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TORONTO ’07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Discovery Section A Mixed Bag; “King of the Hill” and “Cocochi” Shine

TORONTO '07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Discovery Section A Mixed Bag; "King of the Hill" and "Cocochi" Shine

Containing fourteen films from a dozen countries, the Discovery section of the Toronto International Film Festival is like a miniature festival on its own. Yet the ambiguous definition of the section’s title, rather than the cultural range of the program, suggests the nature of its content. Technically, Discovery is programmed as a means of showcasing emerging talent and searching for future success stories–but, based on this year’s line up, it could also refer to the categorical experiments conducted by beginning filmmakers. Several of the films rely on specific technical or narrative-based techniques, as though the creators are exploring (and hence “discovering”) the potential of their medium. Predictably enough, the result is a mixed bag, but not without a few gems.

Two thrillers in the section benefit from comparison for their unique application of low budget storytelling and an emphasis on concept over fictional detail. “The Passage,” a beautifully photographed debut from British director Mark Heller, contains a plot that’s nearly identical to “Hostel” (on paper, at least), slowed down to a tenth of its original speed: Two friends (an American played by Stephen Dorff and a Brit played by Neil Jackson) backpack through Morocco, looking at the region through the lens of their cultural elitism. The quieter, outwardly nicer member of the duo (Dorff) gets invited to an overnight trip outside of town by an attractive local (Sarai Givaty), which leads to their stay at a mysterious guesthouse containing the eponymous dark tunnel.

A scene from Mark Heller’s “The Passage.” Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

At least a third of the movie–or, at least, it seems like that much–takes place while Dorff and Givaty wander through a series of pitch black corridors (which his character manages to intermittently illuminate through camera flashes, in a clever homage to Hitchcock’s “Rear Window“). There’s a certain point when the minimalist fright gimmick switches from ominous to bland and cumbersome. When the Brit shows up and the tunnel sequence threatens to start again, “The Passage” almost rescues itself with a fresh situation–but the climax, no matter its intentions, slovenly derives from the pretentious gravitas that often plagues contemporary American horror films. It was introduced at its premiere as an artful look at “the perils of globalization,” supposedly marking a refreshing departure from torture porn, but the sum of the scares in “The Passage” reach the same cheapened conclusion; it just takes a more circuitous route to get there.

The stronger thriller in the Discovery section uses another basic premise with greater potency. “El Rey de Montana” (“King of the Hill“), directed by Spanish filmmaker Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego (whose first feature, “Over the Rainbow,” won a South American festival award in 2005), builds tension with a series of events that contain very little explanation. But they don’t require context to create endearing suspense. A weary urban traveler (Leonardo Sbaraglia) gets seduced by a femme fatale at a gas station, followed by the revelation that he’s been robbed. Back on the road, he drives through a desolate woodsy area and finds himself in the crosshairs of an unseen shooter. Most of the film takes place without the identity or motives for the gunfire explained, with focus instead placed on the protagonist’s survival tactics in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Fast paced with virtually no opportunity to take a breather, “King of the Hill” is hardly all questions and no answers. When the explanation for the violence finally gets clarified, a disturbingly profound level of bleak social complexity enters the plot, cleverly formulated so that the movie works as a relevant text for both sides of the gun control debate.

A scene from Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego’s “King of the Hill.” Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

While these genre films both illustrate beginning filmmakers’ tendencies to investigate the possibilities of established storytelling formats, other entries in the Discovery section show particular emphasis on the technological standards of the medium. “Blind,” a brooding Dutch romance, and “September,” an Australian period piece, both feature drop-dead gorgeous cinematography, with every frame carefully calculated to entrance helpless viewers, although in both cases the artful photography frequently threatens to overwhelm the efficiency of the drama.

In “Blind,” the first narrative feature from Tamar Van Den Dop, a fairy tale romance plays out between a blind, frustrated young man Ruben (Joren Seldeslachts) and his viciously scarred mentor, Marie (Halina Reijn). Ruben grows convinced that his teacher is a beautiful woman and falls in love with her; Marie demonstrates similarly strong feelings for her student, and hesitantly sustains his illusion about her appearance. It’s a simple and engaging premise, but it follows a practically sedated pace without a single unexpected development. The magnificent winter scenes would look as though they were shot in black in white were it not for the infusion of occasional grey tones throughout the landscape. The emphasis on this expressionistic beauty often makes it difficult to remain invested in the underlying conflict.

The plotting of “September,” while slow in its way, plays out in a significantly less tiresome manner. Set amid the wheat-filled farm country of Australia in the late 1960’s, “September” (directed by first timer Peter Carstairs with impressive competence) follows two teenage friends of different ethnicities whose class differences and varying interests threaten to ruin their relationship. The fields fill the frame with bright golden tones set against a brilliant sky. Although the story is tame, dramatic moments in “September” often work well as the picturesque imagery serves to highlight their importance. An additional factor that saves the movie from becoming too lost in its own beauty stems from the strength of the two young leads. Extensive period detail (like discussion about the approaching 1969 lunar landing) keeps the story on a steady course.

Not everyone featured in the Discovery section is a novice to the filmmaking process. In the comedic realm, “The Babysitters,” one of only two Discovery films made by American directors, stars John Leguizamo. Meanwhile, the screwy Swedish film “With Your Permission” is directed Paprika Steen from a screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, whose writing strengths formed the backbone of Suzanne Bier’s‘ “After the Wedding.” In the case of “With Your Permission,” Jensen’s relative abilities to create palpable tension through the drama of human relationships (as in “Wedding”) plays nicely into the dark humor at the heart of the film, which centers on a cranky restaurant manager (Rasmus Bjerg) unable to handle his abusive wife. The movie’s tone feels strangely uneven: it’s virtually directionless for the first half hour before aiming for gallows humor and finally retreating to the safe haven of romantic convention. But Steen stylizes the changing moods in such a way that it’s impossible not to empathize with the plight of the main character.

One of the freshest Discovery films has nothing to do with commercial viability or fame–just basic, unvarnished filmmaking with universal appeal. The Mexican-made “Cocochi,” codirected by Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman, features a quaint tale about two brothers forced by their grandfather to travel across mountainous terrain to make a personal delivery. Produced by fellow TIFF contributors Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal (along with eight other people), “Cocochi” looks like a 1970s western set in an obscure poetic landscape. Along with “King of the Hill,” it’s a standout entry in the section that has the merits of a true discovery.

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