In Canada, in September, a few hundred thousand or so otherwise sensible folks spend 10 days and nights dreaming movies. The Toronto International Film Festival, which wrapped its 29th annual session on September 18, showcased 253 features and 75 shorts, with screenings that began at 9 a.m. and kept going until the climax of a Midnight Madness movie say, the Japanese Zebraman, Takashi Miike's zesty tribute to a nerdy superhero that had the crowd la-la-ing along to its theme song at two in the morning.
Several other Asian films made sweet music in Toronto. One was Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, which had its world premiere here, but without the presence of its director-star, who could not get a visa in time. No matter. The audience went nuts, cheering each set piece of whirling action, choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping and Sammo Hung. The film may not break Asian box-office records, as Chow's Shaolin Soccer did. But it's much better: handsomely designed and shot, full of knowledgeable nostalgia for the old Shaw Brothers martial-arts films, and engagingly played by a cast of expert, not-so-familiar actors.
Set in 1930s Shanghai, the film is about the attempts of the notorious Axe Gang to prey on the poor people of Pig Sty Alley people who happen to have preternatural prowess in martial arts. You'll find characters to root for (the gentle baker, the mincing tailor, the irascible landlady) and to hiss (the zither-playing assassins, the chorus line of dapper thugs, the mild-looking elderly gent they call The Beast). Chow not only casts himself on the wrong side, as a gangster wannabe, he also takes a supporting role and doesn't grab center screen until a climactic fight that follows his ascent into heaven to beg fight advice from the Buddha. The mouthy star wants to show he has as much skill behind the camera as in front of it, and Kung Fu proves him spectacularly right.
Chow's comedy is about a community of poor souls who find ways to survive. So are two fine films from Iranian directors, but their palette is necessarily darker, since the settings are Iraq and Afghanistan. Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly tells a story of Kurdish kids on the Turkey-Iraq border. Many have been maimed by land mines yet never stop performing the one job that brings them money searching for mines under the command of a charming, scheming 13-year-old who pretty much runs the town. Stray Dogs, shot in Kabul by Marziyeh Meshkini, focuses on the young son and daughter of a Taliban fighter who is missing in action. Their mother has been imprisoned, and each night they try to break into jail to be with her. Like so many Iranian movies, these two paint the region's political and social chaos on the faces of beautiful children. Both films are painful, poignant, hard to look at, harder to forget.
The South Korean director Kim Ki-duk often deals in beautiful surfaces and tarnished souls. His 3-Iron is about a housebreaker (Jae Hee) who slips into people's flats when they are away on vacation. Instead of burglarizing the place, he does ironing and fixes small appliances. (Can we hire him as our house-sitter?) On one of his forays he meets a lovely woman (Lee Seung-yun), the abused wife of a golf-mad businessman. A fable of seduction and soul-mating, violence and revenge, plays out in this nearly wordless film that offers a modern gloss on an Asian ghost story.
The ghosts in Electric Shadows, from first-time female director Xiao Jiang, are old movie stars who entrance a new generation. Our young hero, Mao Dabing, meets his beloved, Ling Ling, in a novel fashion: she whacks him on the skull with a brick. When he recovers enough to scold her, she refuses to speak, simply handing him the key to her flat. In it he finds a private screening room, with posters and reels of ancient movies starring the doomed Shanghainese diva Zhou Xuan.
The meeting of Dabing and Ling Ling is a one-in-a-billion fluke, for they were childhood friends, bound by movie rapture. Most of the film flashes back to the time of the Cultural Revolution, when the two children had to make do with imagining they could watch films through the boy's "magic" binoculars. This fable of the passions and recriminations of youth is set in a dreamscape that mixes memory with wish fulfillment. It's China's Cinema Paradiso, but a much more honest, less cloying film.
Canada today is not rural China 30 years ago. But the Toronto Festival faithful, seduced by cinema, are a lot like Ling Ling, who thinks of films as a window to the past, to a true movie community when "the people on screen, their images and voices, brought us all together. Breathing as one. Dreaming as one."