Monday, May 21st, 2018
Home / Film Festivals  / Toronto International Film Festival 2017 Report Part 4: Chasing The Buzz

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 Report Part 4: Chasing The Buzz

This is pt 4 of our Toronto International Film Festival coverage, in which we cover the new Scott Cooper film, new Del Toro, and more.

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 Report Part 4: Chasing The Buzz

I planned to begin Day Six of TIFF with a screening of James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, which had played the night before at Midnight Madness and garnered extremely positive reactions from audience members. Yet there was another film that was newly on my radar after getting equally good word of mouth: Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya. I had to make a choice, and after some intense consideration, I decided to see the latter. After all, it did not yet have a distributor, while Franco’s film already had a December release date. I figured I could wait a few more months for it, as I didn’t know how long I’d have to wait to see I, Tonya.

Great minds think alike. When I arrived the next morning, the lineup for the screening was already snaking around Scotiabank. I’m fairly certain most people couldn’t believe they were there, lining up in the early hours of the morning for a Tonya Harding biopic. Were many of them like me, squeezing in a film they had not initially intended to see? At this point in the festival, everyone’s schedule had probably changed dozens of times, so unless they were on strict assignment, it was likely that this was an opportunistic decision.

This is where good buzz takes you. You have to chase it at every chance. And so I did, all the way to the very front row of a packed theater, hoping I had made the right call in turning down James Franco.

I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 Report Part 4: Chasing The Buzz

I, Tonya – Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

I was far too young to be cognizant of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal way back in 1994. That is not to say I’ve never heard of it in the following years, however. Harding’s name has also crossed my path several times, always with an air of antipathy and taboo. She has entered the cultural lexicon as one of our famed villainesses, her name forever associated with unfairness and gracelessness. The sorest loser of them all. The athlete who sought violence to come out on top.

She was also one of the few people in the world who could land a triple axel without falling on her face every single time, an extremely talented figure skater who was frequently brushed under the rug because she lacked the demure, sweet-as-apple-pie wholesomeness that people wanted to see on the ice. These are things Craig Gillespie’s mockumentary I, Tonya wants us to know before it even broaches the scandal. First and foremost, Tonya Harding was the underdog people should’ve been rooting for, rather than hating.

This is good. Give Harding a redemptory arc and humanize her character? I can get behind that. The thing that’s harder to champion is the way I, Tonya sets about doing it. For, you see, the path it takes is akin to watching an R-rated, live-action Looney Tunes cartoon. It is casual violence, domestic abuse, misogyny and psychological torment wrapped up in goofy frivolity. The perpetrators? Clownish buffoons with bruised fists. Wise-cracking Gorgons who will throw a kitchen knife at you if you step out of line. Portraits of the lowest socioeconomic class painted in broad, chaotic colors so that we’re programmed to laugh at their exploits, no matter how brutal and disgusting they end up being presented as actual humans.

The film wants to have its own cake and eat it, too. Midway through, Margot Robbie’s Tonya looks us directly in the eye (because the Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall is one of the film’s central conceits) and tells us outright that we’re complicit in the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) because of our lurid fascination with the media coverage. But, wait. Weren’t we just doing the very thing that she calls us out on? Weren’t we just getting a kick out of the seamy details of Tonya’s domestic life, set to various needle drops of popular ‘70s and ‘80s radio hits?

All of a sudden, the laughs shared in the first half as Tonya and Jeff blithely knocked each other to pieces are rendered null and void. We’ve been guilt-tripped. Or, more precisely, bamboozled. Now, apparently, we’re supposed to be ashamed at ourselves for finding humor in Tonya’s plight, even though the film enticed us to laugh. Enticed us to be entertained at all the fourth wall-breaking hijinks and snappy editing.

