Big films make their big debut at TIFF

Graphic by Tom Bell

The Toronto International Film Festival screen is alive with foreign films this fall

As the mid-way point of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) draws near, the streets of the city get evermore crowded with journalists and visiting stars. For both obsessive and casual film lovers, here is a short report from the scene.

Korean master of film Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is, in my opinion, one of the best films of the festival and of the year. It is a tense and visually exquisite erotic thriller that starts as a gothic melodrama, and gradually descends into the hell of perversion and violence that you would expect from the man who directed Oldboy. It’s sure to be a special experience if you’ve never heard of Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith, which the film is based on, but I won’t tell you why.  What I can tell you is that it will leave you with some added understanding of the long-standing Japanese tradition of tentacle porn.

Maintaining the same level of perversion, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is a shocking and darkly funny French thriller starring the excellent Isabelle Huppert. The film starts with a rape—careful, it has trigger warning written all over it. It is being promoted as a revenge story, but that’s not what it is, and even the ‘whodunit’ is not always central to the plot. Instead, it’s a surreal look at sexual passion and family dynamics, which are shown in an unconventional light. Although it sometimes feels a bit too cynical and calculated, the film is nonetheless a treat. A particularly memorable Christmas Eve dinner is one of its highlights.

No movie generated as much talk at this year’s Cannes festival as Toni Erdmann, but for all its strong qualities, it’s hard to understand what made it such a sensation. Its key concept is so exceedingly simple, perhaps it would have worked just as well as a short film, which is odd considering it clocks in at two hours and 42 minutes. What makes it worthwhile, is its touching depiction of a waning father-daughter relationship, the dullness of adult life, and the  magic of childhood—something that can never be truly reclaimed.

Finally, Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows is a thrilling action drama set, like The Handmaiden, in Japan-occupied Korea—which might give you some insight into current Japanese-Korean relations. Entertaining, brazenly patriotic and ultimately moving, the film was made with a great sense of scope on a remarkably small budget (IMDB estimates it at under $9 million). It’s not as bold as Jee-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird, but features wonderful set pieces and a solid cast, led by Song Kang-ho who plays a man caught between resistance fighters and imperial police.

TIFF, sometimes referred to as “the Cannes of North America,” runs until Sept. 18.

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