Dispatches from TIFF 2019: "Portrait of a Lady on Fire", "The Lighthouse", and more
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" // Lilies Films

Dispatches from TIFF 2019: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “The Lighthouse”, and more

Capsule reviews from Toronto.

Toronto International Film Festival 2019 concluded a few weeks ago and the fest is bigger than ever after Green Book won last year.

In contrast with other Audience Award winners, Green Book had its World Premiere at TIFF and broke the Telluride record of screening every Best Picture nominee in the past 7-8 years. Due to this Green Book effect, TIFF has attracted more high profile world premieres and significantly elevated its status as a pivotal precursor to the Academy Awards.

This year, TIFF has awarded Jojo Rabbit with the top prize and the film reignited its Oscar chances after receiving very polarizing film reviews from the critics.

Here are the films that we saw at the film festival and a lot of them will surely lighten up the upcoming awards season.

The Whistlers (Romania, dir. Corneliu Porumboiu)

Romanian new wave director Corneliu Porumboiu’ latest neo-noir film is something that maybe we can dub as a linguistic thriller? The film involves an undercover cop operation in the Canary Islands and learning an ancient dialect mainly consist of whistling. A very promising premise indeed but the fast pace espionage plotting is very hard to follow. It is also partly non-linear in the narrative which does not really give much help in elevating the interest or caring for most of the characters. Despite being convoluted and rushed, a true cinephile will probably honor the striking originality of this film.

Bring Me Home (South Korea, Kim Seung-Woo)

Lee Young Ae’s comeback film on the big screen after seven years is another revenge thriller that falls short of expectations. While Lee’s acting is consistently impressive as a mother who is devoured by her confusion, anger, and grief because of his missing son, the repetitive and slow 2nd act did not give a decent momentum to the quite interesting climax. There are some scenes which do not really make sense why they are happening like blatant child abuse being tolerated even in the sight of the policemen. Kim Seung-Woo’s revenge thriller nevertheless is very entertaining but if you are used to the great South Korean revenge flicks, then this film will disappoint you.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (France, Celine Sciamma)

This award-winning Cannes film is so exquisite that every shot is like an oil painting in itself. Celine Sciamma has made a masterpiece out of mostly beautiful still shots, silent gazes with sharp exchanges of dialogues. An artful narrative of delayed gratification and the humane command of choosing the transient and yet defining moments while overseeing its inevitable end. There is a striking resemblance between Call Me By Your Name and this film in terms of their story arc but the experience it provides is much more soothing. Especially in the long take ending, you’ll also see Timothy Chalamet in your head.

Blood Quantum (Canada, Jeff Barnaby)

Known in the Midnight Madness program as an indigenous zombie film, the narrative attempts on tackling bigger social issues about indifference and injustice. Plot-wise, it looks promising as there is a virus spreading all over the country but the indigenous people are somehow immune to this epidemic. The film did not really do much work in improving its undercooked characters until the end. The script is particularly so bad that instead of expounding on high-level themes of human discrimination and the cause of the disease, it dwells so much on melodrama and cheesy dialogues. The whole premise was just wasted as we initially thought this has the potential to be like the profound zombie film Pontypool.

Parasite (South Korea, Bong Joon Ho)

South Korea might finally score an Oscar nomination or even a sure win with Parasite. Bong Joon Ho’s black comedy is perhaps the best film of his career which ignited both the attention of film critics and audiences all over the world. The cross-genre film jumps from one tone to another so seamlessly that it cleverly messes up our senses both emotionally and mentally. If “Snowpiercer” is a class rage tale set in a horizontal setup, Parasite makes use of Seoul’s natural geographical feature by showing the social disparity vertically. If water or the natural gifts of this planet is naturally free for everyone at the beginning of time, after capitalism commoditized it, water literally flows from rich to the poor as clearly shows in Bong’s sharp metaphors in the film.

My Zoe (France, Julie Delpy)

Set in the near future, My Zoe is a Black Mirror-like film that looks closer at the gift or risk posed by technology with regards to our day to day choices. As Delpy’s work falls in the social/soft science fiction sub-genre, perspective can be derived in two ways. Low fidelity sci-fi dramas take advantage of the eeriness of the situation and inject these sci-fi elements into the human condition like in the films Her or Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind.

My Zoe does not have this 50/50 balance and it intentionally focussed on the human drama and gave 10-15% to sci-fi elements. However, the domestic drama that dominated the narrative seems to be repetitive and did not show unique circumstances. Movies like Never Let Me Go also centered on the human drama more and was just instantiated by the sci-fi elements and yet, the deep human connection amidst the newly emerging social condition is very apparent.

The Lighthouse (USA, Robert Eggers)

Just when you thought that the success of The Witch is very hard to overcome for a previously quite unknown filmmaker, Robert Eggers has potentially made another masterpiece with The Lighthouse, a humorous and yet horrifying black and white film that explores the depth of human insanity. William Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are both incredible and delivered unsettling performances with one of the purest depictions of total madness on screen. The black and white cinematography is probably the best you’ll ever see since last year’s Cold War and the very creepy foghorn score will add to the eerie experience. Is the film about myths, demons or two people fighting to keep their sanity? Well, The Lighthouse will keep you guessing with all its wonders and mysteries!