As the film drew to a close, my laughter became hollow. Uneasy. This film was not playing fair. It was holding me in contempt, sneering with unbounded pleasure because it knew I had been taken in by its easy charms. Truly, I don’t know if it’s brilliant because of it, or an epic failure. I think I’m more disappointed in it than anything, because its cruelty gets the better of it. It even does a disservice to Tonya, because the rehabilitation of her character comes at the expense of our distrust with the medium. Sure, she was a fighter who refused to let the abuse break her spirit. But, at the same time, I don’t need a shot of Margot Robbie cheerfully brandishing a shotgun to make that point for me.

Having seen Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri a few days before, I could not help but marvel at the contrasts between these films. Whereas McDonagh handles his tragicomic tone with a skilled deftness, ensuring that the tonal shifts are there to serve his story rather than detract from it, Gillespie has it all go to pot. The control exercised is minimal and scattershot. The artistry barely anywhere to be seen. The result bizarre and incongruous, a farrago that aims to be both farcical and solemn without ever knowing how to properly marry these two qualities.

I assume the reason most people coming out of TIFF like this (and why it nearly won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award) is because it is so accessibly absurd and out there, doling out the kind of unvarnished drollery that everyone can both understand and partake in. As for me, I couldn’t help but think that such drollery was acting dishonestly. Not coming from the right place. And the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced I’m right.

Though I’m wary, I do commend the performances. Allison Janney, who plays Tonya’s monstrous mother LaVona, is practically a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. The deal is sealed the first moment she appears onscreen, and she continues to chew the scenery in exactly the right ways throughout (though her absolute best moment comes when she realizes midway that her storyline is disappearing—it’s undoubtedly the film’s money shot for the amount of guffaws and applause it will generate). Robbie is also excellent, transforming herself into a close approximation of Harding and giving her character plenty of sympathetic moments that will resonate. Stan, too, is mightily impressive playing the film’s most difficult-to-love personality, and Paul Walter Hauser is an unexpected scene-stealer as Tonya’s scheming bodyguard.

I, Tonya is lucky to have such a good cast. It’s the kind of ensemble people will get behind, and for some people, these talented actors will be enough to transcend the problematic way Tonya’s story is treated. I, on the other hand, have to consider everything, and I cannot trust a film that does not trust me. That’s all it boils down to.

Hostiles (Scott Cooper)

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 Report Part 4: Chasing The Buzz

Hostiles – Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles played both Telluride and TIFF, and as of this writing, no distributor has yet picked it up. Someone will, I’m sure, though whoever does will have to begrudgingly accept the fact that it won’t make much money at the box office. It’s not a popcorn flick that will play like gangbusters to sold-out crowds. It may star familiar faces like Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, but it also pensively moves at its own pace, largely preferring to sit still rather than burst out in suspenseful action sequences.

Another reason that could explain the reluctance to put this out sooner rather than later may have to do with the fact that it’s a well-dressed clunker, decked out in the trappings of a finely-wrought prestige pic while not possessing the kind of script that justifies the care put into it. At best, it is a decent character study, showing how racist attitudes can be overcome through the empathetic awareness of individual humanity. Bale’s character is a well-educated (though racially intolerant) cavalry officer who, when forced to escort a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) to his birthplace in Montana, learns in due time that his charge is no monster. Rather, it is the colonizer’s blinkered worldview that is the problem, destroying the chance for peaceable relations and wreaking bloody havoc on the wide prairies.

Now, while that’s all well and good, Hostiles still partakes in the simplistic narrative and generic structures that have badly aged many of its predecessors. It’s fundamentally another white savior narrative, with Bale’s Captain Blocker having all the power and agency—not to mention the most fully-realized characterization of the entire cast. Meanwhile, the Indigenous characters all too easily exemplify the dreadful noble savage stereotype: they are wise and altruistic, but otherwise have very little dialogue and exist at the mercy of the white characters. One can even label them as plot devices, there to advance the psychological development of the white leads as well as the story itself, all the while not getting any development or depth in their own right.

