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TIFF 2017. Correspondences #3

Our latest critics' dispatch from Toronto picks up the discussion on John Woo's "Manhunt" and connects it to Ben Russell's "Good Luck".
Kelley Dong
Good Luck
Dear Danny and Fernando,
This is my first time at TIFF! It is also my first time stepping foot on Canadian soil. These aren't first steps so much as limps, since I sprained my ankle two weeks ago. The escalators and streetcars have become some of my best friends here, and every time I sit in the theatre I'm filled with relief. An American friend of mine who accompanies me on this trip remarks that nearly everything TIFF-branded is likely state-funded, or invested in by some greater entities with large stakes involved. As you've both noted, this festival is an institution upheld by discrepancies. I certainly felt it when I was on my way back from a certain thriller about ex-pats in Thai cults and noticed a group of Lady Gaga fans in matching t-shirts celebrating the release of her Netflix documentary.
But since I'm already exhausted by film festival gossip masked as dialectics, Danny, your remarks on Wiseman's Ex Libris instead inspired me to consider works of cinema as institutions, containing dichotomies in thought that often complement and strengthen one another. An exemplary case of this is Ben Russell's latest, Good Luck, a two-part ethnographic diary of copper miners in Bor, Serbia, and gold miners in the Brokopondo district of Suriname. Though I wish I could simply transmit the tears that overcame me in its final fifteen minutes, I'll attempt to describe the experience.
A circle horizontally divided by a bold black line is superimposed onto Good Luck's dual landscapes, the Surinamese trees and Serbian mountains that fade into one another as if present in one space. The film's pitch-black first part takes place in a Serbian copper mine. Lit by flashlights and helmet lights, the miners share their dreams and, in fragments, their anxieties. The camera follows behind them until it reaches a dead-end darkness. But it is in this void that light appears to transport us farther south but now above ground. In Suriname, gold miners stand in the sun and sing songs of gold's promise with tiny flakes in hand. Good Luck paints Earth as a universe of binaries powered by an endless cycle of man's toil, where workers dig deep into the land for granule minerals that once guaranteed future wealth. Somehow it manages to do so without the glorification of labor or the conditions that necessitate its existence. Left to reckon with this cosmic sameness inextricable from global difference, if I must be honest, I am still a bit stunned.
A similar universalist sentiment belies Manhunt, John Woo's mind-blowing comeback that I could only describe as a series of nesting dolls, if each doll stood for some bizarre snafu and somehow proceeded to grow larger in breadth and depth. I'm happy to hear that we all enjoyed the film! If Good Luck's circle possesses a single bisector, then the circle of Manhunt contains an infinite number of intersections. Connecting a number of polar opposites, the film's center of orbit is the fated meeting of Du Qiu, a Chinese lawyer (Zhang Hanyu), and Yamura, a Japanese star cop (Masaharu Fukuyama). With great bravado, the two initially hold fast to the long-held rivalry between lawyers and cops. But when Du Qiu is falsely accused of a grisly murder connected to a pharmaceutical company's twisted secrets, their occupational obligations are abandoned for the sake of truth. This ultimate truth, Woo insists, is not institutional law, but a higher law independent of institutional standards. In a nod to The Killer, Du Qiu and Yamura's newfound commitment to this greater thing literally joins them as one—two halves become a whole. Handcuffs are involved.
Above all else, Manhunt pulsates with Woo's signature touch of sincerity, presented with a sweet sense of humor most evident in the film's iconoclastic editing by Lee Ka Wah, who expands each frame's dimensions with a never-ending marathon of cross-fades, fade-to-blacks, and freeze frames. Many times they are deployed all at once. Through their fusion, Manhunt introduces some of the most moving yet challenging moments of cinema (sometimes lasting just a few seconds) that I have seen this year. What else can be said of a transition that isolates, then super-imposes a close-up of a man's face over a bright orange distance for so long that he nearly becomes the sun? Or a kaleidoscopic mirage of rainbow eyes that appear in place of a crowded crosswalk? It is all so awesome and life-affirming. And I wonder if the celebration of Manhunt as a return to Woo's former glory rather than a continuation of his extant glory reflects an inability to digest the Maestro's idiosyncrasies, formed by his own structural logic.
At a festival like TIFF, challenges like these stand as proof of the potential for contradictory frameworks to set new precedents of thinking. One shouldn't be so quick to become a skeptic. Of course, I might be naive! I am still a bit lost, walking in circles—mental circles, physical circles—everyday. But yes, I am exhilarated.


Festival CoverageTIFFTIFF 2017John WooBen Russell
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