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Report from the Toronto International Film Festival

Reading articles about the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s common to come across sweeping generalizations about its films’ tone and quality that don’t match one’s experience at all. Considering that it showed 352 films this year, that’s only natural. Even if one saw six films a day for the entire 10-day run, it would only be possible to catch a little more than one-sixth of the festival. In the past few years, it’s been used as a launching pad for Hollywood Oscar-bait. Some have to come to judge its success on those terms, ignoring its vast selection of cinema from all over the world. Screenings of almost any English-language film filled up quickly, while subtitled work was far easier to get into. For me, this year’s festival offered plenty of good films and few awful ones, but it was a little disappointing in that it served up few real discoveries. The best films I saw were all by directors with whom I’m quite familiar, and taking chances on unknown quantities proved unrewarding.

South Korean director Lee Jung-ik’s “King and the Clown” was a “Titanic”-sized hit at home; it’s now the second highest-grossing Korean film ever made. It’s also the kind of Asian film that usually appeals to Americans: full of period flavor, pageantry and bright colors. I can already picture a trailer hailing its exoticism and comparing it to Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game” and Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine.”

A gay love triangle between two jesters and a king, it tugs the heartstrings shamelessly but effectively. Jang-seng (Karm Woo-sung) and Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi) are part of a band of traveling minstrels whose raunchy performances mock royalty. Expecting a negative reaction, the troupe is astonished that the king (Jung Jin-young) enjoys their performance, but the real attraction for him is Gong-gil, who becomes his lover. For much of its length, the sexual frankness of “King and the Clown” only goes so far. Just when its homoeroticism seems in danger of remaining subtext—albeit one that nobody could possibly miss—a few lines of dialogue bring it to the light of day. However, Gong-gil’s as close to being a transvestite as he is to being a modern gay man, although neither category truly fits him. He doesn’t live as a woman, but his personification of female roles and femininity—particularly his silky skin—are his main appeal to the king. Jung’s performance suggests a medieval Michael Jackson with a murderous streak—less flamboyant but equally childlike. “King and the Clown” has been likened to “Brokeback Mountain,” but its characters are lucky enough to live in a world where love between men isn’t a major source of shame. Their love may still be dangerous, but it stems mostly from the nexus of passion and power.

Imagine if ‘70s porn had matured into a form capable of embracing both tenderness and cumshots. That lost promise is evoked by John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus.” It reclaims explicit sex from the miserabilism of films like Catherine Breillat’s “The Anatomy of Hell” and Tsai Ming-liang’s “The Wayward Cloud.” “Shortbus” follows a handful of New Yorkers, including a voyeur, a dominatrix, a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm, and a gay male couple who are both named Jamie. It draws its name from a performance/orgy salon hosted by Justin Bond, where Murray Hill rubs shoulders with members of Le Tigre and a former mayor obviously based on Ed Koch. Surprisingly, “Shortbus” is not pure provocation, although the cross-cut sex scenes of its first few minutes suggest otherwise. Instead, it’s a lovely portrait of New York as a haven for the pansexual Bohemians that Giuliani and Bloomberg haven’t managed to wipe out. Mitchell’s direction is sometimes crude, but he has a real knack for tone changes. “Shortbus” alternates between despair and utopian aspirations—when Bond describes the salon as “like the ‘60s, but with less hope,” he’s describing the film’s sensibility as well. The burst of optimism closing it feels fully earned.

Without meaning to dismiss Israeli director Eytan Fox’s “The Bubble,” it may be as important sociologically as artistically. It documents a class of Israelis that never make it onto the evening news—hipsters. Roommates Noam (Ohad Knoller), Lulu (Daniela Wircer) and Yali (Alon Friedmann) could be living in Williamsburg, rather than Tel Aviv.

However, their “bubble” of raves, cafes, record stores and boutiques is punctured when Noam falls in love with Ashraf (Yousef Swaid), a Palestinian man. Ashraf, who’s in Tel Aviv illegally, tries to pass as a Jew, but the ruse fails. “The Bubble” touchingly portrays the plight of gay Palestinians, caught between Arab homophobia and Israeli racism. However, the film is nearly wrecked by its ending. Its final moments don’t ring true, betraying its careful critique of both Arab and Israeli society by suggesting that all Palestinians are ticking time bombs. Conflating romantic passion and political despair, it mystifies the latter.

The oddest film I saw in Toronto, cult Japanese director Takashi Miike’s “Big Bang Love, Juvenile A” is sure to baffle the “Asia Extreme” audience attracted by the outrageous gore of his films “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer.” It makes us wait about 10 minutes for the story to kick in, starting off with interviews, direct address to the camera and a dance sequence. “Big Bang Love, Juvenile A” is like an episode of “Oz” reconfigured as experimental theater. If it fits into any genre, it’s a mystery. A young man, jailed for killing a patron at the gay bar where he worked, is suspected of killing a fellow inmate. Using stripped-down, blatantly artificial sets, “Big Bang Love, Juvenile A” creates a hothouse atmosphere of homoerotic tension and potential violence, approximating the mood of Jean Genet’s novels. Miike lacks the French author’s coherence, though; while the film is full of ideas about gayness and Japanese masculinity, it finally succumbs to the flakiness of much of the director’s more personal work. Genre doesn’t always provide him a helpful backbone—Miike’s “Zebraman,” “One Missed Call,” and “The Great Yokai War” testify that he’s perfectly capable of mainstream bland-out—but it helps keep him from succumbing to weirdness for its own sake. Both maddening and constantly fascinating, “Big Bang Love, Juvenile A” is a fever dream about how and why desire turns ugly.

My round-up of the festival wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its biggest surprise, Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book.” A stunning comeback, its depiction of a Jewish-Dutch woman’s struggles during World War II is as exciting as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but far more thoughtful and filled with the director’s usual dose of sleaze and provocation. For sheer entertainment value, nothing topped it.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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