If anyone doubts the true politics of the film, then the ending clinches it. Without spoiling anything, all I will say is that an Indigenous boy is “adopted” by one of the leads, plucked from his culture and brought to the New World to start a new life. The film does not dwell on the implications of this act. Instead, the leads gaze mournfully at each other at a train station, probably contemplating life without one another as Max Richter’s saccharine score draws the story to a close. The boy, meanwhile, is a silent prop. A bystander to the white characters’ leave-taking. His perspective, like those of the other Indigenous characters, occluded.

Hostiles is not offensive because its message is off-key. Anything that advocates for tolerance in these turbulent times is welcome. Its problem lies in the way it delivers the message, using offensive tropes and a singularly white perspective to make its inclusionist point. It wants to be progressive, but it relies on regressive means, and that ends up negating the goodwill it builds. I have no time for filmmaking like this in our day and age. We cannot hope for reconciliatory practices if the power imbalance on racial lines continues to be depicted with the hushed reverie of a Terrence Malick picture. It’s not the right way forward.

BPM (Beats per Minute) [Robin Campillo]

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 Report Part 4: Chasing The Buzz

BPM (Beats per Minute) – Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

My public screening of Robin Campillo’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning (and now possible Foreign Language Oscar contender) BPM (Beats per Minute) was supposed to start about five minutes after Hostiles ended. I had to rush to the other end of the theater in order to make it in time… only to find out that the line was still being ushered in. Even when it seemed everyone was seated, it still took over twenty minutes before the film started, which was the longest delay I had experienced thus far (and, as it turned out, the entire festival). And even then, issues still continued to arise. Film critic Charles Bramesco vented his frustration when a segment of the public line was inexplicably left behind on the street, only admitted to the theater eleven minutes after the film had already started (understandably, he didn’t stick around).

A shame that this had to happen, because it was by far my favorite film of the day. Set in the late ‘90s, when the AIDS epidemic was still taking its deadly toll on the LGBTQ community, we are treated to an intimate look at the fervency of the ACT UP movement in Paris. Campillo and co-writer Philippe Mangeot (himself a former president of ACT UP’s Paris chapter) put us right in the middle of the small lecture halls where members met to debate, argue, bring forward ideas and form a united front in the face of disinterested bureaucracies. The rules are simple: no debates in the halls, snap your fingers to express agreement (as clapping will drown others out), and keep things short and sweet.

In the film, the Paris chapter butts heads with a pharmaceutical company that refuses to release information on a possible life-saving medication for AIDS patients. Their advocacy relies on being constantly in the public eye, and if they have to throw balloons filled with fake blood, or burst through the doors of company offices, they will do so. But whether such activism goes far enough is a different question that proves fractious for some members who know they are already on borrowed time, like outspoken hothead Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). He, like many other members, is HIV-positive, and cannot afford a tidy, savoir-faire approach when something more radical will yield better results.

Time becomes both the sticking point and the film’s channel of meditation. The advocacy group’s mantra is no longer contained within its acronym for Campillo, but in the kinetic process of the words themselves. BPM chronicles action that is acutely aware of time, so that reaction can no longer be waited for. It chronicles the ferociousness of urgency itself, letting it spill into the frame in gasping swells so that the life-or-death stakes of people like Sean are the film to its very core. And it chronicles the merciless savagery of a temporal existence, exposing us to the way time will ravage us with bone-chilling austerity.

The film is not entirely unsentimental, however. There are several faces in ACT UP that we warm to, and this culminates in an erotic romance between Sean and placid newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois). A few critics have taken issue with this storyline, saying that it detracts from the ACT UP portion and results in an unbalanced whole. I found it a necessary component, because it brings these people—the people at the center of the movement’s exigency—to the fore, where they belong.

Campillo and Mangeot also explore this relationship with a much-needed frankness so that, while it provides the film with emotional ballast, it also refuses to shy away from the ugliness of the disease, both physically and (again) temporally. Sean’s deterioration is graphic and upsetting, the camera capturing everything from his bone-thin physique to the welts on his skin, and Nathan’s concern for him is representative of the helplessness thousands felt as their partners suffered against the undefeatable tick of the clock. Campillo necessarily speeds up the process for the diegesis, but when set against the breathlessness of the ACT UP meetings in the first half, the ending is noticeably protracted, so that our awareness of the temporal becomes interlocked with the acuity of time within the narrative itself.

