TIFF 16: Politics, Violence and a Bit of Love

By: Daniel Reynolds

The rhythms of TIFF by Friday, and the final weekend, are different. Most of the “stars” are gone, King Street is open, and while the films are still being shown day and night, the buzz has quieted down. There are still special presentations and galas, but much of the media has departed and most “normal” people are ready to get back to their everyday lives.

Fortunately, I am not normal. Which means I’m still out here watching movies everyday and trying to reflect on my experiences. To wit: here come a bunch more reviews from the week.

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76

For a nation with a self-professed lack of respect for its own history, it means something to see a Nigerian film, made by Nigerians, about the past of Nigeria. It’s definitely a point of pride for the country’s film industry, dubbed Nollywood, to be in control of its own artistic destiny. The film 76 is a testament to that spirit. Unfortunately, the film’s efforts are spent on too much of the “ollywood” part of that cute moniker, and not enough on the “N.”

Directed by Izu Ojukwu, 76 is the story of a failed military coup in Nigeria in, yes, the year 1976. As is the case with coups, feelings of danger, paranoia and anger coursed through the country the time. Ojukwu captures some of that feeling but eschews this broader picture to focus on a handful of particular lives. They are Joseph (Ramsey Nouah) and his wife Suzy (Rita Dominic), and some related friends and confidants. It’s Joseph who discovers the plot to overthrow the government, putting him directly in harms way. From there he’s on the run, first from his old pals plotting in the military, and then from the government seeking to punish anyone and everyone for treason. That’s one side of the film; the other side is far more domestic, focusing on Suzy in her isolation as she deals with the prolonged absence of her husband. In reflection, it’s admirable that a film like 76 exists, attempting, as it does, to bring Nigeria’s history to life. Still, it feels odd how beholden the film is to the hoary (and hammy) cliches we’ve seen so often in Hollywood movies of the same type. There are beats of artistry here — the use of scant archival footage is powerful — but 76 also feels like its straining to be a massive, sprawling film stuck with a mere six people sitting around in the same three rooms, back and forth. For its efforts, 76 represents something of a solid first step.

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The Dreamed Path

There are risks to be taken at TIFF sometimes. You can jump into a Wavelengths film, and see things that stretch far beyond the norm. That’s the theory anyway. In practice, you could end up at a 90 minute puzzle with no point of entry, no hope of exit, and scene after interminable scene passing in front of you. It’s a real hazard.

At the risk of sounding like a philistine, I have an announcement to make: I did not like Angela Schanelec’s film The Dreamed Path. I could not parse it, could not wrap my mind around it, could not find a way to fit its images together. The film is ostensibly about two couples in two different time periods in Greece and Germany. But, owing to the film’s Bressonian presentation (see, I’m not a complete dummy), everyone in the film operates as a blank slate. As such, the viewer is expected to absorb the images, the relations of these particular bodies in these specific spaces (and times), and gradually develop some feeling about them. I could not do it. These are the time when I know I’ve hit my ceiling as a, ahem, discerning cineaste, someone who wants and tries to patiently engage with the artform. Some people (according to the couple of reviews I’ve seen) will laud this film and its challenging aspects. I want to be in on it too, but it’s just not happening. The Dreamed Path is lifeless by design and it left me deflated. Sorry.

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Yourself and Yours

Maybe you’ve never thought about what happens to an ex-significant other after they wander out of your life, but I doubt it. And apparently so too does Korean director Hong Sang-soo. His latest film Yourself and Yours sets itself up as a straight ahead story of a relationship gone awry, before splitting off (or doubling back?) into an exploration of various what if outcomes. That it ends on a note of happy reunion feels darkly humourous. Trust me, I’ve thought about this.

After being told by a friend that his girlfriend Minjung (Lee Yoo-Young) was out boozing and fighting with another man, painter Young-soo (Kim Joo-hyuk) decides to confront her; they’d already agreed she’d watch her drinking after all. Young-soo’s friend may scoff at the idea of these two getting married, but it’s not a stretch to believe Young-soo wants to prove his pal wrong and make this relationship work. But the argument escalates, Minjung leaves, and suddenly Young-soo is adrift and in search of the one who got away. For director Sang-soo though, the enigmatic Minjung is not hard to find — she’s being approached by every Tom, Dick, and Harry-soo who’s ever met her (or her alleged twin). That she doesn’t remember any of these guys points to either the depths of her drinking problem, a “leave me alone, man” self-defense mechanism, or, as the film slyly implies, some sort of imaginative spelunking by Young-soo himself. Pushed along by a jaunty score, and presented largely in long, still takes — with zooms to highlight some of the reactive action — Sang-soo navigates his oddly fractured narrative with a sly (and cynical) hand, forcing the viewer to wonder how much of the film is actually happening. Just whose perspective is this story being told from? Does Minjung have a twin or not? And why is Young-soo’s foot mysteriously broken in later scenes? As with the workings of most intimate relationships, it’s harder to reach a satisfying conclusion here than one might initially think; there’s a lot of desperate convincing going on. That the film spins back to where it began should feel right, but it doesn’t. Of course, if I was Young-soo, I’d want to believe things could work out too.

