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TIFF 2017. Correspondences #4

A re-imagining of China's Cultural Revolution and a Beijing-born American filmmaker makes a cowboy movie in our latest critics' dispatch.
Youth
Dear Kelley and Fern,
We are all on the same page for John Woo's Manhunt, no doubt—a film that casts my mind back with wry, chuckling nostalgia to first discovering the action maestro's days of glory. Such backward glances have been common to me this week. I must admit, it's been more than a bit hard to be present at Toronto—my heart, mind and soul still feels battered aghast from last week’s devastating, gaping conclusion of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return. The 25 years that separate that series from the show’s second season are a gulf of time, a void of aging and loss that you feel in every shot—a span, the finale implies, that is ultimately impossible to surmount.
This gap was very much in my mind watching Youth, a nostalgic re-envisioning of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s from Chinese director Feng Xiaogang (I Am Not Madame Bovary, Aftershock). Following a P.L.A. art troupe of youths—separated from their parents and sent from around the country to the unit—we see a possible social utopia of artistry supporting a unified, militarized ideology, centered around training and performing for soldiers the era's few government approved Model Operas espousing ideal virtues and behavior. Feng’s slick production lends little texture to this group balancing familial separation, official ideology, sexual awakening, and rigorous training, suggesting only the barest hints of the grim times that lay for many outside the cloisters of such a community. For much of the film, I longed for some healthy dose of the idiosyncratic dynamism of Jian Wen’s exuberant, conflicted drama of nostalgia for this same era,  In the Heat of the Sun (1994).
As Mao and the Gang of Four die off and time marches on, pressure seams begin to show in the troupe—though hardly extended to the film’s form—as the two ideal members become victims of social pressures and history’s progress, ending up maimed and insane. In the final act, history unfurls more quickly, ratcheting up the melodrama and accentuating failures and sadness, and Youth achieves some of the expansive, epoch-spanning grandeur of Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart (2015). Watching young idealists from the past age into the present is a hard sight indeed. But the film’s best energy comes from the thrilling staging of ballet rehearsals, the camera nostalgically ogling young women with rifles and short shorts prancing with military rigidity, the group fervor effortlessly contagious. Watching these actors now playing propaganda army members performers then, I remember how Tsui Hark recently and audaciously made a new version of a Model Opera into an excellent CGI action film, The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014). Above all, Youth made me want to see the cinema return to The Red Detachment of Women, another opera last made as a film in 1971, so we can see how today’s young Chinese women will reimagine themselves embodying this profound artifact of the Revolution, so many years ago.
One might expect such interrogations of nostalgia in an American movie set amongst rodeo riders of South Dakota, but Chloé Zhao’s second film, The Rider, avoids grand questions about the status of American myths by instead grounding its dwindling cowboy culture in a humble and intimate story of a young injured rider, Brady (Brady Jandreau), during his pride-bruised recovery.  Tying his identity to the cowboy ethos—not the thrill, the money of the fame, but something deeper, if vaguer—and with his mother dead, father an old cowboy (Tim Jandreau) softened by drink and age, and a clique of comrades whose culture is to man up, Brady has few people he can tell of his worries. The lonesomeness of the western hero becomes the simple shame of a young man not able to do what he thinks is expected of him, what he's built his satisfaction around. So he broods, eyes hooded, face turned down, and goes about his recovery, yearning to ride, sweetly tending to others’ horses, and venting only to his handicapped sister (Lilly Jandreau), whose bright, forthright perception and manner seems to suggest the inner peace Brady doesn't know he could achieve off of a bronco.
The Rider's will-he-ride-or-won't-he story is almost precariously lean and straight-forward, and neither as psychologically dense as Nick Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952), nor as rough hewn (or self-inflated) as Peckinpah and Steve McQueen’s Junior Bonner (1972). Lost ways or a dying culture are not suggested, which gives the film an odd sense of being either somewhat abstract—despite its marvelous details of look and lifestyle of the rural milieu—or the sense of truly showing a society healthier than outsiders like me may presume. Sparked and inspired by Brady's real life (his family also plays his family), what the film does have is a resolute sensitivity, Zhao’s approach being one of intimacy and considerate attention, the casual sensuality of everyday life, and unspoken but well-felt relationships. The Rider is a film where every actor hums with character and poignancy, a history behind each appearance and a settled weight in the world. And among them also struggles Brady, suffuse in the loneliness of pride. This is a fine film indeed, as free in its saddled legacy, riding with sincerity and simplicity, as Woo's Manhunt is with its tongue-in-cheek reflexivity leavened by the director's stalwart earnestness. It feels very strange to that so far these two films, The Rider and Manhunt, are the one's that have impressed me most so far in Toronto.
Warmly,
Danny

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