TIFF 2008 (Eric’s diary): two films about aging

Our Rating

It may be impossible to put your finger on just one reason why it’s such a valuable experience to attend an international film festival, but the films we saw today perfectly encapsulate two of them. It’s unlikely that any of our remaining days at this year’s TIFF will pack quite the emotional rollercoaster we’ve had today (though it doesn’t hurt to hope).

First up was J.C.V.D. (8/8), the new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. But wait! He plays himself, an aging star fighting a losing custody battle, back in Belgium to clear his head when a trip to the post office gets him involved in a violent hostage situation. Soon the event is a media sensation, with crowds of local Van Damme fans causing as much commotion as shoot-outs with the police. One of the perpetrators can’t believe he is suddenly “hanging out” with Van Damme, asking all about Hard Target and his rivalry with Steven Seagal.

It’s a surreal and inherently humorous situation, but handled with surprising realism that might have had more in common with any of Van Damme’s other violent action films — except that Jean-Claude Van Damme is the most compelling character Van Damme has ever played. He has other things on his mind. His daughter. His legal fees. His fading career. He’s getting old. Participating in real-life action is the last thing he needs today. (This is not to say the movie isn’t kick-ass and action-packed, however. IT’S ALSO GREAT IN THAT WAY.)

Before the film, one of the fest directors explained that he saw J.C.V.D. at Cannes and couldn’t believe his favorite movie of the festival starred Jean-Claude Van Damme. He promised we would see a new side of J.C.V.D., and we did. At one point he delivers a several-minute-long monologue that took the entire audience’s breath away. That’s the gift of a festival like TIFF: unexpected greatness can come from anywhere. Even Jean-Claude Van Damme.

In the evening, we caught Adela (7/8), a no-budget drama from the Philippines about a grandmother living in poverty off the side of a major highway. Adela and many other families reside in a garbage dumpsite, functioning as a community like any other. Today is Adela’s 80th birthday, and she eagerly expects a visit from her daughter and grandchildren. Sadly, Adela’s birthday does not turn out exactly as she hoped.

Adela was shot on grainy digital video, obviously among people actually living in these conditions. The style fits the subject matter well, as long takes (occasionally over-long) set us squarely within the reality of life on the dumpsite. Wordless for long stretches at a time, we accompany Adela as she travels to buy food, visit her husband’s grave, and wander the beach in solitude.

Adela is surrounded by new life — in fact, she delivers a baby in the first scene. Airplanes constantly fly overhead, a subtle reminder of human beings moving from one place to another — Adela cannot go anywhere. Her community is abound with new beginnings, as her life is coming to its end. And eventually it becomes clear that her grown children have forgotten her.

The director was in attendance for a Q&A, along with Anita Linda, the 83-year-old star who traveled all the way from the Philippines to be here in Toronto. There were tears in her eyes as all she could say was, “Thank you… thank you.” Afterwards, there were tears in the eyes of MANY Filipinos who lined up to greet Anita, kiss her on the cheek, and thank her for her extraordinary performance.

You see, you never, ever know where magic will strike at an international film festival.


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