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Festival Report: One Night “AFTER DARK”

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As you may or may not be aware, every year the city of Toronto hosts an annual International film festival. It’s a gargantuan undertaking that envelops the city’s downtown each September; the streets teem like anthills with filmgoers, volunteers, scenesters, advertisers, paparazzi, autograph hunters, and the average citizenry standing and gawping at whatever celestial deities have descended from the firmament that week. 

An alternative, or perhaps a less hectic companion, to the bustle of the International film behemoth is Toronto’s After Dark festival, now enjoying its ninth year of programming and promoting the finest in genre cinema from around the globe. It may not have the popping flashbulbs and star-laden red carpets of that other fest, but what After Dark does have is a relaxed and communal atmosphere, a like-minded audience who appreciate the bold and the bizarre, an always-impeccably curated lineup, and a host of filmmakers in attendance and happy to mingle at the pub after their screenings.

This writer is a veteran of After Dark, having covered it since earlier and humbler beginnings, and is delighted to have seen it build on its momentum to become one of North America’s premier genre events. What follows is a description of a typical night at the festival—an attempt to share the unique After Dark experience.

The festival has secured an excellent new home after the original venue was sold off and renovated—it has now partnered with the Scotiabank Theatre, a giant Toronto multiplex that usually supplies unimaginative Hollywood fare. Tonight, October 20th, will be different, as After Dark takes over and leads the evening with a screening of Nacho Vigalondo’s OPEN WINDOWS. First there is an introduction from Shelagh Rowan-Legg, one of the festival programmers and expert in Spanish cinema of the fantastic, explaining why she chose this particular film to screen. Next roll out funny, pre-recorded greetings from Vigalondo and his star Elijah Wood, who are deep in post-production on their respective follow-up films and couldn’t make the festival. After Dark is committed to showing animated bumpers and short films from emerging filmmakers before each feature, and tonight we get THE MONITOR, a mean little case of a newborn-baby-in-mortal-jeopardy that director Jay Clark swears is based on an actual news item.

OPEN WINDOWS begins, and Vigalondo’s gimmick here is to have the entire film transpire on a single laptop screen. There are dozens of separate camera feeds throughout, and our view pans and zooms between and over them in a meticulous miracle of editing and pinpoint timing. There are some inevitable cheats (a bag of microcameras is hacked from outside and used to extrapolate a 3D model of the action transpiring around it. Huh?), but it works overall and the carefully composed flow and swooping perspectives should be of massive interest to anyone interested in the art and science of film editing.

OpenWindowsFeature

“OPEN WINDOWS”

WINDOWS’ plot has Wood, once again playing the wide-eyed naif, as Nick, a young man travelling to meet an actress (Sasha Grey) with whom he is innocently infatuated. Nick’s tribute website to the star has won a contest, and the prize is a dinner for him and the object of his crush, until Nick is contacted by a Cockney-accented computer overlord who claims connection to the actress and says she has reneged on her dinner agreement. The hacker then offers to assist Nick in claiming a measure of revenge on the selfish actress through a series of small tasks. Nick gamely follows the hacker’s directions, but quickly realizes there is another, deadlier agenda at hand and he has fallen directly into the middle of it.

WINDOWS’ plot twists are at first clever and surprising; the film hopes to play as a kind of twenty-first century Hitchcock thriller, as the voyeuristic hacker’s manipulations unfold and the noose around Nick’s neck tightens inexorably. But the twists keep coming unbidden and soon trip the narrative up in a case of quantity over quality, as counter schemes hatch, identities switch, and increasingly preposterous revelations pile up. The subject matter is fortuitously topical, as the film’s fictional ingénue has her devices hacked and their private contents strewn around the internet, and while the storyline doesn’t hold up under the weight of all its twists, do check WINDOWS out simply to marvel at the editing accomplishments.

Once WINDOWS ends and the theatre floor is swept of errant popcorn kernels, a second short film plays. It’s called MIGRATION, and it’s a brief bit of oblique animated loveliness from director ‘Florescent Kills’. Think cute anthropomorphic whales scurrying across the rugged highlands of Nova Scotia to the emotional strains of MacKenzie Stubbert’s impressive musical score. The After Dark programmers then reappear to thank the packed house for turning up to a film which hasn’t yet had a proper trailer released. The film is KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER (pictured top) from the Zellner brothers, and director David Zellner provides us with another recorded greeting, in which he takes time to make a (likely ironic) salute to an obscure Canadian children’s television show from the Seventies called THE LITTLEST HOBO.

Now to the feature: KUMIKO is a tragic comedy, one based on an urban legend and which doesn’t really fall into any defined genre category. Luckily, it is a film that After Dark has decided to include in the lineup. Kumiko (heartbreakingly essayed by PACIFIC RIM’s Rinko Kikuchi) is a disaffected Tokyo salarywoman who rejects her constricting societal obligations regarding career and family, instead spending her nights studying a VHS tape of the Coen Brothers’ FARGO. She’s under the misguided notion that the suitcase of cash buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi’s character is real and waiting for an intrepid adventurer such as herself to simply dig it up. Kumiko is a morose, mumbling wallflower throughout her daily drudge, pained by mundane conversation and social interactions, but someone who fancies herself a modern-day Spanish conquistador and eventually decides to fly off to Minnesota with a stolen credit card to claim her imaginary spoils.

KUMIKO is less about the possible mental illness its lead character is suffering or the fool’s errand undertaken as symptom thereof, and more about one sad, miserable individual so achingly fragile on the surface but carrying a streak of mad recklessness—the same sort of steely spine that caused Kumiko’s spiritual ancestors to careen heedlessly over the edge of the world toward absolute glory or utter ruin.  The film is a character piece, slow-paced and light on plot, but frequently funny—the comedy coming in quick spurts and mostly provided by yet another assemblage of quirky, clueless Minnesota denizens. Of special note is Director Zellner’s excellent onscreen performance as a sweet but ignorant deputy who drives Kumiko out to the local Chinese restaurant with the assumption that the proprietors will be able to translate her Japanese. Zellner fills the second half of the film with painterly compositions featuring gorgeous vistas of harsh, windswept snowscapes, and the austere beauty makes the tragedy of Kumiko’s doomed, quixotic quest a difficult but rewarding thing to follow.

For more information on these and other films shown at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, visit the festival website here.

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About the author
Trevor Parker http://www.trevorwriter.com
Trevor Parker is a Toronto-based writer and editorial assistant whose work has appeared in numerous international periodicals and websites. He also contributes the 'Dump Bin Diaries' column to Fangoria magazine. He can be reached at trevor@fangoria.com or via his website at www.trevorwriter.com.
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