As the festival finally draws to a close, TIFF begins handing out its festival prizes. There’s no official competition like in Cannes or Venice; rather, since it’s the people’s festival, the people vote on all of the films playing. The People’s Choice Award has recently been positioned as a kingmaker in the fall movie season, with nine out of the ten previous winners nabbing Oscar noms for Best Picture, three of them—Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and 12 Years a Slave—winning. Every now and then you might still get a curveball, but we’ve come a long way since Toronto audiences were handing out the award to international arthouse favorites like Nicolas Roeg, Pedro Almodóvar and Takeshi Kitano.
TIFF did, however, introduce a competition program four years ago, dubbed Platform, after the film by Jia Zhangke, who presided over the jury in the inaugural year. Platform is a section dedicated to bold, boundary-pushing visions from exciting filmmakers. I only saw one Platform film this year, Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer. The winner was Ho Wi Ding’s Cities of Last Things, which had flown completely under my radar. TIFF has also recently added People’s Choice Awards for the best films in the Documentary and Midnight Madness sections, which went to Free Solo and The Man Who Feels No Pain, respectively. But all eyes, of course, remain on the top prize. The early favorite to win was A Star is Born, but Peter Farrelly’s Green Book pulled off an upset.
The winner always screens for free on closing night, and I was able to get a ticket so I decided to check it out. Green Book is based on a true story and stars Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip and Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley. Out of work for two months while the Copacabana undergoes repairs, Tony takes a job as a driver for Don, a professional pianist, who is embarking on a music tour through the American South. Tony was recommended for his particular “talents” when it comes to handling trouble, but there’s a catch: Don is black, and Tony is racist. Oh no!
You know exactly where this movie is going without having to see it. Green Book is a road trip movie in which a black man and a white man get to know each other and make the world a better place, or at least make white people feel better about it. Yes, it’s based on a true story, and yes, it’s actually a warm and funny and endearing journey, and yes, Mortensen and Ali are great together and a joy to watch. But the film’s politics are the most disingenuous sort of liberal hogwash—that is to say, they’re clearly the politics of white Democratic voters, who would have voted for Obama for a third term. There’s a scene towards the end of the film, a pointed reversal of an earlier sequence involving our protagonists getting arrested and thrown in jail overnight, that functions dramatically as a #NotAllCops moment. Green Book is the kind of movie that’s full of dubious good intentions, existing for no other reason than to reinforce the status quo. It’s liberal, sure, but it’s also the opposite of progressive.
Lee Chang-dong’s Burning was one of my most anticipated films of the year, but my reaction ended up being unexpectedly muted. It’s a good movie, formally assured and accomplished and as well-directed as anything Lee has made before, if not better. I overheard people calling it Lee’s best film as they were pouring out of the theatre, and its record-breaking 3.8 score on the Cannes jury grid would indicate such a consensus. But I found it clumsy in its scripting, with “clues” deployed in obvious and heavy-handed ways. It’s the kind of movie where a character is a writer and is writing a story, but what is his story, or what will it be, and how many times are characters going to repeat this dialogue? Burning is a mystery film, more loose and imprecise than Lee’s previous work. The cumulative impact didn’t cut me like Secret Sunshine or Poetry, for example, but at the same time, the more diffuse emotional reaction I got from this is something that will simply take more time to unpack.
Burning is not the kind of film one wants to process on the 11th day of a massive film festival. I’m tired! And I’m curious to see what a second viewing will do, since a lot of my problems here, such as they are, amount to quibbles and nitpicks in the scripting. The film’s central mystery requires its characters to be ciphers, to a degree, and some of the characterization and plot setup just wasn’t working for me. That’s another of way of saying the film starts slow and takes a while to find its footing. But once Steven Yeun shows up, I was hooked. This is still a strong film; it builds and unfolds extremely well despite a daunting 150-minute runtime. Lee’s masterful direction is a big part of that, but Yeun is the true revelation of the film. I had seen him before in a couple small roles (I’ve never seen The Walking Dead, sorry), but he never left an impression on me. With Burning, Yeun gives one of the best performances I saw this year at TIFF. The film only works insofar as we can believe his character, Ben, capable of certain actions just as easily as not, and Yeun’s chilling and alluring performance hits every single note.
