TIFF Diary #4: The Ballad Of Liz And Amy

Another day of school on Wednesday (September 14th) allowed me to take a break from my TIFFing, which was welcome. However, I was back on the town the next day, my sixth of what would be nine days in total. After the first weekend, TIFF starts to wind down: the number of high-profile premieres dwindle, the celebrities return home, and even many of the critics pack their bags sooner rather than later. So, by September 15th, the crowds were scarce and the streets around the venues less busy; when I arrived at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (the organization’s year-round headquarters) for Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, the line was so small that we were let into the theatre earlier than usual.

Before I talk about Hong’s film, I should mention the atmosphere that the latter half of the festival engenders. With the excitement of the hot titles and celebrity appearances diminished, those who faithfully stick it out to the end are essentially seeing second or third screenings of films that they couldn’t get to earlier, and for many of them, it’s their fifteenth, twentieth… even thirtieth feature. As mentioned in my first diary entry, TIFF plays a package of predetermined ads from their sponsors before each film, and unfortunately, sponsors normally shoot only one ad for these packages, so that we are forced to see the same ones over and over again. And for some reason, there were many holdovers from last year, including this one from the Royal Bank of Canada.

If you can’t watch it on YouTube, here’s a rundown: aspiring screenwriters Amy and Liz are typing out a screenplay called “Someday” on an old-fashioned typewriter à la Woody Allen. In voiceover, they reenact a scenario in which Amy finds “another wedding invitation” in the mail. Liz remarks that it’s “the fifth one this year.” Amy then coyly wonders how they will afford their wedding, and Liz takes a few seconds to clue in (“Ours? Ours?! You mean…?”). The ad ends with Amy’s timid “Yes.”

Now, seeing it for the first time, its schmaltzy forwardness and celebration of same-sex unions will probably warm your heart—in truth, when I saw it last year, it did mine. Then it kept reappearing… and reappearing… and reappearing. By the time the festival ended last year, it became something of an inside joke for the hardcore TIFFers who were already fed up with it. Audience members audibly groaned when it came on and, in true Rocky Horror Picture Show fashion, shouted “Ours” in unison with Amy and either “Yes!” or “No!” at the very end. For a few seconds, the venue became a site of resistance against the mind-numbing tediousness of TIFF’s ads, and those who weren’t in the know ate it up, sometimes laughing and even clapping at the fearlessness and humor of these disgruntled persons.

Liz and Amy returned this year, and they were tolerated for the first few days (though I did hear a few whispered This again?s from people who must have remembered their notoriety from last year). Unsurprisingly, the resistance against them reared up again by the sixth day, and it became commonplace to hear the audience yell back at the screen (with the “No!” side gradually asserting dominance). Now, the RBC had another “Someday” ad circulating, dealing with a girl named Lily telling her astonished mother that she’s going to volunteer somewhere overseas. Strangely, though, I only saw that ad two or three times in total (including during Yourself and Yours) as opposed to Amy and Liz, and I don’t know why that was the case.

Would Lily and her mother have met with the same resistance had they been given more airtime than Amy and Liz? TIFF audiences like to mark the end of the festival with visible signs of their endurance. To return a now-familiar ad to the realm of the unfamiliar for the benefit of others is just another way of consolidating the spirit of solidarity that the festival begets, and though perhaps mocking the ad is not in the best taste, it maintains a connection that could have easily fizzled out after the first few days.

Amy and Liz are the mascots of the back-half; as much as their ad irritates, it is also a tangible reminder of why long-time patrons keep coming back every year. Of course, it will be relief when RBC submits a different ad (and hopefully they will do so next year), and I doubt many will miss these two precocious partners in love and their mountain of wedding invitations. Yet they will be remembered for a long time to come simply because they kept the TIFF spirit alive during the long, grueling haul.

Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo)

TIFF Diary #4: The Ballad Of Liz And Amy - Yourself and Yours
Yourself And Yours (2016) – source: Jeonwonsa Film

I’m a fan of the tranquil astuteness of Hong Sang-soo’s filmography, and have followed his work with great interest since I first saw The Day He Arrives in 2011. Last year’s Right Now, Wrong Then was a winner when I saw it at the festival, which is why getting a ticket to Yourself and Yours seemed like a no-brainer in my mind. Though I don’t regret doing so, I probably should have opted for a different screening. TIFF takes its toll on you no matter how much you try to stay energized, and sometimes pairing a quiet, serene film with an early start time can have disastrous results when you’re not careful—especially after a long week of grinding it out and getting less sleep as a result.

So I should have seen it coming when a wave of drowsiness overwhelmed me about twenty minutes into the film (more so because I did not have time to brew or buy myself a cup of coffee before the film began). This was not the film’s fault at all—I was simply not rested enough to sit in a dark environment, and this is something that’s happened to me many times in an ordinary theatre. If you’re tired and the lights are off, your body screams at you to go to sleep, and the battle is in the noncompliance and forcing yourself to keep those eyelids open at all costs.

Fortunately, I did not waste a $20 ticket as an excuse to take a much-needed nap, and did my utmost to concentrate on the film at hand. And I concluded that it was good Hong, but not great Hong. Much like his other films, there’s an element of magical realism at work that is intended to keep you invested in the proceedings. This time, it’s the uncertainty surrounding the comings and goings of Min-jung (Lee Yoo-young), a woman who is seen around Seoul drinking with men other than her boyfriend, Young-soo (Kim Joo-hyuk). Young-soo confronts her with the rumors, and when she vehemently denies them, he kicks her out of his apartment. Yet a woman who looks and sounds very much like Min-jung is indeed whiling away the time in bars. She denies that she is Min-jung—at one point she says that she’s a twin sister—but it’s hard to say for sure where objective truth and subjective reality cross.

To have been great, Yourself and Yours would have needed a stronger premise and interesting characters outside of Min-jung, whose unstable identity and possible doubling shows the film to be a rather clear riff on That Obscure Object of Desire (and only tangentially, as Hong’s treatment is much more sober about its predicament than the gleeful mayhem that Luis Buñuel brought to the original). Though Hong continually mediates on the effects of social drinking in his films, this time around the result is not as acutely perceptive as it wants to be… probably because the themes being tackled (disassociation, the need for reciprocity in relationships) are more self-evident than usual. That’s not to say, however, that this is a miss for Hong. The dialogue is as sharp and multifaceted as ever, and the supporting work provides quite a bit of levity. One wonders, though, if this would have been a knockout with a stronger script.

Una (Benedict Andrews)

TIFF Diary #4: The Ballad Of Liz And Amy - Una
Una (2016) – source: Film4

Back in the sunshine after a sleepy first screening, I was able to shake off the last vestiges of a slumberous mood and lined up for my next film, which was Benedict Andrews’ Una. If you haven’t heard of Andrews, then you’re probably not alone; Una is his debut feature after a career in the theatre staging the works of Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet.

Una, unsurprisingly, is an adaptation of a play by David Harrower that was originally titled Blackbird, and both Andrews and Harrower were on hand to intro the film. The Princess of Wales, which I was used to seeing at full capacity, was decidedly less full for this screening, and I put it down to both the film’s relative obscurity and the fact that all three of its screenings were at large venues (typically, most films that have third screenings are relegated to smaller venues after the first or second screenings; I don’t know why Una was an exception in this case).

The subject matter of Una is decidedly not for everyone. Without giving too much away, its main source of tension arises from the meeting between a woman (Rooney Mara) and the man who sexually abused her as a child (recent Emmy-winner Ben Mendelsohn). The woman, Una, is brimming with unanswered questions, as it’s the first time the two have seen each other since his prison term. He’s changed his name from Ray to Peter and works as a manager at a packing facility, and it’s here that the two become immured in the past, its cruelties, and the damage that entailed.

