different perspective.  Both films follow the hunt for Nazi war criminals and collaborators, spearheaded by lead prosecutor Fritz Bauer.  In Labyrinth of Lies, Bauer was just a peripheral character who assigns the task of chasing Nazis to fictional junior prosecutor Johann Radmann.  In The People vs Fritz Bauer, the titular character has the leading role  and we find out much more about him that in the previous movie.  Being Jewish in a Germany where antisemitism still runs rampant, Bauer is sent threatening hate mail including a bullet wrapped in a swastika flag and is hindered at every turn in his investigation.  We also learn that Bauer is gay–a fact that if proven, could undermine his position in the prosecutors' office.  This movie focuses on the search for Nazi SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann who has been tracked to Argentina.  When Bauer and his protegé, another fictional junior prosecutor named Karl Angermann, are unable to get support from their own government to capture Eichmann, Bauer secretly enlists Israel's intelligence service Mossad to complete the mission.


Schneider vs Bax is a deliciously funny dark comedy-thriller from the Netherlands with unexpected twists, great dialogue and intriguing peripheral characters.  Schneider and Bax are both assassins for hire, each inexplicably hired by the same client to kill the other one.  Schneider must travel to Bax's remote cottage located in a dense swamp to make the hit.  All along the way, the client Mertens is checking in on Schneider's progress and then secretly informing Bax so that he can set up an ambush.  The fun starts when the Mertens accidentally texts Schneider when he meant to text Bax, thus tipping off Schneider that this is a trap.  This sets up a cat and mouse game between the two men as they stalk each other throughout the swampland.

In addition to dealing with each other, both Schneider and Bax have to contend with other characters that interrupt their assignments.  Bax insensitively dispatches his girlfriend Nadine to prepare for a visit by his neurotic and depressed daughter Francisca. Things are further complicated by the arrival of his lecherous father Gerard who has designs on Francisca, and the return of spurned Nadine accompanied by her muscular friend Jules.  One of the most hilarious scenes occurs when Jules boasts that he could beat up Bax with his thumb alone, to which Bax retorts by cooling shooting off that thumb.  Circumstances force Schneider to take on an unwelcome passenger / hostage named Gina, who both hampers and helps him.

Schneider and Bax takes place over one day, but was shot mostly outdoors over a period of 50 days, making it difficult to look like the same day in terms of weather.  The location of the shoot was in a protected sanctuary so there were times when the director had to wait for bird eggs to hatch before filming could continue.  The way the various characters waded in and out of the swamp waters had the feeling of a bedroom farce, where instead of slamming of doors, there was sinking into the mud.

We watched two Asian crime syndicate action flicks that turned out to be very different in tone and theme.  The South Korean cop movie Veteran is the typical fare providing fast-action fun including kung-fu fighting, pakour-styled foot pursuits and spectacular car chases. There is the usual trope of the tough, honest but over-zealous cop, Detective Seo, who is not adverse to crossing the line into police brutality in order to get his man.  He is up against an ultra-rich, over privileged head of a corporation who is brutal, corrupt and trying to start up a crime organization. The story line for Veteran is quite predictable, but the movie gives you everything that you would expect for its genre–snappy humourous quips from Seo, exhilarating fight scenes and a rollicking good time.

It was the Chinese gangster movie Mr. Six that defied expectations with its deep, meaningful themes about the generational gap between old and new China, and the lament that the old concepts of tradition and honour are a thing of the past.  Mr. Six was once the leader of a street gang that ruled the streets of Beijing with a moral code and strict rules of engagement.  Arguments were settled fairly with a pre-arranged good old-fashioned gang rumble behind the Imperial Summer Palace.  Now retired, Mr. Six lives quietly in the Hutong neighbourhoods, but is still respected and to some degree feared by his peers and even the local police.  He realizes how much times have changed when his estranged son Xiao Bo gets kidnapped by a new street gang of ultra-rich over-privileged punks (this point is similar to the movie Veteran) who drag race fancy sports cars.  Xiao Bo is held for ransom after he scratches the car of the gang leader following an altercation, and it is up to his father to rescue him.

Circumstances cause this minor dispute with the young street gang to escalate into a feud with a powerful mob syndicate.  This all leads up to the climatic confrontation at the end of the movie where Mr. Six arrives alone kamikazi-style with a long sword to do battle while his reunited former gang members race to support him.  Just when you think you are going to get the reenactment of The Gangs of New York finale where the various gangs rush towards each other, the director totally surprises you with a beautifully shot, almost poetic ending that defies the clichés of the genre.