Time and time again, as the saying goes. The demon that we can never shake, whose thirst cannot be slaked.

What an experience this film is. How intelligently and honestly it tells its story. How movingly it honors a community of victims, survivors and fighters. After two films with unsuccessful approaches, finally one that knows what it’s doing. Truly, I couldn’t have asked for a better end to Day Six.

On Day Seven, the lines were already thinning out as Press and Industry folks from out of town were catching their last films. Soon they would be on planes back to their respective countries, bidding farewell to Canada for another year. And so Scotiabank was much less crowded than before, and though I had to go outside to line up once in the evening, it wasn’t as bad as it was during the weekend.

The worst thing now? The mugginess of Scotiabank on what was a particularly humid day. When I lined up for my first film, I could feel the perspiration on my skin. For some reason, there was very little air conditioning in the lobby, so I can imagine many others were suffering as much as I was. Some of the smaller theaters also started to smell a bit rank due to the large volumes of people going in and out of them. You thought you’ve smelled it all, and then you walk into Scotiabank and find that your olfactory system will never stop being a source of constant surprise.

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 Report Part 4: Chasing The Buzz

The Shape of Water – Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Two lonely souls aching to be understood by the wider world meet in Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantastical escapade, which recently won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is poised to become an awards heavyweight in the next few months. And understandably so. The Shape of Water is del Toro at his most restrained, his flamboyant style now tempered to fit the delicate little fairy tale that gives the film its beating heart. Some quirks are retained, such as the sprawling set pieces and uniform color scheme (here it’s seafoam green), but for the most part, general audiences will find much to like about this one—even those who might’ve been turned off by his past endeavors.

I enjoyed this film, and was charmed by it on several occasions. It’s intensely romantic, wonderfully fronted by the gorgeous and ever-talented Sally Hawkins (who also did a fabulous job in Maudie from earlier this year). It has a clean, uncomplicated elegance to it, utilizing its cast well and not bogging itself down with bloated irrelevancies. And, as a lovechild of films like Amélie and Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s also a fun slice of nostalgia, showing us how cinema’s vast legacy continues to inspire and influence contemporary artists like del Toro. Riffs on, and loving tributes to, cinema’s past abound here, and they’re done graciously (though making Hawkins’ character, Eliza, an avid film buff allows del Toro to get away with more than he would’ve been able to otherwise).

I’m not wild about The Shape of Water, though. For all the poetic sensibility del Toro infuses into the love story, there is still a certain refinement that’s missing. For instance, the characters here are flatly rendered, possessing archetypal qualities without transcending them to any remarkable degree. The villain wears black, drives nice and expensive cars, carries a brutal weapon as a symbol of his unquestioned authority and denigrates women because he can. The heroine is a parentless mute; her sidekick a sassy black woman; and her neighbor a sensitive, artistic gay man. Those aligned with good are undeniable outsiders in every sense one can think of, be it socially or professionally. As such, they are neglected by the prevailing hegemonic forces typified by moneyed, high-ranking white men who make it big in the world because they fit into the predominant social, economic and political norms.

The only imagination exercised, then, is del Toro’s as he fashions this tale for us, conceptualizing his half-fish, half-human creature to a tee and bringing the Cold War-era government laboratory setting to life. As for us, his loyal audience, we must sit there and feel, absorbing the tender play between Eliza and her newfound lover with satisfied sighs. There is, however, not much room to think. Not much room to grapple with this ornate music box, other than to nod along to del Toro’s dictum that our societal outcasts are cool and beautiful and always worth getting to know on an intimate level.

