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TIFF 2015. Correspondences #5

Our Toronto festival dialogue continues with underworld bloodsuckers, museum essays and pointillistic thrillers from veteran auteurs.
Dear Danny,
Hot damn, now that’s a variegated mix of cinema! Even for TIFF, a place where we routinely travel among completely different genres and styles, your report shows just what a dizzyingly wide-ranging experience film festivals can be. Where else could you have your concepts of screen space repeatedly stretched, whether in the iridescent experimentations of the Wavelengths entries or in the three-dimensional swoops of To’s beguiling Office, a movie so rich with visual invention that even musical notes seem tangible and close enough to touch? And where else could you step out of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s majestically gorgeous The Assassin and right into Yakuza Apocalypse, Takashi Miike’s newest full-frontal genre blitzkrieg?
The flashes of swordplay in Hou’s period tale function as sudden shifts in rhythm that fascinatingly intrude into the film’s ornate pattern, like cracks in an imperial jade vase. In Miike’s underworld/supernatural mishmash, as usual with this mind-bogglingly prolific Japanese agitator, violence is less an invading force than a presiding one, a substance forever hanging in the air, waiting for the smallest spark to explode. And explode it does here, baroquely, as soon as the film starts and a local crime boss shoves his way through a throng of adversaries, seemingly impervious to their bullets and blades. (That’s even before the title slashes across the screen, letters dripping blood.) Set in a provincial town in the grip of recession, it kicks off as a gangland mentorship yarn that, while scarcely starving for outré touches (including a knitting circle for elderly prisoners), begins to feel suspiciously grounded, even restrained. That’s when a ferocious tussle gives way to a talking decapitated noggin and a novice gangster (Hayato Ichihara) with strange new powers and a gruesome new craving.
So yeah, Danny, vampires. Yakuza vampires. The aspiring young criminal who couldn’t originally bear to have the required tattoos on his sensitive skin (“Just rub some lotion on it, asshole!” snaps an impatient fellow thug) sprouts fangs and a lizard tongue, feasting on civilian jugulars while determined to avenge his beloved chief. Along the way there is a pungent goblin chuckling through a duck’s bill, deadly fighters dressed like dorky tourists, and, daftest of all, a fearsome fiend who could be described as an oversized Kermit the Frog mutation. Midnight Madness, indeed! Even without mention of the gooey geysers spurting out of characters’ orifices, a vampire hunter’s deliberately jumbled phonetic English, and an enigmatic letter with a lopsided message (“Stay foolish”), a synopsis can’t help but sound insane. And yet Miike is unique here for his controlled, even classical handling of relentlessly bonkers material, a truly disconcerting combination—something akin to Fuller in Shock Corridor or Ruiz in Three Lives and Only One Death. The film may exhaust as much as it thrills, but it’s clearly the work of a talent at once untamed and assured, whose world is never more vibrant than when racing toward total annihilation.
To slide from the mayhem of Yakuza Apocalypse to Aleksandr Sokurov’s ruminative Francofonia sounds like a study in complete polar opposites, but the truth is that the veteran Russian filmmaker has long been as unpredictable as Miike. After his sumptuously grimy retelling of Faust, Sokurov returns to the polished floors and high ceilings of museums, namely the Louvre in Paris as a repository and temple of world culture and history. The director’s burly figure is seen in silhouette before his computer, chatting with a ship captain who links the loneliness of artists to that of seafarers, both navigate voids and talk to themselves. Nothing less than the 20th-century itself is the subject, though an impish Sokurov sidesteps portentousness by envisioning it as something of a reverie. (Photographs of slumbering figures like Tolstoy and Chekhov bracket the project.) “The French are all cinematographers,” the auteur muses while his camera soars over Parisian rooftops. In flickering reenactments, Louvre director Jacques Jaujard and Nazi aesthete Franz Wolff-Metternich embody the Vichy era’s peculiar treaty between art and horror; wandering the museum’s corridors is none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, a comically self-satisfied windbag the narrator at one point addresses as “tovarich.”
“Why is art unwilling to teach us prescience?” At the center of Francofonia are the many canvases and sculptures of the Louvre, pondered as testaments of humanity’s inspiration as well as potential keys in understanding its darkness. Sokurov’s obvious awe toward these works, however, doesn’t keep him from interacting with and even intriguingly warping them: His lenses approach paintings from odd angles so that portraits are slightly warped, while newsreel views are tinted and endowed with sound effects. (In a particularly eccentric bit, Hitler in archival footage gets a new voice.) This is Sokurov’s essayist side, Danny, as fascinated with the slender divide between preservation and devastation as late Godard and Greenaway and Ferrara. Whereas Russian Ark was a Steadicam stroll that stressed unity, Francofonia is a vertiginous montage emphasizing the miscellaneous nature of civilization. Assyrian monuments, a pixilated visage on Skype, the texture of a mummy’s wraps, the stone plumage of Winged Victory of Samothrace, frozen bodies in wartime Russia—all layers in a rich, grave, and spirited mosaic. Few festival moments so far have moved me like the brief close-up of a fleshy hand reaching out for an ancient statue’s marble palm.
Francofonia’s last shot is strikingly similar to the one that closes Jerzy Skolimowski’s 11 Minutes, an abstract panorama that in the Polish director’s hands suggests not classical art but a ruthlessly modern pointillism. Is there a stranger, more provocative late-career renaissance in recent memory? After Four Nights with Anna and Essential Killing, accounts of singular psyches both, Skolimowski switches to an ensemble piece, though one composed of kinetic shards rather than staid personalities. Unfolding over the eponymous chunk of time from the vantage of a handful of different characters—a hot-dog vendor with a hinted-at criminal past, an anxious bank robber, an ambulance crew, a coked-up courier—the film is a bravura welter of late arrivals, close shaves, and cataclysmic connections that plays like a malefic lampoon of the pompous 52- pickup card games of Code Unknown or Babel. (In one strand, featuring a blonde starlet being interviewed by an unctuous Hollywood bigwig who insists on being called “Dick,” Skolimowski reveals a streak of reflexive lechery worthy of De Palma or Verhoeven.) Telling symbols and signals hint point up the storytelling form: A stairwell blocked by a wardrobe (a nod to a famous early short by fellow wandering Pole Roman Polanski?), a watercolor sketch marred by an ink blot, a wall of surveillance screens with a dead pixel in its corner. It’s bound to be a divisive one, but the way this cunning, bracing film’s conclusion rejects the subgenre’s habitually affirmative view of human connection fully attests to Skolimowski’s mordant need, now as ever, to seek rather than to settle.
Over to you, Danny, and off to more discoveries.
Speak soon,
Fern

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