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TORONTO ‘09: Thursday (9/10)

For me at least, this year’s TIFF started off with quite a bang yesterday, as I miraculously stuck to my hand-carved personal screening schedule and saw three films. This is what they wuz:

She, A Chinese — The opening of Guo Xialou’s film immediately calls to mind Ry Russo-Young’s You Won’t Miss Me. Though that comparison doesn’t always stick, She, A Chinese remains a spellbinding, rock-and-roll charged portrait of a young woman trying to find her place in the world. When we first meet her, Mei (Huang Lu) has never even left her small Chinese village. But at the end of this odyssey, she’s not only traveled long distances, she’s suffered through humiliations that would break a weaker person. Xialou’s film works better when it focuses on Mei as an individual. When it starts pressing the metaphor by threatening to elevate her into a symbol of abused, manipulated femalehood, it becomes a little too blunt for its own good (Mei taking a job as a human anatomy specimen in an English college class, for example). But overall, I came out on the positive end of the stick with this one.

Fish Tank — It ain’t the story, it’s how you tell it. In different hands—and by “different” I mean a director with testicles—this coming-of-age drama about a young girl who finds herself being drawn to her mother’s new boyfriend would have become an exploitative piece of “kitchen sink statutory,” but Arnold manages to avoid those trappings by using her camera and sound design to sensitively, yet frankly, convey her young character’s sense of budding confusion. Newcomer Katie Jarvis is worthy of the hype, but Michael Fassbender’s uncreepily tender performance adds a disarming amount of believability to the proceedings. I have much, much more to say about this, and am hoping to talk to Arnold at some point this weekend, but for now, I’ll leave it at that.

City of Life and Death — If I hadn’t just revisited Come and See on the big screen a few weeks ago, my reaction to City of Life and Death would have been all the way through the roof. That said, I look forward to visiting it again when my palate has no lingering aftertastes and I can appreciate Lu Chuan’s historical nightmare for the achievement that it is. Chuan doesn’t flinch in revisiting the brutal 1937 Rape of Nanking, in which Japanese soldiers invaded the Chinese capital and proceeded to rape, pillage, plunder, and slaughter innocent citizens into stacks and piles of human destruction. The Oscars could do much, much worse than to pick this as the Best Foreign Film winner next year.

Friday is shaping up to be another big day. Time to get to it…

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully was born and raised in Maryland and now lives on Tennis Court in Brooklyn. His most recent narrative feature, Septien, world-premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Sundance Selects. In addition to directing Cocaine Angel (2006) and Silver Jew (2007), he is also a proud alumni of Filmmaker Magazine's annual "25 New Faces of Independent Film" club (2006). Visit his indieWIRE blog Boredom at its Boredest——for more sporadic personal updates.

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