I’ve known that my entire life, sir. Most of us have. Isn’t it time to bring more to the table, though? That’s what I was waiting for while watching this: a greater sophistication to its overall meaning, a novel approach to its timeworn concepts, a bolder intellectual interrogation of class, gender, sexuality—anything. Alas, del Toro is more than content to let the emotion do the heavy-lifting, supplemented by his strong visuals and the talented ensemble. The story remains as it is: simple, straightforward, and largely unremarkable.

That’s not always a bad thing, mind. And here, del Toro does a fair job of elevating the material so that, even if the story lacks a certain element of risk, his lyrical vision compensates more often than not. Midway through the festival, however, I had already seen a number of intellectually rigorous works that dared to work my brain cells numb. Those films were the ones I held in high esteem, because they excited me. They pushed and startled me. I could talk about them for hours to anyone who would listen. The Shape of Water? Not really. Even now, many days after seeing the film, holding an exciting conversation about it would be hard, because what you see is exactly what you get.

On Chesil Beach (Dominic Cooke)

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 Report Part 4: Chasing The Buzz

On Chesil Beach – Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

In my last dispatch, I reviewed one of two Ian McEwan adaptations that played at the festival (The Children Act). The other is On Chesil Beach, directed by Dominic Cooke in his feature film debut, and, like The Children Act, adapted for the screen by McEwan himself. Like in his 2007 novella, the story focuses on a honeymooning couple with skittish dispositions, Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan), who politely try to hide their collective unease as the consummation of their union looms.

While they clumsily edge toward the pivotal moment, they silently reminisce on their backgrounds and relationship. We learn that Edward is a history buff who lives with a mentally disabled mother (Anne-Marie Duff), while Florence is the lead violinist of a string quartet, raised in a wealthier household, but also by frigid parents (Emily Watson and Samuel West). The fates conspired to bring them together, though whether they can stay that way is a different matter entirely.

Whereas Richard Eyre took a no-frills approach to The Children Act, preferring to let his lead star Emma Thompson do most of the heavy lifting, Cooke favors something traditionally grander and unified here. This is, after all, a period piece (it’s set in 1962), so he has the liberty to dress his characters in richer costumes, assemble together some of Britain’s finest character actors, and allow the Dorset coast to shine just as McEwan intended.

The result is lovely. Cooke’s direction is calibrated towards excavating his characters in a way that is curious rather than condemnatory, taking care that the spaces they occupy always have particular meaning. The hotel room and the open beach are wonderfully juxtaposed in relation to the characters’ psyches, as are the homes of Edward and Florence—one crowded and humble, the other spacious and chilly. Cooke also lingers on faces, lets us get a closer look at eyes or hands, building up these stories so that every movement and hesitation has a little more import behind it.

Howle and Ronan are also perfectly cast. Ronan is an actress whose talent can no longer be doubted, and a double-bill of this and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is enough to show why. As Florence, she is the polar opposite of Lady Bird in nearly every way, yet there isn’t a false note to be found anywhere in either performance. She is at home in all types of weather, adapting to every challenge without sacrificing the verisimilitude. So I expected her to shine, and she does.

Howle, on the other hand, is the lesser-known factor. Outside of some TV work, he’s relatively unknown to most, but this could end up being his ticket to greater fame. As Edward, he’s a little pathetic, a little charismatic, a little comic, a little tragic. He has so many shades to work with, and he pulls them off with the same convincing sincerity as Ronan. It helps that he’s a bloody good crier, too.

The only thing that stops On Chesil Beach from truly shining is the epilogue, which was one of the few changes McEwan made in adapting his novella. A lot of people have also criticized the flashback-heavy script, finding the constant interruptions to the present-day narrative an annoyance. I didn’t mind them, because they helped framed this as primarily a character study, while also heightening the emphasis on the honeymoon and the circumstances that follow it.

McEwan goes wrong, however, when he expands the timeline into the twenty-first century, showing us the fates of the characters and why they end up where they do. It plays like a last-minute apology for Atonement, or, at the very least, a half-hearted attempt to make the film more commercially viable. Slathering Howle and Ronan in old-age makeup only ends up cheapening the story, though, and the diamond-cut precision of McEwan’s insights falls apart with such an overtly mawkish conclusion.

