Monday, September 16, 2013

Hayao Miyazaki's Last Movie: Dispatch from the Toronto Film Festival

Posted By on Mon, Sep 16, 2013 at 11:20 AM

When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism Corneliu Poromboiu
Digital tools allow filmmakers to adjust their work down to the pixel so that there's no mistake that can't be fixed in post-production. Orson Welles described the director’s job as to “preside over accidents,” though perhaps today it would be better to define it as deciding which accidents to preserve or erase in post. Such absolute control over the material can be paralyzing, and provides the subject for Corneliu Poromboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism, which screened at the Toronto Film Festival after premiering in Locarno. An analytical artist who finds humor in the slipperiness of language, Porumboiu in Metabolism puts his own process under the microscope.

His stand-in is Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache), who starts a fling with a supporting actress in his film, Alina (Diana Avramut). Her role is about to wrap, so he decides to add a dramatic nude scene for her. He soon becomes obsessed with perfecting this short sequence, painstakingly eliminating every “unrealistic” element until it is centered on Alina drying her hair for 10 minutes. Early on, Paul compares the built-in limits of film, having to express a thought in one 11-minute reel, versus the almost unlimited potential of digital. He's hoping to shrink the borders of his creativity and pare down the decisions he’ll have to make. A neurotic perfectionist, he struggles to contain his anxieties, and soon he hopes his faked ulcer (to postpone shooting) turns into a real one. Poromboiu shoots this crisis in opposition to Paul’s desires, in long sequence shots that elongate time and expand the performative options of his actors. Paul gets stuck in these long takes, deploying his obsessively logical mind toward explaining the existential import of cutlery rather than to the mounting problems of his oft-delayed production.

Porumboiu has named Hong Sang-soo as one of his major influences, and the Korean master of drunken indolence returns to TIFF this year with Our Sunhi, his own tale of indecision. An archetypal Hong tale of fumbling males, it circles around Sunhi (Jung Yu-mi), an errant film student who returns to her college campus to request a reference letter from Professor Choi (Kim Sang-joong). Her sudden appearance triggers the libidos of the Professor, Sunhi’s ex-flame Munsu (Lee Sun-kyun) and fellow filmmaker Jaehak (Jung Jae-young). Hong rearranges the four corners of this lust-rectangle in a series of increasingly hilarious repetitions, as Sunhi plays with their pliable emotions. It’s remarkable how Hong turns Munsu’s banal sentiment of “digging deep” into a touching statement of self-actualization, as the term passes through the three men, and then out of Sunhi’s lips, as she passes out of their lives.

Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai d’Orsay is also about the manipulation of language, a screwball comedy about a speechwriter for France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs during the run up to the Iraq war. Tavernier treats the material, adapted from a graphic novel by Antonin Baudry, as a live-action cartoon, with the Minister (an uproarious Thierry Lamitte) blazing through halls like the Road Runner to the speechwriter’s stunned Wile E. Coyote. A pseudo-intellectual who highlights instead of reads, the Minister (based on Dominique de Villepin) is the hot-air spouting head of a team of overworked advisors, held together by a narcoleptic chief of staff. Tavernier keeps things zipping along, with breathless dialogue close to matching the land-speed record set by His Girl Friday.

The Wind Rises movie Hayao Miyazaki
Where the Tavernier is all talk, the new Kelly Reichardt film Night Moves is about the tension of silence. Returning again to her home city, Portland, Oregon, the film is a tightly wound procedural about the planning, execution and aftermath of an ecoterrorist attack. Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Saarsgard and Dakota Fanning are the radicals trying to make a statement. With exacting detail, Reichardt depicts their process, from purchasing nitrate fertilizer to punching a hole in a dam. The team speaks in clipped dialogue, like in a 50s heist film, emotions and fears kept resolutely in check. Eisenberg is especially clenched and withholding, his every utterance seemingly choked out of him. Their operation works, until it doesn’t, and the wracked tension in Eisenberg’s face shifts from fear to paranoia. Their politics disappear in the face of self-preservation, revealing themselves to be less committed environmentalist activists than bored, self-involved anarchists. They are suitably doomed protagonists for the first sustainable-living-community noir.

I ended my Toronto Film Festival with Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, his first feature since 2008's Ponyo that he recently announced would also be his last. Culminating his life-long fascination with aviation, depicted most memorably in 1992's Porco Rosso, his porcine pilot adventure, The Wind Rises is a stately animated biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese engineer who designed the WWII Zero fighter planes. It is Miyzaki’s first film to be based in reality, and the visual scheme is relatively restrained because of it. The fragile pastel watercolors are beautiful, but I miss the fantastical eye-popping blues of Ponyo. Miyazaki has always excelled at normalizing the fantastic, as in My Neighbor Totoro, but here he has to fantasize the normal, and he seems uncomfortable—he inserts dream sequences to make up for this reversal. The film feels as grounded as Jiro, whose nearsightedness kept him from becoming a pilot.

Miyazaki is so invested in Jiro’s dreams that he only half-heartedly acknowledges the moral compromises in designing a killing machine. His films are usually rife with moral ambiguity, with sympathetic villains and compromised heroes, while here there is simple hagiography. Still, despite my reservations, there are moments of marvelous visual invention. The Tokyo earthquake scene is one of the most terrifying sequences in his oeuvre, the tectonic rips crackling across the screen like lightning and the city raining ash, as if the end of days were nigh. And unfortunately for the brilliant career of Hayao Miyazaki, they are.

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