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Okafor’s Law

“You can Google it.” That’s what we’re told multiple times in Okafor’s Law, the latest from writer/director/actress Omoni Oboli, as if to assure us its a real thing. The titular law states that once a man has been with a woman and done right by her (both in and out of the bedroom, but mostly in), she will forever be, uh, open to him. As a concept, it’s a playful one. As a conceit for a romantic-comedy, the conflicts and situations almost write themselves. As a film, Oboli mines this idea for all its worth — and almost makes it work.

For Terminator (Blossom Chukwujekwu), the law is gospel. We meet him after he’s done having sex with a new bride, who happens to be an old ex. His friends Fox (Ken Erics) and Baptist (Gabriel Afolayan) are first amazed and then in disbelief. They’ve never Googled “Okafor’s Law” and decide to make a bet with Terminator. He has six weeks to sleep with three women of their choosing from his past or he has to give up 10 percent of a shared business venture. I mean, this is ridiculous, but Oboli stays with the premise and Chukwujekwu is effortless in his charms as the lead character. You’ll find yourself wanting him to succeed as he seduces these three women, one of which is played by Oboli herself. For the middle third, imagine a cross between a heist film and a romance; think Ocean’s Eleven meets When Harry Met Sally, and you’re getting somewhere. The problem comes when the film slides into its third act and tries to get serious. Suddenly the lightheartedness is gone, the charm dried up. At the screening I was in, it was telling that when the climactic moment came, when Terminator decides he no longer wants to live this endless playboy life (as we knew would be the case), the audience vocally rejected the idea. Oboli takes her time to investigate some of the male-female dynamics on display, and her control of the camera and film’s tone is assured for about two-thirds of the runtime. But in a film where cheating runs rampant, the ending has to be honest. In this case, I didn’t appreciate the lie.

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Rage

Rage, as directed by Sang-il Lee, begins on a promising note. There’s a crime scene, bloody bodies, a depth charge score provided by the famous Ryuichi Sakamoto, and gripping suspense. The rhythmic editing and lush cinematography have us leaning forward in our seats; it’s hard not to feel intrigued. Then the next two plus hours play out and the title feels very fitting indeed.

Rage ostensibly revolves around that opening crime scene. We’re told the killer was never found, and so are left on guard to stumble into three unconnected stories picking up a year later. The first focuses on Yohei (Ken Watanabe, stranded here) as he hovers over his daughter Aiko (Aoi Miyazaki), fresh of a stint as a sex worker, as she starts dating a mysterious stranger Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama). The second revolves around a chance hookup between Yuma (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and haunted newcomer Naoto (Go Ayano). And the final story has teens Izumi (Suzu Hirose) and Tatsuya (Takara Sakumoto) encountering a loner named Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama) hiding out on a small island. What does any of this mean? Shockingly: almost nothing. Two of the three stories here have nothing to do with that initial crime scene, they just introduce characters that may be the killer on the lam. That these stories are ridiculous, filled with histrionics and emotional beats that entirely do not pay off shouldn’t be a surprise. What is a surprise is how cavalier the film is with its two — yes, two! — rape scenes (a gay and a straight one; progress, I guess). Rage somehow uses the deeply uncomfortable scene of Izumi’s rape to highlight the struggle of Tatsuya, who could have tried to save her but didn’t, and then spins it into a confrontation with Tanaka, who rages for no apparent reason. Izumi is dropped from the film almost entirely. (Oh wait, she pops in at the end to scream into the ocean.) This is not the only problem with Rage, but it is the most egregious one. This film hates its characters, actively barrages its audience with hollow emotive platitudes, plays fast and loose with serious topics, and then asks us to buy into the catharsis of its ending. The second the screen went dark, I was out of my seat hopping mad. Mission accomplished?


We’re not done with TIFF just yet. We’ll have one final batch of reviews after the weekend including the festival hits MoonlightCertain Women and more. Check this space for more.

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