1998 Toronto International Film Festival Update #6: "Winding Down in Obscurity"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 19, 1998

Everyone who goes to a film festival has a different reason for making the effort. Some go to see the kind of obscure foreign and independent fare that will never receive a theatrical distribution. Some go to see the World Premieres of the big autumn releases. Some go because there's a particular program -- like the New Beat of Japan or Perspective Canada -- that piques their interest. The one thing that almost every festival-goer has in common is a love of cinema. After all, what other reason could there be for standing in long lines in the rain, enduring cramped viewing conditions where every seat is occupied, and suffering through wild temperature changes as the air conditioning attempts to stabilize the environment?

At festivals like Toronto, I try to vary my viewing habits. As a critic, one of my reasons for being at the festival is to "cheat" -- that is, to get an advance preview of some of the most anticipated end-of-year pictures. This approach helps me to get the reviews out on time. I also go to Toronto because it's the best place to get together with other critics to talk. Whether at a coffee house, in a theater before the lights are dimmed, or over dinner, these conversations are as important (if not moreso) than the actual films. After all, where else can I spend an hour of intense discussion with Roger Ebert, Jim Emerson, Harlan Jacobson, and a few others? In between the meals and the big release movies, I catch a few no name, no distributor films. Some turn out to be duds; others are gems. This year, most of these came at the tail end of the festival, and I'd like to highlight a few here (the only major picture I saw on Friday was Pleasantville, which I'll mention briefly tomorrow, when I wrap up the festival coverage).

Out of the Masters program came Divine, the latest offering from Mexican director Arturo Ripstein. The film has a great premise: a cult of religious fanatics, fearing the millennium will bring about the end of the world, hole up as an isolated community under the control of powerful matriarch. Their culture is heavily influenced by Hollywood Bible epics; Charlton Heston is almost as revered as Jesus. Things change, however, when the colony's leader dies. Her hand-picked successor, a young, Nintendo-obsessed girl, decides that every man must have sex with her before the Messiah returns to Earth to save his chosen people.

Sadly, however, the execution doesn't live up to the description. Divine uses an odd chronology to tell its tale, with time almost running backwards during the first hour (a series of flashbacks is presented, each progressively earlier along the time line). This can (and does) lead to confusion. The story is slow-moving and not especially compelling, with the characters being thinly-drawn at best. The religious imagery is fascinating (Ripstein does an excellent job with the look of the film), but the central themes, which relate to the dangers of fanaticism and the relationship between spiritual matters and pop culture, are far from original. It's not that Divine is bad or in any way unwatchable, but it lacks the energy and strength necessary to involve the viewer for its full running length.

Another marginal film is Lin Cheng-sheng's Sweet Degeneration. Whereas Divine could be described as all plot with little characterization, this movie is character-dominated. The storyline, which often borders on the incoherent (the numerous walkouts during the first half-hour aren't difficult to understand -- it was impossible to figure out what was going on). Beneath all the narrative chaos, however, there are some interesting individuals. Central to the story are Cheung-sheng, a wandering saxophone player just out of the army, and his lonely sister, Ju-feng. When they were much younger, the two engaged in an incestuous relationship, and it has haunted their lives ever since. Now, she is as desperate to re-open the door of intimacy between them as he is to keep it shut. The secret of their past comes into the open when a stranger enters both of their lives at the same time. Sweet Degeneration contains moments of lyrical visual beauty and there are times when we can feel the characters' pain, but the choppiness of the narrative makes it a difficult movie to sit through. In the end, I felt a certain degree of sadness for these people, but they did not stay with me after the closing credits had rolled.

One bad movie that snuck up on me was I'm Losing You, from first time director Bruce Wagner. The film boasts a solid cast, including Andrew McCarthy, Frank Langella, Roseanna Arquette, Gina Gershon, Buck Henry, Elizabeth Perkins, and Amanda Donohoe, but all the talent is wasted. I'm Losing You is supposed to be a meditation on death, although it's unclear if there's anything more substantial going on than bad melodrama (the director seems to think that this is a profound movie; I found it to be laughably shallow). The film is about people dying suddenly, dying slowly, and living a dead life. Handled well, this could be potent material, but Wagner shows a shocking lack of ability when it comes to directing serious sequences. High drama becomes high camp. During a heated exchange between two characters, I found myself on the verge of laughing aloud. Perhaps the most depressing thing about I'm Losing You is how many people in the audience viewed the movie as if it was a work of great art and insight, including Noah Cowan, who introduced the film with raves. (Maybe they're just deeper than I am.) Kudos to those who walked out. For my part, I got a small measure of satisfaction when, after blasting the film while talking to a friend, the woman in front of me turned around and thanked me for putting her opinion into words. If this pretentious twaddle gets a distributor (the cast alone could accord it such an undeserved opportunity), avoid it. You'll thank me later.

Fortunately, there was one delightful entry in the last day's worth of movies. Called Christmas in August, 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. It's clear that the two leads -- a good-natured photographer and a pretty meter reader -- have deep feelings for each other, but they never express them in an overt or unbelievable fashion. They do not fall into a sudden, heated embrace while locking lips in his studio. Instead, we come to understand their emotions through the subtleties of facial expressions, body language, and pauses in dialogue. This film is about the most delightful part of any relationship -- the beginning. It's also about endings, because the photographer is afflicted with an unspecified fatal disease. And, while one might easily assume that such a plot device would open the door to all sorts of manipulation and mawkish sentimentality, the director surprises us by keeping this aspect of the movie as understated as every other. Christmas in August is just what its name implies: a wonderfully-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.

That takes care of some of the more obscure films that I have seen during the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival. Tomorrow, once the closing night ceremonies are over and Antz has had its world premiere, I'll look back at the last nine days. In addition to presenting a couple of sentences about each of the films I have seen but thus far not discussed, I'll give my picks for the best and worst.

© 1998 James Berardinelli

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