Saturday Fiction (China, Lou Ye)

Gong Li is back with this uneven and yet intriguing espionage thriller about an actress helping the allies in decoding the imminent Pearl Harbor attack during the Japanese invasion in the Far East. The films black and white cinematography and the usage of non-linear narrative structure perhaps made it difficult following or assembling the pieces of the plot as very minor or slow details are being given in the 1st to 2nd acts. A number of characters are underdeveloped and it is very obvious that the weight of the plot depends on Gong Ali’s character. Besides all of this, the 3rd act is very riveting and probably something that fans of spy thrillers would always want to see. Lou Ye’s script gives us enough curiosity at this small slice of Chinese history when the Shanghai/French concession finally fell to the hands of the Japanese.

Wet Season (Singapore, Anthony Chen)

Winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes for his film Ilo-Ilo, Anthony Chen’s sophomore film Wet Season interestingly cast the same actors who were previously mother and son. In their reprised roles, now as a teacher and a student who develop a special relationship while both of them are struggling in coping with their day to day lives. Thematically relevant to Chen’s debut film, his focus is still on female identity and troubled youths in modern-day Singapore. Slowly paced and yet very absorbing, the two lead actors maintained their convincing portrayal onscreen which probably gives some WTF moment that audiences aren’t really expecting but in a very good way. Ilo-Ilo might have more precision but Wet Season has taken a risk in terms of its narrative especially in a very conservative Singapore society.

A Hidden Life (USA/Germany, Terrence Malick)

Malick’s latest is perhaps the best film I’ve seen at the Toronto Film Festival. Of all his works, this is the most emotionally inclined one and has the ability to pull more audiences because of its very vivid dramatic backbone compared to his other films.

In terms of style, it is still very Malickian; voiceovers, random jump cuts, and low angle shots but the existential exploration that the main character realized with this semi-autobiographical film will move us in tears. He represents the majority of us who uses our voices in passive resistance. The world changes in the simple act of these common souls like a multitude of drops that enrich the oceans. The best way to describe the beautiful script is like when an unknown force suddenly gives us the gift of omniscience, by which we suddenly hear layers of very audible, less audible and almost inaudible questions and thoughts from people in different distances, like layers of overlapping simultaneous conversations, voiceovers or prayers. With this style, A Hidden Life is a truly hypotonic and spiritual journey at the cinema that we seldom experience now.

Synonyms (Israel, Nadav Lapid)

Berlinale’s Golden Bear winner is a humorous attack on national identity and yet, the film transcends more than the Israel-French relationship in the aspect of emigration. Tom Mercier delivered a very amazing and demanding physical performance (and lots of nudity) as Yoav, a mysterious young man on his 20’s who is trying to forget and escape his identity as an Israeli citizen. He practices French, wants to assimilate, looks for a job but the comedy arises because Yoav learned things in very difficult ways. At first, the film looks very distinctive as there are a lot of references to the current socio-political conditions on his native land but the general theme is rather universal to all people moving oceans to oceans in search for their identity. Synonyms is a high brow comedy about mobility and immobility, which is not probably for everyone’s taste, but once you reach the third act, the ubiquitous influence of this film is very compelling.

Les Miserables (France, Ladj Ly)

Edging out Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire as the French submission in the Oscars, I can see why the French Academy chose Les Misérables, the Cannes Jury prize winner that took the same title of Victor Hugo’s classic novel about the laws of nature and grace. Les Misérables started quite slow with the introduction of the characters in their very humorous chat and dialogues which might be done in purpose. Ladj Ly wants the audience to feel that there is an incoming onslaught, although Ly’s narrative structure might bore audiences away in their anticipation of the conflict or tension. The message of the film is clear and I think the central theme is something that the Academy will not ignore. Troubled youths, crooked policemen, nature or nurture with some very entertaining and precise action sequences, Les Misérables deserves to be discovered by a wider range of viewers.

So Long My Son (China, Wang Xiaoshuai)

Berlinale winning film for Best Actor and Actress, So Long My Son is a three-hour-long feature film in non-linear narrative, and yet the film’s length and structure did not become a hindrance to find its audiences, in fact, this provides more intimate experience to explore its genuine dramatic elements and how a country’s culture and policy created turbulence in the lives of common people in span of decades. Xiaoshuai’s extremely touching movie has a resemblance with Jia Zhangke’s films and the same way how both directors managed to assemble a convincing human drama that crosses from one generation to another. The 1st and 2nd acts, when we are gradually knowing what happens to the deteriorating relationships of the two families will move us in tears but the solid 3rd act will give us a lump in our throat. Xiaoshuai’s So Long My Son is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen at TIFF, the result is like a crossover of the DNA of Jia Zhangke’s masterful pacing and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s heartfelt humanistic elements.