Apart from this miscalculation, On Chesil Beach is an otherwise solid debut from Dominic Cooke, filled with a fine attention to detail and some truly heartbreaking revelations. And both Howle and Ronan are more than worth the price of admission alone.

Who We Are Now (Matthew Newton)

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 Report Part 4: Chasing The Buzz

Who We Are Now – Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

I chose Who We Are Now as a time filler, needing to kill a few hours before my next film without necessarily expecting to be wowed. This is something you can do with a Press and Industry badge. Don’t have anything better to do? Plans cancelled at the last minute? Get out your schedule, see if something interesting is playing, and walk right over. Even if you’ve never heard of the film. Even if it’s likely you’ll never hear of it again. You have the liberty to leave if it’s not to your taste, and if you sit through its entirety, you may even find a hidden gem to tell others about.

I think I’ll hear about Who We Are Now again, if you want to know the truth. Matthew Newton’s film is a micro-budget indie that may not reach a vast audience, but it’s got a strong selling point in its star, Julianne Nicholson. Coincidentally, Nicholson also appears in I, Tonya in a small role, and if the freckled skin didn’t give her away, you’d hardly know that this is the same actress in both films. Except, here she gives one of her finest performances to date, whereas her role in I, Tonya is almost thankless. After this film is seen by the general public, one would hope those kinds of roles will be a thing of the past for her.

Nicholson plays Beth, an ex-con with a pixie cut and a contentious custody battle weighing down her morale. After ten years in prison, she is ready to take care for her young son—only, her sister (being the boy’s legal guardian) doesn’t believe she is capable of it. Beth’s story is interspersed with scenes from the life of her lawyer’s protégée, a junior litigator named Jess (Emma Roberts) who struggles to keep both her fledgling career and family obligations in check. The two characters go about their own paths for most of the film, only meeting in earnest past the midway point.

It’s a gutsy move on Newton’s part, since it runs the risk of making the film look unfocused. Beth is also ten times more interesting a character than Jess, even though Roberts is entirely believable in the role. Yet, when executed, the house doesn’t fall in on itself. The film lets us glimpse the lives of two tenacious women who doggedly persist for their causes, aiming to emerge victorious despite disadvantages and setbacks. There’s a touch of Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women here in these individual portraits, Newton carving out a raw and unsentimental journey for his protagonists that neither completely absolves them of their mistakes, nor robs them of the agency to make them. They are wholly imperfect, and the film sings because of it.

Perhaps the best decision Newton makes, however, is to keep the film at an even simmer until the last five or so minutes. That’s when he cranks up the heat and hands the spotlight over to Nicholson, allowing her to close things out with a knockout punch that had me reeling for several minutes. She delivers a small monologue, stands up, and leaves a room. It’s not even a “big” ending in the sense that it is open-ended or lavish, but the effect it has is devastating in its power.

Ending a film on a stunning grace note is one of the hardest tasks a director can achieve. Newton does so. Nicholson barely raises her voice when she delivers her final lines. But the words she speaks, the finality of their tenor, and her determined expression are a haunting masterclass for anyone wishing to enter the business. This is the kind of acting I’d pay the world to see. And it boosts this already-solid indie to new heights, diminishing some of its weaker aspects (like its fairly unmemorable dialogue) and putting Julianne Nicholson back on the map where she belongs.

The Day After (Hong Sang-soo)

Toronto International Film Festival 2017 Report Part 4: Chasing The Buzz

The Day After – Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

South Korean master Hong Sang-soo released an unprecedented three films this year, and sadly, TIFF chose to schedule only one of them: The Day After. I take it that it’s because of the festival’s decision to downsize its programming this year, although it could also be because there might not have been enough demand for three Hong films. Whatever the case, the tradition to bring a Hong film to TIFF audiences continued with this one, which competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. And since North American distribution for his films is so rare, The Day After will probably be the last time Torontonians can catch Hong on the big screen until next year’s festival (provided, of course, Hong releases a new film that can be scheduled).

