TIFF Report: Symmetry, The Overture, Throwdown, Schizo Reviews

Reviews of Konrad Niewolski’s prison film, Ittisoontorn Vichailak’s musical tribute, Johnnie To’s judo flick, and Gulshat Omarova coming-of-age movie.
Symmetry - Konrad Niewolski
Konrad Niewolski’s Symmetry

As invigorating as I often found House Of Flying Daggers, the fact that I had only gotten 4 hours of sleep following the midnight screening of The Machinist left me in a bit of an exhausted state. I knew that I’d need my strength come that afternoon, as I was going to have to endure a 3-film barrage. I survived, even though I ended the night with might be the worst film I will have seen in the entire festival.

First up was Symmetry, a prison film set in Poland. To be honest, I have no idea why I picked this film. I hadn’t heard anything about it, I’m not a huge fan of prison films in general, and the description on the festival website hadn’t piqued my curiosity that much. And yet there I was, looking for a seat at the Paramount. But when all was said and done, Symmetry turned out to be quite the pleasant surprise — though the subject matter wasn’t all that pleasant by any means.

On his way home from seeing a movie, a young man named Lukasz is suddenly arrested and charged with assault. Although it’s fairly obvious that he’s innocent and that the evidence against him is shaky at best, the victim IDs him and he’s sent to a holding cell to await trial. When he arrives, he’s told that he can either be one of the “regs” or one of the “losers.” Regs are the tough guys, prisoners who are respected and in control; losers are just that, walking around with their heads hung low and treated with contempt.

Despite not being a criminal, Lukasz decides to be a reg and is tossed in with 5 other prisoners, real criminals including gangsters and murderers. After awhile, Lukasz learns the ropes and even becomes friends of a sort with some of his cellmates. There’s even hope that he might be getting out. And a new prisoner, a child molester, arrives, and Lukasz must come to grips with his new life.

Essentially, what we have here is a film that looks at the slow degradation of an innocent man due to his environment. Although the film never delves too deeply into the brutality of prison life, the tone remains quite grim throughout, thanks in large part to the director’s amazing use of grainy, high contrast film and incredible use of light and shadows to make the sterile prison halls even more claustrophobic.

I was surprised, however, at how restrained and even dispassionate the film was. It took me awhile to work up any interest in Lukasz (indeed, I found several of his cellmates far more fascinating), partially because we learn next to nothing about him or his life before prison, except for the fact that he’s really, really scared about going to prison. The film almost takes a clinical, documentary approach at times. As such, his slow transformation from innocent to criminal, and the tension between the two, doesn’t quite have the impact it could’ve had.

The Overture - Ittisoontorn Vichailak
Ittisoontorn Vichailak’s The Overture

Here’s a quick note to the TIFF programmers. The next time you screen a film about music like The Overture, you might want to think twice about putting it in the basement of the Cumberland. Apparently, the subway station is right next door, which means that a low rumbling fills the theatre every 10 minutes or so. Which can prove quite distracting during intricate musical sequences. AND you might want to make sure that the theatre has adequate soundproofing, which the Cumberland apparently does not have, as I couldn’t help but hear the crowd of people gabbing away right outside the freaking doors. AND you might want to make sure that people don’t walk in and out of the theatre well after the movie has started. It’s a tiny room to begin with, relatively speaking, and opening and closing doors prove rather annoying.

Just a few thoughts to consider…

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, on to the review. The Overture is a fictional account based on the life of Luang Pradit Phairao, Thailand’s last master of the ranard-ek (an instrument resembling a wooden xylophone). The movie’s main character is Sorn, who proves to be quite the prodigy, learning to the play the ranard-ek even against his father’s wishes. But as Sorn grows up, his reputation as a skilled player spreads, inviting inevitable rivalries and finally leading to a position as a royal musician, where he becomes famous for his unorthodox style. As the movie unfolds, it occasionally jumps ahead several decades, to Sorn as an old man during World War II, where he struggles to preserve the traditional arts of Thailand from a government intent on modernizing the nation. Eventually, the two eras of the film meet, culminating in a scene where Sorn takes one last stand for his nation’s culture.

