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Toronto: Correspondences #10 — Power Plays, Shadowplay

Amma Asante directs a Third Reich-set love story with "Where Hands Touch," and Zhang Yimou interrogates a puppet government in "Shadow".
Kelley Dong
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Kelley Dong and Daniel Kasman.
Dear Danny,
I can assure you that the crowds of people surrounding the theatres still eagerly persist; some even arriving for only this weekend from other cities and countries. I have a handful of films remaining, and so much richness of material to peruse, so I look forward to exchanging more impressions and ideas with you even after the festival's conclusion.
To alter your category a little, I'd say that there are plenty of directors whose works stem from admirable ambitions, but whose technical execution of these undercut whatever sincere convictions they might have. One of these is Amma Asante, a filmmaker with a curious fixation on adapting "true stories" of interracial romance between black and white people throughout history. There is certainly some merit to revivifying forgotten stories of love, and amplifying a pattern of intimacy—with thorough research to support the melodrama of it all—that complicates notions of power and passion. This is, of course, never as simple as it seems, but Asante relentlessly dulls the edges of oppression to make the world seem a bit more porous, with greater possibility for love to even all things out. I've been keeping an eye out for her latest film, Where Hands Touch, for several years, beginning from when she first mentioned the idea around 2013, to the final stages of its production this year. If you did not already know, the film has attracted controversy with its audacious premise: In 1944, a black German girl falls in love with a member of the Hitler Youth. "Slippery" is the word used in the festival's synopsis, but I would rather use the term "haphazard," as it seems more fitting to describe the film's careless political compass, and its jarring cuts between a tender teenage dream and a gruesome Gestapo nightmare.
Based on the plight of Afro-Germans living under the Third Reich, Where Hands Touch tells the tale of Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), a biracial girl who accompanies her white mother (Abbie Cornish) and younger brother to Berlin. Because her father was one of many African soldiers from France deployed during the French occupation of the Rhineland, Leyna faces not only the leering and jeering of passersby, but also the more destructive consequences of racist policies: She is required to undergo forced sterilization; while her brother, Coen (Tom Sweet), must join the Hitler Youth. The exposition of Lena's predicament is already grim, taking place in a washed-out cityscape of muddy bricks and pale blue walls. But swaths of fog and light begin to seep through the picture once the film encounters that familiar beat of young adult romance stories, the breathless beginning of a new crush. When Lutz (George MacKay), a Nazi rising the ranks as a leader of the Hitler Youth, crashes into Leyna with his bike, he is so struck that he simply must be with her; she, too, finds him mysterious and charming. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin—once renowned for his work on Michael Hirst's Elizabeth—films this burgeoning bond with dashes of warm honey yellows and forest greens, the couple's bodies softened with sunlight while they hold hands. This brief chapter, however, meets a sudden end when, as expected, the world closes in, and Leyna is sent to a concentration camp.
The sentimentality of Where Hands Touch does not offer any new information about the Holocaust beyond that of Leyna's existence—a subject of importance to which Asante offers necessary context. Its bigger message, however, is that everything else was also very complicated, including the wavering moral compasses of the Nazis. What can be perceived as tone-deaf—why this assertion, and why now?—is also the result of a lengthy production that likely did not predict the rising prevalence of neo-Nazi symbolism in the international mainstream: When a family heirloom that Lutz gifts Leyna turns out to be a ring engraved with an Iron Cross, it is impossible to forget the symbol's appearance at white supremacist rallies. For Leyna and Lutz, this is forgettable. The girl never questions her boyfriend's participation in genocide against people like herself, and the boy never stops feigning ignorance about this. (When confronted with the crimes of his comrades, he repeats the phrase, "I don't know why this is happening...I don't get why they would." Later, he asks her to help him escape his awful predicament.) Asante also confuses graphic depictions of anti-Semitic murder—filmed in shaky long takes that linger on open wounds—as an indictment of Nazism. Because Leyna is rarely physically injured thanks to Lutz's protection, Where Hands Touch relegates her Jewish friends to bloody scenery surrounding her love affair. Asante consciously toes the line between picking sides and having it both ways. Her potent declaration that one can love a Nazi and be loved by a Nazi, because indoctrination is temporal and human emotion is forever—just because it's true does not mean you should say it—only further buries itself in over-trodden ground.
In a rushed group of hundreds, I later made my way to a showing of Zhang Yimou's Shadow, his first since The Great Wall in 2016, and one with a sturdy infrastructure of astounding philosophical questions—a continuation of Zhang's career-long, preeminent fascination with authority. Zhang has not made a film about Imperial China since Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), a florid rainbow cacophony gilded in gold, set in the Qin Dynasty; Shadow, however, takes place during the division of China in the Three Kingdoms period, in the midst of a peace treaty between three warring states. The unhinged and insecure king (Zhang Kai) of Pei, eager to please, agrees to the alliance; but Pei's lost city of Jing remains in a rival kingdom's possession, and a spy is on the loose in the palace court. Meanwhile, the king's military commander (Deng Chao) is still heavily wounded from an earlier battle; so he trains and deploys a "shadow" (also Deng Chao) to take his place as commander to Pei, and husband to his wife (Sun Li). An impending one-on-one duel for Jing quickens Shadow's pace and commences the action. This time, the weapons of choice are umbrellas lodged with blades against spear, but the strength is not embedded in the weapon but the energy with which it is held. The aggression of the enemy, Yang, must be countered with the "feminine," Yin: calculated Tai chi moves of poise and grace, by an army of androgynous prisoners—women and men alike, decorated in make-up and tattoos. Fights commence upon massive yin-yang symbols constructed from bamboo and stone, with each fighter taking his or her place on one part of the circle, then crossing into the other, until only one remains standing.
Having already conquered color, Zhang has ventured out to experiment with the lack thereof: Shadow, inspired by traditional Chinese ink-wash painting, decorates its sweeping game of power with black and white, and all of the infinite grays between. In rippling monochrome robes, the characters appear like paintbrushes, unrolled paper. The most potent accomplishment of this removal of colour—save for that red of flesh and blood—is that it renders a shadow of everyone. But in a puppet government, who is whose shadow? Or, in other words, who harnesses political power over who? There is the rowdy king whose decisions are dictated by military and court officials, the commander whose "shadow" manipulates his false identity to accrue power in the palace, and the commander's wife who teaches her husband to fight. But not only does Zhang Yimou pair people as shadows of one another, but also kingdoms: The black silks of Pei's warriors flow against the shining metal armor of their enemies. It can also be said that Shadow is the shadow to Zhang's Hero, since the films so resemble and counter one another because of their shared subject matter—a renegade coup d'état subverted, revelations of political corruption co-existing alongside dutiful reverence for the king appointed by heaven. Like a painting of broad strokes and few defining details, Shadow is as impressionistic as it is theoretically concise. This is the type of exhilarating challenge that I look forward to at the theatre, because it refuses to make the world any easier for me to understand.
Until next year,


Zhang YimouAmma AsanteCorrespondencesTIFF 2018TIFFFestival Coverage
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