What to watch at the 2011 Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival

By Jef Catapang

The Toronto International Reel Asian Film Festival kicks off its 15th anniversary with an opening gala screening of Lover's Discourse tonight at the Isabel Bader Theatre. Directed by Derek Tsang Kwok Cheung and Jimmy Wan, the lush exploration of love and heartbreak is one of our top picks of films to check out this week.

Need help navigating Reel Asian's great program for this year? Check below for a list of five films to catch at the 2011 Reel Asian Festival.

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Lover's Discourse

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mwfz-jPbIHI?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

Stringing together four Hong Kong tales that run the range from fleeting meet-cute to heavy heartache, Lover's Discourse is a bittersweet look at the addictive properties of love. Combining the rush of Before Sunrise with the slow letdown of In the Mood for Love, the film explores a larger picture of romance while also avoiding abstraction. Some stories will resonate more deeply than others, but all of the characters are wonderfully acted and the entire package is beautifully shot. Features singers Kay Tse and Kit Chan.

Tuesday, Nov. 08, 7:00 pm at the Isabel Bader Theatre

Saigon Electric

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meZIFgYn-M8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

A Vietnamese hip-hop dance flick? Sold by the summary! The set-up is the familiar trope of a traditional dancer who moves to the city and encounters hip-hop for the first time, but Saigon Electric's similarity to Hollywood dance flicks ends there. Featuring authentic teens with real b-boy/b-girl skills and a refreshingly insightful class consciousness (this movie isn't about the traditional dancer co-opting hip-hop and learning how to throw-down in a five minute montage), the film is as comfortably real during its lively dance numbers as it is during its quiet character moments.

Friday, Nov. 11, 8:45 pm at The Royal

Bleak Night

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QuDL3f8I_Q?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

After the suicide of his son, an absent father tracks down his son's two best friends. Hoping to understand who his son was and why he took his own life, it becomes clear that blame is something easily passed around and that ties with even friends and fathers can be tenuous at best. Though utilizing a challenging time-shift structure, Bleak Night is an arresting film that lives up to its title. Exploring a darker side of high school male friendships, the film is well worth the viewer attention it demands.

Saturday, Nov. 12, 2:45 pm at The Royal

Piercing 1

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwTGmks8bAM?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

An oddball animated flick, Piercing 1 is a timely story featuring a disillusioned college grad caught in a world full of scheming businessmen and corrupt officials. Once holding dreams of living large in the big city, Zhang Xiaojun now spends most of his time sitting around smoking cigarettes, gossiping about the success of the others and reminiscing about the simpler countryside lifestyle. From artist and first-time director Liu Jian, the film has visual style and substance to match.

Saturday, Nov. 12, 10:30 pm at The Royal

Buddha Mountain

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqL-p_niM5I?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

Li Yu follows her confrontational Lost in Beijing with Buddha Mountain, a much more reserved film that is nonetheless raw and affecting. Following a tightly-knit group of three burnout friends who end up renting a room from a retired opera singer, the film bounces the trio's dejected worldviews off of the former diva's memories of greatness and tragedy. A trip to the mountainous ruins of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 leads to realizations that are a bit heavy-handed, but still genuine with beautiful bits of subtlety throughout.

Sunday, Nov. 13, 8:00 pm at The Royal

Shortlist: Full Metal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos and Jump Ashin!

The 2011 Toronto International Reel Asian Film Festival runs from November 8-13 in Toronto at various venues and November 18-19 in Richmond Hill at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. Check the Reel Asian website for more info.