At rep cinemas this week: Jia Zhangke’s bloody revenge thriller about modern China, Nicolas Winding Refn’s grim debut, and a Canadian alternative to Argo‘s account of the Iran hostage crisis.
A Touch of Sin
Directed by Jia Zhangke
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
After a string of insightful documentary portraits of contemporary Chinese life, Jia Zhangke returns to fiction with the bold and bloody A Touch of Sin, a revenge thriller about four underclass workers from different provinces who rise up against their masters in startling, if often ineffective, ways. Jia extends his documentary preoccupation with everyday life to genre material in this present-day wuxia tale about honourable men and women who live by stringent codes in otherwise corrupt settings.
The film finds real power in the daily rhythms of Jia’s working protagonists, who trudge through thankless jobs—at mines, textile factories, and saunas—only to be rewarded with indifference and abuse. The final stretch admittedly feels a bit on the nose in its evocation of guilt and moral damnation, as a character stumbles upon a performance of a Chinese opera that too conveniently sums up her life. But that’s a thematic indulgence we can allow after the visceral force of what has come before: a striking, immaculately crafted mix of class critique and crime thriller.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Though he made his major splash in English-language filmmaking with Bronson—after the costly and mostly unseen Fear X—and broke into the mainstream with the Ryan Gosling star vehicle Drive, cult favourite Nicolas Winding Refn first turned critics’ heads with his debut feature, the Danish crime drama Pusher. Set in a blunter version of Pulp Fiction’s world of film-savvy gangsters, the film is a grim social portrait of masculinity gone to seed in thug-class Copenhagen, and also a race-against-the-clock thriller.
Kim Bodnia plays Frank, a low-level drug dealer whose life falls apart when the police bust him in the middle of a lucrative deal, forcing him to dump his heroin in a lake before he can unload his product and collect his money. That puts him in serious debt to kingpin Milo (Zlatko Burić), who gives him a few days to come up with what he’s short on—a tall order for a good-natured dealer who’s already bad at collecting what he’s owed.
Despite its characteristic bouts of extreme violence, Pusher is something of an outlier in Refn’s filmography: the hyper-stylized, ironic-cool nightclub aesthetic that reached its apex in Drive doesn’t jibe with the cramped apartments and dodgy cars of this altogether shabbier milieu. Some viewers catching up with Refn’s debut after becoming fans of his more formally ostentatious work might be surprised by the film’s relatively straightforward approach, but it’s for the better. In stark contrast with the almost obnoxiously minimalist characterization in some of his later films, which hinge on the emotionless faces and hard jaws of stoic male ciphers, this film features recognizable people dealing with stressful situations. To that end, it’s grounded in three wonderful performances by Bodmia, Burić (who would later star in Pusher III), and a young Mads Mikkelsen, then a professional dancer, in his film debut.
Refn will provide a Skype introduction to Thursday’s screening, part of a retrospective programmed by Twitch Film’s Todd Brown.
Our Man in Tehran
Directed by Larry Weinstein and Drew Taylor
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Early in Larry Weinstein and Drew Taylor’s Our Man in Tehran, an insider’s look at the Canadian government’s role in the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, an official points out that “this wasn’t a movie; this was real life.” On the one hand, she’s referring to the cockamamie scheme that came to be known as the “Canadian Caper,” a plan to smuggle six American embassy workers out of Iran under the pretense that they were a Canadian film crew working on a schlocky sci-fi movie. Yet she’s also clearly targeting Argo, Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film about those same events—a film that gave virtually all the credit for the successful extraction to CIA operative and disguise master Tony Mendez.
A measured Canadian response to Affleck’s American mythmaking, Weinstein and Taylor’s film is most effective when it debunks that air of Hollywood heroism and offers in its place a more nuanced portrayal of what went on behind the scenes. The title initially seems to refer to Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, who sheltered most of the Americans for the better part of the process—but it turns out to be ironic, insofar as nearly a dozen subjects, all summoned back for talking-head interviews, turn out to have played integral parts. Among the players were Canadian prime minister Joe Clark and American president Jimmy Carter.
Our Man in Tehran doesn’t always work. Though it’s more detailed than the comic-book introduction we get in Argo, the film’s ostensibly no-nonsense history of the United States’ thorny dealings with Iran leading up to the hostage crisis is arguably just as manipulative, as when the sounds of women’s mournful wailing are used to underscore a diplomat’s memory of looking into the eyes of the the Ayatollah Khomeini and seeing only an abyss. As a portrait of the complexities of international diplomacy in times of crisis, though, it’s an important corrective to Hollywood’s self-congratulatory account.