TIFF Diary #1: Welcome Home

Ah, TIFF. A film lover’s delight, and for a little ol’ Canuck like me, the perfect time to indulge in all the fun and excitement of a festival without having to travel thousands of miles. Ever since I attended my first festival in 2011, I’ve found no reason to stop coming back.

Yes, the price of tickets has been steadily increasing (and the addition of surge pricing this year was far from a welcome one). Yes, the festival tries too hard sometimes at being relevant compared to its illustrious European counterparts, and seems to value the flash and flare of celebrity culture over the earnest dedication of the festivalgoers. Yes, the lines can be long, and the weather fickle.

Still, there is a warmth and pluck to the festival that cannot be ignored, and every year I go I feel like I’m being welcomed back to a second home. You cannot look at a smiling volunteer without smiling yourself. You cannot stand in a line without sensing a congeniality about you, because everyone there is a film lover in one sense or another.

There is a common interest that binds; a common interest that stays in the air after the credits roll, the applause fades and the Q&As end. It’s something more than what you get at your typical movie theater, and it’s this that has me paying more than I ought to every year for films that I’d still get around to seeing anyway, TIFF or no TIFF.

A New Friend

For the past few years I’ve opened TIFF with a hit from Cannes. Last year it was Son of Saul (which eventually went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film); this year it was Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade’s side-splitting, wondrous odyssey about an uptight businesswoman and her prankster father. It was one of my most anticipated films of the year, so getting in line early was a no-brainer; there was no way I was ruining my experience with a bad seat.

So that’s what I did, after grabbing a quick bite at a local Vietnamese sandwich joint called Banh Mi Boys. The decision was serendipitous, because I ended up meeting a lovely Czech lady named Teresa, whose love of film simply radiated from her face as she talked excitedly about everything from the films she was seeing to some of her own favorites (some of which include Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the films of Kim Ki-duk, and Franco Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini).

Though I was 52 years her junior, it didn’t matter. Love of cinema transcends all boundaries, and it’s amazing how easily it can bring people together in a matter of minutes. Come to think of it, so do TIFF-related grievances. Before Teresa joined the line, the woman next to me talked about the numerous headaches she endured trying to get tickets to the film, and though my own experience was relatively painless, it was easy to empathize with her plight. TIFF’s methods have never been entirely perfect, and yet, something positive can still come out of it because it gives everyone a common ground to tread upon.

Though my conversation with that lady didn’t go anywhere beyond TIFF tickets, who knows where it would have gone with someone else? So even before the film began, my mood was immeasurably brightened by these pleasant interactions; interactions which actually don’t happen very often, due to my introverted nature. Am I naïve in thinking that TIFF can genuinely bring out the best in people? In all honesty, I don’t think so.

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)

Toni Erdmann
Toni Erdmann (2016) – source: Sony Pictures Classics

And so Toni Erdmann began, after every ticket was scanned at the door – a practice introduced this year, after TIFF’s ticketing was transferred to Ticketmaster and made print-at-home tickets allowable for the first time ever. I sat at the back of the cozy Ryerson Theatre, in an aisle seat, thanks to the advice of the woman I had chatted with in line. Teresa was just behind me, the seating staggered enough so she could see the subtitles without issue (though she understood German well enough).

Before the film started, we had to sit through the commercials that play before every film at the festival. I find them cute at first, though they do start grating on you after the fifth time. This year’s batch is no exception, despite some noticeable repeats from last year. The one thanking the volunteers always elicits a respectful round of applause, and every year it is modelled on the same formula: (1) using a familiar song (this year being Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends”); and (2) having the onscreen volunteers pay tribute to iconic film sequences.

Some of them this year include nods to The Shining, Up and Charlie Chaplin. Another festival favorite is the “No Piracy” reminder; it’s a tradition to growl a pirate-like “Arrrrrrrrrr!” when it appears so that first-timers can have a good laugh. This year the reminder was shortened considerably from the original, which I suspect caught many off-guard (there were only a few quizzical growls, though I expect it will change as the festival wears on). Once those were out of the way, I spent the next two-and-a-half hours soaking up Toni Erdmann and basically having the time of my life.

