Festiville at TIFF: Part 4—Guilt, Vengeance, and Little Mothers

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Festiville editor Mitchell Beaupre takes us through their Toronto International Film Festival experience, a journey that involves single-location Netflix thrillers, Indonesian martial arts romances, and a deeply personal connection with Céline Sciamma’s latest. 

Like many, I was a bit gutted that the digital press portal for TIFF ’21 would not include many of the most buzzed titles for this year’s festival. As someone still working remotely from my Delaware home, unable to attend the fest in person, I would have to miss out on some of the titles I have been eagerly awaiting. I always figured that Dune and Last Night in Soho wouldn’t be options for those attending virtually, but no Titane? No The Humans? Crushed. 

Once I finished licking my wounds, however, a good look through the available lineup revealed plenty of exciting selections on offer. Particularly after the TIFF programmers gave us a dive into some of their own recommendations, my watchlist was overflowing with films from all over the world. Sure, I might still be jealous of the folks who were able to see The Power of the Dog and Drive My Car earlier than others, but we will all get our chances with those films soon enough, and I had more than enough on my plate for ten days at home with TIFF.  

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash 

Directed by Edwin, written by Edwin and Eka Kurniawan 

Award-winning Indonesian director Edwin made sure I kicked things off with a bang—or, perhaps the absence of one, as the plot of the 1980s-set Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash revolves around a street fighter named Ajo (Marthino Lio) who struggles with erectile dysfunction. 

Seeing this as a threat to his masculinity, Ajo lashes out violently at the world. This is expressed through the film’s gripping hand-to-hand fight sequences that draw influence from the Hong Kong martial arts films that became popular in Indonesia during the 1980s. While the action, shot in gorgeous 16mm, grabs your attention, what stands out most in Edwin’s film is the beautiful romance between Ajo and Iteung (Ladya Cheryl). They meet courtesy of a fistfight that captures Edwin’s use of violence as a metaphor for sex, bodies colliding one way or another. 

Vengeance is resonating particularly with Indonesian Letterboxd members, who have highlighted its specific cultural themes. Reyzando writes, “There’s a complex intersection between violence, sex, love, masculinity, money, and Indonesia’s sociopolitical landscape that the film captures so well”. While echoing those observations, Daffa praises the film as “a fun, badass, and poetic dive into every character’s journey living in this system while at the same time, fighting against it.” 

Saloum

Written and directed by Jean Luc Herbulot

Titane wasn’t the only film making a big impression in the Midnight Madness section this year. Senagalese genre-bender Saloum, about a trio of mercenaries who crash land in the mysterious Saloum region while on the run with a drug dealer and a bounty of gold, was a hit in Toronto and with viewers at home. Described by Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky as “From Dusk Till Dawn in West Africa”, Saloum takes its influence from many different touchstones of genre cinema, ranging from Westerns to the Korean New Wave. However, when I spoke with director Jean Luc Herbulot before TIFF began, he told me that his biggest challenge making the film was to try and steer clear of his reference points in order to make his own original creation. 

I’d say he succeeded, as evidenced by the response from audiences who didn’t have a clue what to expect from this constantly shifting thrill ride. Courtney invoked Leonardo DiCaprio’s Django Unchained character when recalling his experience watching the film, stating “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity, but now you have my attention”, while Jake highlighted the way the film “skillfully weaves from mercenary thriller to supernatural horror with a mixture of visual utilitarianism and opulence worthy of Carpenter”. Whatever you do, don’t be like Andrew, who went to the bathroom for five minutes and came back not knowing what the hell was going on. You can’t miss a second of this one. 

Attica

Directed by Stanley Nelson, co-directed by Traci A. Curry

This year’s documentary selections at TIFF brought a bevy of riches, be they the crowd-pleasing charms of Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s Julia, the real-life heroism seen in E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Free Solo follow-up The Rescue, or the quiet power of Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, one of our top picks from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Out of all the docs premiering at TIFF, the one that stuck with me the most was Stanley Nelson and co-director Traci A. Curry’s Attica, a chronicling of the five-day prison rebellion in upstate New York in 1971. To this day, the largest and deadliest prison rebellion the US has ever seen, the film takes us inside the walls with a mixture of archival footage and interviews with the survivors and family members to educate the world on what really happened. 

The film aims to lend historical insight to an event that has become most associated with its reference in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. Robert points this out in his review, before championing the film for the way it “gives voice to the silent wronged, and illuminates a disaster that still speaks to America’s present-day racial struggles”. Kaiserbread notes the significance of the film’s release on the 50th anniversary of the rebellion, describing it as “a harrowing documentary that invites viewers to bear witness to the deadly consequences of anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and carcerality”. Attica will be released by Showtime later this year. 

The Guilty

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, written by Nic Pizzolatto 

“It’s a somewhat uninteresting watch, doing all the same things but with a softer impact”, writes Jacob, not taking too kindly to this American remake of the highly-acclaimed 2018 Danish film of the same name. They saw “some potential in retelling this as an American story”, but found that Antoine Fuqua’s film missed the mark. 

The Guilty’s appearance at one of the most prestigious film festivals of the year may seem odd to some, but almost every year, the occasional mainstream cinema fare will have a premiere at the festival before soon arriving to general audiences. Fuqua is no stranger to TIFF, as his previous films The Equalizer and The Magnificent Seven (another remake) both premiered there before their general releases a few weeks later. 

