Piers Marchant at the Toronto International Film Festival, Day One

September 7, 2018

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Films: 2
Best Film of the Day: Burning

Non-Fiction: Olivier Assayas’ film plays like one of those philosophical talkies from the ‘70s, with various characters weighing in on a particular talking point of significance to the director, Five Characters in Search of a Diatribe. The thing is, those pictures carried weight precisely because they clearly mattered to the filmmaker. There’s something about an artist not knowing the answer and instead utilizing their narrative abilities to craft an inquiry into the matter, in order to work it out for themselves. Assayas’ film is piqued by the idea of art in the modern age, specifically reading and books, and technology’s disruption into the system of literature which had been largely unchanged since the early days of the Gutenberg Press. To that end, Assayas enlists a quartet of characters – amongst several side roles – in the form of two married couples. One consists of a successful book publisher (Guillaume Canet) and an actress (Juliette Binoche) on a popular cop series; the other, a top assistant (Nora Hamzawi) to a socialist politician while being married to a moderately renowned fiction writer (Vincent Macaigne) who works primarily in what he indulgently refers to as auto-fiction, describing his various affairs in explicit detail. As the characters gnash and knock into each other – this being a French film, three of the four spouses are being unfaithful, and the fourth is unfazed – they host long, engaging conversations about the nature of artistic consumption in the age of the Internet. Interestingly, Assayas spreads the film out over the course of roughly a year, which seems to capture what ultimately feels like a very specific period of time in his characters’ lives. Decisions are made; choices are given; and, like the race of technology writing and replacing itself at a furious pace, whatever the characters settle down onto now will likely be different in the morning.

Burning: Lee Chang-dong’s quasi-thriller gives us a masterfully rendered protagonist, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young college graduate, working to become a novelist while trying to make ends meet in Seoul’s gig economy. Reunited with the bewitching Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), a young woman from his rural hometown, Jong-su believes his luck has finally turned around, but when she comes back from a trip to Africa with a new friend she met at the airport, Ben (Steven Yuen), Jong-su is pushed aside in favor of the fabulously rich and self-satisfied cad (whom Jong-su refers to, non-bitterly as “Gatsby”). As Hae-mi gets drawn further into Ben’s mysterious life, however, Jong-su becomes more and more worried for her, especially after she seemingly vanishes. Walking in a haze, as if stumbling forward requires more effort and balance than he can quite muster, Jong-su is shown to be perpetually the underdog to the smugly sophisticated Ben  – even jogging in his neighborhood leaves him violently out of breath and gasping for air – but what he does have is conviction, and a strong desire to make right what he comes to believe has been a tragic wrong. The film is made with sumptuous imagery – one sunset scene in which the stoned Hae-mi performs an improvised modern dance for her two suitors is damn near hypnotic – and Chang-dong allows for a slow, methodical pace that matches the measured metronome of his leading man. Based on the short story by Haruki Murakami (with various shout-outs to William Faulkner’s original version), Chang-dong has crafted a beguiling and enigmatic piece, best summed up by Jong-su himself: “The world is mysterious.”

Photo: Burning

Tomorrow: Still attempting to pace myself, my plan is to see the Palm d’Or winning Shoplifters in the early AM; then Thomas Vinterberg’s Kursk in the late-morning slot; sliding over to Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?; and culminating with a public screening of the much-hyped Beautiful Boy tomorrow evening.


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