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September 13, 2001 2:00 AM
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TORONTO 2001: Midnight Diversions

TORONTO 2001: Midnight Diversions

by Don Marks



(indieWIRE/ 09.13.01) -- After a long, hard day spent watching the latest in artistic-minded filmmaking from around the world, there's no better way to unwind than with the no-nonsense delights that can be found in the Midnight Madness program of the Toronto International Film Festival. As programmed once again by local cult-movie buff and Asian culture authority Colin Geddes, emphasis is placed squarely on delivering the most thrills in the shortest time possible.


Case in point: Ryuhei Kitamura's "Versus," the first of the Japanese filmmaker's guerilla-style genre exercises to make it to Toronto. When a film opens with two escaped prisoners wearing jumpsuits emblazoned with the word "lawbreaker," it's a safe bet that realism is not in the cards. What follows is an often hilarious, collision of gunfire, kung fu and swordplay in a zombie-infested forest that culminates in, what else, the ultimate battle between good and evil. Although too lengthy, talky and unstructured by half, "Versus" nevertheless goes a long way on the natural appeal of its leads -- the smoldering nonchalance of take-charge hero Tak Sakaguchi, the unassuming strength of villain Hideo Sakaki and the goofball, devil-may-care attitude of wild card yakuza Kenji Matsuda.


When mere wounds aren't enough, Takashi Miike's "Ichi The Killer" embraces dismemberment, bisection and liquefaction. The prolific Japanese director's latest exercise in shock value is sure to delight gorehounds and send the squeamish running for the exits, but as with much of his previous work ("Audition", "Dead Or Alive", "Visitor Q"), there's more in the sick master's design than simply offering up an ocean of blood for the faithful. With "Ichi," Miike ekes bitter irony out of his characters' severe sexual dysfunctions.


Despite initial evidence pointing to Ichi (Nao Omori) as perhaps the most sadistic hitman who ever lived, the character we eventually come to know is little more than a frightened, manipulated child with no clear idea of how to deal with his adult sexual urges. For him, violence is an orgasmic release from all of the anger that has been welling up inside. On the other hand, the sadistic tortures beloved of yakuza Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano, whose working relationship with Miike began with a meeting at last year's Midnight Madness screening of "City Of Lost Souls") masks a deeply masochistic need to be brutalized as much as possible in return. For Kakihara, the thought of dying by Ichi's hand is the ultimate turn-on. But as the old joke about the sadist and the masochist goes, a meeting of two diametrically opposed needs is sure to result in nothing but frustration.


In contrast, the two assassins duking it out in Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai's "Full Time Killer" ultimately find their separate desires to mesh quite well. After spending the better part of the last two years re-popularizing the romantic comedy in Hong Kong, To has returned to the kind of atmospheric, deconstructionist crime films ("The Mission", "A Hero Never Dies") that have earned his production company Milkyway Image a growing following in the West. But even with the commercial considerations of having Hong Kong heartthrob Andy Lau on board (Lau's fans were out in force at Saturday's screening), To hasn't lost sight of his personal themes and obsessions. Like much of his work, "Full Time Killer" explores the very nature of the characters who populate the movies.


Departing from his usual role as a romantic lead, Lau plays Tok, a showboating killer for hire who peppers his deadly work with references to his favorite action movies. He's desperate to steal away the title of best assassin in Asia from O (Japanese actor Takashi Sorimachi), a hitman who tries to minimize his impact on the world by withdrawing from it as much as he possibly can. Their antagonistic, eventually respectful relationship is a classic To construction, culminating in a final stand off that gives them both what they want while simultaneously etching their story in stone. Men such as these, To concludes, can live only in the realm of legend. Or cinema.


Of the three entries in this year's program that attempt to turn history into legend by way of film, Thanit Jitnukul's "Bang Rajan" is easily the most old-fashioned. A broad, bloody epic offering a new battle scene every 20 minutes or so, "Bang Rajan" tells the true story of how one small Siamese village held off 100,000 Burmese soldiers for five entire months. Although a big hit in its native Thailand where it has become the most successful homegrown production ever, it is less likely to be so immediately embraced on this side of the Pacific. Jitnukul's attempts at putting a human face on his film's considerable violence are perfunctory at best, and although he creates some striking imagery -- flaming arrows soaring over the village wall and men rising out of the river in a moonlit ambush have an eerie beauty all of their own -- he never manages to sustain the larger than life qualities that make a legend take on a life of its own.


In contrast, Christophe Gans "Le Pacte Des Loups" ("Brotherhood Of The Wolf") successfully enlivens a piece of French history by melding the sensational with the refined. Much to King Louis XV's extreme embarrassment, a wild animal preyed mercilessly on residents of the southern French region of Gevaudian between 1765 and 1768. As in the film, "Naturalist Gregoire de Fronsac" (Samuel Le Bihan) really did venture to Gevaudian to study the creature that he hoped would soon be caught, but it's screenwriter Stephan Cabel's vision that gives him an Iroquois blood brother (Mark Dacascos) and sets the duo out to stop the beast's reign of terror all on their own.


Gans applies a lush visual sense to Cabel's seamless blend of history, horror, romance, action and political intrigue, giving the French countryside a double-edged quality of beauty underlaid with death. Although Gans has a tendency to smother action sequences with an obsessive use of slow-motion photography (witness his debut "Crying Freeman"), he eventually loosens up and lets fight choreographer Phillip Kwok's combat scenes flow unhindered. The resulting piece has the sweep of a traditional historical epic filtered through the demands of modern popular entertainment.


Also historical in nature but much quieter in execution, Rob Green's "The Bunker" traps a group of Nazi soldiers in an anti-tank facility whose underlying tunnels may be populated by either German ghosts or American troops. Very sparing in his application of supernatural elements, Green makes a small but powerful piece about the different types of people that find themselves caught fighting a war, but it's a curious choice for the closing night slot in a program that usually prefers to go out with a bang.


And a bang is exactly what Ishii Sogo's featurette "Electric Dragon 80,000 V" delivers. Two superheroes (Asano Tadanobu and Nagase Masatoshi), a constant barrage of feedback-drenched guitar noise and all the electricity a living city can muster. And like much of the Midnight Madness program, it's designed to play loud.

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