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by Anthony Kaufman
September 12, 2006 5:18 AM
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TORONTO '06 CRITICS NOTEBOOK: Immigrant Stories and Haitian Violence

A scene from Werner Herzog's "Rescue Dawn." Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

On Monday, September 11, the whole world was memorializing the 5th anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the United States. But here in Toronto, specifically at the film festival, discussions centered on other topics: Is Tarsem's "The Fall" a masterpiece or a disaster? What's the deal with the ending of Werner Herzog's "Rescue Dawn"? And where, oh where is the Mark Cuban party?

We call it the festival bubble - after a few days of four to five movies in a single 24-hour stretch, little sleep, and even less food, festival-goers lose touch with the outside world, let alone with current political events.

That said, Americans looking for movies to give them strength during these tough anniversary days might seek out Herzog's latest. Next to "World Trade Center," "Rescue Dawn" may very well be the most patriotic movie of the year. And that doesn't mean it's necessarily bad, either.

A strange, sometimes beautiful Herzogian story set during the Vietnam War, "Dawn" - an adaptation of Herzog's documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" - is a war movie, a prison-escape film and a survivalist adventure in one, all the while celebrating the indefatigable upbeat spirit of Dieter Dengler, a resourceful German American pilot who was shot down and held in a Viet Cong prison camp.

In a fantastic and funny performance, Christian Bale's Dengler is pure American naivety; While being taken captive and marched through a Vietnamese village, he's all wide smiles and welcoming nods. Even after being tortured and imprisoned, he never gives into despair, giving a hearty hello to his tormenters. Totally committed and oddly, utterly believable, Bale, along with Steve Zahn, a fellow inmate who Dengler takes under his wing, devote themselves entirely to Herzog's verdant jungle vision. Even if the movie's weird jingoistic conclusion saps what comes before it, there's enough truly inspiring moments - between Bale's face, a prancing dog and slithering leeches -- to recommend.

While "Rescue Dawn" ultimately celebrates one American immigrant's story of triumph, Emanuele Crialese's surprising "Golden Door," straight from accolades in Venice, unveils the dark side of America's immigrant history. While sprinkled with magical realist glimpses of an idealized America (rivers of milk, giant carrots), "Golden Door" is unflinching in its depiction of both the rocky Sicilian hillside town where his poor protagonists come from and their brutal experiences during the Atlantic passage and stranded in Ellis Island.

Gone are the familiar romanticized visions of Italy as well as cliches of the majestic Gotham skyline (instead, it's shrouded in complete fog). Instead, Crialese creates a more original immigrant's story, and bravely paints a disturbing reality that's far more harsh and arguably more mature than his previous works "Once We Were Strangers" and "Respiro." One particular image -- an overhead shot of the boat pulling away from the Sicilian shore, slowly separating the emigres from those left behind -- is masterfully executed. And the final image -- poetic, silly and darkly ironic -- is a sharp-edged coda to a satisfying cinematic journey.

A scene from Tsai Ming-liang's "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone." Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The immigrants in Tsai Ming-liang's latest masterwork "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" don't particularly have it easy either. One of seven new art films being presented in Toronto, courtesy of Vienna's New Crowned Hope festival (including other praised fest entries, Bahman Ghobadi's "Half Moon" and Apichatpong Weerasekthakul's "Syndromes and a Century"), "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" chronicles a number of disenfranchised immigrants living in the director's native Malaysia.

Like much of Tsai's work, the film is slow moving, filled with flowing water, and focuses on a disparate group of characters -- here, a love triangle of sorts between a Bangladeshi worker, a Chinese homeless man, and a Chinese waitress. But when fires on nearby Sumatra covers the city with a smoky haze, Tsai further pushes the envelope of discomfort and disconnection -- in the best cinematic sex scene of the year, two characters try to make love, but can't keep themselves from coughing. Though, ultimately, the film's finale is surprisingly hopeful - who knew an abandoned construction site could be so sublimely romantic?

A scene from Asger Leth's "The Ghosts of Cite Soleil." Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The stars of Asger Leth's thrilling hip-hop chronicle "The Ghosts of Cite Soleil" are quite the opposite of immigrants; in fact, they are very much trapped in their Haitian slums with no chance for escape. With amazing access and a startling closeness to the action, Leth and his collaborators jump into the action and into the line of fire of armed groups sworn to fight for then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But the most fascinating aspect of this story following two sibling gangleaders, 2pac and Bily, is the amorous relationship that develops with an older, Caucasian French aid worker caught between the two. Unfortunately, the film speeds along at such a swift MTV-like clip that it doesn't stop and unearth the complicated relationships on display.

For that sort of intimate subtlety, one needs to turn to the dramatic work of Tajikistani auteur Jamshed Usmonov ("Angel on the Right," "Flight of the Bee"). First screened in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, his latest film "To Get to Heaven First You Have to Die" is the story of a 20-year-old impotent boy who, simply put, just wants to get laid. But as the title of the film suggests, achieving his goal doesn't come easy. And a sudden and surprising plot shift propels the innocent young man from stalking women in shopping centers and buses to coming face to face with evil. That he eventually proves victorious should also provide comfort to those in need of uplift during these traumatic times.


[Get the latest from the Toronto International Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE's special Toronto '06 section.]

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