Enter “cinema is dead” in a search engine and get ready to smile at a list of film personalities who have been declaring the death of cinema with regularity over the decades. While these have largely been purists mourning the digital revolution’s transformation of filmmaking and moviegoing, some have been moaning about a generational shift in tastes too. Yet, the existential threat that this ongoing pandemic has posed to the theatrical motion picture business has exposed how relatively trivial these concerns are. If a resurgent or cyclical contagion decimates the viability of the theatrical model, filmmakers would be lucky to have their films seen virtually in on-demand platforms—the very disruptive mode that favours digital exhibition over expensive celluloid. Although it’s too early to say how much scarring the theatrical business will bear, global box office figures from summer releases appear optimistic despite all manner of restrictions on public gatherings. For now, it seems audiences are still raring to go to the movies.
It’s at this juncture that the Toronto International Film Festival finds itself tasked with observing its 45th edition (10-19 September 2020). Deft touches are needed as it juggles between the opportunity to salve industry uncertainties and regain normalcy, while also eyeing the fickle dynamics of public health. Until several weeks ago, TIFF’s plan to stage a hybrid actual-virtual event this year appeared to strike the right balance. But as of this writing the province of Ontario has reported the inevitable resurgence in Covid-19 case numbers since the end of August, thus sliding the festival’s live component down a knife’s edge. Unlike France’s Cannes Film Festival, which had to cancel its 2020 edition in May, Toronto will be only the second major film festival to convene since the pandemic’s onset. Its Italian frenemy in Venice, which started a week ago, is the first for daring to mount a physical event with no virtual component—though, as with all live events these days, severely downsized for distancing and health protocols.
TIFF’s reconstituted program comprises fifty features and three dozen shorts, averaging about a quarter of its slate in the past decade. These will be spread disparately across theatre, virtual, outdoor and drive-in screenings. All ancillary events, including press conferences, red carpets, industry programs and awards ceremonies, will move online. For Asian films, it will a sole East Asian affair of just five features: one each from China and Taiwan, two from Japan, and one American production. The latter is also assuredly the headlining film: 76 Days, by Chen Weixi, Wu Hao and Anonymous, is one of the first documentaries made about the early days of Covid-19 in Wuhan, with a series of compelling stories set during the city’s 76-day lockdown. From Japan, TIFF regulars Kawase Naomi and Nishikawa Miwa present their latest dramas, while the Chinese language films introduce two first-time feature directors: Wang Jing (China) and Wang I-Fan (Taiwan). This year’s five Asian and Asian-interest feature films are:
The Best is Yet to Come (Wang Jing, China 2020) – Discovery
Get the Hell Out (Wang I-Fan, Taiwan 2020) – Midnight Madness
True Mothers (Kawase Naomi, Japan 2020) – Special Presentations
Under the Open Sky (Nishikawa Miwa, Japan 2020) – Contemporary World Cinema
76 Days (Anonymous, Chen Weixi & Wu Hao, USA 2020) – TIFF Docs