2000 TIFF Festival Daily Update #6: "Back For More"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 12, 2000

If you discuss publicity with filmmakers, most of them will agree that it's by far the worst part of the process of giving birth to a motion picture. The traveling, the interviews... it's all a grind. Festivals like Toronto are a publicist's wet dream - after all, where else can so many people involved in the film industry be found at the same time? (Imagine what would happen to the entertainment business if someone dropped a nuclear bomb on Toronto this week.) Perhaps surprisingly, most directors enjoy Toronto - or at least as much as they can enjoy the experience of stepping out from behind a camera and in front of an audience. First-timers are often visibly nervous, but confidence comes with experience. The 2000 edition of the film festival features a lot of repeat offenders - those who have come back with their new films because (a) they enjoyed the experience in the past, (b) their publicists/distributors told them to, or (c) both.

Case in point #1: Steven Frears. In addition to being wined, dined, and otherwise honored by the festival this year (Frears was the subject of a gala retrospective of his work a couple of nights ago), Frears has brought his newest motion picture to Toronto. The movie, which bears the simple title of Liam, is a real winner and one of the festival's best entries. Throughout a long and varied career, Frears has proven to be one of those few, rare filmmakers who feels comfortable and has success working on both sides of the Atlantic. While it's difficult to single out any of Frears' films as the crown jewel in his body of work, Liam deserves a place alongside the likes of My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, and Dangerous Liaisons near the pinnacle.

The film is set in depression era Liverpool, where jobs are hard to come by and the seemingly-omnipotent Irish Catholic Church controls charity. Liam Sullivan (David Hart) is the school-age son of a proud father (Ian Hart) and a loving, determined mother (Claire Hackett). He also has an older brother and a sister, Theresa (Megan Burns), with whom he shares a close relationship. The story is presented mostly through the na´ve eyes of young Liam, who represents our gateway into the streets of Liverpool. We see his father lose his job then struggle with his inability to find meaningful work. His mother pawns off clothing and jewelry to keep food on the table. And Theresa, who works as a maid in a Jewish household, becomes her family's sole provider, bringing home table scraps to go along with the coins she is paid. Meanwhile, unrest on the streets grows as anti-Semitic fascists clash with Communists. And Liam discovers the pervasive power of religion, as his pre-First Communion lessons convince him that, after seeing his mother naked, he is headed for hell.

There is nothing that Liam attempts that it fails to do well. At times deeply moving and at other times subversively funny, this film sheds new light on an era in the British Isles that has been the subject of several recent movies (including 1999's Angela's Ashes). Yet, because the tone here is so definitive and the characters are so fully developed, nothing about Liam comes across as derivative or familiar. These are unique individuals whom we quickly come to care about, and each new struggle becomes important to us. There are no cardboard cut-out villains; those who act badly or viciously do so out of understandable human emotions. The clash between Jews, Catholics, and Protestants is laid out on a personal level far more than on a lofty, ideological one.

If an impoverished , 1930s Liverpool is Liam's setting, the teachings of Catholicism function as its foundation. Frears does a better job than most directors of presenting the guilt and fear used by the Church to influence its members without demonizing the men and women who deliver the message. The film offers an honest representation of the teachings that are drummed into the hearts and minds of children: the stain of sin can only be wiped away by confession, failing to make a true confession is a sacrilege, and those who die without having their souls washed clean will burn forever in hellfire. The language of the priests and schoolteachers is persuasive; watching Liam, it's not difficult to understand the Church's power in a neighborhood where Catholicism is a way of life and where not attending Sunday mass will set tongues to wagging.

In bringing Liam to the screen, Frears has tackled a number of hefty subjects, but, in the process of exploring each of them, he never loses sight of his four primary characters. As the father and mother, Ian Hart and Claire Hackett give stirring performances. Megan Burns' Theresa is a conflicted mix of innocence and guilt; she is a girl on the brink of womanhood who has suddenly been thrust into a position of extreme responsibility, where not only does she provide her family's lone source of stable income, but she is entrusted with secrets that eat at her conscience. And, as the young, stuttering Liam, David Hart offers an unaffected portrayal.

Frears ends the film with a powerfully ironic, poignant turn of fate that illustrates how deeply the sword of hatred can cut. Liam is the kind of motion picture that leaves an impression. Its masterful depiction of time, place, and characters, and its willingness to tell a story unfettered by formulaic cliches makes it one of the year's best cinematic offerings.

