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Toronto: Three TIFF Highlights

Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” goes full agit-prop, “Styx” is one of TIFF’s best, and “The Crossing” is a story of the Hong Kong/mainland border.
Peterloo
The Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which British magistrates sent cavalry with drawn swords into a political gathering of Manchester civilians, is an event not likely to be recollected in tranquility; and Mike Leigh’s Peterloo (2018) goes full agit-prop, with apoplectic hanging judges, heartless aristocrats, mercenaries advocating “violence, hatred, destruction,” and local governors declaring “We must be brutal!” On top of the mustache-twirling, Leigh coarsens his storytelling to remove ambiguity: character is conveyed via TV-style shorthand; sympathetic characters foreshadow the coming catastrophe; the historical context is signposted in the dialogue. And yet the film is still deeply impressive, with more evidence of Leigh’s greatness than any of his films since Vera Drake (2004). Despite his reputation for kitchen-sink naturalism, Leigh has always favored exaggerated acting that isolates and intensifies character traits, and this stylization, coupled with his intelligence about social behavior, blows away the obstacles of historical adaptation as if they didn’t exist. (The film’s first shot, of a bewildered, twitching bugler on the Waterloo battlefield, identifies Peterloo as a Leigh film in the way it pushes comic acting ideas right to the edge of disrupting the drama.) Though the mannerisms of each class are vividly depicted, the finest scenes chart the dynamics of the film’s representative working-class family, exacerbating political arguments with old marital grudges, then allowing an unexpected warmth that balances the chafing of family life. But, as much as I enjoyed every character in the film and delighted in the attention given to the smallest roles, there came a time in the plot development where the film ceased to be fertile ground for these behavioral seeds. Ultimately one goes along with the  project’s anger and manipulation, or withdraws.
German director Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx (2018), one of the best films I’ve seen at Toronto this year, impresses with its clean, purposeful direction even in its elliptical opening scenes, before the plot narrows to a laser focus. A doctor (Suzanne Wolff), yachting solo in the Atlantic with the aim of seeing Darwin’s man-made jungle on Ascension Island, encounters a fishing trawler full of desperate African refugees. The Coast Guard seems more interested in warning her not to interfere than in sending timely help; unable to save the refugees with her small boat, she manages to haul in one refugee boy (Gedion Odour Wekesa) to join her agonizing vigil. Fischer’s tools are the simplest and most effective: the judicious use of peaceful long shots to regulate tone; sharp cuts between actions or scenes that shift mood while preserving the world’s integrity; compositions that bring out the geometry and vectors of the action. He uses the configuration of the boats to manage our physical and emotional distance from the suffering, and the contrast between the cool, controlled visuals and the horror of the subject matter is riveting. Styx somewhat resembles another admirable and well-directed film at TIFF, Ognjen Glavonić’s The Load, in its indirect approach to mass death; but the fusion of form and political content in Styx is superior.
A much more casual outing than either of the previous films, Bai Xue’s The Crossing, a Toronto premiere, centers on Peipei (Huang Yao), a 16-year-old Hong Kong schoolgirl who perpetually needs money to join in the plans of her wealthier best friend Jo (Carmen Soup). One thing leads to another, and Peipei winds up joining Jo’s boyfriend Hao (Sunny Sun) in a criminal ring that smuggles iPhones from Hong Kong to the mainland. The story sounds facetious on paper, but Bai plays it straight and guides the teen performances away from archetype and toward psychological specificity. All three of the excellent young leads are non-standard types: Soup deploys big, theatrical gestures as if in an opera; Sun has a brusque honesty a bit like that of Martin Donovan; Huang plays against her princess looks with droll facial expressions. Peipei is a mix of cheerful schoolgirl and sullen rebellion, a combination that works especially well for her flirtation with the older and rougher-edged Hao, to whom she does not defer: the give and take of pleasure and conflict between them feels pleasingly life-sized. Bai encourages a loose, documentary-style tone for group scenes, and manages to generate lots of scaled-down reactions that effectively disguise the artifice of the story concept. The film’s ending is abrupt to say the least, with a police bust taking down Peipei and Hao’s operation, and no resolution of any of the personal stories. A notice in the end credits that China has effectively ended smuggling at the Hong Kong/mainland border makes one wonder whether this unsatisfying conclusion is the price Bai paid for the anarchic story that preceded it.

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