Among the reasons why I still live in Toronto is that the city offers all sorts of world-class cultural events, with one of its biggest being the yearly Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I saw a couple of TIFF movies back in 2019 and enjoyed the experience. With the festival’s in-person return this year, I made sure to take greater advantage of it. Every night after work during the week of TIFF, I saw one movie with a friend. While none of the movies I saw were life-changing masterpieces, I generally enjoyed my time seeing all of them in the festival setting, where oftentimes the filmmakers would take the stage and answer questions after each screening.
Here are my thoughts on the five movies I saw (with one bonus):
Queens of the Qing Dynasty
The first film I saw at TIFF was an avant-garde, slow-moving, limited-budget, coming-of-age drama; in other words, exactly the kind of movie that I was expecting from a festival such as this. Queens of the Qing Dynasty is not an epic period-piece set in China; rather, it is a thoroughly Canadian movie about Star, a mentally impaired young woman sent to a small town hospital after a suicide attempt, where she befriends the Chinese exchange student who is assigned to care for her. There are plenty of long, lingering close-ups of character’s faces, which might have been fine had not the defining characteristic of the protagonist been her affectlessness. Look, this isn’t the sort of movie that I would pick from Netflix to watch at home, but the experience of seeing it at the festival, with the director and main actors present at the start and ending of the screening, was neat. I enjoyed the soundtrack’s Aphex Twin-style synth bloops that swell in intensity along with the main character’s sensations as she is carted around to one invasive hospital procedure after another. I was also struck by the efforts of all of the care worker characters who try their best to help Star and grow to appreciate her unique perspective on life even as her nonchalance toward responsibility and genuine inability to take care of herself continually stymie their efforts to improve her situation. According to the director after the screening, Star is based on a real person and the actress who portrays her spent significant time talking to her and picking up on her mannerisms. This is a film that 90% of average moviegoers will not be able to sit through, but its depth is made apparent if you watch it with patient scrutiny.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Try as I might, I just cannot find a single Haruki Murakami story that I find enjoyable. After watching this animated amalgamation of several of that author’s short stories, my conclusion remains… unchanged. No, solidified, even. While the not-quite-rotoscoped animation was cool and genuinely unlike anything I had ever seen before, Murakami’s characteristic long, meandering dialogue and that leads nowhere left me unsatisfied – unsurprisingly – by the film. I thought all of the characters were intensely dislikable, with the lone exception of “Frog,” a mysterious and curiously polite human-size frog who magically shows up to solve one of the B-plot conflicts and then disappears without ever making it clear what the hell the point of any of that was. The director (and voice of Frog) introduced the movie and took questions at the end of the screening, which was fun despite being plagued by some recurring, annoying microphone issues.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever
Zac Efron gives an amusing performance as John “Chickie” Donohue, goofy New York accent and all, who leaves civilian life to travel to Vietnam to personally deliver beers to his friends on the battlefield. Along the way he grows out of his “America can do no wrong” naivety after seeing firsthand the true horrors of war. There’s a great line from Russel Crowe, who plays a war journalist who gets mixed up with Chickie when their hotel is unexpectedly attacked. The journalist says something along the lines of, “There are no good guys in war. It’s all one big crime scene.” That’s a fantastic and inadvertently timely message that I sure hope is not lost on all of those past-the-draft-age North Americans who are still rocking Ukrainian flags on their social media profiles.
The Woman King
This one had to have had the most straightforward Hollywood movie plot out of all the TIFF movies I saw. Set in the 1820s, The Woman King follows the Agojie, an all-female group of warriors who defend the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Much ado has been made online about the fact that the real-life Dahomey played a major role in the slave trade, but I can tell that people claiming that this movie somehow glorifies slavers haven’t actually watched it because the entire thrust of the plot is Viola Davis’s character, the Agojie general Nanisca, attempting to recenter the Dahomeyan economy around palm oil instead. The sets and costume designs were all on point, and the twist involving the relationship between Nanisca and another character had a heartwarming (and dare I say, vaguely pro-life?) conclusion.
Project Wolf Hunting
Project Wolf Hunting delivered on the over-the-top action and violence one would expect from a film in TIFF’s “Midnight Madness” category. I didn’t pay too close attention to the plot, partially because the screening of the film began with a protracted real-life argument between several people in the front row of the theater. I was too distracted to internalize what was going on in the movie for the first few minutes. With the bombs and blood on screen blocked by standing, shouting moviegoers, I wondered if the aggressive behavior playing out in front of me was what I should have expected from an audience who had self-selected to see something as relentlessly violent as this film. It was really too bad, because that incident seemed to take the wind out of the sails of the audience, who was noticeably quieter afterwards, despite their noisy cheers and even synchronized clapping during the intro advertisements. What’s important to know about Project Wolf Hunting is that a group of police and a gang of psychopathic prisoners are stuck onboard a ship with a nigh-invincible monster in their midst. Think Predator, but Korean. In the Q&A after the screening, director Hong-Seon Kim said that the crew used 2.5 tons of blood in the making of the movie. I believe him.
Bonus: Goodbye, Don Glees!
Okay, this movie was not part of TIFF, but the timing of when I watched it made it feel to me like it was part of the festival. For better or worse, I tend to watch all of the limited-release anime films that I can, so I made sure to catch Goodbye, Don Glees! when it hit my local Cineplex only days after TIFF ended. This is a story about a group of boys reminiscing about a time that they traveled off-the-grid to retrieve a lost drone camera. The part that stuck with me the most is how their dire worries at the beginning end up being no big deal and give way to much deeper and more mature concerns. However, the movie officially lost me during an extended music sequence where the boys sing none other than “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in some heavily, and I mean heavily accented English. That scene had me break my gaze from the screen, look around the theater, and ask myself, “What the hell am I watching right now?” Likewise, the phrase “Don Glees,” the boys’ name for their group and namesake for the film, is based on a bizarre and ungrammatical interpretation of the English words “Don’t glee.” Somehow I feel like this would have gone over better with its intended Japanese audience. There’s some emotions in the film, but overall I thought most of it was forgettable.