TIFF 2023 Dispatch: 5ive from the 6ix5 min read

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Bargain (Jeon Woo-sung, South Korea 2023)
A man hires a high school girl for a good time at a secluded hotel, but each is in fact trying to ensnare the other. The man (Jin Seon-kyu) is really a cop staking out the premises for suspected criminal activity, while the girl (Jeon Jong-seo) is a key runner for an organ trafficking ring who has just found in him a fresh supply of organs for their next auction. A massive earthquake then traps the cop, syndicate and its clients in the collapsed building, leading to a harrowing race for survival. Lee Chung-hyeon’s 14-minute eponymous short film from 2015 (TIFF 2016) is the basis for Jeon Woo-sung’s expanded adaptation into a 6-episode web series, which is smartly crafted as a frenzied escape room thriller. While as enjoyable as any genre adventure can be, the picture’s more remarkable achievement is Jeon’s choice to replicate Lee’s one-take filming technique in his short film in order to heighten the story’s real time tension. American VOD streamer Paramount+ has joined the long line of digital channels eager to capitalize on the voracious demand for K-content and has since ordered more original serials. As with the short, the series’ Korean title also means ‘Ransom’.

City of Wind (Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir, Mongolia/France/Germany/Netherlands/Portugal/Qatar 2023)
Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir’s refreshing debut feature is a rare film from Mongolia that unveils a coming-of-age story in a contemporary urban setting over the familiar historical epics and pastoral dramas graced by the rural backdrops of the country’s luscious steepes. In frigid and windswept Ulaanbaatar, Ze (Tergel Bold-Erdene) leads an interesting double life: a dutiful high school senior by day and an esteemed community leader as a fearsome ‘Grandfather Spirit’ shaman for those in blight. This delicate balance is upset when he becomes attracted to Marala (Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba), a cynical peer whose mother has engaged his services, and whose more dominant character starts to exert a bewitching influence over him. Landlocked Mongolia may be considered part of the geographical region known as East Asia, yet has never figured as such in the popular imagination since its history and culture have evolved distinctly from those of its Sinosphere neighbours. Although a minority religion today, the shamanist practices seen in the film are as ancient as Mongol civilization. At the 80th Venice Film Festival in 2023 where the film premiered, Bold-Erdene was awarded the Best Actor prize in the event’s parallel Horizons section. Originally titled Ze, the film’s Mongolian title means ‘Cool Breeze’.

The Contestant (Clair Titley, UK 2023)
Clair Titley’s modestly crafted documentary takes us back a quarter-century to 1998, when a Japanese reality TV show featuring extreme challenges made a star out of an unwitting mark. Appearing in the first season of Susunu! Denpa Shonen (Stop, Crazy Youth!), budding comedian Hamatsu Tomoaki was ensconced in an apartment without amenities and had to survive by winning food and clothing prizes only through mail-in contests from magazines. Nicknamed Nasubi (eggplant) because this fruit emoji was used to censor his naked crotch, our obliging contestant should have been able to walk free after winning ¥1 million worth of prizes. But because of his popularity, Nasubi’s victory was controversially kept from him and he was spirited away to South Korea to endure another round of the same challenge. Despite his very public 18-month ordeal, Nasubi’s fame was notable for happening around the same time Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) was released in Japan, when this genre of entertainment was gaining mainstream acceptance. A Fukushima City native, Nasubi’s recent public roles include being its ambassador following 2011’s Tohoku tsunami and nuclear accident, for which he had summited Mount Everest in 2016 to draw attention to the plight of his stigmatized hometown.

Mimang (Kim Tae-yang, South Korea 2023)
Writer-director Kim Tae-yang’s lovely debut feature comprises a triptych of related stories inspired by three possible meanings of the untranslatable Sino-Korean homonym Mimang; per the film’s three onscreen intertitles: “Wandering, Unable to Make Sense from Ignorance”; “Unable to Forget What One Wants to Forget”; and “Searching Far and Wide”. In each story separated by several years, a man (Ha Seong-guk and Park Bong-jun) and the same woman (Lee Myung-Ha) try to forge or renew an intimate connection after meeting by chance. Set in Seoul’s historic Jongno district, the supercharged metropolis takes on a more nuanced persona under Kim’s languid direction as he foregrounds the tacit complexities afflicting his characters while they simply walk and talk. Nevertheless, the film is also an ode to the topography of this downtown core, whose rapid changes Kim wanted to document over the project’s four years of shooting. Of particular interest is the motif of Korea’s national hero Admiral Yi Sun-sin, whose statue stands as a key landmark in Gwanghwamun Square. Yi, whose handedness is the subject of endless speculation by the couples, is a celebrated naval commander who is credited with thwarting Japan’s two brazen attempts to invade Korea in the late 16th century.

Snow Leopard (Pema Tseden, China 2023)
The late Pema Tseden’s newest film is an alluring tale that was inspired by an anecdotal account. In the Tibetan Plateau, a snow leopard encroaches into a pen and kills several sheep before getting trapped. An irate herder (Pema regular Jinpa) wants to cull the predator to protect his livestock but is vetoed by government officials as it is an endangered species. The incident then attracts a curious television crew who travels to document the dispute. This includes a hitchhiking lama (Tseten Tashi) who happens to be a snow leopard whisperer, and who also is the film’s central character of conscience. Over the years, Pema has become the only internationally recognized ethnic Tibetan filmmaker making films exclusively about Tibet, one of China’s four Autonomous Regions. But TIFF has been an inconsistent devotee of his, screening only The Search (2009), Jinpa (2018) and Balloon (2019) out of Pema’s over dozen films. At the first of two public screenings on the festival’s penultimate day, Pema’s son Jigme Trinley and Belgian cinematographer Matthias Delvaux were on hand to introduce the film. When he died of illness in May 2023, Pema was working on at least two projects, one a feature film titled Stranger.

Brandon Wee

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