TIFF Day 7: The Asian Invation (+1)

So I'm slowing down. I've been back from Toronto for one week and I'm having trouble getting the last two days of reviews posted! Isn't it annoying how life intrudes? Anyway, I should get these last reviews out before the weekend is out, and then I'll try to get some pictures from the Q&As up.

Thursday was another four-film day, but fortunately we were able to sleep in a bit. No trip to the box office, and a first film at 12:30 p.m. This was originally going to be a three-film day, but a late addition of A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE, Nobuhiro Yamashita's follow-up to LINDA LINDA LINDA at 9:15 p.m. brought us up to four.

RECLAIM YOUR BRAIN (Germany/Austria; 141)

director: Hans Weingartner

cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Elsa Sophie Gambard, Milan Peschel, Gregor Blo├ęb, Simone Hanselmann

I was really looking forward to Hans Weingartner's follow-up to the 2005 Chlotrudis Buried Treasure winner THE EDUKATORS. Imagine my disappointment when RECLAIM YOUR BRAIN fell far short of the high bar Weingartner had set for himself with his previous film. The premise is good: after a devastating automobile accident, a wealthy, high-powered, drug-addicted TV executive realizes that the crap reality shows that he is producing provide little to no value to their viewers. He investigates the rating systems and along with a ragtag bunch of misfits, discovers a way to circumvent the ratings system and educate the masses. Okay, I got a little glib toward the end, because Weingartner ends up taking the low road just about every chance he can. In fact, the story ends up being borderline morally reprehensible as the protagonists end up manipulating society as much as the "villains" of the piece.

Production values are terrific. The film opens with a high-energy sequence that takes road rage to new levels. Lead actor Moritz Bleibtreu (RUN, LOLA, RUN) crackles with dangerous energy as he swaggers and smashes his way across the city, snorting obscene amounts of cocaine and swinging a baseball bat. It's too bad that after this manic opening scene, things start to wind down, and credibility becomes strained. By the end of the film I just couldn't stop rolling my eyes.

HELP ME EROS (Taiwan; 103 min.)

director: Lee Kang-sheng

cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Yin Shin, Jane Liao, Dennis Nieh

Lee Kang-sheng should be familiar to any fans of director Tsai Ming-liang: he has starred in all of the director's films. With HELP ME EROS, Lee offers his second directorial effort that while clearly influenced by the work he has done with Tsai, is a strong, elegantly-made film all on its own.

Lee plays Ah Jie, a young man who finds himself living in poverty after he loses all the money he'd amassed on the stock market. He passes his days in a in a pot-induced haze smoking the spoils of his carefully tended closet-greenhouse. His cries for help are heard through the telephone helpline operator named Chyi, but he rejects her after finding out that she is overweight. He becomes involved with a betel nut girl (a fascinating Taiwanese cultural curiosity where young attractive, scantily-clad women operate neon-lit convenient store booths on busy roadways, delivering cigarettes and lottery tickets by sliding down fire poles to the waiting consumers) but as their sexual escapades become increasingly meaningless he pushes her away. The film ends with a remarkably filmed closing scene that, had we been able to stay for the Q&A I certainly would have asked him about filming. Lee could do worse than to follow in his mentor Tsai Ming-liang's footsteps, and if HELP ME EROS is any indication, he's well on his way.

SAD VACATION (Japan; 136 min.)

director: Shinji Aoyama

cast: Tadanobu Asano, Eri Ishida, Aoi Miyazaki Joe Odagiri, Yuka Itaya, Ken Mitsuishi

Despite an intriguing, adept cast, and some skillful camerawork, Shinji Aoyama's SAD VACATION has a little too much plot to be entirely successful. In fact, more than once I wondered if this film was a sequel and I had missed the first part. Multiple characters and scenarios are mentioned as if we are expected to know their backstories, but apparently we don't. Similarly, several plotlines are inexplicably dropped mid-film without explanation as if to be continued in a later film. Perhaps this is Aoyama's supposition; that we are being dropped into the middle of a story that isn't going to be tidily wrapped up by film's end, but it makes for somewhat frustrating viewing.

The marvelous Tadanobu Asano stars as Kenji, involved in some shady dealings that land him in hot water with a gang, and in possession of a Chinese orphan. When his path serndipitously reunites him with the mother that abandoned him as a child, he embarks on a complicated scheme of revenge that causes him to jettison any sort of concern for those around him. There are several other plot threads weaving in and out of this main story, and they do add some depth and interesting character, but are ultimately a bit extraneous. If SAD VACATION were the second part of a trilogy, I think it might work better.

A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE (Japan; 121 min.)

director: Nobuhiro Yamashita

cast: Kaho, Masaki Okada, Yui Natsukawa, Koichi Sato, Hiromasa Hirosue

Thank Goodness Nancy mentioned in casual conversation over lunch one day that she would be seeing the new film by the director of LINDA LINDA LINDA. What? How did I miss that? Such is the bane and the beauty of TIFF. There are so many films you're bound to miss some (even miss knowing about some) that you want to see; but through conversations and interactions, you often find out about them and are able to rearrange things to see them. Such is the case with Nobuhior Yamashita's A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE.

Based on the manga series written by two women called Tennen Kokekko, the film takes an sweet look at life in a tiny Japanese village in the country where there live six kids who go to school in the combined primary and middle school. The oldest, an eighth grader named Soyo Migita who loves taking care of the younger students is nervous about the arrival of a boy her age moving to the village from Tokyo. He's dripping with urban cool and she assumes they will fall in love, yet when she meets him, her infatuation turns to disappointment when faced with his clumsy, insensitive behavior. Naturally, you know they will be holding hands soon.

Like the manga it was based on, GENTLE BREEZE is very episodic, telling lovely tales of innocence in a village that seems too good to be true. There's the story about the slightly scary, but ultimately benevolent ghost on the bridge; the class trip (for the two eighth-graders) to Japan; and the group trip to the nearby festival. It's all very sweet and lovely, yet in a way that avoids the cloying, Disney-feel of American films. It's a welcome portrait of a girl's world; something we see so little of on film.