In "A Hard Day's Night," the magnificently crotchety Wilfrid Brambell, playing a character who has (and needs) no name but Grandfather, glumly describes an average day on tour with the Beatles: "So far I've been in a train and a room, a car and a room, and a room and a room." So far, for me, at least, an average day at the Toronto Film Festival, which runs for 10 days and includes some 350 movies from more than 60 countries, is a room and a movie and a movie and a movie and a room -- and maybe, if you can find time to grab it, lunch in one of the city's nice little Korean places. There are parties, too, but most of the critics I know don't go anywhere near them (and most probably aren't even invited). There are so many movies to see, and so little time to see them, that parties seem inconsequential, particularly when you're here, as I am, for only five and a half days.
Thursday, my first day here, was the half, and I wanted to make the best possible use of this small wedge of time: By the time I'd flown in from New York, picked up my credentials and gotten acclimated, it was 5:50, and I was already five minutes late for Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver" (which my colleague, Andrew O'Hehir, wrote about, glowingly, from Cannes last spring). After resigning myself to catch it later, I check the schedule to find out what else I can fit into that window: The choices are an Australian picture, "Suburban Mayhem," or "Palimpsest," from Poland. The festival catalog describes "Palimpsest," directed by Konrad Niewolski, part of a new generation of young Polish filmmakers, as a police story that turns "into a harrowing narrative of mental breakdown, a Kafkaesque tale of paranoia and delusion." Personally, I prefer my paranoia and delusion at 10 a.m., right after my morning coffee. So, despite the fact that the Poles are my people, I go off with the Australians.
"Suburban Mayhem," directed by Paul Goldman, follows the misadventures of a disaffected, manipulative, selfish young single mom named Katrina (played by New Zealand actress Emily Barclay) who spends her days seductively sulking, pouting and strutting, while also engaging various male suitors to carry out her wicked schemes: One of these involves beating (off-camera, but even so) a cute, fluffy white dog to death with a tire iron. (Katrina is pissed off at the dog's owner, a friend of hers, and wants to punish her.) "Suburban Mayhem" is one of those overly clever little movies that isn't sure what it wants to be: black comedy, potent drama, punk rave-up, exploration of the femme fatale as a convention. A picture could be all of those things, of course, and still hold you. Or it could leave you wishing you'd opted to explore paranoia and delusion with the Poles.
But the second movie of the night more than made up for the first: Jia Zhang-ke's "Dong" is a documentary of sorts, although it unfolds via a kind of dream logic that defies any kind of strict documentary structure. Jia's last picture was the luminous "The World," a delicate picture about the rootless, free-falling feeling of living in a world that's changing, fast. "Dong" follows a Chinese painter named Liu Xiao-dong as he travels first to China's Three Gorges -- an area close to the Yangtze River, where a city is being demolished to make way for a massive dam -- and then to Bangkok. Liu is fascinated by the juxtaposition of industry and nature, and at Three Gorges, he chooses to paint a group of laborers in their work environment: Skinny, shirtless and tough-looking, they're as self-possessed as only true movie stars can be. Liu (on canvas) and Jia (on-screen) capture the landscape around these men, a vista of craggy, poetic mountains dotted with industrial buildings and boxy, uninviting housing complexes. Liu paints the men as sinewy, thoughtful-looking athletes, glinting flashes of life in this confused, troubling landscape.
When Liu goes to Bangkok, to paint a group of young women models, Jia captures a lively waterside market with his camera: Clusters of boats nestle against the shore, filled with women dangling bags of fruit or offering Styrofoam containers of prepared foods. The colors, particularly contrasted with those of Three Gorges, are party-lantern bright; the light is very different here, too -- more creamy yellow than gray.
None of that is lost on the painter Liu, who confesses, addressing the camera directly, that he's a stranger to the culture here: "I don't even feel at home with the sunshine here. I can only comprehend the human face." Later, we see one of his completed paintings, a study of a lovely local girl in a pink-and-white flowered dress. She lounges on a mattress in the studio, surrounded by fruits and flowers. The look on her face is languid but not detached.
The portrait is striking, but not more so than the girl herself: After her day of modeling is done, we see her lounging on a sofa, feigning coolness as she makes a call on her cellphone. Later, she steps out onto the street and then enters what looks like a train station surrounded by a food court. She goes to a bank of pay phones and makes another call. Who is she hoping to reach? Jia follows her, captivated, leaving Liu, ostensibly the chief subject of his movie, temporarily forgotten. Is that the privilege of a filmmaker, or his mandate -- to go where his eye takes him? Either way, Jia, with his long, luxurious takes, keeps you moving with him. "Dong," at just 66 minutes, is filmmaking that feels expansive and compact at once. And it makes just a half-day of moviegoing feel incomparably rich.