TIFF Starts off with 2 Docs... sort of

As promised, here's a look at the first two films I caught at the Toronto International Film Festival on day 1. I'm just back from my first early morning box office run and things ran smoothly. I was 9th in line, and most of the people in front of me were a little too... energetic for my sleep-addled senses. Ah, the enthusiasm and uncertainty of the young. I've got three movies lined up for today, and the last one is a 9:15 p.m. show, so I probably won't review them until tomorrow (gotta get to bed so I can make the sunrise trip tomorrow morning!) Still, my schedule is filling in. While I don't have tickets for anything yet tomorrow, I've got most of my other tickets!

HOLLYWOOD CHINESE (USA; 89 min.) directed by Arthur Dong

Accomplished documentarian Dong has won acclaim for his earlier films, COMING OUT UNDER FIRE, LICENSED TO KILL, and FAMILY FUNDAMENTALS. He's back with a film that he's been working on for 7 - 8 years, HOLLYWOOD CHINESE, a look at the portrayal of the Chinese, and the opportunities for Chinese American actors and filmmakers in Hollywood films from the earliest days to today. Dong taps a wide array of Chiense-Americans to discuss this topic, from actor/filmmaker Joan Chen to author Amy Tan. The list of notables keeps coming: Nancy Kwan, Ang Lee, Justin Lin, Wayne Wang, B. D. Wong and Henry David Hwang. He also talks to non-Chinese actors who played Chinese like Christopher Lee and Luise Rainer who won an Oscar for her performance in THE GOOD EARTH. Rainer, who looked to be in her 90's, commented on the fact that in today's Hollywood, everything has to be so exact: if you're playing Chinese, you must be Chinese, if you're playing a tall man, you must be a tall man, but it wasn't like that in her day. You were playing a part, it didn't matter their nationality.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Dong's film was a look at the earliest days of Hollywood and the lost work of actress/filmmaker Marion Wong and her 1916 silent film THE CURSE OF QUON GWON. Dong speaks to Wong's three daughters and they tell the tale of her secret success that had become lost in history. Now fortunately, more people will hear of it. Nancy Kwan tells of her breakout success in THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG, and her sudden celebrity after appearing in the film adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE FLOWER DRUM SONG. Joan Chen discusses the difficulty of capitalizing on t her success in Bertolucci's Oscar-winning THE LAST EMPEROR, and how she had to leave Hollywood to make her directorial debut, XIU XIU: THE SENT DOWN GIRL. Justin Lin tells how his slightly controversial directorial debut, BETTER LUCK TOMORROW spun into a Hollywood foray directing THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT.

While Dong does a fine job exploring his topic, the pacing seems a little bit off, and this genre of film has been done so many times with women in Hollywood, gays in Hollywood, African-Americans in Hollywood, etc., that it's very difficult to do something new and original. A delightful, post-film Q&A featured the director and special guest Nancy Kwan who is in town for a discussions screening of THE FLOWER DRUM SONG.

MY WINNIPEG (Canada; 2007) directed by Guy Maddin
starring: Ann Savage, Louis Negin, Darcy Fehr, Amy Stewart

What a delightful evening in the Wintergarden theatre spent enjoying the world premiere of Guy Maddin's pseudo-documentary MY WINNIPEG. Maddin was challenged by the Documentary channel to make a doc on his hometown of Winnipeg, and Maddin being Maddin utilized his considerable talents to transform the story of the heart of the heart of Canada into one of his fantastic, surreal signature films. While telling the tale of this cold, northern city, Maddin leans heavily on nostalgia, both his own and the the collective population's, delving into the personal to explore how growing up with his family in this city shaped his psyche.

In addition to the exploration of the personal, Maddin brings in two other threads to flesh out his tale. In dreamlike sequences reminiscent of early Russian films, Winnipeg likens the peopls of Winnipeg to sleepwalkers, focusing on one particular man standing in for himself, on a train trying to escape the city but ever being drawn back. He also touches on some of the key moments of the city's history giving the non-Winnipegger a strong if perhaps skewed look at its origins and upbringing.

Looking at Maddin's upbringing in the context of MY WINNIPEG, it becomes clear where the themes for his movie come from. The loneliness and isolation of THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, the bizarre beauty parlor and hockey shenanigans of COWARDS BEND THE KNEE and the watchful mother and distant father of BRAND UPON THE BRAIN are all in strong evidence in MY WINNIPEG. Classic film noir star Ann Savage provides a delightful turn as Maddin's mother, adding both camp humor and a sense of danger to Maddin's memories. As an added treat, the premiere featured live narration from Maddin himself, an experience that will not be repeated if the filmmaker has anything to say about it.

On a side note, it's great to see Canadian filmmakers out in force to support their fellows. In the audience were Chlotrudis Advisory Board member Patricia Rozema, and many other Chlotrudis pals, including Don McKellar, Tracy Wright, Nadia Litz, and Reg Harkema. I chatted with Tracy and Nadia post-film and can attest to high marks all around.