Surprisingly for a gangster movie, there is very little on screen violence or bloodshed as much of the fighting happens in the background.  Instead the director focuses on character development and the relationships between Mr. Six and his son, girlfriend, friends and even some of his adversaries who eventually come to admire and respect him.  In fact, the movie plays more like an old Western where the hero lives by his own set of principles and values honour above all.

The actor, Xiaogang Feng, who played Mr. Six is apparently very famous in China because the audience of predominantly Chinese origin audibly gasped and then erupted in applause when he came out with the rest of the cast and the director.  The director indicated that in addition to highlighting communication issues between parents and children, this movie also focuses on the problems arising from China's over-rapid development.

Another foreign film that does not follow the usual tropes of North American thrillers is the Romanian movie One Floor Below.  Coming home from walking his dog, Sandu Patrascu overhears a violent argument between two of his neighbours Laura and Vali, who are obviously having an affair.  When Laura ends up dead, Sandu decides to mind his own business and not tell the police, even though he is quite sure who the killer is.  But things get tense when Vali starts showing up at Sandu's house and ingratiating himself with Sandu's wife and son.

Described as "an expertly executed slow-burn thriller reminiscent of Hitchcock's Rear Window", it soon becomes clear that there are cultural differences regarding what constitutes a thriller.  There is no suspenseful mood music, no surprise scares and no violence, bloodshed or gore.  When the dog played so prominently in the early scenes, I whispered to my seatmate that most likely, that dog was toast!  But nothing happens to the dog or anyone else. Instead, the movie plays out more as a character study and a commentary on the "don't get involved" mentality in Romania. So this so-called thriller was not very thrilling but it was still an interesting movie. 

The Japanese film Our Little Sister is by far the sweetest movie that I watched this year.  Based on a manga (Japanese comics), it is about three sisters who were abandoned by both parents years ago when their father took off to be with another woman, and their vain, flighty mother left them with their grandmother shortly after.  The eldest sister Sachi basically raised her sisters Yoshino and Chika.  The three travel to a remote village to attend their estranged father's funeral.  There they meet their younger half sister Suzu, who has been left alone with an uncaring stepmother after her father's death.  Feeling empathy and sharing Suzu's plight at being abandoned by her own mother, the sisters ask her to come live with them.

Had this been a North American movie, there would be more forced drama, jealousy or angst, either between the sisters or with one of the deserting mothers.  Instead, other than some minor sibling squabbles, the four sisters treat each other with nothing but love and affection.  When an aunt questions taking in Suzu by saying "She may be your little sister, but she is also the child of the woman who destroyed your family", Sachi sensibly replies that it wasn't her fault and that she wasn't even born when their father left.   In another movie, Suzu would have trouble adapting to her new home or school, but here, she fits in right away and is very popular. Sachi and Suzu do help each other deal with their internalized feelings of abandonment by their respective parents.  In a cathartic scene, the two scream their frustrations while standing at the top of a hill overlooking the valley. 

The movie is beautifully shot, showcasing Japan's mountains, lakes, beaches and cherry blossom trees.  Our Little Sister delves into the characters and romantic relationships of each of the four sisters.  Sachi is in love with a married man, making her more understanding of the affair between Suzu's mother and their shared father.  Yoshino dates losers and then gets drunk after they dump her.  Chika seems to have a nice normal boyfriend (not much drama here) while a classmate has a crush on Suzu.  I had a smile on my face the entire time while watching this pleasant, gentle movie by the same director (Hirokazu Koreeda) who brought the movie Like Father, Like Son to TIFF a few years back.

The U.K. movie The Lady in the Van is based on a true story that was first written up as a book and then turned into a stage play before it made its way to the cinema.  In the 1970s, an eccentric, ornery and delusional old woman named Mary Shepherd convinces author and playwright Alan Bennett to allow her to temporarily park her dilapidated live-in van in the driveway of his home in Camden, a northern suburb of London.  She was only supposed to stay there for a few weeks, but somehow, the arrangement continued for over 15 years.  While the neighbours initially looked upon her in disdain, they eventually accepted and adopted her, bringing her food and giving her Christmas presents.  Maggie Smith is amazing as she reprises the role of Miss Shepherd, which she also performed in the stage play.  Through Smith's portrayal, it was clear that while Shepherd slightly mentally deranged, she was also strong-willed and lived life on her own terms.

In the Q&A, the director Nicolas Hytner revealed that he actually lived in the area during this period and had noticed the van when he visited Alan Bennett, but did not realize its significance.  Being British, he had been too polite to ask, and this applied to many of Bennett's other friends as well.  Hytner felt this story showed the British did have the capacity for kindness, since the entire neighbourhood rallied behind and protected Miss Shepherd.

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