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Toronto Correspondences #11: Old World, Lost World

Our TIFF dispatch includes Diao Yinan's "The Wild Goose Lake," Arturo Ripstein's "Devil Between the Legs," and Yonfan's "No. 7 Cherry Lane."
Fernando F. Croce
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Fernando F. Croce Kelley Dong, and editor Daniel Kasman.
The Wild Goose Lake
Dear Kelley and Danny,
When this dispatch reaches you, I shall be back in my Californian abode, exhausted and slightly under the weather and elated to have been able to have spent the last ten days immersed in movies and friends. I’ll keep the sentiment short so we can get more quickly to my final viewings, but do know that I wait all year to be at TIFF with you, and that I happily carry your kindness and cinephiliac knowledge and passion with me home.
I absolutely get what you mean about that much-needed jolt during the festival, Danny. For me, that came in the form of Diao Yinan's The Wild Goose Lake, an invigorating dive into the Chinese underworld that at times plays like Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out envisioned by Jia Zhangke. The introductory rendezvous is pure noir, wounded fugitive (Hu Ge) and enigmatic gamine (Gwei Lun-mei) meeting in a vacant station under a downpour, two Melvillian figures in the night. He’s a gangster on the run after a bloodily botched contest, she’s a “bathing beauty” call-girl bringing a message from his estranged wife. The eponymous spot (“a lawless place”) is just one vividly grimy pit-stop in the couple’s tour of a neon-drenched underbelly, followed closely by a tenacious police inspector (Liao Fan). It’s a largely nocturnal world, Diao’s China, a welter of leaky basements and motels and noddle shops or, in an uncanny moment, simply a darkened road where headlights briefly appear, tantalizingly weave, and vanish. (Seen under pale sunlight, a beach seems like a perverse travesty of the site of relaxation it’s supposed to be, the way nightclubs pop up like mirages in Edgar G. Ulmer’s films.) Diao sets up scenes languidly only to splinter them with violent flurries, a meeting between gangs giving way to a kaleidoscopic rumble or a terse confrontation in a closed zoo punctuated by abrupt views of a pensive caged tiger or an elephant’s darting eyeball. Equally strikingly, he draws parallels between characters on opposite sides of the law—hoods gathered for lessons in thievery are rhymed with cops being briefed on a dragnet, and again with laborers running a lottery to see who gets to work. Moody and muscular, The Wild Goose Lake posits connection only in its characters’ shades of fatalistic desperation.
Devil Between the Legs
In Arturo Ripstein’s Devil Between the Legs, connection is a matter of libidinous ritualism, a give and take of desire and abasement. Awakening flanked by anatomical mannequins, an elderly man (Alejandro Suarez) grousingly rises, shuffles to another bedroom, and lifts the nightgown of the prone figure to photograph her backside. “Such a wilting flower!” Neither the first nor the last insult he has spit out at his equally aged wife (Sylvia Pasquel), who endures the litany of curses while keeping them recorded in a notebook that she occasionally recites to shocked acquaintances. He accuses her of infidelity while pursuing an affair with a hairdresser, she secretly takes tango classes (the ballroom is barely visible behind a forest of dangling Mylar strips) and splashes her crotch with bleach. So it goes in this acrid pas de deux, people supposedly “past the age of passions” yet unmistakably prisoner to them, whether said passions are lust or cruelty or, after so many years together, some baleful blurring of them. Methodical studies of lurid tabloid items are Ripstein’s specialty, and, working with his longtime screenwriter Paz Alicia Garcíadiego, the veteran Mexican director gazes pitilessly at domestic pits, lingering abuse, and carnal vengeance. As in his previous Bleak Street (2015), despair is the accepted norm (“This is my misfortune,” more than one character states) and emotions exist mainly in degraded states (Friedrich Hollaender’s famous “Falling in Love Again” plays as a tinkling shell of its former self). Yet, through the camera’s unyielding, unblushing scrutiny—Ripstein’s long-take examination of the weight of flesh evokes Erich von Stroheim—a battered type of compassion emerges. Not a pleasant experience, but I’ll take its scabrous honesty over Michael Haneke’s Amour any day.
No. 7 Cherry Lane
A different sort of heaviness runs through No. 7 Cherry Lane, where figures move across the screen as if wading through a swamp or, more pointedly, through a haze of memories. In his first feature in a decade, director Yonfan imagines late-1960s Hong Kong as a crossroads of liquid sexuality and form, its animation a heady amalgam of computer-generated and hand-drawn models. Amid the city’s blossom gardens and fashion districts, the main object of contemplation is the frequently shirtless, frequently pawed torso of the young protagonist, a university undergrad (voiced by Alex Lam) who spends some decisive months playing tutor to the daughter (Zhao Wei) of a former activist (Sylvia Chang). While he bonds with the coquettish student over the Brontë sisters, he connects with the mother over multiple trips to the local movie theater, where extended re-enactments of Simone Signoret classics reflect the couple’s longing. “A prime time forever lost,” goes the narrator, a sense of nostalgic intoxication that, in its time and setting, invites comparison to In the Mood for Love. (Like Wong Kar-wai, Yonfan understands the visual sublimity of women in cheongsams ascending and descending staircases.) There is in every frame a fetishistic attention to detail (beaded curtains, jade-colored wallpaper, bamboo shelves and lanterns) and sacramental gesture (the exhaling of smoke, the stirring of drinks, the turning of a head as potential love passes by). Not sure if it was festival fatigue creeping up, but for a while it all struck me as more torpid than beguiling. By the end, however, Yonfan’s fantasies—one moment fastidiously chaste, the other deliriously erotic—had taken hold in the kind of reverie it’s hard to step out of once you step in.
And speaking of stepping out, off I go. I look forward to reading about the rest of your discoveries, my friends, and, until next time, safe travels and happy viewings.
Warmly,
Fern

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Festival CoverageTIFFTIFF 2019Diao YinanArturo RipsteinYonfanCorrespondences
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