Another returning director at this year's festival is Marleen Gorris, whose past films Antonia's Line and Mrs. Dalloway have been TIFF favorites. In 2000, she has brought The Luzhin Defence with her. Based loosely on the novel by Vladimir Nobokov, this motion picture tells the unlikely story of a socially inept Chess Grand Master who finds love just as he is about to face the most pressure-packed challenge of his life.

Luzhin (John Turturro) is recognized as one of the greatest chess players of his era (which happens to be the late 1920s). Since the age of ten, his entire life has been devoted to chess. It has been an obsession and an addiction. It's the only thing he is good at and the only thing that has meaning for him. Until, while in Italy to play a match against his chief rival, he meets Natalia (Emily Watson), an elegant beauty who instantly captures his heart. He, in turn, despite his awkward manner and social ineptitude, touches her deeply - so much so that she describes him as the most "fascinating, enigmatic, and attractive man" she has ever met - much to the horror of her mother (Geraldine James), who wants her to marry someone better. But, even as Luzhin is finding a life outside of chess with Natalia, forces are conspiring against him. His old teacher (Stuart Wilson) wants to see him lose the match, and has taken steps to increase the pressure on Luzhin to the point where he will crack.

While one might initially suspect that a movie about chess would inherently be dull (the game itself not necessarily being the best spectator sport), The Luzhin Defence is actually an involving and compelling tale. The story is presented in two pieces: events unfolding in the film's present and flashbacks that illuminate how Luzhin became the person he is today. Both timelines converge at the end, when the movie reaches its powerful climax. Gorris frequently toys with symbolism concerning how Luzhin's life replicates the game he plays, but the film never becomes overbearing or bogged down in making such parallels.

The Luzhin Defence is character-driven, not plot-driven, so the weight of its success falls on the broad and capable of shoulders of John Turturro and Emily Watson, two consummate professionals who immerse themselves in their roles. Both are excellent, and it's somewhat of a refreshing change to see Watson playing a "normal" individual for once. Luzhin and Natalia's match is unconventional, but the actors allow us to believe in their love. It's also worth noting that Natalia's role has been beefed up from what it is in the book. Gorris, who is known for her strong female characters, increases the importance and scope of the part, thereby avoiding the problem of underutilizing an actress of Watson's capabilities and stature. The screenplay also includes an ending that was not in Nobokov's novel. While a little shaky dramatically, this sequence offers a sense of closure and is thematically sound.

With its sumptuous photography and deeply realized characters, The Luzhin Defence offers everything one could ask from a period piece, including an emotional release at the end that lacks the artifice associated with manipulative melodramas. This is a fine, thoughtful motion picture that effectively combines the maneuvers of the chess board with the unfathomable intricacies of the human heart.

Suspicious River is the name of the second feature film by Canadian director Lynne Stopkewich. Like her debut four years ago (the controversial Kissed), Suspicious River is being presented as part of the Perspective Canada program, and, as with all home-grown directors, Stopkewich is at the center of a publicity storm. Suspicious River is based on the novel by Laura Kasischke, and contains elements of sexual violence that may cause distributors to back off. Like Kissed, which explored the subject of necrophilia, this movie does some daring things; the result is powerful and disturbing.

Molly Parker, Stopkewich's lead in Kissed, stars as Leila, a receptionist at an out-of-the-way hotel who prostitutes herself to the male guests. For her, it's a compulsion. She doesn't really need the money and she gets no pleasure out of the act. She simply does it because she doesn't have a reason to stop. One day, a sexual encounter with a drifter, Gary (Callum Keith Rennie), turns violent and Leila is forced to re-evaluate the way she interacts with men. Afterwards, Gary is repentant, and, during a follow-up session, he shows Leila unexpected tenderness. With him, she begins to see the possibility of an end to her monotonous life, but the future is still not clear. Is Gary what he seems to be? And who is the vulnerable little girl that Leila keeps encountering?

Despite containing elements of a mystery and a thriller, Suspicious River is primarily a psychological study of why a woman would subject herself to the kind of degradation that Leila allows. She obviously has deeply rooted issues that touch on intimacy (her relationship with her husband is ice cold) and self-esteem. She sees her life as a dead end. In her words, "I was born in Suspicious River. I grew up in Suspicious River. I live in Suspicious River." Absent, but implied, is he phrase "I will die in Suspicious River." Gary's interest in her awakens the possibility that she might be able to escape from the life that has thus far imprisoned her.

