Volume 75, Number 39 | Sep. 29 - Oct. 05, 2005

FILM

Shanghai Film Studio/Golden Scene

Qiyao, played by Sammi Cheng, is an army officer’s mistress circa 1948, in Stanley Kwan’s “Everlasting Regret,” which offers a melodramatic yet oblique history of mid-20th century China.

Toronto Delivers a Cinephile’s Fix

An advance look at upcoming Hollywood and indie hits, plus plenty of gay fare

By STEVE ERICKSON

There’s no experience in New York like the Toronto International Film Festival. If one wants to see five films a day for 10 days, TIFF is happy to supply the fix. Attending it is a process of full immersion in cinema far different than the relatively austere New York Film Festival.

Tribeca comes closer, but it can’t match the number and breadth of films TIFF shows, especially the North American and world premieres from name directors. Much mainstream press coverage focuses on the gala events, which typically offer an advance look at forthcoming Hollywood and well-publicized indiewood releases with the stars in attendance, but the festival has much more to offer. Among other things, it shows plenty of films of gay interest.

Amiable but mediocre, Richard I. Douglas’ “Eleven Men Out” depicts how life changes for an Icelandic soccer star who comes out in a magazine interview. A married father, Oattar shocks his family and teammates. His alcoholic wife reacts by getting even drunker, while his stern dad, the team coach, keeps telling him to “stop this nonsense.”

Oattar is no plaster saint, making plenty of mistakes on his path to self-discovery. Despite Scandinavia’s progressive reputation, “Eleven Men Out” suggests that homophobic machismo reigns over mainstream sports there too. At worst, it threatens to unite the clichés of the coming-out story and the inspirational underdog tale. However, the film avoids their worst pitfalls, ending on a surprising note.

Despite its title, Stewart Main’s “50 Ways of Saying Fabulous” is more concerned with adolescent heartbreak than ABBA lip-synch contests. Set in a small town in New Zealand in the ‘70s, it looks more like the ‘50s. One would never guess that the gay liberation movement was taking shape in the outside world. An overweight budding “poofter,” Billy (Andrew Paterson), is an outcast who falls in love with a fellow teenage boy. However, after a few sexual experiences, Billy becomes more attracted to an older—and resolutely heterosexual—farmhand. Main takes teenage passion more seriously than most filmmakers, balancing wit and melancholy. The film’s flirtations with camp ––fantasy interludes with Billy and his butch female cousin Lou in drag, appearing in a sci-fi show––fall pretty flat, but the film has a distinctive look. The cinematography is tinted so that yellows blaze off the screen, while night scenes are set in a black and white lit by fireflies’ flutters.

Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” adapted from Annie Proulx’s short story, is another portrait of queer isolation. A love story between two cowboys, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger), it tweaks the Western’s conventions by turning gay subtext into text, as if Randolph Scott could have appeared in a film expressing his true sexuality. However, it also tweaks more up-to-date received ideas about gay characters––Ennis and Jack are distant from identity politics, the arts, and urban life. Meeting in the early ‘60s, the two separate and get married, while meeting several times a year for sex-filled camping trips.

“Brokeback Mountain” makes a terrific showcase for Ledger, playing a man whose laconic Texan upbringing and closeted sexuality make it very difficult for him to express himself verbally. Ledger and Gyllenhaal convincingly act out their characters’ passion––when Jack and Ennis kiss after meeting each other for the first time in four years, it might take your breath away. Gyllenhaal is less impressive. Too young for the part, he looks awkward as Jack reaches middle age, adorned with a mustache fitting a’ 70s porn star.

Ang Lee’s oeuvre encompasses work as different as “The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Hulk,” so it’s hard to pin down his distinctive qualities. However, “Brokeback Mountain” is grounded in a sense of time and place as precise as “The Ice Storm’s” vision of ‘70s suburbia. In its own way, it’s also a deeply political film, stating loud and clear that Jack and Ennis squandered most of their lives because they lived in circumstances under which they couldn’t love each other openly.

Emmanuelle Bercot’s “Backstage” pivots around the obsession of teenage fan Lucie (Isild le Besco) with bisexual singer Lauren (Emmanuelle Seigneur). Through a reality show, Lucie gets the opportunity to meet Lauren and ends up following her to Paris. The ease with which she becomes part of Lauren’s entourage isn’t too believable. Bercot’s vision of fame’s emptiness doesn’t offer much insight. While the film is full of overt sexual tension between Lucie and Lauren, the only sex scene is heterosexual. However, Besco invests the hokey material with a raw intensity, which burns passionately while remaining mysterious.