Not having seen the other two Hong films, On the Beach at Night Alone and Claire’s Camera, I cannot make a value judgment about whether The Day After was the best choice of the three to bring to Toronto. I can say that it’s a very good addition to his filmography, all things considered. It’s a bit of a departure for him after his previous two features (Right Now, Wrong Then and Yourself and Yours), which saw him having some fun with his viewers as he toyed with different formalistic elements of the medium. The former film played with timelines and gave variations on the same scenario, while the latter (which I reviewed for Film Inquiry last year) literally gave us two sides of the same coin… err, character.

The Day After is different for a few reasons. Most notably, it’s slightly heavier in nature, utilizing a monochromatic color scheme and a droning soundtrack to signal something more introspective rather than outright comical. It’s also done more conventionally than the last two films, with no self-evident experimentation that we can clue into right away. It has all the hallmarks of something unostentatious and uneventful—except, it isn’t. This is actually trickster Hong working in his element, albeit more surreptitiously than we’re used to seeing.

This is a film that really warrants two or three viewings before it can be done justice. I only have one viewing under my belt, and so my review cannot be as comprehensive as I’d like it to be. Yet from that one viewing, I could tell that Hong was paying a bit of homage to his earlier works without giving the game away from the start. There’s a bit of doubling here in the characters of Song Areum (Kim Min-hee) and Lee Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byeok), assistants to publisher Kim Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo) who becomes caught in a web of mistaken identity after Bong-wan’s wife, Song Hae-joo (Jo Yoon-hee), learns that he is having an affair. Chang-sook is the culprit, but it’s Ah-reum whom Hae-joo meets at his office—on her first day of work, no less.

There is also a deliberate uncertainty with regard to time. We don’t know how long Bong-wan and Chang-sook’s affair lasted before they split. “The day after” of the title feels like a perpetual grey area that could refer to several competing events: the day after the affair’s end, the day after Hae-joo barges into Bong-wan’s office and assaults Areum, the day after Bong-wan hires Areum as his assistant in the first place—the structure here is so imperceptibly fluid that one only begins dwelling on its significance until the film has already ended. When do these events really transpire? How long do they last? How well have these characters gotten to know each other?

But there is one noticeably significant scene that beautifully echoes the masterful technique in Right Now, Wrong Then. It involves Bong-wan and Areum chatting in the former’s office, mirroring a very similar conversation that plays out near the beginning. The revelations that slowly burst forth show us precisely why Hong is so good at what he does, because they not only turn the events that transpired on their head—they complete the arcs that were set in motion from the very first frame.

The scene also confirms that this is by no means a pleasant portrait of men in positions of power. If anything, it shows that their power is an illusory construct at best, easily defeated in the face of greater adversaries like Areum, who possess the kindness, facility and intellect needed to flourish in the wider world. She, through her rigorous engagement with the arts and her Socratic modes of interrogation, is more substantial than someone as shallow as Bong-wan will ever be, and when she walks out of the office at the film’s conclusion, it is she who quietly triumphs.

More can be said, and more needs to be said. With one more viewing, and maybe a few shots of soju, the words will flow.

Toronto International Film Festival

I have two more dispatches left to go! In the next, I’ll be giving you a taste of the newest offerings from Paul Schrader and Joe Wright, alongside a directorial debut from character actor Andy Serkis and a documentary about cannibalism that had everyone at the festival talking.

How many films can you watch in a day before you reach your limit? Let us know in the comments below!

The Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 7th to the 17th.

Film Inquiry supports #TimesUp.

“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.

Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Tomas is a chronic cineaste who studied English literature in university (in both the undergraduate and graduate levels), and hopes to pursue a career in writing. His passion for film began in earnest at the beginning of the 2010s, and since then he's been reveling at the vast horizons of the cinematic landscape like a kid at the proverbial candy store.

Hey You!

Subscribe to our newsletter and catch up on our cinematic goodness every Saturday.


Send this to a friend