Friday, September 30, 2005

7 Virgins at the Toronto International Film Festival

Having recently navigated the star-infested streets and settled into the screening rooms at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, one of my favourite discoveries was 7 Vírgenes (7 Virgins) by Spanish director Alberto Rodríguez, which proved to be an unexpected and refreshing approach to what often seems an over-exploited genre. In its attempt to honestly depict the experience of disadvantaged youth in Sevilla, 7 Vírgenes offers something more than a generic glimpse into a typical array of ‘shocking’ and/or ‘deviant’ adolescent behaviour – substance abuse, violence and sexual exploitation being among the usual offenders.

Shot from the point of view of Tano (Juan José Ballesta), a sixteen-year-old boy who has just been released from juvenile detention on a weekend pass in order to attend his brother’s wedding, the film exposes the ambiguity and conflict inherent in the life of an individual who cannot reconcile the demands of his conscience and desires with his daily reality. As the story unfolds, a similar ambiguity is uncovered in each of the characters that surround Tano, including his brother Santacana (Vicente Romero), who in spite of his ‘responsible’ and ‘respectable’ nature (or perhaps because of it) appears to be marrying without love. In many ways this discovery is even more disturbing than some of the more brutal moments in the film, a testament to Rodríguez’s unique interpretation.

7 Vírgenes treads a fine line between gritty reality and symbolic representation. While a number of symbolic references are central to the plot, they are carefully revealed so as not to threaten the integrity of a ‘real’ story, and for the most part the film avoids excessive sentimentality. At the same time, the characters are full-blooded and the events wholly realistic without becoming mundane. Rodríguez leaves a number of avenues unexplored, and as a result ‘7 Vírgenes’ does not always seem to fulfill its potential, which can be frustrating for the viewer, but perhaps promising in terms of future projects. While I don’t expect a local screening any time soon (it would be nice), if you have a taste for films along the lines of Barrio (1998), Rodrigo D: No Futuro (1990) and Los Olvidados (1950), you should definitely be on the hunt for this one…

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

FANTASIA 2005 Film Festival Report #2

At FANTASIA the other evening I ran into some young friends of mine, avid cinephiles every one, and they were uniformly shocked to hear that I intended to meander home to get something to eat instead of attending the final screening of LOW LIFE, the latest film by important Korean writer/director Im Kwon-taek. For what is food-based sustenance compared with the cinematic variety? Well, with all due respect to Important Films, a good meal would have been more satisfying. Even my co-viewers—those who had assured me that LOW LIFE Could Not Be Missed—had to admit that it was rather uninspiring. My friend deemed it basically a revisiting of CASINO, transplanted to Korea in the tumultuous decades post WWII; I was thinking much the same, though it must be said that LOW LIFE is not as derivative as all that. But, despite many energetic and bracing scenes, the epic nature of the story—the sort-of rise and sort-of fall of an “honourable” thug, set against the historical fluxes that alternately help and hinder him—suffers from the biopic syndrome of too much, too glancingly touched upon.

LOW LIFE just felt far too stuffy and irrelevant after the Korean romantic comedy that screened just before, PLEASE TEACH ME ENGLISH (dir. Kim Sung-su), a remarkably winning little number that is giddy and goofy in all the right ways. The ingénue is pretty but bespectacled. A common trope to be sure, however, unlike many an American teen-nerd-girl-gets-makeover genre flick, wherein the path from geek to chic is an insultingly short one (“ugly duckling” takes off glasses, lets down hair and VOILA! she’s a stunner), this gal is truly an awkward dork—all the while that I was growing to love her I also wanted to smack some self-possession into her. The stakes are surprisingly high in a romantic comedy that features a triad of annoyingly self-centered and/or hopelessly clueless leads, and actually manages to make them all lovable. The film is jam-packed with fantasy scenarios, all cute references to a hyper-mediated daily life that, contrary to prevailing opinion, here seems to actually encourage the flowering of a romantic imagination. So adorable that describing it—as one inevitably must—as postmodern doesn’t hurt the film one bit.

(Last scheduled screening is today, Tuesday July 12, 7:35 at the De Seve Theatre.)

Friday, July 08, 2005

FANTASIA 2005 Film Festival Report #1

First night of the film fest that seems to last all summer—FANTASIA. A late start, which I’ve been told is classic Fantasia shtick, but such tardiness works particularly well with my personal schedule, so I’m not complaining. It means I actually made it into the “6:30” screening of ASHURA, with some time to spare. Show was sold out and the Hall theatre packed, but thankfully a friend/colleague rescued me from an especially rickety seat off in the corner wedged between strangers. (Oh, I want to officially state that my friend was robbed of the door prize—he answered the skill-testing question a good 5 mins. before someone closer to the front finally did. Our section was outraged. Well, by that I mean that a few of us meekly called out, “Hey! He already said that!”)

But on to the movie:

ASHURA is big, splendid, fantastical, sparkly, goth, kabuki-informed, myth-inspired, sword-fight driven, period extravaganza, at turns emotionally over-wrought and knowingly, comically cheesy. But of course it all comes down to love. The star-crossed lovers are that and then some; what’s worse, they’re demon-crossed. This is one of those films wherein the virgin—so troubled and pure, so gamine and sportive—can lick the blood from her about-to-be-lover’s wound, and yet seem no less virginal. The final climax is a long time in coming: I kept thinking they were setting us up for a sequel before I realized that, no, we were in it for the long-haul this time around.

Nonetheless, I was glad I stuck around to see how those crazy kids sorted out their particular cosmic brand of demon-slayer devoted to newly-minted-uber-demon-goddess (who seems determined to have him killed for, well, for popping her cherry, basically) problems. We’ve all been there…

  • For any one interested, ASHURA was only scheduled for the opening night, but it seems that it will be screened for the second time today, Friday July 8—at 5:15…or did the sign say 5:45? Sorry I don’t recall with certainty, but it’s sometime in the 1700 hour block…

ASHURA’S web site: