Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Reel Asian 2013: Preview & Advance Reviews

The Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival

November 5 – 16, 2013

Given the plethora of local film festivals, it's not surprising that some of them focus very tightly on one thing, whether a genre or topic. But with a geographical mandate as big as the largest of the continents, Reel Asian (now celebrating its seventeenth year), cuts across all of those narrow limits. The fact that you can see popcorn exuberance rubbing up against arthouse austerity and the dizzying imagination-leaps of animé cheek-by-jowl with sobering documentaries makes this one of the more enjoyable of the local film fests. A week of screenings downtown (with most features at The Royal) is followed by a closing weekend in Richmond Hill. Definitely a great opportunity to see some films on the big screen that you might not come by otherwise — and everything in subtitled in English, of course, for those who don't speak the diverse group of languages on the screen.

There's a strong-looking selection of documentaries here, including a troika of pop culture observations on Linsanity, Uyghur rap crews, and the Filipino YouTube star who aspires to be Journey's new lead singer. Also not to be overlooked are the four shorts programmes, which mix all that variety stated above into well-curated selections. All shorts screenings take place in the cozy Jackman Hall at the AGO, two of which as matinées for anyone looking for a good mid-week daytime excursion.

Tickets for most screenings are $12 and can be purchased in advance here.

Just to get things started, here's a couple advance reviews.

Tales from the Dark Part 1 (Dir: Simon Yam/Fruit Chan/Lee Chi-ngai, 114 minutes, Hong Kong)

Although Hallowe'en has passed, the festival's Centrepiece Presentation of this HK horror anthology film will attempt to raise some chills. A triptych of mid-length ghost stories, this will appeal more to genre fans than serve as the sort of film that transcends the standard horror tropes.

Stolen Body is the directorial début of Simon Yam. Yam (perhaps best known to casual fans for Election), also stars as a down-on-his-luck labourer who comes up with a novel scheme to extort funds from the relatives of the recently-departed. After all, he reasons, the greatest horrors he faces are economic — can the notion of ghosts compete with his very real fears of losing what little he has? Yam is engaging as a man that could be slipping into the ghost-realm (or simply losing his grip on sanity), though the piece is somewhat too-stylized and not scary enough.

A Word in the Palm (dir: Lee Chi Ngai) is broad enough to feel like an episode of Goosebumps, with hammy acting and comedically large eyeglasses attempting to distract from a fairly rote ghost story of a jilted high-school swim team member's efforts at revenge from beyond the grave. Everything here is telegraphed pretty unsubtly, so there's not much more to do than watch Tony Leung Ka-fai try and maintain a straight face as a fortune teller on his last day on the job.

Jing Zhe (dir. Fruit Chan) intrigues the most here, although its immersion into the realm of "villain hitting" is a bit confusing at the outset. This ancient form of witchcraft involves a punishment-by-proxy, with a variety of clients coming to a curbside stall by the old overpass to have a likeness of their foes beat by a shoe to rhyming curses in order to bring them low in the real world. That karma can come back even on those powerful enough to smite people's enemies is all that needs to be said here.

Screens: Friday, November 8, 2013, 8 p.m. @ The Royal

Shorts programme: Counter Move

This screening collects the "Best of Canadian Shorts" at the festival. There's an interesting variety of non-narrative film here, so though this might not be the most populist collection, there's a lot to enjoy.

The best of the bunch — and likely the most crowd pleasing — comes right at the top with The Banquet of the Concubine (dir: Hefang Wei, 12 minutes, Canada, 2012), a gorgeously animated re-telling of an eighth century Chinese story. The Emperor's Number One concubine is having difficulty enjoying her banquet while he's off canoodling with the newest addition to his retinue, and we see that the sweetness of love (or fruit) doesn't always win out in the end. The elongated figures and watercolour washes are visually spectacular and give this the feel of an NFB classic.

A trio of shorts here could function as gallery installation pieces, including the nature choreography of Dafeena (dir: Marlene Millar/Philip Szporer, 5 mins., Canada, 2012) and the blend-in survival strategies of Treasure Hill Camouflage (dir: soJin Chun, 2 mins., Taiwan, 2012). The best of these is Portrait as a Random Act of Violence (dir: Randall Okita, 4 mins., Canada, 2012), which evokes a sense of the uncanny in documenting a creepily kinetic sculpture pulling shards of broken glass into a shattered human figure.

Item Number (dir: Oliver Husain, 16 mins., Canada, 2012) is perhaps the most commanding short in the programme, the screen filled with the magnetic presence of Kirtana Kumar. Two minutes before her performance begins, an actress' inner monologue comes to life — dancing doppelgangers and all! — as the fourth wall is broken in a meditation on the roles she has on stage and in life. The film veers towards winking meta-commentary at a few points, but the close focus on Kumar keeps this grounded.

The fourth wall is broken in a different — and unexpected — way in A Grand Canal (dir: Johnny Ma, 19 mins., Canada/China, 2013), though to say more about how would constitute what might be labelled an "emotional spoiler". In any case, this character study of the director's father, a stoic sailor with a love of pop songs, is a winning biographical sketch as well as a social portrait. What might happen when the "red envelope" money to the local Boss isn't enough seems telegraphed in the father's sad features (well conveyed by Mei Song Shun) with a sad inevitability. Even before Ma confounds our expectations in attempting to intervene in his own story, this is well worth seeing.

Some other personal reminiscences also take different paths to bridge past and present. The multimedia palimpsest collage of Shiro Yagi (dir: Cindy Mochizuki, 12 mins., Canada, 2012) gets across the fragmented sensibility that comes in reconstructing the past but is a bit too busy to connect emotionally. Conceived (dir: Eui Yong Zong, 5 mins., Canada, 2013) is more succinct, using audio interviews with his parents to face some hard truths about the choices they made before he was born — and revealing a bit of an emotional gutpunch that results from lingering on these things. There's more optimism in the straightforward personal documentary approach of My Father, Francis (dir: Casey Mecija, 12 mins., Canada, 2013), which also does a better job of unpacking the layers of meaning in unspoken gestures between a parent and child. A father's hard work as a factory hand is supplemented by his own sideline in crafting "useful" objects from scraps. Besides attempting to bond with him in the making of things, Mecija also shows him that his inventions transcend mere functionality by celebrating them as objets d'art. Local musician Mecija (formerly of Ohbijou, now performing solo and with Warm Myth) crafts a loving portrait here that also hints at the quiet bridges that can be built to overcome the differences between "suburbs" and "downtown", between generations, and between fathers and daughters.

Screens: November 7, 2013, 6 p.m. @ Jackman Hall

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