The increased emphasis on red carpet premieres in Toronto seems to have left the festival with an identity crisis. While festivals like Locarno and Rotterdam have hit their stride in promoting the new guard of international cinema, a quick glance at this year's program makes it clear that the "Festival of Festivals" is in the midst of redefining itself.
Wavelengths, formerly a sidebar of avantgarde shorts programs, has expanded to include the section previously known as Visions. Many of the more interesting films in the festival could be found here, including the much-buzzed-about Leviathan and Miguel Gomes' Berlin favorite Tabu. My personal favorite, however, was Walker, a new work by Tsai Ming-liang originally produced for the omnibus film Beautiful 2012.
After the Louvre-funded, episodic bombast of Visage, Walker finds Tsai stripping his filmmaking down to its barest essence. Muse and collaborator Lee Kang-sheng dons the scarlet robes of a monk as he walks with head down through the bustling streets of Hong Kong at the pace of a slow-motion snail. The harried and bemused passersby point or take pictures with their camera phones while Lee, with a sandwich in one hand and a plastic bag in the other, steps through Tsai's immaculate frames motivated by mysterious timings and rhythms.
Running at a spare 26 minutes with no dialogue, Walker is a profound experience. The absurd humor that punctuates this simple concept (spoiler alert: the "climax" of the film is Lee finally biting into that sandwich) belies its emotional, spiritual and even political complexity. By putting a walking still life on the same continuum with modern Hong Kong, Tsai not only challenges us to rethink our own pace, but issues a direct rebuttal to the at-all-costs priorities of global capitalism. This is an incredibly controlled offering, but thankfully said control is neither neurotic nor despairing.
Although his new feature Museum Hours was presented in the Contemporary World Cinema section, Jem Cohen is a filmmaker who would have been just as at home in Wavelengths. His previous feature, Chain, was one of the most surreal and pessimistic films of the last decade, an exacting evocation of the psychic dislocation fomented by the megamalls, chain stores and airports that served as its guerilla sets. Museum Hours, although it returns to themes of displacement, is a much more optimistic film about the ways in which art can be not only a spiritual salve, but also a catalyst for connection and friendship.
In Chain, we follow a Japanese businesswoman who finds herself in the United States on a research trip; in Museum Hours - also shot on location, at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum - Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) is a Canadian who finds herself in Vienna when a cousin falls seriously ill. When museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) stumbles across Anne attempting to make heads or tails out of a city map, he offers to show her around, noting that if he were lost in Toronto, he hopes that someone would do the same for him.
In a traditional narrative, Johann and Anne would fall in love. Instead, Museum Hours uses this expectation as a point of departure. Johann, who narrates the film, has slipped into a life as a spectator. Provoked by Anne's presence, he steps away from the online poker games that previously took up his leisure time and reintegrates himself into the world. Juxtaposing the pair's developing friendship with images of bored teenagers in the main gallery, a docent patiently discussing the virtues of Brueghel with an unpleasant patron, and other "documentary" footage, Cohen establishes a complex grid of relationships - between art and life, documentary and fiction, countries, inspiration, memory and voyeurism - with grace, intelligence and a deep humanism.
Taking a step back to its earliest days, the festival itself offered a chance to revisit past masterpieces via a Cinematheque section of new restorations. With landmark titles ranging from the Canadian indie Bitter Ash to Ritwik Ghatak's 1960 Bengali breakthrough The Cloud-Capped Star, this was a broad selection of films, although it was disheartening that the majority was screened on DCP. …