It’s not an easy film by any means. There is the length (2 hours, 42 minutes), of course, which is bound to make anyone with a short attention span squirm in their seat. There are also stretches of acute realism depicting the lead character Ines’ (Sandra Hüller) Romanian business dealings, which do not appear to advance the plot… at first.

It is only when one understands that the story is about her “aging-down” at the hands of her playful father (Peter Simonischek) that the film suddenly comes together and blows you away, those earlier scenes cementing the development of a brittle interiority that must be melted by wisdom and laughter. Hüller’s commitment is extraordinary, leading to two instantly iconic comedic scenes that left many in my audience positively gasping for breath.

The sheer mirth of the audience and the offbeat whimsicality of the film’s second half was a powerful mix, and one that proved why the film was so beloved at Cannes. Themes we can relate to —familial embarrassments, the stultification of the working class, the overbearing prevalence of awkward encounters, the importance of having a sense of humor — are so beautifully relayed by Ade’s graceful hand, and when the audience gave the film a warm, extended applause at the end of it, I knew I had seen something very special, indeed.

Ade herself came out for a Q&A session and spoke about how she readied her cast for the funny scenes, how she acquired a certain Bulgarian costume (something which, when it made its appearance in the film, brought the house down), and how a scene involving Ines, her father and a slow elevator was perhaps her favorite one in the film. After it ended, I had to hurry out to catch my next screening, though not before exchanging phone numbers with Teresa so that we could catch up on films that we were going to see later on in the festival.

I Am Not Madame Bovary (Feng Xiaogang)

I Am Not Madame Bovary
I Am Not Madame Bovary (2016) – source: Beijing Skywheel Entertainment Co.

The last film I caught that day was called I Am Not Madame Bovary by Chinese director Feng Xiaogang. I had gotten the ticket for free from a kind stranger who was giving it away, so I didn’t have to pay the Premium pricing (something which occurs when celebrities are expected to walk the red carpet and make an appearance during the screening).

The line outside the Princess of Wales Theater was surprisingly long, snaking up several streets by the time I arrived. Because of that, the film began half an hour past its scheduled start time, though not before the director and his cast personally introduced it. There was a large Chinese contingent in the building, which meant that the introductions could be done in what I assumed was Mandarin (with the help of an English translator for people like myself).

It was an interesting experience to be sure, not knowing what the director said that made people laugh and clap so much until the translator stepped in. I could imagine what sort of barriers non-English speakers faced in the city every day, having to navigate themselves in a place that was not in tune with what they had known before coming here. Everyone was in tune to the beauty of lead actress Fan Bingbing, however; when she walked in wearing a dazzling gown, all eyes (and cellphones) were on her. Because she is a superstar in China, it must have been a big deal to many in the crowd, and seeing her work the stage, I could see why she is so adored.

Alas, I did not adore the film as much as I did Miss Fan Bingbing’s fashion sense. In it, Fan plays a village woman named Li Xuelian whose scheme of fake-divorcing her husband in order to secure a new apartment backfires when the husband decides to marry another woman. When her attempts at securing a real divorce fail, she tries to enact her revenge by being a thorn in the sides of the officials who brushed her off—and succeeds.

Feng plays with several different aspect rations – the most prominent being a circular pinhole – as a way of charting Xuelian’s odyssey, and I’ll admit it leads to some beautifully composed shots. However, despite being unabashedly feminist in story and humor, I felt that it ran a little too long without providing a satisfying payoff. Because the true motive of Xuelian’s crusade is kept from us until the final minutes, it’s very hard to muster any feeling other than admiration for her determination, and I would have liked an emotional anchor to keep me invested for the entirety of the proceedings. The fact that some audience members were playing with their phones as the film went on makes me wonder if they shared my opinion.

I left the film as soon as the credits appeared because I wanted to catch the last train home, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay behind to listen to the Q&A. In hindsight, I probably could have, since I ended up missing the train by a matter of seconds and had to wait another 40 minutes for a bus. Still, even that inconvenience wasn’t enough to put a damper on my first day at TIFF’s 41st incarnation. And I have many more days still to go.

What TIFF films are you most looking forward to seeing? Let us know in the comments below!

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