The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a beautiful Studio Ghibli re-release about childhood and adulthood, a moving family saga about Westernization and its discontents, and an award-winning Holocaust drama.
Directed by Isao Takahata
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Studio Ghibli’s last stand gets deferred a little longer with the 25th anniversary re-release of Only Yesterday, directed by studio co-founder Isao Takahata. Critically unsung and under-seen in North America since its 1991 release, the film is a typically beautiful but uncharacteristically adult-centred drama for the fabled Japanese animation house, telling the story of a young woman’s childhood reminiscence of the 1960s as she undergoes a journey by train to the countryside she hasn’t visited in years.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens MVP Daisy Ridley leads the re-release’s English dub as Taeko, a twenty-something office drone from Tokyo who yearns to get out of the city and reconnect with nature. On a whim, she heads off to a farm run by her sister’s in-laws, meeting prospective suitor and organic farmer Toshio (voiced by Dev Patel), while revelling in her bittersweet memories of fifth grade.
More firmly grounded in realism than Studio Ghibli’s most popular offerings, Only Yesterday is a tender affair, beautifully reanimating Taeko’s childhood memories of first periods and gym class in minimalist flashbacks that see the background textures go soft and indistinct as the ’60s stylings of Takahata’s characters pop in the foreground. As in his better regarded works like Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata is a master at gestures, rendering his heroine’s life in crystal clear moments of human awkwardness and emotion. If the English dub occasionally blunts the impact of those delicate moments with some stilted readings from Ridley that seem divorced from the quietly indelible images and score, this is still an essential viewing for fans of animation, coming-of-age stories, and environmentalist fables alike.
Mountains May Depart
Directed by Jia Zhangke
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Chinese master Jia Zhangke follows up the pulpy allegory of A Touch of Sin with another fine humanist drama about the tensions between the urban and rural as well as the past and the present in Mountains May Depart. Anchored by a rich, multi-faceted performance from frequent Jia collaborator (and spouse) Zhao Tao, the film unfolds as a triptych about small town dance teacher Shen Tao (Tao). Following the infectious opening strains of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West,” Shen resolves a stressful love triangle by marrying dirtbag entrepreneur Zhang (Zhang Yi), who christens their son Dollar and in the process, kicks off a melancholy family narrative about westernization and loss that travels from China to Australia, and from 1999 all the way to 2025.
Jia is one of the best filmmakers working in narrative cinema today, and he shows a masterful command of form, from his precise framing to his shifting aspect ratios, which widen as the family’s economic prospects grow and its heart–and appreciation for tradition–shrinks. The first act is such a beautifully choreographed romantic comedy of horrors, and the second such a powerful evocation of homesickness and mourning, that we’ll forgive the weirdly misjudged futuristic satire of the third, which at least has the good sense to close by circling back to its roots in the first act’s characters and form. Mountains May Depart isn’t perfect, but it’s about as daring and moving as contemporary art house cinema gets.
Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes
The Royal (608 College Street)
László Nemes leaves an indelible first mark with Son of Saul, the Hungarian filmmaker and ex-assistant to slow cinema stalwart Béla Tarr’s impeccably directed if intellectually dubious Oscar-winning feature debut. A runner-up at Cannes and critical darling on the fall festival circuit, the immersive, 35mm shot film follows the travails of Saul, an Auschwitz-Birkenau inmate who makes it his personal mission to find a rabbi to secure a proper burial for a boy killed in the gas chambers. Saul’s quixotic, hopeless quest becomes for Nemes a way to channel the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust on a single brave soul’s journey through it and toward something like redemption.
Your mileage will vary on the question of whether Nemes’s formal gambit of presenting Saul’s story as a you-are-there frontline experience of the Holocaust—filmed just over the protagonist’s shoulder and just out of the way of unspeakable violence—is bold or exploitative. We weren’t so persuaded, and found the experience akin to a solemn video game shooter that at once revels in violence and scolds its audience for taking part in it vicariously. But there’s no denying Nemes’s craft, or his singular focus, which makes this as troubling and impressively sculpted a debut as we’ve seen in some time.