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TORONTO ’06 CRITICS NOTEBOOK: Verhoeven and Jia Offer Fest Surprises, Sarah Polley Shines

TORONTO '06 CRITICS NOTEBOOK: Verhoeven and Jia Offer Fest Surprises, Sarah Polley Shines

Wednesday is technically the three-quarter-mark at the Toronto International Film Festival, but it might as well be its final hours. As of Thursday, most industry folks and critics have already hopped on planes back home, while those that haven’t wish that they had. And pronouncements about the festival’s success (or failure) have long taken hold.

Because Toronto lacks a competition section, it’s not as easy to evaluate, as say, Cannes or Sundance. Every year, the judgment seems to be roughly the same: the world premieres are hit or miss; hyped films never live up to their buildup (“D.O.A.P“); Hollywood shoots off some blanks (this year’s “Elizabethtown” award goes to “A Good Year” and “All the Kings Men“) and fires up some Oscar contenders (namely, Kate Winslet in “Little Children” and Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland“); and Canadian films at this Canadian festival are sorely overlooked.

The one bright exception is Sarah Polley‘s “Away from Her,” the Canadian actress-turned-director’s delicate feature film debut about a man (Gordon Pinsent) losing his wife (the still luminous Julie Christie) to early onset Alzheimer’s. While somewhat familiar territory (see Bille August‘s “A Song for Martin“), the film generates an overwhelming amount of sympathy for the plight of Pinsent’s character, a man so deeply in love with his wife that he supports her love for another man to make her happy. Based on Alice Munro‘s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the film lacks the kind of sharp edge that many celebrated in Polley’s 2001 short “I Shout Love,” instead, playing it safe for a mainstream audience. Lionsgate, having picked up the film yesterday, will undoubtedly do just that, heavily targeting the geriatric set.

Paul Verhoeven‘s first Dutch film in over twenty years “Black Book” (Netherland’s submission for Oscar consideration) could very well be another favorite for the elder demographic – except for those delightfully perverse Verhoeven-esque touches (i.e. we see rising star Carice van Houten dying her pubic hair blonde and a fat gap-toothed naked Nazi taking a piss). In this rip-roaring old-fashioned World War II yarn, the radiant Van Houten, along with her pert breasts, star as a Jewish singer who takes up with the Dutch resistance after her family is mowed down by the aforementioned fat Nazi. After using her womanly whiles to seduce a kindly stamp-collecting Nazi officer (whom she eventually falls in love with), she infiltrates Nazi headquarters as a performer/secretary.

With several double-crosses, multiple twists, escapes, gunfights and plenty of bad guys, “Black Book” is never boring. And the final act, taking place after the war is over, truly drifts into Verhoeven territory, with the Dutch victors turning out to be as inhumane and grotesque as the Nazis, along with some chocolate bars that save the day. “It’s a hoot,” as one critic said. Indeed, imagine a conflation of past pictures by the Dutch provocateur mashed together: it’s “Soldier of Orange” meets “Showgirls” meets “The 4th Man.”

It may be impossible to adequately make an assessment of this year’s Toronto crop, as there’s no way to see all the films (I missed a number of talked-about features, several of which I’ll be catching at the New York Film Festival). But the last minute arrival on Tuesday night of Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke‘s “Still Life” upped the ante. If Toronto had a competition, it’d surely look a lot like Venice’s, where “Still Life” surprisingly took home the Golden Lion.

Some festival attendees speculated that Toronto organizers, fearing humiliation for not programming a major winner, jumped into overdrive to get a print of the film. But a source close to the movie says that Toronto had always wanted to screen Jia’s latest, but the producers needed to world premiere elsewhere. Once Venice finally said yes, both festivals then scrambled to accommodate the film with late night, poorly publicized screenings that arguably worked against the movie. (After waiting for an hour in line to get into the combined press and pubic screening in Toronto, the press were getting cranky when the movie didn’t start until well after 10pm; in Venice, trade reviews were poor.)

But in Toronto, many critics welcomed the presence of “Still Life” as a beautiful, thought-provoking film quite unlike anything else in the festival. Along with Jia’s hour-long documentary “Dong,” which was shot first and feels like a preparatory study for the feature, “Still Life” injected much needed artistry into a selection of world premieres that often felt diverting, uninspired or just slightly above average.

Photographed in stunning Hi-Def video, “Still Life” and “Dong” are both set in the area around China’s Three Gorges Dam project, a picturesque landscape (so scenic it’s printed on the back of money) that is pockmarked by half-demolished buildings and piles of rubble. To make way for the massive hydroelectric project, towns have been destroyed and millions displaced. Against this strange, alien landscape (so alien, that Jia literally includes CGI shots of a U.F.O. and a building blasting off into space), “Still Life” observes two characters, a man and a woman, separately searching for their missing spouses.

As to be expected from Jia’s work, the film offers few easy answers. A collection of chapter headings (“Cigarettes,” “Liquor,” “Tea,” “Toffee”) may suggest a critique of China’s commodity-obsessed contemporary culture, the type of money-hungry system that is leaving its peoples lost and confused. If not, “Still Life” certainly suggests a country hanging in the balance, between old and new, broken-down, collapsing buildings and brightly illuminated modern bridges – and you can bet Jia is highly suspicious of the changes, observing China’s 21st century changes with wry skepticism.

As a supplement to “Still Life,” “Dong” – a documentary about a painter — illuminates many of the ideas in the fiction film, from notions of dislocation to the moving nature of the human body, as central figure Liu Xiaodong explains, despite the troubles of living in tough environments. While clearly beaten down, the men that he paints, who come from the soon-to-be obliterated towns around the Three Gorges, still have vitality – Liu notes the large cock in one man’s shorts. The second half of the film follow Liu’s travels to Bangkok, where he paints a collection of young, scantily clad Thai women (possibly sex workers). Answering a question (not heard) that may be about art’s power to change, Liu responds, “To Hell with it. . .. All I can do is be creative and innovative.”

It’s good advice for all filmmakers.

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

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