The Vancouver International Film Festival is back and fully in-theatre for the first time in four years.
Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay is on the ground at VIFF and starts things off with some of this year’s most poignant films.
Shoplifters director Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to VIFF for the third time in five years with a multi-layered depiction of emotional trauma and misdirection. What begins as a straightforward tale of a young boy suffering physical and mental abuse from his teacher evolves into a masterful, mind-bending slow-burn, told from the perspectives of Minato (Soya Kurokawa), his single mother (Sakura Andō), and his homeroom teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama).
Using a blazing tower block as his bleak notice of timeline transition, Kore-eda spins a disorientating web of deceit and discovery between a small group of people who are so close on the surface, yet miles apart in their interpretation of each other’s reality. Yuji Sakamoto’s script is as rich as it is deceptive, tempting you into wrong turns before finally offering hope of salvation with its beautiful character twist. Getting it over the line are the stellar performances, particularly child actors Kurokawa and Hinata Hiiragi, whose rollercoaster relationship hits hard and is wholly believable.
One of the best films of the year so far, Monster gets right inside your head as it dissects and reconstructs basic human nature. It is a challenging, yet highly satisfying effort from Kore-eda, who embraces the complex themes in combination with cinematographer Ryuto Kondo’s stark, striking imagery. The characters are often alone on screen and those moments are some of the most powerful, a testament to Kore-eda’s capacity for dramatic empathy.
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I’m Just Here for the Riot
Fresh off The Grizzlie Truth, local filmmaker Kat Jayme returns to her hometown sports scene with co-director Asia Youngman for a new 30 for 30 film, tackling the infamous 2011 Stanley Cup Game 7 riot in downtown Vancouver. Taking a ground up approach in an attempt to illuminate the psychology that led to the riot, Jayme and Youngman zero in on the young participants who subsequently went viral, and the scarring legacy they faced in the form of a merciless online manhunt.
While The Grizzlie Truth was as much a passionate fan project as a Grizzlies autopsy, I’m Just Here for the Riot is more stripped back, asking not only why the riot occurred, but whether the participants deserved to be hunted down and put on trial by social media. It seeks answers from both the rioters and their opponents, including local sports reporters, Good Samaritans, and the police.
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Both sides are emotionally raw in their views as to who deserved what, but while the filmmakers allow their subjects to form the narrative, some parties get off lightly. Two senior VPD officers are spotlighted frequently, yet neither are challenged directly as to the department’s lack of preparedness or reaction on the night of the riots. Instead, the directors attempt to let the VPD’s own words hang them out to dry, but it’s too subtle an approach considering the VPD’s position of authority. For those outside Vancouver who are less familiar with the riot, additional research and context is required to debunk the VPD’s statements, whereas a more direct approach would have made that clear.
Like its 30 for 30 predecessor Catching Hell, which focused on the brutal treatment of Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman, I’m Just Here for the Riot goes beyond the concept of sports fandom to the paper thin walls of societal implosion. It’s a collation of primary sources that lacks a cohesive through line, but those primary sources are intriguing enough to warrant tuning in.
Physician, Heal Thyself
Dr. Gabor Maté is a fascinating figure. An M.D. and media personality, he is known for his writings on ADHD, his avid work on addiction, the occasional controversial healing method, and his interview with Prince Harry. Lesser known is his personal journey, which drives Asher Penn’s new film, featuring Maté as a sole contributor alongside images, writings, archival footage, and quirky animations of a man with a mind like few others.
Steering away from his more famous years, Maté dives deep into his childhood as a Jew in post-war Hungary, his family’s transition to Vancouver, and his pre-medical years as a writer, student radical, and all-round contrarian. His candor is breathtaking and doesn’t let up for 80 minutes, as he opens up about his personal relationships, the beliefs and motivations that drove him to clash with the powers that be, and his own struggles with family life and addiction.
Deftly framed by Penn, Physician, Heal Thyself transcends the traditional documentary though sheer force of frankness and honesty. There is only one side to the story, and that must be kept in mind, but it’s a captivating story nonetheless. Whether Maté’s theories and methodology are right or wrong, in this instance it’s easier to just let the man talk.
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The Old Oak
In what could be Ken Loach‘s final film, the 87-year-old director returns to the North East of England to stick two fingers up at racism, poverty, and the decay of working class British society. Based in and around its titular pub, The Old Oak is a sharp dissection of desperation and needless suffering, told with Loach’s typical punch-to-the-gut mentality as several Syrian families arrive in a small County Durham village, only to receive a less than warm welcome from the locals. Pub landlord TJ (Dave Turner) is the one to reach out, striking up a friendship with refugee Yara (Ebla Mari).
Not one for nuance, Loach gets straight to the point from the opening credits and doesn’t stop there. By now the structure of his many collaborations with screenwriter Paul Laverty (I, Daniel Blake; Sorry We Missed You) is well established: Loach and Laverty telegraph everything right at you. The foreshadowing is as obvious as the Tory government’s criminality, but that doesn’t hinder its impact. The pitfalls that TJ and Yara face as they do their best to help the local community are brutal, yet Loach still injects his usual dose of self-aware British humour into the mix. It’s not as fully formed as Sorry We Missed You, and though Loach opts for a welcome message of hope, the final act falls a little flat.
Centred around a couple of moving performances from Turner and Mari, The Old Oak is a sombre reminder of the fragility and strength of human compassion, and how the two sides are locked in a grim battle for modern day Britain.