The film is constructed as a puzzle, with the little girl's storyline paralleling that of Leila. The deeper we get into the film, the closer we come to understanding the connection between them, although the final revelation isn't presented until the climactic sequence. Suspicious River is not an easy film to sit through, although it is compelling. Molly Parker gives a wonderful, courageous performance in a difficult role. And Stopkewich stops short of portraying any graphic violence. Most of the most disturbing activities take place just off-camera, allowing our imaginations to conjure up horrifying images. There are some things that don't need to be seen, and there's enough harrowing material on screen in Suspcious River to shock those who aren't into cinematic risk-taking.

Finally, a fourth returning director is Ang Lee, who was in Toronto one year ago with Ride With the Devil. This time, Lee's feature is an entirely different sort of affair, the critically celebrated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an epic martial arts film that combines incredible action sequences with elements of romantic melodrama and superhero derring-do. As visually stunning as it is inventive, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is sure to have an immediate following when it reaches theaters later this year.

Taking place during the long-ago era of the Qing dynasty, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gives us a trio of larger-than-life characters: the great martial arts master, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), whose near-invincibility makes him the Superman of his day; the love of his life (for whom he has never openly acknowledged his feelings), female warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh); and the powerful-but-innocent Jen (Zhang Ziyi), who is wandering down a path towards evil. The story hinges on Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien's attempts to retrieve the legendary sword Green Destiny, which has been stolen from its rightful owner, and the manner in which that quest places Li Mu Bai into conflict with his old adversary Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), the woman who killed his master.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is based on an early 20th century novel by Wang Du Lu, unfolds much like a comic book, with the characters and their circumstances being painted using wide brush stokes. Subtlety is not part of Lee's palette; he is going for something grand and melodramatic, and that's what he gets. His protagonists are bigger than life and their quest is the kind of epic endeavor that pits good against evil, with an innocent caught in between.

The hallmark of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is its standout action sequences, of which there are five or six (depending on how you count). All of them are eye-popping and spectacularly choreographed (by Yuen Wo-Ping, who worked on The Matrix -- a connection that is immediately identifiable) with special effects being used to enhance the natural athleticism of the participants. (Although, in some of the sequences, the special effects are not transparent, which hurts the film's ability to suspend disbelief. Even the momentary jolt offered by recognizing the employment of a computer-generated image can hurt the film's flow.) The best of these sequences is an amazing rooftop chase that has two characters relentlessly pursing one another from one side of Beijing to the other, using a Peter Pan-like ability to almost fly. It's beautifully filmed, perfectly composed, and thrilling from start to finish. Another segment worth mentioning is a battle in the treetops, where the opponents leap from branch to branch as they do battle. This is the kind of action I have never before seen.

Humor plays as important a part in the film as the romance and adventure. Lee includes a couple of characters who are on hand for comic relief, and one of the battles leavens the action with laughter. The director is constantly winking at the audience, reminding viewers not to take anything too seriously - not that such an approach is likely considering the nature of the film. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is designed for what it delivers: pure entertainment and spectacular martial arts encounters.

For his leads, Lee has chosen a pair of Hong Kong cinema veterans who are capable of handling both the physical and the dramatic rigors of their roles. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh have considerable international followings, and for good reason. (Although, after appearing in Hollywood productions like Anna and the King, Chow is gaining mainstream North American recognition). The actors live up to their reputations here, and they are ably supported by Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen (playing Jen's lover, Black Cloud).

Thematically, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not entirely barren. It ruminates on the true nature of freedom and how everyone, no matter what their circumstances are, is a prisoner of one sort or another. Of course, Lee doesn't dwell on issues of great depth, but their presence gives the film a more solid foundation than that of most action pictures, which are composed in a morass of mindlessness. Yet, even were that element lacking, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would still be one of the year's best examples of pure entertainment. It's a hell of a lot of fun.

Of course, Frears, Gorris, Stopkewich, and Lee are not the only returning directors to Toronto, but their films are among the highest profile and/or most anticipated entries. Only Stopkewich's Suspicious River has not yet attained a U.S. distributor, but that hasn't stopped the film from garnering attention. Another director back for a second engagement whom I have not yet mentioned is Tom Tkywer, whose The Princess and the Warrior is one of this year's Special Presentations. But I'll postpone my discussion of the follow-up to Run Lola Run until tomorrow.

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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