VIFF Capsule Reviews #1

The Vancouver International Film Festival always mixes more than a fair share of Canadian productions in with the highlight films from Cannes, Toronto, Locarno and other earlier fests. This year, more than any in recent memory, holds proof that the Canadian film industry is finally, just possibly, coming of age. For too many years, “Canadian film” equaled whatever David Cronenberg, Denys Arcand or Atom Egoyan had released, but now not only are prominent internationally recognized names like Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve joining them, but the smaller films on display in Vancouver show an impressive maturity in the country. Perhaps we have finally moved away from making Canadian films about being Canadian.

The first film I saw was actually shot in New Zealand, directed by expatriate Alison Maclean. Called The Rehearsal, it’s an “industry” film, where all of the characters are actors learning how to be better at their craft at a prestigious drama school. The plot involves a small group of students deciding that for their year-end production, they will write a stage interpretation of a local news story about a tennis instructor who gets caught in a sex scandal with an underage student. The film follows them as their occasionally half-baked ideas start to take shape, even as the actual news story gains details that cause them doubt about the entire endeavour. A side story, about one of the drama students dating the tennis student’s sister, adds increased complications. The Rehearsal is a bit too fluffy, and seems built to keep its audience pleased more than anything. The climax feels like a cheat when it lands, and does not seem to do its characters any justice. However, it is possible to interpret the ending as a fascinating fact of the arts… sometimes, you need a bit of luck. The standout from the cast is Kerry Fox (An Angel at my Table), who plays the head of the drama school.

The next local production was a treat: a full-length animated film from Canada’s National Film Board. The NFB tends to produce animated short films (with 73 Academy Award nominations and 12 wins for its productions over the years) so when they release a full feature, I tend to take notice. The film’s title is a mouthful: Window Horses (The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming). It is the story of a Canadian young woman named Rosie, descended from both Chinese and Persian immigrant roots, who writes a book of poetry and through its release gets invited to a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran. There two things happen; on a basic plot level, Rosie meets a handful of international poets and discovers that her long-disappeared father may be living in Shiraz; and on a more thematic level, we are taken on a virtual tour of Iran’s long, impressive history of poetry. The animation is rarely grounded in the real world, with visual explosions accompanying the recitations of poems, and also expanding the various worries in Rosie’s head.

It could be argued that Window Horses is a fallback to the “Canadian film,” in that its subject, while primarily about Iran’s history with poetry, is in the end really about Canada’s immigrant population, and reinforcing the perceived importance in Canadian culture of accepting immigrants and their different customs, unlike the popular view of the United States as a “melting pot” where immigrants fold into the culture of their new home. In other words, Window Horses is painfully Canadian in its attempt to paint a happy, lively, completely nonjudgmental picture of Iran as a place of romance and cultural majesty. This is not to say that I think the film is wrongheaded. At all. And if I did think that, I would have stated such an opinion with an apology. It’s how we do it.

The next film features a bit of a Canadian all-star cast. The Other Half, a story about a bipolar woman and a grief-ridden man trying to make their relationship work, stars fresh Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) and real-life Welsh boyfriend Tom Cullen (Weekend), and also features Dolan muse Suzanne Clément (Mommy) and Henry Czerny (The Boys of St. Vincent). You can probably guess from the plotline that this is a heavy film; no attempt is made to flinch away from either the dangerous highs and lows of bipolar disorder, or the emotional ravages of a man who never recovered from the disappearance of his young brother. These are very damaged characters, and Maslany and Cullen embody them without hesitation. I’ll admit to having concerns when the film first got going; Maslany gets an early bravura scene where she tackles the mania half of bipolar disorder, and she takes it to such a level that I feared the film would veer into overbaked histrionics. And Cullen’s angry, brooding boyfriend carried a DANGER sign as well. But, surprisingly, considering this is director Joey Klein’s first feature film, I can happily say that The Other Half never takes things too far. In fact, Klein’s reserved style mixes well with Maslany and Cullen’s comfortable screen presence. The film may not break new ground in exploring either character’s traumas, but neither does it exploit them or make light of them. It’s a very human story, and really the only flaw I could see was not enough for Suzanne Clément to do, as she has proven capable of much more than just playing a stepmom!

Another international Canadian production is Chinese-born Canadian director Johnny Ma’s film Old Stone. It is the story of a taxi driver who hits a man on a scooter and injures him quite badly. He then decides that instead of waiting for the ambulance to arrive, it would make more sense to drive the man to the hospital in his cab, thus beginning a very painful experience as first his boss, then the police, and then the various insurance companies begin breathing down the driver’s neck for not following the rules. The driver’s finances get snarled as he is forced to pay the victim’s hospital bills, and as solutions are sought after, the man’s family begins fraying apart. There is absolutely no light at the end of the tunnel in Old Stone. The world of Chinese bureaucratic inhumanity is peeled open layer by layer, with no saviour to be found. Ma’s Old Stone is a close cousin to last year’s Russian film The Fool, by Yuriy Bykov; both films rip their very societies apart for a lack of compassion, but both films also heap scorn on their protagonists for daring to think the system would work for them. I admit to finding Old Stone difficult, but as a carefully controlled spiral into despair, it at least showcases that Johnny Ma has a firm handle on pacing and increasing tension on the screen.