Review: Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival – Richmond Hill

Last Saturday, I attended the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival in Richmond Hill. I’ve previously gone to a movie or two at the downtown location and was always impressed. The new Richmond Hill location didn’t disappoint either. This was the first year that Reel Asian was split between two locations; with the bulk of the festival in downtown Toronto and the final weekend up in Richmond Hill. For those of you who don’t know Toronto, Richmond Hill is one of the northern-most suburbs. It was a pain to get up there (I don’t have a car) as it requires two different transit systems and York Region Transit (which covers the northern suburbs) is on strike. But none of that had anything to do with the festival.

I was extremely impressed by the friendliness and professional behaviour of the Reel Asian volunteers. When I first arrived, I was greeted by a smiling volunteer who directed me to the correct table to pick up my media badge and answered my question about where the washrooms were. Fantastic first impression! At the media table I was quickly checked in, my name checked off the list and I was given my badge and tickets. Full disclosure: I did get free tickets to see the two movies and documentary reviewed in today’s post.

Since I was a little early I had time to look around the venue a bit, it was being held at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. It’s a nice, intimate venue – great choice. Before the screening they had volunteer profiles up on the screen which was a great touch. It was nice to see a Say Kimchi member – Terrence – up there. And just before each screening a staff member came out to give a little speech which mainly thanked the government sponsors (which the fundraiser in me thinks is both a good and necessary touch, also that they must do a fantastic job writing grants!), a draw and a brief introduction of the director. The director wasn’t in attendance for the movies but the one for Saigon Electric gave a brief video speech.

Oh, I should also say thanks for having the door prize draw since I won the one for Saigon Electric 🙂 What did I win? A neat prize pack from the main sponsor, National Bank which included a movie DVD, two branded glasses (I think they are brandy snifters because they are too big to be stemless wine glasses), a branded pen and a small bag of branded M&M’s (which the fundraiser in me thought was cool). 

Festival experience rating: 5/5

Saigon Electric - movie still courtesy of Reel Asian

Saigon Electric

This was a Vietnamese/American movie by director Stephane Gauger from 2011 that was in Vietnamese with English subtitles. 

*Warning: Spoiler Alert*

I love dance movies and have seen them all, probably because I love to dance myself, so I was prepared to like this movie and it didn’t disappoint. But the director was right; it’s more than a dance movie. It was the story of two girls from different backgrounds and two guys, also from different backgrounds; and just happened to centre around a hip hop competition.

The one girl – Mai – was from rural Vietnam and had moved to Saigon to audition for a dance academy. Her character comes off as really sweet, helpful and traditional. She’s all-around likable and you can’t help but cheer for her during her audition. The second girl – Kim, who befriends the first, is a slightly hard-nosed city girl who is more modern, cynical, hot-headed and yet still naïve at times. While she is not as perfect, she’s very believable and you want things to work out for her.

As for the guys, the difference isn’t their location but rather their social status. One is an orphan – Do Boy – and the other a rich kid – Kai. Do Boy is a hardworking, honest, and loyal to his hip hop crew (Saigon Fresh) and the community centre he works at. Like Mai, his character is eminently likable. Kai is persistent, confident and incredibly naïve. He’s also living his life for his parents; which is never a good thing. His character isn’t bad but there are times when you want him to smack him for his “everything will be okay” outlook on life.

And as if the personal interactions, budding friendships (between Mai and Kim) and romances (between Mai and Do Boy, and between Kim and Kai) weren’t enough of a story, there’s more woven in. Saigon Fresh is getting ready to compete in a hip hop competition that would earn them a space in the international hip hop competition. And the community centre where the crew trains, Do Boy works and most of the local kids enjoy after-school programs may have been sold to a developer. Will they win? Can they save the community centre?

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie until the very end. I hate when questions are left unanswered, maybe it’s the Canadian in me but I really wanted to know if they were able to save the community centre 🙁 However other than the unclear ending, it was a good movie. An interesting portrayal of coming of age in Vietnam. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Bleak Night - movie still courtesy of Reel Asian

Bleak Night

This was a Korean movie by director Yoon Sung-Hyun from 2010 that was in Korean with English subtitles.

*Warning: Spoiler Alert*

Bleak Night is the main movie I went to see as I write mainly about Korean culture so covering a Korean movie makes sense 🙂 It’s a serious commentary of bullying and the complex social order of high school students in Korea and was made by first-time writer and director Yoon Sung-Hyun as his graduation project. A brilliantly acted movie, it was a little hard to follow at the beginning as the movie follows two different timelines. Once I realized this, everything was clearer.

In the one timeline, we see the lives of three high school friends – Gi-Tae, Becky and Dong Yoon. Or at least we think they are friends but as the movie progresses we see the bullying and manipulative behaviour by Gi-Tae towards his friends (and others). But the story is too complex to simply portray Gi-Tae as the bad guy, we see glimpses of his insecurities as Becky changes schools to escape him and in how he needs their friendship even as he pushes them away with his cruelty. And Becky and Dong Yoon aren’t simply innocent victims as they lash out at Gi-Tae verbally with vicious denouncements of their friendship. The one speech by Dong Yoon is particularly vicious! 

The second timeline follows Gi-Tae’s father as he searches for answers to his son’s suicide. Yes, it was the bully not one of his victims that commits suicide in this tale. He is not able to find any clear answers but then nothing in this movie is simple. The father goes to the two “friends” as well as a few others seeking answers and we see how their lives have changed as a result of the unraveling of their relationship. A fantastic story, if incredibly dark. I can’t wait to see the director’s next movie!

Rating: 4.5/5 Would I recommend it? Definitely! It was extremely well acted with a complex story

A Drummer’s Passion

Bleak Night was preceded by the short Canadian documentary, A Drummer’s Passion by Mingu Kim from 2011 that was in Korean and English with English subtitles. Both the director, Mingu Kim, and the subject of the documentary, Kwon Soon Keun were in attendance and there was a brief Q&A period at the end of Bleak Night. It was an interesting documentary and fun to watch the passion of Kwon Soon Keun as he played the drums in the documentary. I now have a burning desire to listen to his music! 

Rating: 4/5

Still wrapping my head around the fact that I can be a member of the press

All in all, it was a great day. And I loved the fortune in the fortune cookie I was given – it said “You’ll accomplish more later if you have a little fun this weekend.”

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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