The festival included two films focused on heterosexuals by prominent gay Asian directors––Stanley Kwan’s “Everlasting Regret” and Tsai Ming-liang’s “The Wayward Cloud.” Unfortunately, both are misfires. Kwan’s one of the few directors of his generation to take on melodrama directly and straightforwardly, without the movie references that filled Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven.” With “Everlasting Regret,” he tells much of the story of China from the ‘40s to the ‘80s, through a handful of characters in Shanghai. Dense and often difficult to follow, it relates history obliquely. Never quite living up to its ambition, “Everlasting Regret” winds up rather enervated and remote.

Seven films on, Tsai has created a private universe with its own repeated images and themes. The drought-parched Taipei of “The Wayward Cloud” has reduced its characters’ wants to two appetites––water and sex. Tsai’s customary star Lee Kang-sheng turns up once again, playing an adult film performer. (The film is a sequel of sorts to his 2001 film, “What Time Is It There?”) The film starts off playfully, with porn shots catering to watermelon fetishists and several musical numbers, including an ode to the penis. Hints of romance, albeit a partial and frustrated one, emerge. In retrospect, this is all a set-up. “The Wayward Cloud” is yet another extremely explicit art film that feels the need to justify itself by portraying sex as ugly and degrading. It could be argued that Tsai presents both its positive and negative sides, but the lengthy finale’s repulsiveness, which seems intended as the film’s definitive statement, tops even the father-son incest of Tsai’s “The River.” He goes far beyond critiquing porn misogyny into a realm of disgust with physicality itself. Provocative and well made, “The Wayward Cloud” is also disappointing and maddening.

Thanks to a melodramatic score by Mychael Danna and a lens swimming in Vaseline during flashback scenes, Atom Egoyan’s “Where The Truth Lies” sometimes suggests a film noir parody, but I’m afraid the director is serious. A murder mystery with a complex structure, its central characters are the comedy duo of Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Collins (Colin Firth.) Egoyan has adopted Samuel Beckett and Russell Banks in the past, but here, he’s chosen a novel by ‘70s pop singer Rupert Holmes as his source. The material is too slight to hold up for the treatment he gives it––showbiz scandal doesn’t seem like the kind of subject that would attract the director on his own.

In the past, Egoyan has been able to drain the sensationalism from subjects like sexual compulsion and bring out deeper emotions, but “Where the Truth Lies” feels like a dramatization of an E! Hollywood special. Its treatment of bisexuality is suffused with a dated sense that the whole matter is a scandalous, earth-shattering revelation. More entertaining than Egoyan’s disastrous “Ararat,” “Where the Truth Lies” is ultimately no more satisfying.

Hip-hop has never been a welcoming place for gay artists or even listeners. Even otherwise politically progressive rappers like Public Enemy, the Goodie Mob, and Mos Def have used homophobic slurs. Alex Hinton’s documentary “Pick Up the Mic” opens with a performance of a song called “No Fags Allowed.” One expects the usual gay-baiting, but it turns out to be an ironic attack on homophobia. “Pick Up the Mic” examines the underground world of “homo hop.” Far from the mainstream, a lively community of gay, lesbian, and trans-gendered rappers has been developing since the late ‘90s. These artists disagree about whether they’ll ever have the chance to get signed to a major label or reach a wide audience––one found his burgeoning career crashing to a halt when he was outed––but the film evokes a lively, even inspiring camaraderie. Shot in a fly-on-the-wall style, with no explanatory voice-over, “Pick Up the Mic” captures a number of revelatory off-the-cuff conversations and encounters.

Apart from gay-themed and gay-created work, TIFF offered a huge banquet. It included the best film I’ve seen this year (Michael Haneke’s “Hidden”), the worst (Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland”) and the weirdest (Takeshi Kitano’s “Takeshis”). Along with Gilliam, Takashi Miike, the Brothers Quay, Laurent Cantet, and Mathew Barney turned in underwhelming work. However, the austere Sri Lankan film “The Forsaken Land” was an unexpected highlight.

The Dardenne brothers’ “L’Enfant,” also included in the New York Film Festival, expands little on their synthesis of Christian ascetic Robert Bresson and neo-realist Roberto Rossellini, but it’s always a pleasure to see the world through their eyes. The handheld camera is impossibly lithe, but this time around the Dardennes have included a chase scene that suggests they could direct a great action movie. The ending packs a powerful emotional punch.

“Brokeback Mountain” opens in New York in December, and “Where the Truth Lies” on October 7. Most of the rest of the films mentioned in this piece have no US.. distributor yet.

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