The Overture is, without a doubt, a very sentimental movie, and probably the most heartfelt film of the entire festival. The entire movie plays out as a love letter to Thai culture, and especially to its traditional forms of music. The confrontation between Sorn and the government officials is anything but subtle and completely obvious, and it certainly does its best to tug on the viewer’s heartstrings. But it works largely because of its sentimentality, and because it’s obvious that this movie was labor of love throughout.

Throwdown - Johnnie To
Johnnie To’s Throwdown

Based upon the very first paragraph of this report, it should be pretty obvious what I think of Throwdown, the latest from Johnnie To. But let me preface my review by saying I’ve tried. I’ve really, really tried to get into To’s films, from his early Woo homages in The Mission and A Hero Never Dies to his more recent films like Running Out Of Time 2 and PTU. At their very best, his films exhibit flashes of brilliance, but they always fall flat for me by the end and leave me confused as to why this guy is so revered in some circles. And at their very worst, they’re, well, really bad. Throwdown definitely leans towards the latter end of the spectrum.

Sze-To is a former judo champion who has now become a drunk and small-time thief. Tony is another judo expert who wants to challenge Sze-To to a fight. And Mona is homeless and really wants to become a famous singer at the club where Sze-To plays guitar (and gets really, really drunk all of the time). And that’s about all I can really say about the movie, because nothing really happens. I mean, stuff does happen: Sze-To gets really drunk, he tries to steal money from a gangster, his judo master wants him to come back, a former judo rival looks for revenge, Tony challenges him to a fight, Mona auditions for a singing group, etc. However, none of it ever comes together and adds up to a movie. They’re subplots at best, with the most promising ones going nowhere and the most annoying ones milked for all they’re worth.

As with all of his films, To injects some cool visuals into the movie. However, it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before, especially in the lighting department. As always, To loves his dramatic lighting, and he loves his shadows… but he did the exact same thing in PTU, A Hero Never Dies, etc. The film’s music also feels like leftovers from his other movies, including PTU (though thankfully, the hot guitar riffing is drastically reduced in the film’s score).

Every so often, the music swells to tell us something important is happening on the screen, but I just couldn’t see it. All I saw were unlikable characters moving about, wandering from one scene to the next, as if hoping to stumble across something resembling a coherent, effective plot.

To was there at the screening, and held a Q&A session afterwards. He seems like a very affable, approachable fellow who thoroughly enjoys making movies. And for that, I’m happy for him. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why I continue to watch his films. They always dangle a little carrot in from of me, promising something cool and exciting, but they almost always disappoint me in the long run. Throwdown just continues the streak, only moreso.

Schizo - Gulshat Omarova
Gulshat Omarova’s Schizo

Much of the enjoyment I got out of Schizo had little to do with the actual movie, but the environment in which its set. The movie takes place in rural Kazakhstan, and by rural, I mean very rural. Houses dot vast fields, which are littered with the remains of electrical towers, empty warehouses, and other dwellings. The people who live in this place are a curious mix of European, Asian, and Middle-Eastern nationalities, and it’s this mixture of cultures, in addition to the stunning landscape, that kept me intrigued, sometimes even moreso than the actual storyline.

Schizo follows a young teenager named Mustafa, though he’s called Schizo by everyone because of his mental condition (he strikes me as autistic more than anything else), as he follows his mother’s boyfriend around trying to pick up men for underground boxing matches. After one of the men he recruited is killed, Schizo begins taking care of his girlfriend and her son, bringing them money and food. Conflict arises when Schizo recruits his uncle for a particularly lucrative match — the reward is the boss’ car — and his uncle wins, raising questions of loyalty and agenda.

It’s somewhat hard to place what, exactly, Schizo is. Is it a coming-of-age story, a crime thriller, a dark comedy, what? It’s all of those things, and yet its subtlety means it’s none of them as well. It’s nearly impossible to tell from the main character, who seems to exist only so that the rest of the characters can react to him. He rarely says anything, and when he does, it’s not terribly bright. But when the movie enters its final act, there are hints that there’s a bit more going on below the surface than his blank expression implies.

I’ll also say that I’m not a huge fan of the way in which the movie ends, primarily because the upbeat ending feels so incredibly tacked on and not at all in keeping with everything leading up to it. Maybe I’m just sucker for downbeat endings, but I think the film would’ve been served better by an ending with a slightly more tragic bent.

This entry was originally published on ScreenAnarchy on .