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October 1, 2006

Controversy, innovation take center stage in Toronto

There are three things that I love about the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF): a) it’s public, b) rush tickets are almost always available if you show up an hour early, and c) meeting and talking to perfect strangers in line.

This year I attended screenings of Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain! and Korean horror hit The Host, among other titles, but first, let’s catch up on this year’s festival buzz. Death of the President was by far the most controversial and talked-about film at the festival. The U.K. film uses a retrospective documentary style to tell the story of the assassination of President George W. Bush. The TIFF chose to show the film, which might never make it south of the border, on the premise of supporting freedom of speech and showcasing the quality of storytelling techniques and digital effects. The International Federation of Film Critics awarded the film the Prize of the International Critics “for the audacity with which it distorts reality, to reveal a larger truth.”

The hands-down winner as the hottest ticket of the Midnight Madness program was Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. British comedian Sacha Cohen, better known as Ali G, hit the red carpet as his Kazakhstani reporter personality Borat, escorted by goats and women dressed as villagers. Unfortunately for Cohen, the projector broke down 15 minutes into the film. Director Michael Moore attempted to play hero based on his past experience as a projectionist, but he was unsuccessful, and the showing was rescheduled for the following night. Incidentally, the movie is causing quite a diplomatic row with the real Kazakhstan. Kazakhstani president Nursultan Nazarbayev will be flying in to meet with President Bush before the movie hits American theaters in November, out of concern for his country’s image.

As far as feature films go, Guy Maddin’s new movie Brand Upon the Brain! is not just a film, but an entire experience. With 11 members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing an original score, Foley artists, a narrator, and a singer, Maddin took the stage and declared this his formal attempt to bring back silent film. Despite this tribute to the silent era, Maddin still managed to give the film his trademark erotic and distinctly Canadian flavor, delicious and bold.

The story is about a boy (incidentally named Guy) who owns an island, which he visits to reminisce about his strange childhood. Shot over nine days in Seattle, the beautiful, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography creates an aura that reminds me of the Maritimes. The camerawork resembles that of an experimental film, lively and full of movement, and the memories of Guy’s boyhood are presented in 12 chapters, each one more absurd than the last.

On the island, Guy visits the orphanage his family once owned and tries to resolve the eerie memories of his childhood, including recollections of his overbearing mother, who sits in a lighthouse to spy on her kids; the aerophone, a device which runs on the fuel of emotions that Guy’s father invented as a way for the family to keep in touch; and his wilting flower sister, Sis, with whom Guy is in the Bermuda of romantic triangles along with a sexually ambiguous young detective.

What I liked the most about Maddin’s film is that it champions the value of memory. Though viewers can fill in the holes in Guy’s childhood, Guy himself cannot, and as Maddin presents this fictitious childhood, the audience can identify with the obvious oversight of our once-naïve and tragic selves. He even makes us laugh about it, squeezing every last giggle out of the most absurd situations—most memorably when a block of butter gets stuck to the wall during a family fight, and in true silent slapstick style, the title cards exclaim, “Good for dippin’!”

The TIFF program tells me that Korean horror movies are known for their lack of monsters. The Host, directed by Bong Joon-ho, attempts to make amends by giving us one really big monster. The rain and thunder outside the theater on the night of the screening seemed to create the perfect prelude for a Korean monster horror flick, as Bong took the stage in front of a nearly full house at the Ryerson Theatre. Dressed in all black, he flashed us a big, boyish smile before saying in a very heavy Korean accent: “Thank you for coming to see my film. I hope you will enjoy.”

The Host has been called a masterpiece by many, broke box office records in Korea this summer, and has reportedly already raked in millions in foreign distribution rights. I don't think Bong had a speech prepared, but the crowd (with a large gathering of Korean youth) roared its approval, clearly ready to take on The Host. For a movie born out of a Photoshopped picture of the Loch Ness Monster, the visuals sure look a lot better. Bong collaborated with graphic specialists from Weta Workshop (Lord of the Rings), Creature Workshop (Babe), and The Orphanage (Hellboy) to create the hulking monster known as “the Host” (in Korean, simply “the Monster”).

However, at the heart of the film is not the Host; it is a dysfunctional family trying desperately to stay together. Gang-du, played by Song Kang-ho (JSA, Memories of Murder), is the loser father who will stop at nothing to rescue his daughter, who has been abducted by the Host. After a cell phone call confirms that she is still alive, Gang-du, along with his swindler father, college-educated alcoholic brother, and Olympic archer bronze-medalist sister go on a free-for-all rescue mission in the tunnels near the Han river to rescue Ah-Sung.

The hijacked truck and ’80s mafia weapons in the film screamed Little Miss Sunshine, but instead of a beauty competition, the characters had a big monster on their hands. Bong does a fantastic job keeping us laughing, screaming, and rooting for the family, despite their tendencies to behave in ways any normal person would consider crazy. It’s also great to see Bong put the brakes on genre conventions; the fact that the first Host attack occurs in broad daylight indicates that there’s a true auteur at the helm.

The much talked-about political subtext of the movie is evident from the very first scene. Though there’s been a lot of hype about this, it certainly takes a backseat to the lovable screwball family. Sure, it screams of South Korean, anti-U.S. military sentiments, but as Bong noted in the question-and-answer session afterward, any monster film has political subtext, and his is no exception.

Unfortunately, as of right now there are no plans for a sequel (Bong mentioned that the spore that fell off the Host near the end is a fish and not something more ominous). Bong’s boyhood fantasy of a monster living under a bridge on the Han river is a full-fledged hit. With an imminent U.S. release and remake talks in progress, The Host has already gained the instant cult status it deserves.