Mara is stunning, exuding both confidence and confusion as she tries desperately to paste over the fissures of her life with a final stab at gaining closure, and Mendelsohn maintains an ambiguity that never fully resolves the tension over whether Ray is reformed or still a golden-tongued monster at heart. The two possess a crackling chemistry as they skulk about the labyrinthine setting and threaten to topple each other’s secure livelihoods, and while some may find it objectionable (or, at the very least, uncinematic), I can’t say that I agree—I found it extremely absorbing and far more nuanced in its psychological explorations than I initially expected.

Andrews and Harrower were both on hand for a short Q&A, and they discussed at length the need to separate the play from the film and treat them as distinct entities. This was particularly important because the play is famously contained in one space, and Andrews wanted to find ways to open it out and give it room to breathe onscreen. Hence why the packing facility becomes such an important character in its own right—its winding, intricate spaces enable a character like Una to literally enact her complex journey, giving her a chance to navigate her complex feelings for Ray so that she can come out of it having discovered more about herself than she would have had she remained confined to one room. The filmic medium also gave Andrews the opportunity to flesh out the details of Una’s and Ray’s relationship in the form of flashbacks (an added benefit being that we get to see Ruby Stokes’ magnificent performance as the young Una).

The most interesting audience question dealt with Mendelsohn’s character; it took a lot of preparation and focus to get Ray right, and that was evident in the asker’s belief that Ray was an insidious liar. Andrews admitted that this perpetual uncertainty about Ray and his motives was why Mendelsohn’s performance was so successful, as he received responses arguing for both sides of the coin. Indeed, when it eventually gets released, I’m sure that question about Ray’s character will be the most hotly debated, as I could see valid proofs for both sides—and I think the whole point is that there is no right answer.

Lion (Garth Davis)

TIFF Diary #4: The Ballad Of Liz And Amy - Lion
Lion (2016) – source: The Weinstein Company

My last film of the day came a few hours (and a Subway sandwich) later—a film that, truthfully, I wasn’t completely sure about after buying the ticket for, as I had attempted to sell it a few days later. Because I was unsuccessful in that, I had no choice but to see whether the hoopla around Garth Davis’ Lion was warranted, for some people had sung its praises around town after it premiered the weekend before. I had bought the ticket merely to squeeze in a third screening for the day, and since Lion had some buzz surrounding it, I bit the bullet. My second thoughts came when I figured this would be too much of a prestige picture for me to enjoy, and I wasn’t all that far off after the fact.

Lion is not a bad film. It’s actually quite fine overall, and it’s difficult not to be moved by its story of an Indian child named Saroo who is accidentally separated from his family and, in time, is flown out to be adopted by an Australian couple. The child actor who anchors the first half, Sunny Pawar, is a compelling presence who is guaranteed to steal your heart, and Dev Patel gives a mightily strong performance as the grown-up Saroo who becomes determined to find his birthplace (and, hopefully, his mother and brother) with the help of the newly-established Google Earth.

Nicole Kidman is also on-hand, too; despite some distractingly unflattering wigs, she is a comforting presence of motherly affection and does a lot with comparatively little. I was amused to see Rooney Mara on the screen again, too, as Saroo’s girlfriend, though her character here is far less satisfying than Una, and I inwardly mourned the fact that, for every Una or Therese Belivet, she has to play a character as negligible as Lucy. Come on, Rooney, get the roles you deserve!

Davis’ direction is fairly assured, painting a convincing panorama of both India and (to a lesser extent) Australia as they are seen through Saroo’s eyes, so in that sense the film is able to transcend some of its prestige trappings. Yet many other trappings remain, including the typically uplifting ending that is designed to wring out your tears and the montage of real-life footage during the credits that pats audience members on the back for coming out to fill the seats and see this important story come alive. Did I mention there’s a Sia song, too?

The couple who sat beside me seemed to have enjoyed the experience, and the sentiment was shared by many others as I made my way toward the exits. So although it wasn’t my favorite film of the day, I could see that it struck a chord with the majority of my audience—and I predict a similar reaction will ensue when the film is released in a few months’ time.

Stay tuned for my final TIFF dispatch, which will cover the latest films from Jeff Nichols, Kelly Reichardt, Tom Ford and Terrence Malick.

Have you ever fallen asleep at a film screening? Let us know in the comments below!

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