2005 TIFF Update #9: "Asian Interests"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Friday, September 16, 2005

Pardon the short update today, but this is a travel day for me, as I return south from Toronto. I have twice stayed to the end (Saturday) and left feeling that I would have been better served by leaving earlier. The saturation point is usually reached on Wednesday, so after that it's a case of diminishing returns.

Toronto has always been an exceptionally good festival when it comes to highlighting Asian films (not surprising, considering the strong Asian influence in the community). This year, I saw three of these. All are examples of the kind of "below the radar" movies that I often see here but usually don't write about. This year, I decided to provide a short description of each in case they receive limited distribution. With the proliferation of foreign titles showing up on DVD, it's more likely now than at any time in the past that one, two, or even all three of these titles could become available.

Three Times is an intriguing movie from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien. Comprised of three 45-minute shorts starring the same male and female leads (Shu Qi, Chang Chien), the mini-films look at romance in three different time periods: 1911, 1966, and 2005. The first segment, which transpires in 1966, has the leads meet in a pool hall then correspond by mail once he joins the army. When he's home on leave, he tracks her down so they can spend time together. The 1911 episode is a drama between a master and his favorite concubine. He has promised her freedom, but she is so important to him that he cannot bear to let her go. Finally, in 2005, the female character is an epileptic singer involved with another woman as well as the man. Eventually, she turns her back on the lesbian, but there is a price to pay. Three Times features minimal dialogue. It is mostly about mood and images. The middle segment is an homage to the silent era. Although in color, this part is designed like a pre-talkie movie, complete with intertitles. I don't claim to have enjoyed this movie in a traditional sense. I appreciate its artistry and admire what it is attempting, but the characters are too cold and distant to capture my emotions. Still, if you have the chance, it's worth the effort to see. This is one of the two most unique films I saw at this year's festival. (I'll talk about the other one, Romance and Cigarettes, tomorrow.)

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the conclusion of South Korean director Park Chan-wook's "Revenge Trilogy." (The other two: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy.) Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) has just been released from prison and is determined to exact revenge upon the man who put her there. Not only did jail steal years from her life, but Geum-ja was forced to give up her baby daughter for adoption. Now, calling in favors owed to her by other prisioners, she executes a complicated scheme that will re-unite her with her daughter and settle her score. Then she learns a terrible, and unexpected, truth. The first hour of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance unfolds like a mobius strip, skipping randomly through time and occasionally doubling back on itself. Patience is necessary; eventually the pace slows enough for us to catch up. There is a shift in tone during the second half as Sympathy for Lady Vengeance turns into a meditation on the ethics of revenge, and the question of whether we ever see things clearly enough to argue that "the end justifies the means." Anyone who has enjoyed the filmmaker's previous works, especially Oldboy, will appreciate what this film has to offer. I liked it, but a word of a caution to would-be viewers: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance contains violence (some extreme), but it is not an action film. And the comedy is of the gallows variety.

The Asian film I liked the best, and the one I am hoping gets U.S. distribution, is another South Korean entry. From Hur Jin-ho, April Snow is a sad romance about two cuckolded spouses finding comfort in one another's company. In-su (Bae Young-joon) arrives at the hospital soon after he gets the news that his wife has been seriously injured in a car accident. Also at the hospital is Seo-young (Son Ye-jin), the wife of a man who was in the car with In-su's wife. It doesn't take long for In-su and Seo-young to deduce that their spouses were having an affair. A mutual need for comfort draws them together. They become friends, then more. But the imminent awakening of one injury victim and death of the other creates a gulf that neither In-su nor Seo-young may be able to breach. April Snow is a swirl of deeply-realized emotions that escape from the screen to grab the viewer. It's a touching love story about the ways in which people can find comfort in seemingly impossible circumstances. The acting is fantastic and, while the director doesn't saddle us with an improbable happily-ever-after ending, he concludes the film on a note of hope. When I am asked about the films I will remember most from the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, April Snow will be one of the first titles I mention. [Note: Reading through past festival notes, I discovered that I saw one of Hur Jin-ho's earlier movies, Christmas in August, during the 1998 TIFF. Here's an excerpt from what I wrote: "... this Korean import from director Hur Jin-ho is nothing short of magical. It's sad and uplifting at the same time - a delicately-crafted love story that embraces restraint rather than melodrama... Christmas in August is what its name implies: an unexpected treat. If it plays in a festival near you, don't miss it, especially if you're a romantic who appreciates movies not steeped in melodrama." Obviously, there has been no diminution in Hur Jin-ho's talents over the years.]

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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