The Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival is Canada’s largest Asian film festival, showcasing East and Southeast Asian cinema from Canada, the U.S., and around the world. Several of the festival screenings take place at U of T’s own Innis Town Hall, and if the festival’s close proximity to campus doesn’t persuade you, what about the discounted student pricing? Throw in some karaoke and Asian-pop psychedelia parties, an industry series, art gallery receptions, and filmic responses to the question “What is your Chinatown?”, and you have a full week of entertainment to distract you from the ten months left before that other monolithic film festival returns… you know which one. Here is a preview of Reel Asian’s 2010 roster, so make sure you catch the rest of this cultural dynamite when the festival gets underway November 9 to 15.– DAMANJIT LAMBA
BI, DON’T BE AFRAID
The primary concern of Bi, Don’t Be Afraid is not really Bi or his fear: the boy is more puzzled by the strange adult world of frustrations and lies, diverting himself in ice factories and grassy fields. Other films embellish childhood imaginations as a coping mechanism for stress (Pan’s Labyrinth) or make light of the dark for the child’s sake (Life is Beautiful). However, first-time director Phan Dang Di does not shy from the sad lives of unfulfilled men and women in Hanoi, letting Bi prance obliviously in the Vietnamese sun. His mother (Thi Kieu Nguyen) waits for her husband Quang (Ha Phong Nguyen) to stumble home drunk every night, quiet and unaroused by her caresses. Bi’s aunt Thuy (Thuy Hoa) is unmarried and obsessed with one of her students. A May-December relationship unfolds between Quang and his teenaged hairdresser, who playfully rebuffs his advances. Putting a strain on the whole family is Quang’s father, a retired diplomat who returns home in a stretcher — in Quang’s opinion, the only way he would have returned to Vietnam.
It’s melodrama, and it’s not melodrama. Most conversations are carried out casually over house chores, like excerpts from the films of Ozu. Phan has been criticized for graphic eroticism, but here the sexuality is slow building, oozing as the film paces sedately through its plot. Meanwhile Bi, played with great depth by Thanh Minh Phan, watches wide-eyed. He does not reflect much on all the misspent lust, and neither do the adults who, good or bad, ultimately go to bed with unhappiness.– ALEX GRIFFITH
In a (rare) quiet moment of Gallants, Master Pong (Chan Wai-man) remarks, “It’s not the time of fights and fists anymore. It’s the time of packaging and promotion.” Gallants, nostalgic yet urgent, has both the fists and the packaging: the film is steeped in veteran Hong Kong talent but injected with syringe after syringe of snappy, postmodern style. It’s probably more of a celebration of kung fu movies than a kung fu movie, albeit one yearning for a revival of the Bruce Lee era.
Exposition is given liposuction by writer-director duo Clement Chang and Derek Kwok. No time is wasted introducing well-dressed loser Cheung (You-Nam Wong), a real estate agent assigned to negotiate leases in a remote village, where he meets Tiger (Leung Siu Wong) and Dragon (Chen Kuan-tai), aging brothers waiting for their master to awake from a 30-year coma. Leung and Chen both rose to fame during the 70s, as did Chan, famous for his Triad roles, and Meng Lo, another Shaw Brothers alumnus. Cheung’s apprenticeship to Dragon and Tiger takes a back seat when Master Law (Teddy Robin) wakes up. Robin — another veteran — is clearly having fun: he walks into a strip club, holding a cigar taller than himself, only to find his favourite girls have entered retirement. When the Law club decides to take on Pong’s team at the tournament, the elements are there (pupils, underdogs, betrayals, duty) but the heart of kung fu isn’t. All the animated flashbacks and cartoonish sound effects don’t mask the nostalgia in this film — and in the Hong Kong industry in general — for a youthful, vibrant martial arts genre. — AG
Golden Slumbers tells the story of a naïve, jovial delivery man named Aoyagi who gets caught up in a Lee Harvey Oswald scenario when he is framed for the murder of the Japanese prime minister. The film is more concerned with the psychology of the main character and the unexpected individuals who come to his aid rather than with action sequences that are commonly employed to fill narrative space. Aoyagi is easy to root for from the start, as his unwavering trust in individuals proves to be a salient factor in his survival. The Beatles song “Golden Slumbers” is a thematic device that ties the film’s characters together, as Aoyagi and his friends use their memories of school days filled with fireworks and hijinks, to give this unexpected hero more time to figure out an exit plan. The song reinforces the importance of memory and maintaining relationships with those you care deeply about. Although one’s attention can be stretched thin by the numerous subplots, Golden Slumbers’ satisfying ending is tinged with elements of both sadness and joy, a refreshing departure from the majority of on-the-run capers. — DL
THE MOUNTAIN THIEF
The Mountain Thief chronicles the ordeals of Julio and his son Ingo in the town of Payatas, Philippines. Julio has lost his wife to the war in the southern Philippines, and now his best chance for survival is selling scraps of odd metal at the largest garbage-collecting settlement in the world. Director Gerry Balasta shot the film at the actual dumpsite and was able to cast real-life scavengers thanks to an acting workshop he conducted when he first began working on this project. None of the characters are at peace with their life: Paula, Julio’s love interest, collects images of far-off locations and hopes to leave the shanty-town someday; Julio is waiting for the war to end so he can go back to the south with his son Ingo; Ato, the village villain, begins competing for leadership of Little Hope when it is revealed that the village leader is ill. Julio’s son, Ingo, who is portrayed by an actor who suffers from an actual vision impairment in real life, was the most captivating actor in the ensemble as he was able to see beauty in the mountains of trash that the characters were trying run away from. The creative narrative structure of The Mountain Thief allows for crucial events to be represented from various points of view, giving greater significance to the interactions between the characters. The non-professional actors give impressive performances, not having to look far for inspiration, and Balasta’s ability to create fluidity and suspense with interchanges between the past and present make The Mountain Thief an educational and absorbing experience. — DL
Featuring an all-Canadian cast and set in Toronto’s west end, Toilet follows three incredibly dissimilar siblings who have to deal with the cultural barriers that get in the way of having any significant relationship with their silent yet perceptive baa-chan (grandmother) after their mother passes away. Ray, an engineer who sees life as something you just have to get through, decides to live at home with his siblings, Lisa and Maury, until they can get a handle on day-to-day life. Lisa is simultaneously interested in prose and air-guitar, while Maury suffers from severe anxiety and hasn’t left the house in four years. Ray gets frustrated when his new living arrangement impedes on his systematic lifestyle, and his grandmother shows no signs of opening up to the family. When Ray notices that baa-chan lets out a heavy sigh every time she uses the washroom, he becomes obsessed with finding out why such a daily routine is the only thing that elicits any kind of response from her. As the film progresses, the initial caricature-like quirks of the characters, reminiscent of Wes Anderson personalities, fade away to reveal relatable individuals and a de-mystified baa-chan who wasn’t as cookie-cutter as the three siblings originally thought. A charismatic cast, a cute cat named Sensei, and Naoko Ogigami’s craft with the camera make Toilet a top-of-the-list festival entry. – DL