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TIFF 2017. Correspondences #2

Our festival correspondences from Toronto continues with reviews from the latest films by Alain Gomis, Fatih Akin, and John Woo,
Dear Danny and Kelley,
What a joy this time of the year to reconnect with old cinephile friends, and to meet new ones. The film festival I’ve been to more times than any other, TIFF seems to grow more personally important with each new visit—as a locus of discovery, an escape from the routine, a sanctuary and a labyrinth, exhausting and intoxicating. Could even a vérité master like Frederick Wiseman capture all its contradictions? The cinema and people I encounter during my ten days here comprise a refuge, a reminder of sublime possibilities in the midst of brutish realities. Art keeps the beast at bay, or so they say. Indeed, the very first film I saw, Alain Gomis’ Félicité, opens with just such a clash. In a roisterous Congolese bar, various squabbles hush up as a woman steps up to the microphone for a fierce, gorgeous song. As soon as the performance winds down, a brawl breaks out.
“People want music!” The chanteuse (the striking Véro Tshanda Beya), as strong-featured and watchful as a goddess statue, effortlessly holds her space by the spotlight. At home, she goes about her business while a smitten local mechanic’s impromptu poetry bounces right off her. A more pressing crisis is on her mind, namely the small fortune she has to produce in order to pay for the surgery of her wounded son. The search occasions a restless study of Kinshasa edges, in and out of slums and medical pavilions and gated-off mansions as the protagonist seeks out relatives, bandmates, and other creditors. Aided by Céline Bozon’s pensively luminous cinematography, Gomis reflects the musicality of Beya’s regal presence into Félicité’s very textures. Sultry lounge half-light, pale sunshine in the middle of a marketplace, oneiric silvers in the woods at night—emotive traces of what the heroine keeps customarily veiled behind a stoic visage. (Accompaniment by the Kasai Allstars and assorted performances by the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste add to the film’s melodic range, as well as to its subtle documentary side.) Though the second half turns somewhat diffuse, Gomis’ tough and vibrant understanding of romance and struggle scarcely falters. Neither does his sense of wonder toward his indomitable leading lady: Riding in the back of a motorcycle, Beya might be Gong Li in Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju or one of Satyajit Ray’s proud women, all too aware of the peril and autonomy of living day to day and song to song.
Fatih Akin has long had musical interests of his own. A punk rocker’s approach to romance (Head-On), a documentary on the variety Turkish sounds (Crossing the Bridge), an ensemble comedy staged like a headbanger’s ball (Soul Kitchen). Mostly, though, he conducts dirges, and In the Fade is a particularly lugubrious and sententious one. Divided into three chapters with portentous intertitles, the progression is that of a woman’s sorrow and outrage, as Katja (Diane Kruger) sees her life spiral after her husband and son are killed by a nail bomb planted by neo-Nazis. The first section, blue-tinged and wet with tears and rain, locates vivid details in the protagonist’s grief (a glance at the children’s corner of a coffin store, say) and is sometimes quite moving. As the story moves into the courtroom, Akin’s misses no opportunity to show his leaden hand, from the relentless defense counsel’s crooked front tooth to the slow-mo that greets the judge’s verdict. Everything turns out to be set-up for the vengeful third panel, in which, without giving too much away, Katja earns her half-finished samurai tattoo. Painfully timely in its snapshot of white-supremacist violence flaring in a multiracial Europe, In the Fade is also a damp hand-wringer that works Kruger’s raw-nerve turn like a dray horse to distract from Akin’s inane determinism. Not even an evocative stinger positing a literally inverted moral horizon can disguise the schematic familiarity of the drama’s angles.
It seems a tad irresponsible to lambaste In the Fade’s study of real-life brutality and then extol John Woo’s movie-movie squib-ballets in Manhunt. But I can’t tell a lie: I had a blast with this cartwheeling medley from the Hong Kong action veteran, which of course exudes its own musicality. Woo’s love of cinematic movement—the promiscuous use of dissolves, over-cranking, freeze-frames—is in full sway, so that a brush with a pair of restaurant hostesses leaves space stretched and the senses whirring long before they doff their silk robes and lead a massacre with a pistol in each hand. The plot begins with a man wrongly accused of murder and ends with pharmaceutical skulduggery and outsized showdowns, which is to say it’s set up as The 39 Steps and mutates into something like Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. It’s the kind of mad bonanza in which adorable tykes are tied to huge chemical trucks rigged with explosions, a character’s backstory plays like a blood-soaked spoof of Miss Havisham’s bridal dress, and just one of the director’s trademark doves won’t do when he can release a whole aviary. “Very impressive. But perhaps a bit excessive?” Woo savors every bullet and wink in his giddily self-aware return to the thriller form. With this and Walter Hill’s The Assignment last year, may TIFF always have a spot for old masters of deranged action.
Hope your discoveries have been just as exhilarating.
Fern

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