The World is the title of the heartbreaking, staggeringly beautiful new film by the young Mainland Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke — no matter that most of the film’s characters are terminally landlocked. They’re employees at a tourist-trap theme park wherein one can traverse five continents in the span of a 15-minute monorail ride and “see the world without ever leaving Beijing.” Visitors pose for snapshots before a mock Leaning Tower of Pisa and a Manhattan skyline that still contains the World Trade Center, while a young dancer named Tao (the eminently watchable Zhao Tao), who performs in the park’s Bollywood-style musical showcases, dreams of someday making a real escape to some faraway land. If Jia’s first three features (Xiao Wu, Platform and Unknown Pleasures) all focused on disaffected provincial youths, in and around the filmmaker’s hometown of Shaanxi, as they rebelled against their parents’ communist legacy and gravitated towards China’s new capitalism, the wry revelation of The World is that even the big city is no guard against emptiness and yearning. Despite having simulated Eiffel Towers and Egyptian pyramids at their fingertips, the denizens of The World feel no less trapped and uncertain than their rural predecessors. So it may be that the next logical step for Jia is to make a film about those Chinese who do leave to seek happiness on foreign shores, and whether or not they find it.
Michel Subor in Claire Denis' L'Intrus
Jia’s curiosity about worlds at once exotic and all-too-familiar was reflected in several of the most compelling new films unveiled during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, films that chose to see the world not as ever-smaller slices of a pie but rather as one surprisingly close-knit human community. Certainly, that was true of Claire Denis’ The Intruder, which gradually works the story of a grizzled recluse (the sublime Michel Subor) seeking a black-market heart transplant into a dreamlike contemplation of intrusions personal, political and geographical, and of the cruel folly whereby people and nations try to seal themselves off from such “violations.” It was also the case with Jean-Luc Godard’s Our Music, which follows a filmmaker (Godard, playing himself) as he travels to a literary conference in post-war Sarajevo, but which is no less about Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq — indeed, the entire history of human warfare and remembrance — than it is about the conflict in Bosnia. And last but not least, there was Greek master director Theo Angelopoulos — a filmmaker for whom what’s past is always prologue — whose enormously moving The Weeping Meadow revisits the years between the exodus of Odessa’s Greek population through to the end of World War II as seen through the eyes of a woman who becomes tragically entangled in the historical events unfolding around her. The film is promised as the first in a projected trilogy that will follow the characters on a journey of Homeric proportions across Europe and, finally, to New York City.
That glorious quartet alone would have been enough to convince skeptics that Toronto’s status as the most important film showcase in North America remains unchallenged. Yet elsewhere in this year’s lineup, one could find Alexander Payne’s extraordinary Sideways, as rare and delicate as the Pinot noir grapes about which it so eloquently rhapsodizes; Im Kwon-taek’s uncommonly vivacious gangster picture, Low Life, marked by its fleet fight sequences and an ethereal back lot look worthy of Warner Brothers in the ’30s; and Mysterious Skin, the strongest film in years by queer-cinema bad boy Greg Araki, finding in America’s ceaseless fascination with alien abductions a surprisingly affecting metaphor for the violation of childhood innocence. In terms of sheer timeliness, however, little in Toronto this year could rival Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, revived in a new print meticulously restored from the original negative and, more than 20 years after its initial release, still a more pungent study of the betrayal of the American Dream than Michael Moore could likely wrap his head around.