37 Seconds (Japan, Hikari)

Berlinale’s Audience Award winner at the Panorama section is an uneven dramatic film about a talented young woman with cerebral palsy and how she will do everything to be a very successful manga artist. Hikari’s debut film started very interestingly as it breaks the audience expectations, it did not dwell on the depressing elements but rather it is very humorous with subtlety around its plot. It is also very interesting that the lead actress really has the disorder and I think the audiences will be divided as to whether this is a showcase of her talent despite the condition or more of an exploitation of the filmmaker to show something different. From the engaging 1st act, it is all downhill from there as we further see some underdeveloped characters and not really appealing story arc of birth secrets. 37 Seconds, despite this is a very bold film that exhibits inclusiveness to people with disabilities or disorders, and we hope this will start a trend in mainstream cinema.

The Wild Goose Lake (China, Diao Yinan)

Stylish noir crime filmmaker Diao Yinan has done something amazing by pumping up B-movie suspense sequences with the exercise of pure art and abstraction. Just like his Golden Berlin Bear winning film Black Coal, Thin Ice, Yinan is truly a visual artist and we can see him enjoying his experimentation on light, color, shadows, and character movements. It’s fair to say that in this movie, form exceeds substance but it’s not in a negative way. There’s a lot of details that audiences might easily be overlooked because of the multiple numbers of characters and sometimes confusing plotting. This is a type of film that will get better and better through successive viewings. Yinan has somehow managed to direct numerous memorable scenes which are so slick and suspenseful, even though most of the frames followed the minimalist approach in the choice of its dialogue and set design.

The Painted Bird (Vaclav Marhoul, Czech Republic)

Czech Republic has never done a major success on production since the Academy Award-winning film “Kolya”, and “Painted Bird” is their latest attempt to bring something artsy and extreme.

Did it work really well? The answer is yes and no.

Yes, because it has probably one of the best cinematography’s of the year and it’s really great in every technical aspect like production design. No, because it is a holocaust film that’s quite heavy in violence and exploitation on children, but it feels like it did not leave any strong lingering questions about the series of physical abuses that the boy in encountering. Because of this, audiences might easily see that the whole narrative is just pure exploitation, overly long and repetitive with its grotesque vignettes. Despite this, Marhoul nevertheless assembled a very bold film from the very respected source material. The character growth of the boy is the most interesting in particular. The series of atrocities made him hardened and yet resilient and wiser in the succeeding scenes.

The Painted Bird has both its glories and shortcomings but fans of provocative arthouse films should not miss this.


Bacurau (Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho)

Bacurau, the recent Jury Prize winner at the Cannes film festival is bonkers on its genre. Picture it as a spaghetti western, grotesque comedy, a social drama that is, ultimately, a commentary raising its middle finger to the American imperialism or something similar. Set in the near future, Bacurau is a town somewhere in Brazil which is not in the map and seems to be very independent and isolated to the external civilization. The fate of the resident changes when unexpected visitors shows up and there’s a sporadic increase of violence reported in the community. The futuristic elements are both awkward, interesting and effective. This adds to the complicated elements of the story as the violence implicitly represents the country’s past and future. Bacurau is both wacky and subtle although the portrayal of the western imperialists here is a bit one-sided as mindless jerks. Filho‘ film has both the power to entertain and lurk into our minds as a thought-provoking social and political commentary. 

The Vast of Night (USA, Andrew Patterson)

Andrew Patterson’s debut film is perhaps the most exciting directing debut of the year. The well-crafted sci-fi period movie will both inspire aspiring filmmakers and the fans of old school evening horror/sci-fi series like remembering the nostalgic Twilight Zone days. The setup is so simple but the intricate tracking shots and the invigorating script and dialogues will keep you intrigued, tense, smiling and fascinated. Especially on the scene when the lead character in the ’50s keeps on telling her friend how excited she is about the prediction in the ’90s of having a phone with TV display that will let you talk to anyone in the world or a radio in the car that will interrupt you while driving when you are heading in a wrong direction. All fans of science fiction and films alike should see this gem. It is like taking your very first class in grade school and your teacher starts to share her first supernatural story to keep everyone silent.

About Endlessness (Sweden, Roy Andersson)

There’s something playfully orchestrated and yet dry in the assembled pointillistic dioramas that Roy Andersson directed. Recently winning the Best Director prize at the Venice International Film Festival, About Endlessness is a type of film that continuously grows within you, and Anderson’s jokes are keep playing in your ears. I used the word “dry” to denote actually something very positive here as the film is fascinatingly very cohesive and decisive on its narrative design, slow, consist of a majority of a white, grey and brown background and most of the time has no camera movements.

At the center of this style, the film effectively blends well with Andersson’s existential vignettes and his common themes of humorous moments of boredom and worthlessness of human existence. It is a film about people, and the cycle of love, loss, longing, acceptance, defeat, consolidation, and pleasure. About Endlessness speaks about eternity and how our lives on earth are something similar inside this vicious loop. Andersson’s latest film makes us ponder about our own existence and thinking how worthless or significant we are as a speck of dust in the universe.

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