The Guilty stars Jake Gyllenhaal as troubled police officer Joe Baylor, whose indiscretions in the field have led to him being shackled to desk duty as a 911 call operator. With wildfires raging in Los Angeles, Joe takes a troubling call that is more than it initially appears to be. Diving head-on into the mystery of what he’s hearing on the other end, Joe’s demons come to the surface as he pushes past any reasonable boundary to try and find redemption in this case. 
Fuqua’s 90-minute single-location thriller utilizes the director’s keen stylistic sense, a skill that makes him one of the few remaining workman directors who can pull off a gripping mainstream thriller such as this, but the script from True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto treads ground that he’s perhaps not the one best suited to cover. 

Fuqua’s film did find its defenders at the festival. For Sara, even though the film “lacked the shock factor” of the original, it nevertheless “manages to keep us wholly invested in this tense, high-stakes rescue”. At the end of the day, Spotless hits on the one thing we can all agree on: this is “Another addition to the Jake Gyllenhaal screaming and breaking things universe”. The Guilty is in theaters now, before hitting Netflix on October 1. Our best wishes to jonathanfromfujii and their girlfriend. 

The Survivor

Directed by Barry Levinson, written by Justine Juel Gillmer 

Although everyone can agree with Daniel that “Ben Foster is spectacular” in the latest film from Barry Levinson—the man who brought us Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam—this WWII drama feels like it’s stuck in cinema’s past, and not in a good way. 

Levinson’s video introduction for The Survivor featured him telling a story from when he was a young boy in the late 1940s, where he discovered that his grandmother’s brother was a survivor of the camps, and suffered from PTSD as a result. It’s clear that the film is a very personal one for him, centered on Harry Haft (Foster), a real-life Auschwitz survivor who was forced to fight fellow inmates in order to survive. Told through multiple timelines via Justine Juel Gillmer’s script, the film struggles to convey the emotion that everyone put into making it, though Foster’s commitment shines through in every scene. 

Acknowledging that “this feels like the type of film that would have been nominated for 8 Oscars if it was still 1997, or that your dad would switch to TBS to watch on a Sunday afternoon”, Nick goes on to say, “it’s incredibly affecting even if you know exactly what button Levinson is about to push”. It certainly has a stacked cast on offer, with Foster joined by Peter Sarsgaard, Danny DeVito, an arguably miscast Billy Magnussen, and Queen of 2021 Vicky Krieps, but I ended up aligning with Kevin, who found that the film “relies way too much on its black and white flashbacks to tell its story. Hurts the emotional beats, hurts the story structure, hurts the pacing”. 

Petite Maman

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

Sometimes a film comes along that feels like it was made specifically for you, for this exact moment in your life. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to put into words how much Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman means to me. These days, I try to go into films knowing as little as I possibly can about them. I don’t watch trailers, I don’t read reviews before I see films, and I often will avoid even reading a plot synopsis if it’s something I already know I want to see. Discovering within the first few minutes of Petite Maman that the film is about a young girl named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) navigating her little world after the passing of her grandmother, I knew I was in trouble. 

My grandmother, Margaret, died two months ago, after a long, difficult battle with dementia. I live in the United States and that side of my family is in England; I was unable to attend her funeral in person, but was thankfully able to watch it over a live stream. As friends and family spoke about their relationships with Margaret, or Peggy as everyone knew her, they recounted personal experiences that spoke to the kind of woman she was— a proper English lady, always waiting at the door with a cup of tea anytime her granddaughter came for a visit, or the caring soul who treated her son-in-law as if he were her own child. I saw a side of this woman that I personally was never able to experience, and it made me reflect on not only my relationship with her, but my relationships with my own parents, two people I’ve always wished I felt closer to. 

In Petite Maman, Sciamma opens up these windows for Nelly to see her grandmother and her mother in a way she never could have conceived. Over seventy tender, heartfelt minutes, I felt that this film was speaking directly to me and my experience. The things that I longed for were right there in front of me, and I broke down several times. To take something so personal, as one imagines this film must be for Sciamma, and make it connect with someone to a degree where I felt it was made for me and only me, is the power of great art. As we’ve chronicled this year through the film’s festival appearances at Berlin and Telluride, I’m certainly not the only one who felt this way. 

One Second

Directed by Zhang Yimou, written by Zhang Yimou and Zou Jingzhi

The closing film of TIFF ‘21, and the latest from Raise the Red Lantern and Hero director Zhang Yimou, has traveled a difficult road to get in front of audiences. Originally set to premiere at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival, One Second was mysteriously pulled days before screening. While the official explanation for the move was that the film had technical difficulties during post-production, speculation began immediately that the Chinese censors were behind the decision.
 
In the two years since, Zhang reshot sections of the film and added others, with the result being a story that feels partially incomplete, or at the very least, stitched together. While some, like Clint, could “feel that there’s a grander political bite to this that’s smoothed out into a more general love of cinema and familial connection,” I personally found in an odd way that the film’s themes on the fleeting nature of memory, the desperate need to preserve image on celluloid, and the devastation that comes when those precious moments are gone forever ended up being perhaps even more resonant in One Second’s current form than they may have been previously. 

It almost feels as if Zhang has taken the treatment of his work from the authorities of his country and fused it into the fabric of the film itself. Jared gets it, simply stating that the film was “Created with me (and other projectionists and archivists) in mind”. 

Mitchell Beaupre

Pictured: Ladya Cheryl, Marthino Lio and Sal Priadi in ‘Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’.