Thinking about Yeun’s performance, I started to think about the other performances I saw at the festival. Not a lot of them jump out at me, surprisingly. That might actually put Yeun on top, but there are a couple other worthy mentions here. Nicole Kidman is a towering inferno in Destroyer; I wish the movie around her was stronger, but I loved every second of what she was doing, goofy makeup and all. Anders Danielsen Lie is captivating and unsettling, but it’s a good performance deployed in an incredibly misguided way by Paul Greengrass—this being a reminder that 22 July is the worst film I saw this year and you should skip it. As for good performances in good films, I have to give a shout-out to the entire cast of High Life. The opening segments with Robert Pattinson and his daughter were some of the most memorable moments of the festival, but I could say that about almost any scene in Denis’s astonishing sci-fi epic, from Juliette Binoche in her “fuckbox” to every single tender and beguiling moment with André Benjamin.
The last film I saw this year was Shinya Tsukamoto’s Zan, or Killing. It’s a period piece about a masterless samurai lodging with a small group of villagers. He is forced to prepare for war when another samurai, played by Tsukamoto himself, passes through looking to recruit soldiers on his way to Edo. The film is a continuation of the political, anti-war statements that have dominated Tsukamoto’s late career, at times even feeling like an addendum to his previous film, Fires on the Plain. Killing is cut from the same aesthetic cloth as Fires, a scrappy low-budget effort juxtaposing violent, existential horrors with shots of clouds rolling across the sky, captured with Tsukamoto’s relentlessly vibrating camera. It builds to a powerful conclusion, one final, anguished cry that echoes long into the night. But it’s also a shaky sketch of a film, feeling unusually underdeveloped for its 80-minute runtime. Tsukamoto typically excels with shorter work, but Killing ultimately feels slight and even unfinished.
Killing functions best as a house built to support Chu Ishikawa’s final work. I only recently read about Ishikawa’s passing and was devastated by the news. Ishikawa was a legend in Japan’s industrial music scene and also produced film scores for nearly all of Tsukamoto’s films. I heard a lot of great music at TIFF this year, from Mowg’s brilliant score for Burning to the equally wonderful work by Hsu Chih-Yuan and Lim Giong for Long Day’s Journey into Night. I also have to give a shout-out here to Legend of the Demon Cat; Klaus Badelt’s score admittedly pales in comparison to his work on The Promise, but the film has a secret weapon in the form of RADWIMPS, who produced the theme song, “Mountain Top.” RADWIMPS previously composed the score for Your Name, and their theme for Legend of the Demon Cat might just be one of their best songs. But Chu Ishikawa’s score for Killing is where my mind keeps returning.
I’ve been a Tsukamoto fan ever since a classmate introduced me to Tetsuo, the Iron Man back in high school. That means I’ve been an Ishikawa fan for just as long. Musical collaborations guide my cinematic tastes as much as anything. Imagine Federico Fellini without Nino Rota, Sergio Leone without Ennio Morricone, Satoshi Kon without Susumu Hirasawa, Hou Hsiao-hsien without Lim Giong (Millennium Mambo has one of the most iconic openings in all of cinema, and that doesn’t happen without Lim’s music). Tsukamoto and Ishikawa has been one of the most memorable and genre-defining collaborations, greatly influencing my sensibilities growing up, as a movie fan or otherwise.
Walking out of the Scotiabank theatre after Killing had finished, I was filled with a sense of melancholy. That was the last time I was ever going to hear Ishikawa’s music. As I walked around the city, workers on cranes were already starting to tear down all of the TIFF posters on the sides of buildings, and the finality was overwhelming. My mind immediately went back to a scene in Long Day’s Journey into Night, when Luo hands Wan a watch, and she scolds him, saying you shouldn’t gift a watch because it’s a symbol of the eternal. In return, she hands him a small firework, or sparkler. But you shouldn’t gift someone a firework, Luo remarks, because it’s a symbol of the transitory. Wan replies, “Isn’t that what we are?”
And so the festival is over. And I need some sleep.
Thanks for reading.
The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 6th to 16th, 2018.