Monday, November 5, 2012

Festival Preview/Advance Reviews #1: Reel Asian 2012

The Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival 2012

November 6–11, 2012 (Toronto) + November 16–17, 2012 (Richmond Hill)

I had a good time last year at Reel Asian, partially because its mandate has room for a lot of variety. Taking in a not just a wide range of cultures and languages, there's also a big sweep that puts popcorn populism and art-house sophistication side-by-side. That remains in its sixteenth edition, which finds its home once again at the comfy Royal on College, with additional screenings in several venues including Innis Town Hall. The festival also takes the films to the audiences beyond downtown, with a follow-up weekend of screenings in Richmond Hill. Definitely worth heading out to for a chance to see films that wouldn't otherwise make it onto the big screen 'round these parts. All films are offered with English subtitles.

Regular screening tickets are $12, or cheaper with passes, including a $36 4-Pak. Check the festival website for the full schedule and ticket into.


Stateless Things (Dir: Kim Kyung-mook, South Korea, 2011, 115 min.)

Screens: Wednesday, November 7, 2012, 9:15 p.m. @ Innis Town Hall

Kim's first full-length feature is a complicated construction that forces the viewer to decode its layers. The film appears hands-off and observational at times, but as it unfolds, it increasingly destabilizes our sense of what we have already seen.

We open on the story of Joon and Soonhee, workers at a gas station and refugees from North Korea who are now stuck on the bottom of the ladder in the South. Left to fend for themselves against a harassing bully of a boss, they take an action that will cost them their jobs but give them a sense of the freedom that they see around them, as they go on a touristy trip through Seoul.

The second fork of the story involves Hyun, a young hustler who has a luxurious apartment over the city which comes at the cost of being "kept" by his jealous sugar daddy. Even at the other end of the social spectrum, things aren't easy, and queer life in Korea — although we get a rather explicit view of it here — seems to still be consigned to the closet. Hyun's story is presented in shifting time-fragments as several parallels with Joon's story emerge.

And then, after three-quarters of the film's running time, we get an opening title card — and in a surprising way, both stories come together in an enigmatic final section. As that might hint, the story's construction is far more suggestive than discursive — once the film ended, I actually went back to the beginning and went through it again. And although that enriched the sensation of overlapping layers, it doesn't necessarily allow things to "resolve" in any sort of conventional manner.

All of which will certainly turn off some viewers. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who wants a straightforward narrative experience — the "plot", such as it is, is rather threadbare in places, with would-be romantic interest Soonhee simply disappearing from the movie, for example. Joon's hardscrabble North Korean exile story brought to mind The Journals of Musan (my favourite film from last year's Reel Asian) which — while grim — follows a more straightahead path that might be worth seeking out to those intrigued by the theme but put off by this film's execution. But anyone willing to engage with symbolism and abstractness will get something here.

Director Kim will be in attendance at the festival, and will be holding an artist talk the morning after the screening.

Daylight Savings (Dir: Dave Boyle, U.S.A., 2012, 73 min.)

Screens: Thursday, November 8, 2012, 5:40 p.m. @ Innis Town Hall

This film doesn't serve so much as a sequel to Surrogate Valentine (which screened at last year's festival) as a further episode in the fictional sorta-alter ego version of singer/songwriter Goh Nakamura. Which is to say that this film stands on its own, even if a lot of little references will be appreciated by anyone who saw the earlier film.

This is certainly of a piece with the earlier work, both in visual style (stylish black + white) and tone. At the outset, things are looking up a bit for Goh, who has both a girlfriend and a song in a heavy-rotation commercial. That the ad in question is for a depression medication seems tellingly par for the course, though, and soon we find out that the romance might not be too long-lived either. ("I don't really know how to talk to girls," Goh says at one point. "I guess if I did, I would have nothing to write about.")

That sets the stage for another episodic roadtrip with the laconic Goh accompanied by a new extroverted travelling partner — here his ex-con cousin Mike. En route to Las Vegas, we get a side-trip to San Juan Bautista (where an incident with a car door that is every guitarist's worst nightmare takes place) and a pause at James Dean Memorial Junction.

The trip to Sin City serves as a chance to set up a casual encounter with fellow musician Yea-Ming (played by Yea-Ming Chen), who comes across as a worthy foil for Goh as well as an intriguing musical discovery.

Like real life, we sorta arrive and depart from things midstream, making this more of a character piece than anything like a conventional romcom. That's entirely to its credit, especially as Goh once again comes across as someone that you'd want to hang out and have a beer with. At one level, this is a minor, low-key film about a minor, low-key man — but anyone who prefers a smart, well-crafted song to a glitzy disposable pop hit should consider this to be the cinematic equivalent.

Further incentive: director Boyle will be in attendance, and gives good Q&A.

Preceded by: Requiem For Romance (Dir: Jonathan Ng, Canada, 2012, 8 min.), an animated short that pairs the audio of a phonecall breakup with animation of clashing kungfu fighters. A meditation on love, cultural acceptance and the artist's life, it effectively uses the disjunction between sight and sounds to be entirely heartfelt without becoming hokey. Nice work, and a worthy hors d'oeuvre for the main feature.

Graceland (Dir: Ron Morales, U.S.A./Philippines, 2012, 84 min.)

Screens: Thursday, November 8, 9:55 p.m. @ Innis Town Hall

Do not come expecting Elvis. The "grace" here hews closer to the Biblical sense, well-suited to a film with an Old Testament eye-for-an-eye sensibility, filled with corruption and hard moral choices.

Congressman Chango suddenly has problems overshadowing the media's interest in his predilection for underaged prostitutes when his daughter is kidnapped. Marlon, his faithful but recently-fired longtime driver, is pulled into the affair when his daughter is taken as well. This sets the scene for a tense thriller that gives the impression that anything can happen — one early incident, so unexpected inasmuch as it would never happen in a Hollywood film, really gives the impression that all bets are off.

Soon, a rumpled and somewhat-honest cop is on the case, but to cover his own skin and hopefully save his daughter, Marlon cannot come clean about how the kidnapping went down. And thus, all in a rush, a deadly game unfolds with several lives in the balance.

Along the way, we catch glances of the state of class differences and rough justice in The Philippines. More specific details would just spoil how this one unfolds, so I shan't say much more, but Morales' quick-moving, well constructed film is definitely recommended. My only caveat is that the film's somewhat salacious use of actors presented as minors may well be offputting to some.

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