TIFF 15: People, Places and Things (and Murder)

By: Daniel Reynolds

You may not believe this, but the Toronto International Film Festival is still going on. In fact, there are still three more days to go. I know, I can’t believe it either. As always, I’ve conjured up a few more short reviews for some of the films I’ve seen so far. Let’s get nuts.

Erwen, the

Erwen, the “hero” of How Heavy This Hammer.

How Heavy This Hammer

It’s not every day you see a film about a man of inaction, but here we are with How Heavy This Hammer anyway. Kazik Radwanski’s second feature film is another story of stunted male growth, filled with ambiguity and those intense close-ups he professes to love. What does it all amount to?

Erwen (Erwen Van Cotthem) is a married father of two. He’s overweight, not terribly bright and generally impatient with the world around him. He plays rugby for exercise and revels in the brief bouts of violence the sport provides. He does not appear to be particularly attentive. Erwen’s one relief in life comes when he plays a fantasy computer game involving Vikings. (At one point, Erwen exclaims his belief that he was a Viking in a past life.) With glasses on like some reverse-Clark Kent, the operatic score of his mind’s eye soaring, we see a man transported. To what, though, is the question. Radwanski offers no easy answer. There is an uncomfortable sense of unease layered over How Heavy This Hammer. With his hang-dog face and grouchy demeanour, Erwen is not easy to love. He just can’t seem to relate to the people (his sons, his wife, strangers, etc.) around him and his dissatisfaction with everything only grows as the film continues and his life falls apart.

To the film’s credit, How Heavy This Hammer and Radwanski never judge Erwen. He is what he is, even as he struggles to articulate what and why that is. Still, I admit it’s hard for me to react positively to the idea of this man. He’s something of a bully, one of those guys who insists he is tough so you’ll believe how cool he is. But Erwen is also immensely sad. How Heavy This Hammer isn’t the most watchable movie–it’s technique can feel suffocating at times–but it does scratch at something rare in film. It’s the heroic struggle of a resolute loser.

Our lucky couple in Mountains May Depart.

Our lucky couple in Mountains May Depart.

Mountains May Depart

How do you sum up China’s contemporary boom in recent times? In Jia Zhang-ke’s latest film, Mountains May Depart, he employs the most durable device out there, the love triangle, to encapsulate the country’s rapid change. Though his film is epic in scope, spanning as it does 25 years and multiple countries, it is delicate in detail and imminently identifiable.

Mountains May Depart begins with three people: chipper shopkeeper Tao (Tao Zhao), humble coal miner Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) and gregarious businessman Jinsheng (Yi Zhang). The first third of the film, set in 1999, playfully spends time with the trio, until it’s clear Tao will have to pick one of them. That she settles on the rich and getting richer Jinsheng surely implies something about China’s upward trajectory as of late. It also sets the course for all three of their lives (and that of their offspring, Dollar). To that end, the middle third of the film, set in the modern day, is its most effective, suffused as it is with the sadness of realization. Here is where we begin to see what happens to the hopeful people at the turn of China’s new century, along with those crushed by the spinning wheels of progress. Finally, we end in a projected 2025, abroad and even more disconnected.

Each time leap in Mountains May Depart is marked by the expansion of the frame, literally. The aspect ratio of the film broadens, allowing us to see more of the future even as the film’s characters understand their place in it less. It’s a simple flourish, but when combined with Zhang-ke’s visual and emotional grasp of this material, we are left with a thoughtful and complete picture of the passing of an age.

What's in the box???

What’s in the box???

The Treasure

For a slight film Corneliu Porumboiu’s latest, The Treasure, does attempt to work on a few levels. On the surface, it’s a wry story about two neighbours on a quest. Dig deeper, and it pokes at elements of Romanian history and conflict. Further still, it gets cute in and around the idea of Robin Hood.

Let’s start with the basics: Costi (Toma Cuzin) lives a modest life in Bucharest with his wife and son. He appears as an honest man, dedicated to his family, working as some kind of home inspector. Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) appears just a bit more desperate. He comes to Costi asking for a loan, and then decides to pitch him on the idea of digging up buried treasure on his family’s rural plot of land. If Costi fronts the money for the metal detector expert, they can split the loot 50/50. Porumboiu provides all this information in as straightforward a manner as possible, his camera staying largely static. As with his best work (12:08 East of Bucharest), the dryness of the film’s presentation works to tweak its humour. Porumboiu regards these small people and their minute, unadorned interactions of kindness, impatience or confusion with such attention to detail that we can’t help but smile or chuckle. (A scene of the men digging as Adrian gets increasingly frustrated is a highlight.) It’s this presentation that allows his films to get at larger ideas about modern Romania and its place in history. The rural land these characters are on is rich in more than just physical treasure.

It’s that third theme though, the Robin Hood story, that feels far more thinly written. Costi wants to find treasure, for the value of it obviously, but also for the glow it would bring to his son. Early in the movie he reads from the tales of Robin Hood and it invites images of derring-do. Unfortunately, The Treasure never quite gets to anything quite so substantial. It’s a sweet film, with more density than its subject suggests, but in its conclusion still much terrain remains unexplored.

Irrfan Khan can do no wrong.

Irrfan Khan can do no wrong.


Perhaps you’ve never heard of the “Noida Double Murder Case.” I know I hadn’t. One morning in 2008, a young girl named Aarushi Talwar was found murdered in her bed. Her family’s servant was found dead nearby. There were limited possible conclusions to draw, and yet this case dragged on for years. This is the basis for Meghna Gulzar’s latest film, Guilty.

Technically a fictional account of events, Gulzar approaches the case with both a flair for dramatics and a procedural eye. Her film dramatizes the particulars of the murders, while adding a thoughtful examination of the behind-the-scenes investigation (and the politics in play). As the story makes headlines, the narrative explores the police’s incompetence, the role of the media in pushing various theories, and the professional misconduct that may have contributed to a miscarriage of justice. There’s a lot of material to cover here, with various cops, witnesses, explanations and reversals. Gulzar is aided in her quest for truth by the anchoring presence of Irrfan Khan. He plays the lead investigator, Ashwin Kumar, assigned to the case after it spirals out of control. As per usual, Khan brings just the right kind of sad-eyed, weary cool to the proceedings, and Gulzar fleshes his character out enough to make him more than just a Law & Order stand-in. Small details–like Kumar constantly playing Snake on his phone–add touches of humanity to a film that could have easily be overwhelmed by its real-life narrative.

And really, clocking in at over two hours, Guilty does have a lot of facts to get through. The film’s Rashomon-esque multi-perspective approach to the events allow for an engrossing true crime tale. Gulzar is in clear command of the story she wants to tell. Her film does lean towards an answer to the crime’s central question, but it leaves enough ambiguity for us to be unsettled.


We’ve still got five more films to enjoy at TIFF so keep an eye out for even more reviews as we wrap up our coverage of the festival.

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